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Lower levels of ESL - from a distance! How are you managing?

Hello all,

As we all work within the new normal, I'm curious what's happening in other states to continue to serve students at beginning levels of English and who may have emerging alphabetic print literacy skills.  How are you connecting with students? What's working?  What isn't?  No doubt there is LOTS of creativity and wisdom out there!

I can share some concrete examples from Minnesota to get us started:

  • Contact learners via 1-1 phone calls, spreading them out each week for the next couple of weeks as everyone gets adjusted.
  • Increase the calls to utilizing Facetime and with 1 or 2 learners at a time. Maybe these groups could continue on a scheduled basis.
  • Pose ahead of time, 3-4 questions that we could use for conversation practice while reaching out to the students.
  • Insert YouTube links into texting for the students to go to for learning at their leisure.
  • We talked about having a “Monday Pick-up” time, for example, where we could have assembled packets of work for them to do and do this on whatever schedule works.

Other suggestions:

  • One teacher is in contact with one learner and texted her a picture of a wordless story asking her to write about it. The learner will take a picture of her writing, and they’ll go back and forth with this.
  • Low tech: call your student and do a dictation, then with the help of a family member have them text/email you a picture of the dictation.
  • WhatsApp is an app that many learners have on their phones; one teacher getting started using it with 1-to-1 work. She has also sent some work packets home with students, and has used USPS to get things to others. 

This document from Lisa Gonzalves in Richmond, CA is a wonderful compilation for adult educators on how they might connect with their learners via mobile phones. Check it out! 

What else?  Eager to hear from other low-level ESL teachers and program managers about all their coronavirus-instructional-magic!


Patsy Egan

ATLAS Director, St. Paul MN 



nanfrydland's picture

Hi Patsy,

Here is one of the posts under Integrating Technology that I wrote as part of my two-week experience leaping into distance learning with my SLIFE, developing WhatsApp as a teaching platform. To recap: The day before our district closed, the students in my classes formed WhatsApp groups so that we would have emergency contact. We never imagined what it would turn into! Starting at our usual class times the following week, I began texting students to start class. I sent photos of our co-created curriculum and asked students to respond.....At last week's Friday Ed Tech webinar, I presented the results.


Here's something I just learned from this morning's class. Students who were at work peeped into the "classroom" and then texted me that they were watching the videos at home after work. FLIPPED LEARNING! I thank my students for teaching me every day with their creativity, problem-solving skills and determination to learn in adverse circumstances! Today's series of videos were based on things to do at home: cleaning activities, but also reading a book, listening to music, working at a computer. All the things we find ourselves doing at home now. After my videos and our speaking and listening practices, there was texting. Finally, I asked students to send photos of their homework and photos of what they were doing at home.  Tomorrow, their photos will be form the foundation of the lesson, just as their input would have formed the foundation of tomorrow's lesson had we been in a F2F classroom today.  Instead of using a smartboard flipchart or an old school scroll of paper the students dictated to, now I have their photos. I will put their photos in a  PowerPoint that someday they will have in a looseleaf binder since their 'textbook" is something we create every day normally except I was using Word before.  So now, OUR BOOK is a PPT.  Maybe someone can tell me how to embed my videos in the PPT.  So far, I paste the video but it looks like a photo, which is fine for the paper copy.

So, the idea of student-created texts which I have called OUR BOOK and each day I deliver pages of student language in keyboarded Word format, along with extensions of their language to teach more vocabulary and other parts of language, whole language, that is.... now that format is altered and the students are contributing every bit as much to the process and content as I am, which is the way it was and always should be.

Just to return to the idea: my students are watching WhatsApp classroom videos after class and answering the questions and sending answers at any time that's convenient. We have come a long way with our classroom in a week! Thanks for all the migrants who inspire me every day.

Silvia Hildesheim's picture

Hi Patsy,

I work with beginning level ESL students, but not with individuals who have emerging alphabetic literacy skills. I understand that not all of what works for my students would be helpful for emerging readers. Some tools that we (students & teacher) have found to work for our class include:

  1. Whatsapp (to build community): In a class group chat, we send pictures of our families, daily activities, and homemade food. We check in every morning with simple text and/or voice messages.
  2. USALearns (to serve as our new “textbook”): our program had already been using this site as an approved distance-learning tool.
  3. Canvas (to structure course and provide extension activities): Each week I post a new module to canvas. Here’s an example of our week 1 module:
              WEEK 1: Online learning

    • Start here! USALearns unit 10
    • USALearns Vocabulary Practice
    • Online Learning Vocabulary
    • Need help with grammar?
    • Writing practice – Is online class good or bad?
    • Do you want more practice? Click here!
  4. Zoom (for synchronous conversation practice and face to face meeting)

An additional tool I use is . I can record myself and show pictures or text on my screen. When I finish, I can easily upload it to youtube, send on whatsapp, or upload to Canvas for asynchronous lessons students can watch on their own time.

Silvia Hildesheim's picture

As a follow up to my first comment, here's what I haven't had success with! 

I've found that trying to send discussion questions to the group WhatsApp wasn't successful. I didn't get many responses even after providing sentence stems and a model. If I did get a couple responses, I didn't get the back and forth I was hoping for. The discussion feature on Canvas has been much more successful because students can post their reply and then respond to a classmate's comment in a threaded reply. 

For the first two weeks, I used only WhatsApp. I found I didn't like sending activities through WhatsApp because I was worried about overwhelming people. This is why I ultimately decided to switch to Canvas. Students can logon when they are ready to learn.

nanfrydland's picture

Hello everyone,

Here's a benefit of the WhatsApp teaching platform that surprised me: Students are completing their workbook assignments on a nightly basis and then able to participate better in the texting and voice-messaging. That is, they are now reading their answers, having processed the written work prior to class time.  Sort of like the Flipped Classroom.  Then, in the classroom, they are now spontaneously posting photos, since I'm posting videos, and we have an even more interactive exchange, which did not occur in F2F classrooms!

This is also like a visit to students' homes because now I'm seeing the children, the breakfasts, the watching TV photos they send.  We are finding new ways to develop interconnectedness!


Andrea Echelberger's picture

What I'm hearing from many lower level teachers right now is that they are focusing on staying connected with their learners while they figure out the best ways to try and deliver instruction. There is also a growing realization that for learners with limited literacy, it most likely won't be possible to deliver the same type of instruction virtually that they were able to do in class. Delivering hands-on phonics and reading instruction is most likely not going to happen, but that doesn't mean that instruction needs to stop completely. We all know that literacy level learners have their own unique set of strengths and challenges, which is why it's such an interesting level to teach! I'm excited to hear what strategies people are using for learners with limited reading and writing skills.

Several literacy level teachers that I've spoken with are taking advantage of this time to focus on developing conversation skills with their learners. Conversation is something that learners at all levels often ask for, but can be difficult to integrate. Having 15-20 minute conversations over the phone or Whatsapp with learners a couple of times a week can help develop confidence (we all know how challenging it is to speak on the phone in a new language!), and can be an excellent way to help learners and teachers feel connected. And Whatsapp supports group calls, so a teacher could work with several learners simultaneously, and continue to foster class community. There may be some easy ways to bolster vocabulary that can be practiced in the conversations; through making a screencast or Loom video and sharing a link with learners so that they can watch it on their phone, then integrating that vocabulary into the questions. I haven't tried that yet, but I'm going to this week. I'll report back!