Many, many schools have started the new school year with a major shift in instruction. The new formats may be entirely virtual, a hybrid of virtual and face-to-face instruction, or face-to-face in-person instruction with social distancing measures.

As teachers return to working with emergent bilinguals and English learners, teachers are having to reexamine the tried and true strategies they have used to build language instruction and practice into the curriculum across all of the content areas. The strategies we are used to using, such as think-pair-share or turn-and-talk, for example, cannot function the way they did in the past.

However, there are adjustments we can make to these strategies for the various teaching scenarios we find ourselves in during the pandemic. The adjustments are not always ideal but do allow us to continue to use the research based instructional practices that we know help to build language skills while developing content knowledge.

Student-to-Student Interaction Opportunities

The importance of student interaction opportunities for students learning a new language is unparalleled. Students must have opportunities to practice incorporating the target language throughout the instructional day for a variety of purposes.

The most obvious, perhaps, is that students need to practice the new vocabulary and language structures in a variety of contexts: in informal ways as they talk with their peers about what they are learning, as well as in more formal ways as they engage in discourse with the teacher, small groups, or other students in structured ways. During these opportunities, language scaffolds such as word banks and sentence starters or frames can be provided to support students as they practice the new language.

Pre-pandemic, when working with students live in a face-to-face setting, we would simply have students turn to a partner for discussion on a given prompt. We may have incorporated a movement activity along with the prompt, so that students had the opportunity to move around the classroom, interact with someone other than the students seated near them, and build active engagement. In the current learning environments, however, these activities are not possible or not so simple. Students may be in the same room, but social distancing is still required. Or, students may not be in the same room, and only able to interact virtually.

In order to engage students in discourse opportunities in these scenarios, we must think a bit differently. For example, if using a virtual platform such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, or another tool to teach students synchronously, wherein the teacher and the students are together live but in a virtual environment, you can often ask students to type messages to each other via a chat feature if the platform has that available. Provide students with a prompt, as you would in a face-to-face setting, and ask students to type their response to a partner.

Some platforms allow for private, student-to-student messaging. This allows students to type their responses to each other electronically. Begin by notifying the students who their learning partner will be for the lesson. For example, you might say, “Natalie and Erick, you will be learning partners today. Emma and Sebastian, you will be learning partners,” and so forth. The platform you are using may allow you to save these private chats for review after the class.

I will usually remind students that their chats, even the “private” student-to-student chats, are saved and will be reviewed to prevent inappropriate electronic chatting in class. Some platforms also have breakout rooms built in, wherein students can be placed into a virtual room where they can have a discussion as if they were on a conference call. Breakout rooms can have two students, three, four or more. The number will of course depend on the particular activity.

In face-to-face scenarios with social distancing, students may still be able to meet with a partner, provided the appropriate distance is maintained between them. This will require that students speak more loudly, especially if they are wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and/or face shields.

Choral Responses

Having students respond together, or chorally, provides the benefit of lowering the affective filter as students practice new vocabulary, language structures, or reading together as a group. It also provides more students the opportunity to respond to a particular prompt or question.

For example, if a teacher asks something such as, “What is the name of the process in which plants make their own food from the sun?” Rather than calling on one student to respond to the question, the teacher might prompt all of the students to respond by saying “Everyone…” to which the students would all respond “photosynthesis.” In this way, all students practice saying the vocabulary word, rather than just the one student called upon.

In a face-to-face setting with social distancing, this can still be achieved. The potential problem is that, if students are wearing PPE, we may not be able to see their mouths moving and will not know if all students responded to the prompt. In a virtual setting, we can see students’ mouths moving if they are sharing their video, but not all students may be able to share their video for a variety of reasons.

Even if you can see the students on video, though, because of connectivity issues, the choral responses of students may sound more like popcorn randomly popping than a chorus that is responding together. For this reason, you may ask just one or two students to respond with you audibly, while the rest of the students mute their microphones. That way, students can both practice the responses, and hear a choral response without the chaos of multiple people trying to respond via a virtual platform. Be sure to watch, as possible, the other students as they respond, and encourage students to chorally respond even if they are on mute, so that they benefit from practicing the response orally.

Non-linguistic Representations

The incorporation of visuals, including pictures, drawings, and sketches, is a mainstay of effective instructional practices for students learning a new language. Teachers have long used pictures, drawings and sketches to help make concrete concepts more easily understandable, and even abstract concepts more concrete.

Pictures can certainly still be shared in a virtual environment, by displaying the picture on camera, or by screen sharing an image. Drawing and sketching are also tools that can be used on the spot to illustrate important concepts being discussed. In the physical classroom, teachers might use a chalkboard or whiteboard to draw or make a quick sketch, or perhaps draw out a graphic organizer to fill out with students.

In the virtual classroom, teachers can draw or sketch on a piece of paper and hold it up to the camera. There are many electronic tools that can also be utilized, including electronic whiteboards. Some platforms have electronic whiteboards built into them. There are also numerous electronic whiteboards available, many of which are free to use. While it can be more difficult to draw using a mouse or trackpad, it is still a useful tool. The use of a document camera can also be effective. Some platforms allow you to link your smartphone as a document camera, which in turn can be displayed for students as you sketch, draw, or make a graphic organizer on paper.

Gestures are also effective non-linguistic representation tools. Gestures involve utilizing hand and body movements to illustrate concepts and vocabulary. The movements can be both illustrated by the teacher, as well as practiced by the students to build active engagement and, again, make abstract concepts more concrete. As long as students can see you, be it virtually or face-to-face, and as long as they too are encouraged to practice the gestures, at home or in the classroom, students will benefit from the incorporation of this type of non-linguistic representation.

There are many other instructional tools that teachers incorporate to benefit students learning a new language. With some adjustments, these strategies can be adapted to the virtual environment as well. As we continue to learn how to more effectively teach emergent bilinguals in the virtual environment as well as with social distancing protocols, it is imperative that we utilize the strategies we know are effective, and continue to build our knowledge base in terms of effective strategies regardless of the teaching environment.