How to Support Bilingual Education in the Virtual Classroom

A student wearing headphones raises their hand and smiles at a laptop screen during virtual instruction

Children who feel left out are often left behind. Today’s teachers strive to build inclusive classrooms that support students from diverse backgrounds and with diverse needs. With the rise of digital learning, educators are taking inclusive teaching online.

Virtual classrooms can be challengings for all students, especially so for those who need additional support. That’s why teachers need well-designed tools and strategies online. For educators in bilingual education, building inclusive virtual classrooms takes thoughtful planning and sensitivity to what might pose problems for English language learners (ELLs) in e-learning environments.

The Challenges of Distance Learning for Bilingual Education

Up against the hurdles distance learning can present for ELL students, educators search for solutions in the planning and delivery of online instruction. Some solutions require educational leaders to step in. Others call for the ingenuity of classroom teachers.

Access to Technology

For example, a recent study from the U.S. Department of Education shows that children who are English Language Learners (ELLs) disproportionately lack access to technology, such as home internet, needed for digital learning. To bridge this digital divide, educational leaders can develop programs that loan devices to students. Additionally, they can partner with local governments to get students connected through initiatives that increase the number of public Wi-Fi hot spots in places like libraries and other safe spaces.

Student Privacy

Another challenge for online bilingual education involves student privacy. Students with undocumented status or with relatives in that status may face threats to their security if videos and other information about them are shared online, according to the National Education Policy Center.

Addressing these concerns along with other general privacy issues affecting all students, such as the collection of student data, requires action from educational leaders. Educators can collaborate with district information technology staff and legal teams to develop guidelines for schools, students, and families. Classroom instructors can teach their students to set security controls on their devices and respond with sensitivity if students resist turning on their cameras.

Fewer Chances to Practice English

Another key challenge of distance learning for students who are ELLs involves the online environment itself. In traditional school environments, children who are ELLs have opportunities throughout the day to engage in face-to-face informal interactions with their peers in which they can listen to and speak English. In distance learning, they have far fewer chances to interact with other English speakers to practice language skills.

As such, teachers responsible for online bilingual education must search for ways to give ELLs as many opportunities to practice English as possible during and outside of class time.

Virtual Bilingual Education Calls for Planning and Infrastructure

Without planning and infrastructure, virtual bilingual education will struggle to offer meaningful and equitable education to students who are ELLs. Educators need specific training to develop curriculums meant for online instruction so they can learn the best techniques for adapting teaching methods and materials for students who are ELLs in a virtual environment.

Through planning and infrastructure, schools can also offer more seamless, user-friendly virtual classroom experiences for students. This matters because it allows students and their families to worry less about how to navigate the online environment and instead focus their attention on content. It also helps resolve problems accessing distance-learning curriculum caused by the limited English language skills of parents or students.

Additionally, planning and infrastructure allow for better collaboration between general education teachers and English as a second language (ESL) teachers. Such collaboration gives teachers an opportunity to align their curriculums and develop the supports students who are ELLs need to thrive in online environments.

For example, teachers can plan to pre-teach the academic vocabulary to children who are ELLs in ESL classes to help them better absorb information covered in general education classes. ESL and general education teachers can also coordinate common teaching strategies to provide these students with consistency and familiarity and make it easier for them to process new concepts.

However, for such collaboration between teachers to occur in distant learning environments, educational leaders must provide appropriate support. That means scheduling the time for it and making necessary resources such as professional development available.

Tips, Strategies, and Tools to Support Bilingual Education Online

Educators can turn to a variety of tips, strategies, and tools to help children who are ELLs overcome the challenges they face in distance learning, strengthening virtual bilingual education. Some include:

Encourage Families to Read to Young ELLs in Their Home Language

Teachers of young children who are ELLs should encourage their families to read, write, and speak with their young children in their home language. The skills developed during these exchanges can play a powerful role in young students’ English literacy development.

Recently, researchers found that strong early literacy skills in students’ native language have a greater influence on their growth in English reading between kindergarten and fourth grade than their ability to speak and understand English as young children. Students transfer the skills they develop from reading in their home language to their studies of reading in English.

Take Advantage of Educational Technology

Teachers can take advantage of an array of technologies to help them support the needs of students who are ELLs. These include online platform features, digital tools, and apps that gamify learning, supplement instruction, and provide additional exposure to English.

Online Platforms

When teaching on platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams, educators can make use of the platforms’ captioning and translating features to help students who are ELLs keep up with lessons. For students having trouble attending synchronous class meetings, educators can record lessons on apps such as Screencastify, accompanied by transcripts, allowing students who are ELLs to access a lesson in various ways and at their own pace.

Digital Tools

Video social engagement tools for teachers such as Flipgrid give students who are ELLs additional opportunities to interact with their peers and speak and listen to English. Teachers use Flipgrid to post videos on educational topics. Students watch teachers’ videos and respond with their own.

Flipgrid features a tool that not only translates text but also reads words aloud, breaks words into syllables, and uses a picture dictionary to improve understanding. This gives students who are ELLs a chance to hear and practice English and get extra language support while they do it.

Instructional Apps

Educational apps can also prove useful for supporting students who are ELL students in virtual classrooms. For example, BrainPOP ELL features videos, games, and a range of ESL learning activities all designed to teach ELLs reading, writing, and speaking. Teachers can incorporate these apps into routine class activities, or use them as supplemental tools that give students who are ELLs that extra bit of exposure.

Incorporate Strategies to Create Structure and Invite Engagement

Elements within distance learning that offer additional structure and make space for student feedback help make virtual classrooms inclusive for students who are ELLs and others. The following strategies can be incorporated into a virtual bilingual education environment:

Virtual Bulletin Boards

Teachers can use virtual bulletin boards to list assignments and due dates, provide links to resources designed for ELL students, post instructions in English and other languages, as well as give recognition to students. Virtual bulletin boards help students who are ELLs and others keep track of what they need to do and stay accountable.

Virtual Groups

Placing students who are ELLs in virtual groups gives them a chance to speak in a less formal setting. They may feel more hesitant to speak up if everyone is listening. Virtual groups also give students who are ELLs a chance to receive feedback about their language skills from their peers, which helps develop proficiency. Additionally, working in a smaller group may make it easier for students to practice listening skills.

Virtual One-on-One Meetings

students who are ELLs benefit from periodic check-ins and individualized attention. One-on-one meetings allow educators to clarify instructions and expectations, give feedback, offer encouragement, and ask ELLs about what they need to succeed.

Virtual Office Hours

Virtual office hours provide students and their families with opportunities to discuss concerns or get help with assignments. They also create a structure students can rely on for support outside of class time.

Feedback Components Within Lessons

Students who are ELLs need frequent opportunities to express what they are struggling with. Integrating a feedback component into each online lesson can be useful. For example, before a class finishes, teachers could assign a virtual “ticket out of class” that requires students to write one thing they learned during the lesson and one thing they’re still confused about.

Build Inclusive Virtual Classrooms

Helping students who are ELLs overcome the obstacles they face in virtual bilingual education classrooms demands thoughtful planning. With the necessary infrastructure and teaching strategies in place, these students can get the support they need to excel.

Explore how Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership prepares educators to build inclusive virtual classrooms where all students can thrive.

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