Serving English learners with disabilities online this fall

School districts should be ready to step it up on addressing the needs of English learners who require extra support and may need to access education remotely for the new school year, says an educational consultant.
By: | July 9, 2020
Photo by Gabriel Tovar on UnsplashPhoto by Gabriel Tovar on Unsplash

Technological, economical and other barriers may have prevented you from addressing all the needs of English learners with disabilities these past few months. But whatever you have been doing for these students during the pandemic, ensure you are ready step it up to offer rigorous instruction and ward off disputes if you are continuing with a remote learning model in the fall.

“Many ELs don’t have ideal situations at home for remote learning,” says Andrea DeCapua, an educational consultant at MALP LLC in Tampa, Fla. “They tend to be overlooked and underserved. It is so hard to stay in contact with many of them. Look at what you can do that is really creative.”

Use the strategies below to work with ELs with disabilities despite continuing barriers to ensure they can effectively learn remotely in the fall.

1. Keep lessons short and use visual supports

You may lose ELs’ engagement in learning if you provide long blocks of virtual learning via videoconference. “It’s already hard enough if you’re a native speaker, but if you’re also learning a new language, your tongue gets tired and your head gets tired,” she said. “It’s better to do short activities that get the students involved.”

For example, if all students are practicing writing, the whole class including the ELs can stay engaged if the teacher plays a movie or song clip, then asks students to write a sentence on what they think will happen next or what they think it’s about, DeCapua says. “If all you do is play a movie clip, then ask students to answer questions at the end, that’s going to be too rote. But you can play a very short clip, pause it, do a short activity, then play another clip. Students can also type why they think something happened.”

Doing short activities can also afford the teacher more frequent opportunities to see if the ELs are staying on track.

Teachers may want to choose clips with captions or add closed-captioning to items they show students to further help ELs with disabilities remain engaged in learning, DeCapua says. Recognize that students may need more time to process what they hear and see.

2. Encourage peer interaction

ELs who are able to interact with friends or other English speakers over video chats, video games, part-time jobs and other outlets during the summer may come back in the fall having lost few skills, but many ELs will not have had much exposure to English during the summer if their parents are also learning English, DeCapua says. Encourage teachers to ask students to discuss their answers to questions in breakout rooms during virtual lessons before coming back to the group. This will help ELs practice their language skills with others. Also help students set up video or phone chat groups to practice when not in class.

3. Promote connection

Students who may still be waiting for laptops or mobile devices your district plans to supply, or who are just getting used to the new technology and using hot spots, may benefit from regular check-ins via phone calls or text messages that elicit language, DeCapua says. Many families use WhatsApp on their smartphones to keep in touch internationally with family members, so that may be a good avenue for teachers to stay in touch with their EL students. Ask how the student is doing and if she needs help understanding her assignments. “Be a listener,” she advises.

4. Assign projects

ELs may be grappling with having multiple siblings at home who also have to engage in remote learning with limited resources, DeCapua says. Encourage teachers to come up with projects whole families can participate in that will also help the EL practice his language skills and work toward his IEP goals. For instance, a teacher may want to share a short clip of herself cooking her favorite food and a written recipe, she said. Then invite the student to cook a favorite food and work on writing down the recipe. “This addresses math, science, English vocabulary, writing, and organization,” she says. “The student can learn what comes first, second, and third in the cooking process and what ingredients to include.”

You can ask the student to record a video, take a photograph, or draw a picture of the family cooking together and send it or mail it. Students and their families can drop off completed work where appropriate or you can supply them with self-addressed, stamped envelopes to turn in completed assignments if they are unable to purchase postage and envelopes.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.