Strategies to Help ELL Students Access Online Social Studies Curricula

Teaching online is a unique experience for everyone—teachers, students, and parents alike. Some students are thriving in the online environment, and others are struggling. For our English language learners (ELLs), this new medium can provide even greater challenges to accessing the curriculum, but sound teaching practices will help them (and you) get through this successfully.

This article suggests some ideas and teaching strategies to help you plan and promote your students’ language development in the online classroom.


1. Get an understanding of each ELL’s language levels

Check in with the school’s ELL instructor and discuss at which level of language each ELL student is performing. In addition to asking about the overall language level, I also recommend asking the teacher about the student’s proficiency in the language domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Some students have stronger oral language skills than their literacy skills in English, and this is important for you to know so you can provide written materials at their reading level. Your ELL staff have a wealth of knowledge about differentiating language complexity for different academic tasks and will likely have some online resources to share with you for your planning.


Photo: iStock by Getty Images / Nutthaseth Vanchaichana

2. Create background knowledge before beginning a new unit

For most ELL students, they will benefit from exposure to new vocabulary or phrases that will be used in a new unit through an activity that connects with their prior knowledge of the topic or creates background knowledge to help them connect with the upcoming theme of the unit. For example, if you are teaching a unit on westward expansion, select five words that you think would be the most challenging for them to understand, such as sectionalism, treaty, specialization, expansion, and cash crop. Use visuals and connect each word to something that a student can relate to in their own life. For example, a treaty is like an agreement with your parents that you will do chores for a certain amount of allowance each month.

This can be very useful in priming their brains for the new information that is coming. You can also do a word analysis to see if they can identify any parts of the words to help determine word meaning (e.g., expand, cash, crop, special, treat, section). Once you have gone over any key or potentially challenging vocabulary, adding it to an online “word wall” for future review will be a good way to keep track of their exposure to unit vocabulary.

3. Keep it short and check-in frequently

Although they may not show it, ELLs can become easily overwhelmed with the amount of language in even three minutes of instruction, depending on the student’s language level and complexity of the vocabulary and grammar being used. Add in competing background noise from their home, and it can be a very challenging learning situation. Be sure to keep teacher talk time to short chunks and incorporate lots of interactive exercises so students are engaged and participating. Some ideas for quick check-ins include students doing fill-in-the-blank activities (if they can get mouse control), matching words to pictures, completing a poll, or posting something in the chat in response to a question.


Photo: iStock by Getty Images / z_wei

4. Use visuals

This may seem obvious, but it is more important than ever to provide as much visual input to help ELLs make sense of what they are learning. Graphic organizers can be great tools to display new concepts and help illustrate points that they may not understand verbally. Comparing and contrasting, cause and effect, and of course story sequencing all can be shown effectively on a graphic organizer. Students can also contribute to creating these, which provides review of the content and language used in the lesson and also helps to check in on their comprehension. Video clips, images, and illustrations will help reinforce the instruction and help it come alive.

ELLs are navigating this new landscape along with us, and as their guides, we need to make sure we are giving them the necessary support. These suggestions offer examples of how to help your students continue their language development in the online setting and access the content effectively. Try one out today!

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Susan McDonald, M.S., CCC-SLP is an ASHA-certified and California state licensed speech-language pathologist who is also teaching online during this pandemic through her work as coordinator of the Speech-Language Pathology Assistant Program at Cerritos College in Norwalk, California.

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