International Students 7 Minute Read

Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners in the Online Classroom

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English languages learners (ELLs) can enrich any classroom with their depth of knowledge of other cultures, languages, and traditions. But along with their diverse perspectives, ELLs bring a diverse set of needs to native English-speaking classrooms. ELLs often need additional support to succeed, and as the number of these students continues to rise in American classrooms, it’s important that instructors understand the challenges ELLs face. This article explores how you can adapt or enhance typical online best practices with ELLs in mind to support these students with new material they’ll encounter and to help them manage the challenges posed by learning in a non-native language.

Frequent Feedback

Studies have shown that lack of personal interaction in the online classroom can negatively impact students’ motivation (Costa-Guerra & Costa-Guerra, 2015), and this can be especially true for ELLs. Maintaining frequent contact is beneficial for all students, but it’s key to ensuring success for students being challenged to process language and master new content. Below are different ways you can provide frequent feedback beyond traditional graded assignments:

  • Establish optional office hours. Frequently remind students to take advantage of your “open door.”
  • For larger projects, allow students to submit their assignments in incremental stages so they can receive feedback and make adjustments before receiving a final grade.
  • In automatically scoring assessments, provide feedback beyond “correct” and “incorrect.” Students should learn why an answer is incorrect and receive guidance or recommendations for specific sources that clarify and explain.
  • Provide an optional peer-review forum as a place where students can interact and edit each other’s assignments prior to submitting them to you, the instructor.

By providing several opportunities for feedback, you’ll help ELLs feel comfortable asking for assistance when they encounter unfamiliar language or cultural references. In addition, frequently checking for understanding trains ELLs to monitor their own sense of understanding so they will be quicker to spot gaps and seek help when necessary (Ferlazzo, 2016).


Rubrics are essential tools for any instructor, but they’re particularly beneficial for instructors who have ELLs in their classrooms. Students unaccustomed to American schooling may have had no experience writing academic papers. For example, you might assign students to write a short reflection or annotated bibliography, which American students will likely understand without additional explanation. However, ELLs may make a good-faith effort at the assignment but produce content that doesn’t reflect the proper format, and the resulting low grade may cause frustration and even mistrust toward you, the instructor, for not providing the information ELLs needed to succeed (Rowe, n.d.). Thus, it’s important that you specifically state your expectations and break down each part of the assignment on which you’ll assess students. Rubrics address this need.

In addition to providing a written rubric, consider going over the rubric and instructions verbally (perhaps via a short video recording) to give students multiple opportunities to understand what you want (Ferlazzo, 2016). A well-designed rubric will make it easier for students not only to refer to your expectations as they work through the assignment, but to learn from mistakes once they receive a grade and feedback from you. In that way, they’ be able to adjust their approach on future assignments to earn higher grades and, more importantly, mastery of learning objectives.

Scaffolding to Fill in Prior Knowledge Gaps

Many students who either have moved to the United States or are taking American online courses from overseas haven’t had much (if any) exposure to American K-12 school content. U.S. history, English, and literature courses, in particular, can be particularly challenging for such students. When an assignment requires students to connect new learning objectives to previous knowledge, you can’t assume students (especially ELLs) have mastered prior foundational content such as American history, literature, culture, and educational standards.

For these students, you’ll often need to provide background information that’s necessary for understanding the new material. For example, you might compose a preface or provide background information as part of the assignment instructions. When more extensive background reading is necessary, direct students to a resource that imparts information in an accessible way. Providing these resources allows ELLs to explore topics as needed, and will help ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed.

The chart below provides examples of assignments and additional resources to help scaffold instruction for ELLs.

Assignment Challenge for ELLs Suggestions for Scaffolding Your Instruction
Choose a prominent person from U.S. history and explain his or her impact on modern legislation. ELLs may be unfamiliar with most U.S. historical figures.
  • Provide a list of examples of prominent people relevant to this assignment, along with a brief description of each person.
  • Provide links to one or two specific resource websites to help ELLs gain a basic understanding of modern U.S. legislative workings.
  • Encourage students to “check in.” Who have they decided to research? Do they seem to have a solid, if rudimentary, grasp of the legislative process?
The environment and the landscape greatly influenced the style of Native American architecture. Select two pieces of Native American architecture and explain how their styles are still relevant. ELLs may not be able to make connections between architectural forms and landscape without background knowledge of Native Americans.
  • Provide one or two specific websites that show and describe the land and climate of Native American regions and the various tribes who lived in each.
  • Link to a Native American glossary so students can quickly reference unfamiliar terms, particularly architectural ones.
Write a four-page paper in APA format about Isaac Newton. Include at least five references in your paper. APA, MLA, and other style guides will likely be new to ELLs.
  • Be precise with your wording when giving an assignment. Your description should clarify what students should focus on as they research.
  • Link to websites that explain what APA style entails.
  • Provide links for explaining citations.
  • Provide a link to a plagiarism checker so students can guarantee they have cited their papers appropriately.

Multiple Forms of Assessments

It’s important for English language learners to have flexibility in choosing how they’ll demonstrate content mastery. After all, assessing language skills is different than assessing content skills, and for most courses, content mastery is the more important objective (Alrubail, 2016). Thus, providing multiple options for assessments—not just written assignments—takes the burden off demonstrating language skills and instead emphasizes demonstrating content mastery. This will not only keep the focus on learning, but also reduce some of the stress of the assessment itself.

Universal Design for Learning principles apply here. For example, instead of mandating that every student write a paper, you could allow students to create PowerPoint presentations with voiceovers, take a screencast of themselves reviewing different online resources, or even draw a mind map or other artistic expression to demonstrate their understanding of the material. Providing these options allows both ELLs and native English speakers to engage in the learning style and domain of language they excel in (Nesbitt, 2015). As mentioned earlier, clear rubrics with expectations stated in a simple, straightforward manner are essential, particularly when you allow multiple options for demonstrating mastery. Be aware of the verbs that you use in your rubric that may dictate the medium in which students demonstrate their mastery.


By enrolling in your class, English language learners have chosen to challenge themselves to learn in a language not native to them. As an instructor, you can ease many of their challenges by taking the time to understand the areas where they might need some assistance and provide additional materials and clarification where needed. If you apply some of the strategies from this article, you can help any ELLs enrolled in your class work toward your learning objectives just as successfully as native English speakers.


Alrubail, R. (2016, July 7). Equity for English-language learners [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Costa-Guerra, B., & Costa-Guerra, L. (2015, March). Do online courses help or hinder English language learners’ experience with math credit recovery? Retrieved from

Ferlazzo, L. (2016, November 3). Do’s and don’ts for teaching English-language learners [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Nesbitt, J. (2015, September 9). 4 strategies to help ELLs in the mainstream classroom [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Rowe, E. (n.d.). ESL writing rubrics. In Academic Subjects for English Language Learners. Retrieved from

Posted February 5, 2018
Author Teresa Johnstone