Six Effective Speaking Strategies for English Learners in Virtual Instruction

Six Effective Speaking Strategies for English Learners in Virtual Instruction

Instruction has not looked the same since schools closed their physical classrooms in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Educators across the United States have worked tirelessly since that time to reach and teach all students. The reality is that not all students are the same and reaching and teaching all students in the same way, proves to be difficult, especially during remote learning.


English learners have particular educational needs. For example, they are learning the English language and the grade-level content at the same time. Due to this fact, teachers need the best practices for teaching English Learners during remote learning. 


The foundation of language acquisition is that English Learners' teachers' lessons must contain a balance of all four language domains- listening, speaking, reading, and writing - to be most effective. Through my work with teachers, it has become evident that speaking has been used the least during remote learning. It is the hardest one to plan and implement virtually.


To address this need, let's look at six effective speaking strategies for English Learners in virtual instruction.


1.   Cultivate Relationships and be Culturally Responsive

So how do we help our students? Before we start talking about assisting them with English language development, we need to talk about building rapport with our students. Cultivating positive relationships with our students has always been meaningful. Now that many of our students are participating in virtual instruction, social-emotional learning is at the forefront. If it's not, it should be.   


Teachers care about the students, but at times, the students don't realize that is the case. Many of our English Learners' lives are in turmoil as they arrive in our education system and leave everything they know behind. Add the global pandemic to it, and there is even more urgency to ensure the students feel safe. As educators, we need to provide safety and security before we can provide educational support. If not, the students are just not ready to learn.  


The goal is to make sure the students feel comfortable, confident, and content. As an educator, fostering a positive student-teacher relationship is critical, especially in distance learning settings, because they allow for educators to:

❖     look for clues to students' home life that may impact their access to learning

❖     plan effective instruction

❖     maximize student engagement

❖     recognize students' interests and strengths

❖     create a comfortable environment so students can practice their new language skills

❖     connect the content taught to students' life experiences through meaningful instruction


Some strategies that teachers have found useful for social and emotional learning include the following:

❖     Check-In: Start the day with a personal connection. Make it your goal to keep it brief. 

  • It could be as simple as asking English Learners how they are feeling. They can rate their feelings based on a number, an emoji, or a picture, depending on their language level. 

  • Play 'tag.' Start the day by answering a warm-up question. The teacher will call on a student to answer a question. That student unmutes the microphone and answers the question. Now that student has the power to call on another student. So on and so forth until you have talked to 3 to 5 students. 


❖     Show and Tell: This is a time for students to speak about something they are comfortable speaking about and is important to them.

  • English learners can present their pet, their favorite toy, or an important artifact in their home. They can also explain the meaning of their name or show a meaningful picture. 

  • Teachers will provide sentence frames as necessary or encourage English Learners to share in their home language, if possible. Teachers may also use breakout rooms. Using a breakout room may provide emotional safety to English Learners as they would show and tell a handful of students versus the entire class. Then they can choose to report to the whole class.  


2.   Provide comprehensible input for English Learners 

Comprehensible input is also an essential part of making sure our English Learners understand the language and the content. Teachers present a lesson via listening or reading, or both. The gist of the content and language that the students are receiving must be understood. Therefore, explicit and targeted Comprehensible Input is essential for English Learners since it allows them to use the information they already know to comprehend and use new linguistic concepts.


We still have to provide comprehensible input during remote learning, but it's different from when we do so in person. Virtual live sessions are probably the best opportunity for comprehensible input because the teacher can communicate in the target language at the English Learners' language level.  In virtual live sessions, the idea is to design various activities that do not drill vocabulary and grammar but use them in context.


Equally important is to choose quality of input over quantity. It is difficult to provide the same amount of comprehensible input as when teaching in person. Remember that your English learners, and you may not have the technology, Internet bandwidth, or time to watch hours of teacher-created video and audio content.


Lastly, English learners cannot provide output such as speaking if the language has not been introduced, modeled and broken down into understandable chunks of information.  This is truly what comprehensible input is all about. 


Some strategies that teachers have found useful for comprehensible input include the following:

❖     Use Visuals in Context to Develop Background Information

  • Think about engaging students with a picture as a way to provide enough relevant background information.  Of course, the image you show the students has to be in context to what you are about to teach.  The idea is that the teacher will provide questions or statements about the picture and students will have to answer the questions.  The questions or statements you provide will guide the students to practice, learn or discover the vocabulary that you want to present. 

Start with students responding with thumbs up or thumbs down depending on if they agree with your statement.  This is a risk-free way for the English learner to answer questions whole group. After you try this strategy a couple of times, the students can unmute themselves and answer your questions or give opinions to the statements you have presented.  The dialogue between the teacher and the students and the students and their friends turns into great practice in the language domain of Speaking.  


❖     Show Don’t Tell 

  • I say let’s take advantage of remote learning.  When English learners encounter a new, difficult or multiple meaning word in context, let’s show them what it means.  What do I mean by that?  I mean, let’s paint a picture for them.  Let’s find a video or a sound clip that will help them understand the word in context.  This is very similar to the “Show Don’t Tell” strategy we use in writing.  Imagine the student writes a sentence that says, “The pizza was delicious.”  Now as a writing teacher you would say show me that it was delicious, don’t tell me.  Then we would help the student add details to show that it was delicious.  So, our input has to be comprehensible enough to show English learners, not tell them. Since we are already in remote learning use all your virtual resources to show them and paint a picture.  


3.   Emphasize Academic Language Production

We are trying to help students practice speaking the academic language that is typically used in the classroom.  Some students struggle with this, even during face-to-face instruction.  Remote learning makes it that much harder, so educators have to be savvy since it is critical that teachers build in activities that require students to share their thinking in English.


Let’s start by looking for ways to build interaction within our lessons.  Students can post messages via audio or video and respond to each other.  Recordings that English Learners make should be as short as three to five minutes in general.  Many platforms can be used in order to have students respond to each other, to texts, or to the different content areas.


Some strategies that teachers have found useful for emphasizing academic language production include the following:

❖ Summarize it

  • Assigning English learners to regularly summarize what they learned an effective way to increase comprehension and retention of new materials. 
    • The student will record a podcast or vodcast using an app on a smartphone or tablet.  The assignment will be to summarize the key concepts from one or more lessons. A variation of this assignment is to have students hear their classmates podcast and allow for oral feedback or questions. Students who excel in a strategy get to record themselves teaching it.  The teacher saves them and uses them as peer tutoring.

❖ Students Guide the Instruction

  • Have English learners record a video. Their task will be to explain, and teach a vocabulary word, a topic, a story, a math problem. Allowing students to do this will let them feel connected to their classmates.  They are also practicing academic English language in safe and fun way. Teachers can select the best videos to keep as a way to help other students struggling with a certain concept.  It’s a virtual adaptation to peer instruction and student output. 


4.   Picture it

It has always been a sound teaching practice to use visual representations like graphic organizers and concept maps when working with English learners.  Visual illustrations allow English learners to understand the content better while learning essential vocabulary.  These graphic organizers can also be utilized as a formative assessment during remote learning.


Let’s use this strategy in remote learning.  After a unit in any content area, the English learners are tasked to create a visual or symbolic representation; this can be a graphic organizer, a web, or a concept map, of information and vocabulary learned. Once the students have created their visual representation, they can prepare to explain their graphic.



❖     Draw a visual web of the water cycle.

❖     Develop a concept map to illustrate how a bill becomes a law.

❖     Create a story map showing the major events in the story.


In virtual learning environments, students can post their visuals on different platforms like Google Slide, Nearpod or Jamboard.


5.   Meet with Small Group

There is nothing better than meeting with a small group of students to better engage them in discussion during remote learning. The affective filter is lowered, and students feel comfortable to speak in front of 5 versus 25 students. Having 25 students on the screen all at once can get overwhelming for students and teachers as well.


When working with smaller groups that are leveled by language levels, students may feel more comfortable with asking and answering questions even with limited English-speaking skills.


If unsure how to get students to speak during small group instruction, take a look at some examples:

❖     Practice academic vocabulary and fluency with chants and songs

❖     Read Aloud to the students.

❖     During the read aloud model thinking aloud, ask comprehension questions

❖     Remember the wait time is longer during remote learning so make sure you leave time for students to think and respond

❖     Frontload vocabulary or concepts


6.   Use Sentence Frames

The struggle to communicate can potentially hurt content and language mastery for English learners. In turn, this can widen the achievement gap between them and their monolingual peers. 


Improving outcomes for our English learners is always the goal.  One very important scaffold that is easy to use during remote learning is to use sentence frames.  If used consistently, English learners will learn to communicate more clearly and confidently.


A sentence frame is a framework that helps English learners respond to questions posed in the classroom.  Sentence frames can be used for any content area like: Math, Science, Social Studies and English.  Check out some examples of sentence frames in the content areas:


  Math   The digit ______ is in the _____ place.
  Science   The effect of ______ was _____.
  Social Studies   In ______, the land is used for ________.
  English   ________ is the main character in the book ___________.


Sentence frames provide a starting point for English learners to attempt to form their own answers. By using a sentence frame, they don't have to think about how to correctly phrase an answer which allows them to focus all of their cognitive effort on the academic content.


Benefits to using Language Frames:

❖     Sentence frames give English Learners a better idea of the response you are expecting

❖     English learners can focus on learning the content

❖     Students can learn English sentence structure and grammar

❖     Classroom oral discussion is enriched


Join our free on-demand webinars and watch at your own pace!


On-Demand Webinar hosted by Claudia RodriguezSix Effective Speaking Strategies for English Learners in Virtual Instruction

In this webinar, you will learn how to:

  • Review the educational needs of English Learners in a virtual environment

  • Discover the foundation of language acquisition and how to integrate speaking into virtual lessons

  • Explore ways to engage English Learners to provide comprehensible output by speaking


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Author bio

Claudia Rodriguez

Claudia Rodriguez, Education Consultant

Claudia Rodriguez is an education consultant with extensive experience training on best educational practices, ESL/bilingual instructional practices, biliteracy instruction, and classroom management. Claudia was previously an administrator, adjunct professor, dual language strategist, a bilingual literacy strategist, and a bilingual elementary teacher.