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Education for All: Online Education & ESL Students

The key to helping students retain skills in a new language is providing them a low-risk, comfortable environment where they feel safe making mistakes and trying new things.

Leah Cruzen, ELL Teacher

The subject of online education has become more and more common in mainstream discussions about learning. Technology, however, has needed a little time to catch up to make the benefits of learning English online really stand out.

The individual designations of English learning types includes ESL (English as a Second Language), ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages), EFL (English as a Foreign Language), ENL (English as a New Language), and many more. The one thing that these approaches have in common, regardless of educational level, is that they rely on instructors with the utmost dedication, patience, and thoughtfulness. Learning a new language is an extremely challenging goal—even more so for adult students.

MOOCs and e-learning portals such as edX, Udemy, FutureLearn, and Coursera offer classes for those interested in teaching English as a second language. New ways of thinking about how to teach English as a second language emerge as improved strategies for language teaching increase. But beyond these official, professional-level lessons there’s an entire universe rich with assets for teachers teaching English to non-native speakers.

Read on to learn more about some of the most useful resources for using the internet to help ELL (English Language Learner) students speak a new language.

Featured Interviewee: ELL Teacher, Leah Cruzen

Leah Cruzen

Leah Cruzen, ELL Teacher

Leah Cruzen holds an MA in teaching from Pacific University. She has worked as a writing tutor for ELL students, as a high school language assistant in Spain, and as a bilingual educational assistant in Eugene, Oregon at North Eugene High School. She is currently a Spanish language and ELL teacher for Eugene’s 4J school district. She has also worked as an instructional assistant in the Migrant Education Program and has tutored non-native speakers in science, reading, and mathematics using the SIOP toolbox to build lessons.

Building an Online Learning Community for Language

Productive and engaged learning communities hinge on the knowledge that each member of a class is in a position to help their classmates learn and grow. Rather than lecture-based courses or lesson plans which contain confusing English grammar and sentence construction, ESOL classmates do better when they can split up into groups. This helps them tackle more difficult questions. It also helps them associate feelings of positivity with both group work and language learning. Like most other subjects, ESOL students benefit from collaborative learning, from having their educational needs met properly.

But how do the needs of online ESL, ELL, and ESOL students differ from those of other kinds of students?

“Tutoring students online is different than teaching students in a classroom, because you have more time to give them direct feedback,” says Cruzen. “It is much more like one-on-one tutoring than having a full class. In these ways, it is much easier.” With a webcam however, she says, “It is much harder to use strategies such as TPR (Total Physical Response) as there is less room on a webcam to move around. It is also much more difficult to create relationships with them as you are not physically in the same space as them.

But helping students learn openly is quite often easier said than done. Personal comfortability and trust are two of the more crucial components of the evolving ESOL student’s relationship with their instructor.

“The key to helping students retain skills in a new language is providing them a low-risk, comfortable environment where they feel safe making mistakes and trying new things,” Cruzen explains. “Establishing a respectful and encouraging classroom community is the first step to providing equal learning opportunities for all students. I spend a lot of time with students establishing peer relationships and making them feel welcome. We take time to learn about each student and where they are from, which reinforces the message that each student matters and has something to offer our class.”

Positive reinforcement of uniqueness and encouragement of class contribution are a few of the important steps language teachers take to build classroom communities. These are strategies which can be applied to any level of learning, from middle school all the way to advanced degrees. Certain strategies are rooted in a psychological understanding of the ESOL student’s mind, such as Audiolingual or the Direct Method.

Cruzen goes in for another well-known arrangement: “I use a lot of AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination) strategies and resources in order to build classroom community,” says Cruzen. AVID is a system of proven methods to encourage greater participation and engagement for ESL/ESOL students.

Most of the modern techniques place the student experience front and center, focusing on additional personal and cultural factors that were once disregarded.

“This is especially essential for adolescent and adult ESL students that are newcomers to the country,” says Cruzen. “They are not only navigating a new country, culture and language, but they are also attending other classes as well. It is crucial for them to make peer connections and feel that they have a teacher they can trust.”

When considering the conditions under which non-native speakers must learn, study, and speak, the environment is critical. “It is not uncommon for ESL students to be living without their parents. They may be on their own, or at a relative’s house they may not know well,” says Cruzen.

In this respect, then, an online approach to ESL teaching provides an opportunity for teachers to gauge their students’ engagement level and for students to grow in a safe, trusting learning space. They’re able to interface with learning modules in a number of unique contexts, in a number of different languages, and with levels of excitement that are often tempered by self-consciousness in a classroom setting.

ESL Students in an Online Learning Environment

With the advent of easier-to-build websites and third party services that help teachers and professors design curriculum, the internet has become the go-to place for varied ESL learning materials.

When it comes to ELL instruction, there is a wealth of ideas, strategies, and communities ready to offer feedback. Online teaching aids and resources help ESL and ESOL teachers, professors, and instructors discover new ways to enrich their students’ understanding.

Factors such as attention span, courseload, finances, and any one of a number of stressors must be considered when building more inclusive lesson plans. For Cruzen and other instructors of English, a key to best serving ESL or ELL students is the utilization of internet tools. Professional ESL instructors use these tools to aid in retention, grammar, spelling, vocabulary, argument, and more.

“There are so many online resources that help keep students engaged,” Cruzen says. “ESL students are often extremely exhausted from using a foreign language all day, and it is important to provide several activities that keep students’ attention.”

Using fun and enjoyable media help with this, no doubt. For example, Cruzen turns to a popular ESL education site: “I use videos from iSLCollective.com. They take popular movies that students have likely seen in order to focus on grammar concepts,” she says.

“I also use Kahoot to create low-risk quizzes in order to check for understanding as a formative assessment. Quizlet is also a great resource as teachers can create vocabulary lists for their students and students can log in and practice in a variety of ways. I also use Teachers Pay Teachers for activities that are already prepared, due to a lack of time to create my own activities for every lesson plan. Pinterest is also a great place for ideas.”

Going forward, one can expect that organizations such as the TESOL International Association, the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), and the International Association of World Englishes (IAWE) will continue to push for a greater awareness of ESOL student needs. Teachers like Leah Cruzen strive to help students learn English, along with all its idiosyncrasies and challenges, and web-based resources can help.

Kenneth Parker

Kenneth Parker is a feature writer, poet, and musician living in the Pacific Northwest. His writing on remote work, education, and technology has been published by BustedCubicle.com, MedicalTechnologySchools.com, and other websites. His poetry, short fiction, and album reviews have appeared in Scifaikuest, Nanoism, and No Clean Singing. His background includes time spent as an associate editor, proofreader, private grammar instructor, freelance content editor, medical claims agent, and SEO consultant. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon, where he studied literature and worked as a composition tutor.