How the switch to remote learning impacts English Language Learners

January 19, 2021

Lecturer Geri Pappas talks about the challenges digital education poses for students who are English learners and how faculty can give them the support they need.

A female student doing remote coursework at a desk, flanked by a notebook, laptop and cell phone.

Anyone who knows Geri Pappas knows she’s an imaginative, pedagogy-loving instructor who’s continuously trying out new things to help her students. But the CEHHS lecturer is pretty open about the fact that the quick pivot to remote learning has been a challenge even for her. That’s partly because of the very specific group of students she serves. For years, Pappas has been a chief faculty advocate for one of the smallest and most unique groups studying at UM-Dearborn: international students who are provisionally admitted to their academic programs on the condition that they first complete the university’s English Language Proficiency Program. And perhaps as much as any other, Pappas says it’s a program that thrives on energetic in-person instruction. In a non-pandemic world, that means lots of scribbling on whiteboards, face-to-face conversation, active gesturing to help close gaps in understanding, and good-natured laughter.

“Learning a language is kind of a unique learning experience because communication is essentially both what you’re learning and how you’re learning,” Pappas explains. “And I think students enroll in our program because they have this opportunity to meet other English learners and talk together in a setting where there’s no judgement because everybody is kind of in the same boat. So comradery and togetherness is a huge part of the way learning happens, and I think physically being around each other contributes to that. I’ve heard from several students that not being able to be in the same classroom has felt isolating. And I agree — the energy in our Zoom classroom just isn’t the same.”

Rather than trying to recreate every part of that atmosphere, Pappas has tackled this challenge by doubling down on the kinds of learning experiences that research shows benefit language learners the most. One of her favorite strategies is personalized, project-based work. “The one big thing with ELs [English learners] is you have to have a personal connection to the language you’re learning, otherwise it doesn’t stick,” Pappas says. So for example, when she assigns each student to watch a TED Talk, the particular TED Talk is from his or her academic discipline. Similarly, each student gets to choose the subject of their DIY instructional video (the digital substitute for her usual in-class presentation assignment). This semester, she even worked in a language lesson on the pandemic, so the students could learn obscure words like “placebo.” “Basically, the more relevant I can make the lessons to their lives, the better they learn,” she says.

Pappas says the remote learning environment has also changed her as an instructor, particularly when it comes to exploring new technologies. Blue Canoe, which gives students oral feedback on their pronunciation and intonation, has been one of her favorite discoveries so far. And she’s attended dozens of online workshops to see how colleagues are dealing with similar challenges. She says many of the new tools and strategies are likely to find a place in her course even once she’s able to return to in-person instruction. That is still her preferred format for teaching, but “it definitely won’t be the same course.”

COB student Abdullah Al Balushi, in a suit, standing for a wintertime portrait on the UM-Dearborn campus.
COB student and English Language Proficiency Program graduate Abdullah Al Balushi can testify about many of the challenges English learners commonly face with remote learning. During the summer, he took classes from Oman, which meant coping with unreliable internet and a time zone difference of eight hours between him and group members back in Dearborn. “I’ve had the internet crash in the middle of an exam. And with the time difference, sometimes I would have to wake up at 4 a.m. for assignments,” Al Balushi says. This fall, he’s back in the U.S. and says remote classes are going much more smoothly. He likes that he can rewatch and rewind lectures if he doesn’t understand something on first listen, and he’s been using his instructor’s Zoom office hours to get clarification on assignments. One downside: He’s spending a lot of time on discussion posts, which involve a multi-step process of first writing his response in Word, then checking it with the online tool Grammarly, then posting to Canvas. “Another thing I noticed this semester, I have an instructor who makes a lot of jokes, and I find that because I might not understand certain words or the tone he’s using, I don’t always know if he’s joking or serious.” Luckily, Al Balushi says he has a classmate-friend who helps him decode the subtleties of his instructor’s American humor.

Pappas thinks many of the techniques she uses in her own remote courses could be helpful for other faculty who have English learners in their classrooms, or even native speakers who are still adjusting to academic language. One thing she hopes faculty are particularly sensitive about are discussion forums — a common feature of many online courses that are sort of a stand-in for spontaneous in-class discussion. “Learning a language is totally anchored in building confidence, and for English learners, putting your writing out there in a public format adds a big layer of vulnerability. It doesn’t take much to completely crush someone’s confidence. In fact, I think that’s true of many native English speakers too.” For this reason, Pappas always asks her students if it’s OK to share their work publicly. Other faculty at UM-Dearborn have also recommended students who feel less than confident about their writing find a classmate to give feedback on their discussion posts prior to publishing.

In addition, Pappas says faculty can also support ELs by being sympathetic to how the isolation imposed by the pandemic may be impacting them socially and emotionally. “I really feel for my students because they didn’t come here just to study, they came to explore the U.S.,” Pappas says. “Now they’re basically locked in their apartments! I actually had one of my students say, ‘You know, the apartments here are nice, they’re better than the ones back home. But I want to see America.’ I totally want that for them, too, and I really hope they’ll be able to restart that part of their adventure soon.”