Moving ESL Literacy Classes to Virtual Environments


by Theresa Wall

Theresa Wall is an educational consultant specializing in second language and literacy acquisition. She has worked extensively with LESLLA learners, first as an adult ELL literacy teacher and then in her role as a learning support specialist, where she developed interventions to support learners. Theresa led a group of fabulous teacher-writers in the ESL Literacy Readers project with Bow Valley College and is preparing to pilot a biliteracy curriculum framework, where first language literacy comes first in support of second language and literacy learning, with adult newcomers in Calgary, Alberta.

We know that face to face classes with plenty of opportunity for hands on learning and interaction are a big part of best practice with ESL literacy. 


We build field trips into our units, take pictures, and then talk and write about our experiences back in the classroom.  Wrapping our heads around taking what we know works in the classroom into a digital environment seems a little counter-intuitive.  However, as teachers, we pride ourselves on our ability to adapt to challenging circumstances and supporting each other, and this situation is no exception.

Fortunately, there are some resources out there for us as we shift our ESL literacy classes to digital platforms (for the short term, we hope). When face-to-face classes across the continent were cancelled, ATLAS (Hamline University) and Literacy Minnesota swiftly pulled together a panel presentation on working with beginning English language learners in an online environment.  And, in place of LESLLAs international symposium this summer, teachers and researchers presented on distance learning and including volunteers to support online instruction.

For the sake of space, I’m going to talk about out Literacy Minnesota’s webinar Let’s Start at the Very Beginning: Virtual Instruction of Low Level ESL. In the webinar, moderator Andrea Echelberger reminds us to keep things simple and be kind to ourselves before three teachers talk about their own experiences moving beginning level ESL and ESL literacy classes online. The teachers share concrete ways to teach beginning level ESL using a variety of platforms and materials.

These are just a few of the great tips you’ll hear:

Start with familiar platforms

Find out what your learners are already using, whether that be cell phones or WhatsApp, and make that your starting point. Teachers used a wide variety of platforms to teach, depending on what worked for the learners. One teacher prerecorded lessons on Zoom, and then sent a link to the videos via WhatsApp for easy access.

Introduce one new thing at a time

Make room for learners to master one skill before introducing the next.  On top of learning a second language and developing print literacy skills for the first time, learners are learning to use digital skills to participate in classes.

Set a routine

When routines are in place, learners know what to expect. There is less demand placed on figuring out what comes next and more space for learning.  Teacher Mary Lou Cox started her video classes with calendar work before introducing the story for the week, then phonics, and so on.  Think about how to set a routine with your class, and let learners know what the routine is.

Mail out packages

Some teachers mailed out packages to learners with printed learning resources. You might print and send picture and letter or word flashcards, copies of the ESL Literacy Readers (BVC) or a Language Experience Approach story you develop with your class.

Be kind to yourself

The move to remote instruction is challenging.  Let’s do what we can with the resources we have. We are all learning and we not always going to get it just right. This is a steep learning curve for everyone.

Links to webinars and resources:

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