Insights from the Field: How Districts Can Support English Learners During School Closures

April 28, 2020

Districts across the country are now in their first weeks of full distance learning, with others working hard to follow suit. We spoke with experts in New York, Florida, and California to learn more about the initial challenges observed in English Learners’ participation in distance learning and the supports needed to address those challenges.

English Learners face some of the most severe barriers to instructional access.

English Learners – making up nearly 10% of the U.S. student population – are among the most vulnerable to school system failure while schools are open. Many best practices for teaching English Learners require hands-on learning and opportunities to practice using language with peers and with teacher guidance. Distance learning is exacerbating the disparity in access to grade-level learning opportunities that support English Learners.

And the impacts are layered. For English Learners from low-income families, access to virtual learning can be fundamentally difficult, as devices, internet, physical space for at-home learning, and materials like calculators and books are provided inconsistently or not at all. Reports show that absenteeism is currently very high, particularly among students in low-income communities. And for English Learners from immigrant families, school closures may provoke additional anxieties about their families’ safety and well-being, which can of course affect their learning.

What can districts do to bridge gaps in access for English Learners?

Some districts and advocates are working hard to set up early warning systems to detect community and student needs. Districts can then connect communities with appropriate resources, including access to devices and internet, financial support, and social and emotional support tools through district community services, government services, mutual aid networks, and direct instruction. Others are using a caseload approach such that students and their families receive regular outreach from assigned educators and/or school administrators.

In Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) in California, district administration has prioritized district-level multilingual family outreach. Their efforts have benefited from pre-existing partnerships with local organizations, including a community health clinic, Salud Para La Gente, that created a Mixteco-language video about staying healthy during COVID-19. In Fullerton Joint Union, the district is supporting educator creativity in meeting student needs.

Most educators do not have the experience to support ELD in brick and mortar classrooms, let alone virtual classrooms.

Supporting English Language Development (ELD) will require creativity in instructional delivery, but there are still many opportunities to support student learning. Instruction should remain focused on the evidence-based strategies that work for students: engaging English Learners in a balance of synchronous instruction and asynchronous, project-based activities that include reading, writing, listening, and vocabulary development across the curriculum.

English Learner researchers and experts are envisioning a series of innovative ways to provide excellent ELD online by anticipating language demands and providing authentic, context- and content-rich opportunities to use language in virtual settings. For example, educators can offer opportunities for students to record conversations or reading aloud engaging texts, speak clearly and with exaggerated physical and visual cues, and leverage existing, familiar online tools to support different modalities of language instruction – for example, with Google Docs’ “suggesting” function, chat box conversations, expressive videos with closed captioning, and recording technology to capture student talk.

For more specific suggestions for how to meet English Learner student needs, check out SEAL’s 6 Key Considerations for Supporting English Learners with Distance Learning and the English Language Acquisition and Math Guidelines developed by the English Learner Success Forum (ELSF).

What can districts do to support teachers of English Learners?

Some districts are experimenting with creative scheduling, organizing the day to include more one-on-one time with students in lieu of larger, classroom-sized virtual instruction, and greater family outreach – all of which can be crucial for ensuring continuity of learning for English Learners and their families.

Districts should also make sure that their educators are considering the number and diversity of linguistic interactions in their lessons by encouraging expert-informed communities of practice online, offering explicit guidance, and supporting assessment of student language needs. For example, districts can offer support for using the assessment tools available from the National Center on Intensive Intervention and using the University of Washington CBM Growth Calculator with the guidance of an expert as well as offer guidelines for sifting through the myriad lists of virtual learning resources.

To support districts now, we have curated a list of resources for English Learner instruction. These resources are intended for English Learners in K-12 and their teachers and parents and include interactive, cognitively demanding, grade-level activities across the curriculum. Check out those resources here.


Educators can use this moment as an opportunity for professional learning.

This moment gives educators the opportunity to participate in virtual professional learning around how to best support English Learners, to easily record themselves while teaching to self-assess, and to work closely with their English Learners’ families. Many professional learning opportunities – including those provided by Pivot Learning/CORE – are available online for free or at a discount.

What can districts do to support professional learning for teachers of English Learners?

Districts should work with English Learner specialists to ensure all educators have access to the resources they need to adapt to their English Learners’ educational needs – including opportunities to plan together and collaborate. Districts can structure class schedules to allow for professional learning, recommend high-quality learning opportunities, and support online professional learning communities among educators and English Learner experts.


COVID-19 has created an unprecedented transformation for all our students, and we cannot anticipate all the ways that our classrooms will continue to shift. Districts must make sure that those changes do not leave English Learners and their families behind.

Continued Reading: Resources for Educators and Leaders