English language learners (ELLs) need more than just conversation and writing skills to be successful. American English, like any dialect, contains many nuances, idioms and humor that are confusing to students who are taking courses in their second language. Many of my ELL students are either taking English courses while living abroad or are preparing for entrance exams so they can attend school in the U.S. Their various exams and assignments require them to know American English from the inside out. Because I cannot realistically travel around the world to meet with all of them, I work with free online media tools that allow me to create a virtual classroom and share educational media documents with students separated by distance.

Connecting Students and Teachers

The first issue I ran into when creating a virtual classroom was coordination. Participants were living in different time zones and had Internet access at different times of the school year, so it was important to find a tool with a ton of storage capacity that would allow me to easily update materials from year to year while conserving time. After researching, I decided that the best choice would be to create a Google Circle — the only base requirement is that everyone needs a gmail address. After adding my students to the Circle, they were able to view everything I posted from the beginning to the end of the term.

An Online Classroom

In order to provide a social element to this online learning network, I recorded some very basic videos on my iPad and uploaded them to YouTube as “unlisted.” (This is a free and easy way to record lessons in a classroom or home office.) Once I put the links in the Circle, they were visible to all students and the videos could be watched and rewatched as often as necessary. Depending on a teacher’s specific requirements, students can either be sent home to watch videos at their convenience, or educational clips can be shared within a classroom environment. I also provided a lesson with each video, whether it was meant for the TESOL, SAT or ACT exam. All the materials I used were free for everyone to access, so any interested student could participate.

Take, for example, the SAT reading comprehension sections. Both the old and new versions of the test sections are dry, to put it mildly. Even students who speak English as their native language find themselves reading these passages over and over again trying to figure out what’s going on while the clock runs out. For an ELL, “reading in-between the lines” can be even more difficult. Embedding videos and discussions of an educator explaining a specific sentence or question allows students as close to an interactive experience as possible.

Visible Emotion

The extra benefit of adding a recorded audio-visual element is that it gives students the opportunity to see my face as well as my reactions to different reading comprehension assignments. This helps students decipher American humor and understand different emotions behind words. A student might ask me what it means when a character in the text was “feeling under the weather,” which makes no sense at all when translated literally. After I’ve gathered enough of these kinds of questions, I can film an explanatory video in as little as 24 hours.

Continuing From Year to Year

The most convenient thing about this teaching method is that it provides continuity from one year to the next. Previous videos and information can easily be saved and stored for future students to view. Although there are a few organizational issues (for instance, the earlier videos get automatically categorized to the right-hand side of the screen), I can easily comment on, update and delete older information. A Google Circle also allows teachers to share supplemental educational materials with students who have questions or want to do further study. Students can collaborate with each other or write to the teacher privately in a standard email format.

Classroom Applications

Teachers of ELLs who get to see their students in a brick-and-mortar classroom can also use free media tools (such as a Google Circle and YouTube) for extended homework assignments and test prep study. When teachers have 40 plus students in a high school or adult-level classroom, they won’t get an ideal amount one-on-one time, but they can still interact with students in a recorded format and personalize the English language–learning experience. This can also be really helpful for educators who team teach, job share, or work with teaching assistants in the classroom environment.

  • Interesting! Similarly, I would like to share with you a free Google Chrome extension that helps Latino ELLs Improve Reading Comprehension through cognate recognition, The Cognate Highlighter Browser:
    It is also applicable to a great extent to Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian speakers learning English.

  • MaryKathleen Schuckman

    I think this is a very interesting and different approach to engaging ELL students. I am a student myself, one who has always steered clear of online courses, simply because there is typically no face to face interaction. However, using google circle seems to be a nice alternative for that issue. I am interested in seeing the results and grades of said ELL students who take these classes, as well as their feedback on the course.

  • Carl Smith

    It is a must to have a comprehension strategies, it is your conscious plans to make sense of text.


Robyn Scott

I use remote technology to work with students in many time zones  while they prepare for college. I currently work with TutorNerds in California as an English tutor.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor