Meeting the Needs of English Learners During Distance Learning

This post was originally published here.

In May, Expect More Arizona fielded a survey to give classroom teachers a chance to weigh in on COVID-19’s impact on education. This blog series will explore results in more detail, with specific input from teachers across the state. As the pandemic trends shift and schools plan for re-openings, outlooks will continue to evolve. Learn more about the survey at

Check out our other blogs in this series:

In Arizona, there are approximately 85,000 students who are currently classified as English learners. This group of students were especially vulnerable during school closures last spring as a result of language barriers with parents or caregivers, lack of technology, access to internet service and more.

We asked educators across the state to share their thoughts on whether they felt the needs of English language learners were met during distance learning as well as what worked well and what didn’t. They also shared how they prepared for this school year and put plans in place to ensure students are learning and engaging with the content, however it is being delivered.


Most teachers (75%) felt that either some or very few English Learners (EL) had their needs served during the school closures due to COVID-19. Only 16 percent of teachers reported that all or most of EL student’s needs were being met.

Teachers reported regular check ins with families, using videos, and providing students with extra support (e.g., scaffolding, understanding directions, and completing assignments) worked well. Fifty percent of elementary school teachers reported that regular check-ins with the families of EL students were effective compared to 30 percent of high school teachers.

Teachers reported that identifying preferred methods of communication and providing school/district communications in their native language worked well in communicating with the parents/caregivers of ELs during distance learning.


Arizona state statute used to require EL students spend a 4-hour block each school day learning English. EL students were typically placed in a self-contained classroom of only English language learners with a dedicated educator who has a Structured English Immersion (SEI) endorsement.

In February 2019, Governor Ducey signed Senate Bill 1014, which reduces the number of required hours EL students must be taught English and gives school districts flexibility to craft their own research-based models. The new law went into effect this school year and is changing the way many English Language Development (ELD) educators are teaching. Instead of a stand-alone ELD class with just EL students, teachers are providing the equivalent of two hours of English language instruction (100-120 hours) to different groups of students throughout the day. Some teachers have been reassigned to a general education classroom with students who have varying levels of English language skills.

Because these new English language instruction models rolled out this fall amidst an ongoing pandemic and virtual learning, things have been a little more complex. Many teachers have worked for decades in a self-contained classroom of all English learners, so this is a big shift. They have expressed a lot of anxiety and uneasiness about this change, but are gearing up for the new challenge and will be doing all they can to ensure their students feel supported and are effectively learning.


The first step, and one of the most important, in pivoting to distance learning in the spring was communicating with parents and caregivers. With the majority of English Language Learners coming from households where other languages are predominantly spoken at home, this can be a challenge. In addition, many families didn’t have internet access or email addresses to receive updates from their child’s teacher or the school.

Several teachers we interviewed mentioned an app called REMIND, which families were set up on at the beginning of the school year. Teachers used this to send out notifications about assignments, meal pickup information, and other district news, which would then be sent directly their phones as app notifications or text messages in their native language. One teacher shared that she would even take the district updates that were sent out via email, and add them to the REMIND app for her families and continued to do this throughout the summer as well.

Sabrina Ramirez is an EL kindergarten teacher at David Crockett Elementary in the Balsz School District. The student population is very diverse and they serve a lot of refugee families and homeless students who speak a wide variety of languages. She saw firsthand how quickly the district responded when schools closed in the spring semester. Within a week, the school had a plan in place and the staff had called every single family personally to check in and provide updates. Each school campus was open for breakfast and lunch pickup to ensure that that families had access to food. They also handed out laptops and hot spots, whenever possible. It took about a month to get the printed packets ready to disseminate, and everyone got a packet at home regardless of whether they had a laptop checked out, in order to further support their learning.

The Mexican American Student Services department at Tucson Unified School District created a virtual space via ZOOM to connect with parents and caregivers weekly when school buildings closed. It functioned as a family support group, so participants could talk about their concerns, get updates from the school and the district, and could ask about other community resources that they might need. “We ended up spending a lot of time working through the challenges that students were having connecting to technology and troubleshooting with them,” said Guillermina Torres, Mexican American Student Services, Tucson Unified School District.

Maria Diaz, a 5th grade ELD teacher in the Paradise Valley Unified School District, works hard to build a community in her classroom from the first day of school, so that they all become like a family and look after each other. Her students already did a lot of their work online and were used to logging into their devices every day. However, when they had to switch to distance learning, many were having difficulty with the technology and were growing increasingly frustrated and felt like they were failures. She spent a lot of time on the phone with parents to help explain how to log into the various learning apps that were used. “Since so many students were exhausted from trying to connect, we shifted a lot of our focus from academics to rebuilding the community atmosphere and making it fun for them.”

Nanette Murray, ELD Teacher at Sam Hughes Elementary School in the Tucson Unified School District, shared that it was difficult for her students to engage in conversations through the online group portals. Some were shy and not very social, on top of the language barriers, so they didn’t want to speak up or participate in front of the entire class. She went above and beyond to work with her students one-on-one throughout the spring. Instead of sticking with the generalized lesson plans, she would create at-home activities based on their own special interests. She recalled one student in particular that she was having trouble connecting with and how one day he asked about learning how to play backgammon. She scheduled a time to teach him the game via FaceTime and turned it into an indirect way to work on his English language skills and have engaging conversations that furthered his development.


Many of the challenges had to do with connectivity and the ability to reach the students and their families. “Out of 27 students, only about 10 were consistently logging in and engaging with the content. They would pick and choose whatever they wanted to do. Most were comfortable working in math, but they were not participating in the more difficult reading and writing assignments,” says a 4th Grade ELD teacher in north central Phoenix.

Online instruction is not the best method for teaching language development. ELD teachers spend a lot of time pronouncing letter sounds and working on phonics. A large part of teaching the English language involves gestures and facial expressions, which help students understand the context of the new words being spoken. “All teachers use think-pair-share techniques as well as breakout groups to engage students in learning, so they missed out on a lot of talking to each other and further honing their language skills,” shares Jennifer Stults an ELD Instructional Coach for Paradise Valley Unified.

Teachers and school administrators did everything they possibly could to engage with these most vulnerable children. “We had amazing teachers who tried to make distance learning work as best they could. However, there were families who had no technology and then only received one device per family regardless of how many school aged children there were in the household,” added Stults.

Another big issue was students not having internet at home and the low or no cost options required a state ID or driver’s license along with a letter from the school district, which wasn’t always easy to obtain in a timely manner. “In the spring, we know the needs of most EL students were not being met, but our district worked all summer to address the disparities,” said Stults. For example, they are providing devices to every school aged student, handing out hotspots and identifying other ways to ensure that students are able to connect to their online learning platforms.

It’s not just the students who had trouble connecting. Some teachers, such as Nanette Murray, had issues connecting to her classroom ZOOM meetings from home. “We need better internet services in cities as well as in rural communities. I live right in the middle of Tucson and the only available internet at my address was prohibitive for me to run ZOOMs without considerable lag time and freezing. There needs to be infrastructure support to have high-speed connections in place, at a reasonable cost,” she said.


This school year, the expectations will be higher and will look much different than last spring. It will require team work and strong communication between families and teachers to find the best ways to support student learning.

“Routines are really important with kids. Even when we teach virtually, we need to have an established routine from the beginning,” shares Nanette Murray. She plans on creating a video recording introducing herself and explaining how they can use each app or online platform. Then they can watch it back whenever they want and even stop and replay parts, if needed.

Another teacher plans to start the year with her typical All About Me assignment for the students in her pullout ELD classes, who will all have very limited English language skills. She will teach them to split their window, so they can see the video of her on one side but can be working together on an assignment on the other. She will kick off the new year with a review of phonics, playing fun games, and watching engaging videos that encourage singing along from home, one of the best techniques for learning a new language.

“Parents and caregivers are more than willing to learn and support the teachers and the programs that they will be using for classroom instruction this year. We will be continuing our ZOOM parent meetings and sharing information about how to best set up a space for learning at home, reviewing the daily school schedule and how to help their child get into a regular routine, as well as covering the responsibilities and expectations for each grade level,” added Guillermina Torres from Tucson Unified School District.

Sabrina Ramirez opted to teach virtually at the beginning of this school year as families in her district were offered the choice to attend either in-person or online. Both teachers on campus and virtually are using the same curriculum which was adopted over the summer. The new platform will accommodate the needs of English learners and to make it equitable for those in person as well as online. The district offered laptops and hotspots to families who are new this school year, which includes all of her kindergartners. The hotspots only offer up to 2GB of data each month, which was causing a slowdown in connection but school leaders have already been working with COX to upgrade that to 10GB to better accommodate online learning.

Many teachers have been participating in trainings and continuing education classes over the summer to learn new tools and techniques for teaching online and engaging students. There are a number of apps and tools that can help teachers differentiate to provide individualized instruction and support. For example, RAZKids can differentiate for various leveled readers and Spelling City can provide words based on the student’s individual skill set. There are also versions of apps made specifically for EL teachers, such as BrainPop and Freckle.

Districts like Paradise Valley Unified has been working over the summer to prepare for the virtual school year. ELD instructional coach Jennifer Stults says the Language Acquisition created an ELD Google Classroom with resources and supplementary materials for ELD teachers, as well as a middle school curriculum map. They also hosted four virtual professional development trainings with EL teachers to ensure they are all set up for a much smoother school year.

Maria Diaz will include all the classroom logins on her planner to make it easy for students and their families to find them, when needed. She also plans on using her Google Meets meetings for interactive conversations and completing a Google slide or worksheet online together to keep students engaged.

“As a district, we will be adding emotional health curriculum at all levels and have already started looking at standards from 4th quarter and how we can incorporate them into the upcoming year to make sure that there are no gaps,” added Nanette Murray from Tucson Unified. “We are going to do the best we can for our students. I have faith in my school and my district and I know we will give it our all!”

The post Meeting the Needs of English Learners During Distance Learning appeared first on Expect More Arizona.