Supporting English Language Learners Online

Imagine moving to another country, where few people speak English, where the culture is completely different. Imagine yourself settling in and deciding to take a local online class. You become an online learner in a new country, in a new language, in a new culture, in a new online space. How do you feel? What will you need to succeed?

This is the perspective of your online English Language Learners: your ELLs. Who are they and what do they need? How can you support them in your online class? One word: Scaffolding.

Navigating the Course

First, how do you welcome your students?  How do you deliver directions? What are the norms for your class? From the start it will be helpful to identify the ELLs in your class and in a 1-on-1 communication to acknowledge the language learning piece of their study. Could you create a special Welcome Letter for your ELLs? Could you create a vocabulary list of terms for navigating the course? Could you pair up ELLs in a break-out group? Identifying the challenges up-front and scaffolding the navigation will bring a sense of ease, opening the channels of communication, and giving students the language to identify confusion in course navigation.

Course Content

 Learning in another language is easier and tends to be more successful when the content area is already familiar. So an ELL with an advanced degree in Chemistry might not be fluent in English for your Science course, but they’ll have sufficient background knowledge in the content to be successful. In contrast, if an ELL has no background in your content area you’ll need to scaffold the discipline itself. For an example, in a Composition class your ELLs may have never learned the norms we use for organizing a paragraph around a topic sentence and sticking to a controlling idea. Some cultures go around and around a topic until they get to the point. Other cultures use long flowing sentences that last a whole paragraph. Acknowledging these differences respectfully and scaffolding the mastery of norms for your discipline within this culture is key.

Learning Modalities 

How many learning modalities do you use when you deliver your instruction? The more you can scaffold your content with video clips, audio clips, infographics, outside links, kinesthetic activities, the more successful your ELLs, and all your students, will be.

Time Management

Online learning requires effective time management, especially in another language. State this up-front with your ELLs. How can your they plug in to student support services regularly and how might they work this into their weekly schedule so that their learning is consistently scaffolded?

Online Readiness

Some of your ELLs  might not have the academic background, the personal discipline, the technology access, or the language ability they need to do their best work. How do you prepare for this the first weeks of your class so that all your students have access to effective online learning? How can you scaffold readiness?

Cultural Differences

Some cultures encourage students to be outspoken and argumentative. Others expect students to be passive and agreeable. How can you nudge students to follow the rules of netiquette and also speak up when they need clarification? And how can you be curious about your ELLs as individuals who bring their cultural background as well as their unique personality and learning style to this online space?

Bringing Together The Stakeholders

Who is invested in the success of your ELLs? Do you have ESL online tutoring? Online Basic Skills preparation? Is your Equity team plugged in to your online program? Does the EdTech Department collaborate on ELL-friendly course design? Do ELLs have an online campus voice? How can we bring all these voices to a round-table forum so that we design our programs with ELLs in mind, bringing all our campus resources and content area knowledge together in a shared commitment to excellence? How can we build a strong ELL scaffold together?

Now return to your imaginary new country and your imaginary new online course. How do you feel knowing you have been been acknowledged, warmly welcomed and supported in your learning? What else might you need to do your best work?

Posted in Articles, Course Design Showcase, Rubric Section A, Rubric Section B.

Dayamudra is a veteran ESL Instructor with teaching experience across The US and abroad. She founded and leads an alternative learning community in south India, Jai Bhim International., and split her time between San Francisco and Kerala. Daya is new to online teaching and learning and has been actively engaged in designing curriculum and new programs, as well as connecting with other educators to learn new tech tools and develop vibrant language learning communities online.


  1. Thank you sharing such a superb article which touches on many aspects which are commonly experienced within the ESL field. I am very impressed by all the points you have shared and find it rather useful. I look forward in monitoring my progress within the ESL field, and now particular within the online ESL field.

  2. Thank you for sharing such great article. I am new to teaching online, but I’m excited to read, learn and share all these great comments. I really enjoyed reading on learning modalities and cultural difference.

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