Scaffolding Instruction for English Learners in a Remote Environment

May 13, 2020

In preparing his daily lessons for his 6th-grade English Language Arts (ELA) classes, Mr. Thomas has established a routine. His steps include a review of the content standards and making a note of the language demands of the lesson. When needed, he also strategically marks places in the lesson where he will embed think-alouds or will teach vocabulary within the context of his whole or small group lessons. Now that his district has transitioned to remote teaching, he is relegated to uploading assignments to an online platform or providing a weekly printed packet for students to complete. At the forefront of his mind is how one of his most eager students, Fatima, an intermediate EL, will be able to access the novel they are reading as a class since she is reading significantly below grade level. He is eagerly searching for ideas for the English Learners in his classes who range from the newcomer to advanced stages of English language proficiency.

Whether teaching students face to face or in a virtual environment, all teachers of ELs aim to design their daily lessons in a way that students can access the material taught. The guidelines developed by ELSF, used by both educators and content developers, provide "the how" of EL supports within the context of curricular materials. The areas of focus within the ELA and mathematics guidelines specify that a critical component to meeting the needs of ELs includes sustained language and content support and scaffolding and supports for the simultaneous development. As school districts across the nation transition to remote learning, both educators and content developers are searching for ways to keep learning at the core while providing meaningful opportunities that meet the unique needs of ELs.

According to the English Learners Success Forum (ELSF) Strategies and Needs April 2020 teacher survey, 80% of respondents are adapting their existing curriculum for distance learning. Additionally, 86% are providing instruction and assignments to their ELs that are aligned to grade-level standards. Historically, ELs have not always had access to grade-level materials and instruction; it is of great significance that we highlight the large percentage of respondents who are working to provide access to grade-level material. When asked what obstacles ELs face in accessing grade-level rigorous curricular materials, a theme emerged among the responses—teachers are unsure of how to deliver language scaffolds in a virtual environment. This is Mr. Thomas’ dilemma.

Regardless of the delivery method of instruction, to ensure English Learners access to grade-level concepts and continued development of language skills, materials must scaffold instruction appropriately. By tapping into students' backgrounds and dominant language or by allowing multiple opportunities to engage in content at different levels of complexity, teachers can begin to meet the needs of their students.

In the context of remote learning for English Learners, scaffolding must be evident in the online language and content instruction through the use of increased visuals, media, allowing alternative work products, and the use of digital manipulatives. These practices include online learning features teachers of ELs can embed into instruction so students can continue to access content and develop language. Consider the following practices when scaffolding for your ELs in a remote environment:

  • Allow students to explain their answers orally instead of in writing if needed. This increases opportunities for oral language development and can be done using voice recording apps or even over the phone during teacher office hours.
  • Provide options for the work products that students are required to create in response to the content presented. Consider journal writing, video responses, hand-drawn or computer images, etc.
  • Offer sentence frames for students with lower levels of proficiency to be able to develop their oral and/or written responses (e.g. In this text, the author argues that____; Another way of thinking about solving this problem is____).
  • As students explore new or review content, implement the use of multilingual resources as an additional scaffold for ELs. These resources provide opportunities for ELs to access content in their first language (L1) and draw on and incorporate students' cultural background and lived experiences. Check out the ELSF Resource Using Multilingual Resources to Support English Learners' Remote Learning for ideas.
  • To support vocabulary acquisition and content understanding, consider including teacher-completed graphic organizers to highlight key concepts in a text or lesson. These resources are in addition to, not in place of complex texts. The use of online graphic organizers, English Learner glossaries, and word cards provide targeted opportunities for students to use and develop language while engaging with content.
  • Use your online platform (e.g., Google, Microsoft) or office hours to provide mini-lessons through live or pre-recorded videos. These lessons should include instruction directly connected to the concepts in the assignments students are expected to complete. The use of visuals, voice inflection, think alouds, and discussion questions with polls will serve as additional ways to engage students in the content. Consider using youtube videos or short readings as pre-work before a session, so that you can build on prior knowledge within your lesson.

Returning to Mr. Thomas’ virtual classroom, he decided to provide some of these supports to help Fatima and other ELs access the novel. He found an online audio recording of the book that he linked to his Google Classroom; he developed a glossary for each chapter; including student friendly definitions and a visual for each word, and he created interactive Pear Deck presentations with short comprehension questions related to the themes throughout the novel. He plans to use these slides during his office hours to check for comprehension and as discussion prompts.

Content Developers

Over the last few weeks, since districts have moved to various distance learning models, content developers have provided a wealth of resources and access to educators and students in new ways. To support educators in providing the appropriate scaffolds for English Learners, developers can put the above-mentioned recommendations in place by:

  • Highlighting product and lesson specific support for English Learners' expressive (speaking, writing) and receptive (listening, reading) language available within their platforms, and
  • Providing guidance on how to modify activities by proficiency level, with examples of differentiated tasks and scaffolded supports.

Not only will this serve teachers' immediate needs in supporting English learners, but it will also serve to accentuate the academic language resources available throughout their platforms for all students. Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has developed a resource at the lesson level that specifies the online tools that can be used to implement the core practices that were discussed in distance learning with ELs.

Dr. Kia Myrick McDaniel has dedicated her career to supporting equitable educational opportunities for culturally and linguistically diverse students. She received her BA in Hearing and Speech Sciences from the University of Maryland, College Park and an MA in Bilingual Special Education from The George Washington University. She has worked as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, ESOL teacher, instructional specialist, and ESOL Instructional Supervisor. Dr. McDaniel currently oversees Specialty Programs in a large urban district in Maryland, leading efforts to support Advanced Programs, Environmental Science, ESOL, STEM, Immersion, and Talented and Gifted Programs.

Dr. McDaniel also serves as adjunct faculty at Loyola College (Maryland), Trinity University (DC), and University of Maryland, College Park. As a consultant, she conducts professional development workshops, designs and evaluates curriculum, and assists school districts and organizations develop resources that effectively meet the language needs of ELs. She is a recipient of the 2015 OSEP Culturally Responsive Educational Leaders in Special Education (CRELSE) Grant which provided full funding for her doctoral program. Her dissertation focused on paraeducators’ roles and responsibilities in supporting English Learners with disabilities.


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