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6 Scaffolds to Support ELs in a Virtual Classroom

Written by: Judie Haynes
Published on: Jan 11, 2021

Virtual Classroom
Image Credit :Sam Edwards / Getty Images

According to my sources on #ELLCHAT, a Twitter discussion group for teachers of English learners (ELs), students are sitting in virtual classrooms during the pandemic, struggling to understand content-area information. It is critical for ELs to obtain comprehensible input from their teachers, and this has become increasingly difficult in a virtual setting.

It is my opinion that if teachers do not support ELs with scaffolds, the students will not receive the necessary input. They will not have equal access to the education that their peers receive. I understand that teachers are working really hard. They are frustrated and overwhelmed. I think, however, that if teachers include scaffolds for ELs in their lessons, they will be rewarded by improved results. Following are six scaffolds that work well in a virtual classroom.

1. Visuals Are Key When Teaching Virtually

Visuals, such as drawings, photos, pictures, posters, infographics, charts, and graphs, are crucial scaffolds, especially during virtual learning (Haynes, 2019). Using visuals allows ELs to make a connection between words that they hear to the meaning of these words. The goal is to increase ELs’ participation time in the virtual classroom. Multimedia is also a related key scaffold. Have students listen to or watch short videos that support the content you are teaching. Introduce new vocabulary in a video and have students practice using the new words. Use closed captions on videos or movies if it is available.

2. Use Miming, Gestures, and Modeling

Let’s face it: ESL teachers are actors. They use a lot of miming and gestures during a lesson to scaffold learning. This is a real asset in the virtual classroom. In fact, a virtual lecture-style lesson will probably not be understood by most ELs. Miming and gestures bring your lesson to life and make it comprehensible to ELs. Modeling responses for students gives them an example of what is expected. Modeling think-alouds when students are reading a text or solving a word problem help them to construct meaning from the text. Think-alouds should be expressed using first-person statements, such as “I wonder…” and “It seems to me that…”

3. Oral Scaffolds Promote Student Participation

How information is verbally presented or explained to students during virtual instruction needs to be scaffolded so that ELs understand the message. Here are ways to provide verbal scaffolds during virtual lessons:

  • Speak slowly and enunciate. It is harder for ELs to pick up on oral directions or information virtually. The message needs to be short and clear.
  • Simplify questions. Tailor your questions to the English language development level of your ELs. Begin with yes/no or either/or questions. Allow group responses using hand gestures and sentence starters.
  • Engage in read-alouds so that you can model correct pronunciations and prosody.
  • Use closed captioning to support ELs’ comprehension, whether you’re showing videos or using Google Slides.

4. Small Group or Partner Work in the Virtual Classroom

One of the drawbacks of virtual learning is that ELs’ level of participation is often low. Social interaction is an important aspect of English language development. Therefore, teachers need to give ELs plenty of time to learn from their classmates. Break-out groups or partner configurations need to take place in virtual classrooms. The task should be short and instructions and expectations need to be clear.

This works especially well when ELs are communicating with native English speakers or more advanced speakers of their first language. The modeling that classmates provide in the classroom is very beneficial to ELs and an ideal way for them to increase their oral language production and academic learning. I would suggest that teachers start out with partners and triads. Their discussions should to be monitored so teachers need to drop in on all the groups to keep everyone on track.

5. Scaffold Virtual Conversations Using Sentence Frames/Stems

ELs can participate in online class discussions using academic language if sentence frames or starters are provided by the teacher. Sentence frames are a fill-in-the blank sentence in which the beginning of the sentence is given. Sentence frames/stems can be differentiated for ELs and various levels of English language development. They can be used for any content area and be provided for oral language production or student writing. Examples of sentence stems or frames can be found in this video from Teacher Toolkit.

6. Allow English Learners to Use Their First Language in School

The goal of virtual learning for ELs during is to help them to learn content in English. However, it is important for them to use their first language (L1) in school as a scaffold for learning content. Many ELs are learning in their home environment speaking their L1 with family members. I wrote a blog about this topic entitled Should ELs be Allowed to Speak Their L1 in School? Teachers need to see bilingualism as an asset, not a barrier. So, encourage beginning ELs to read content information in their first language so that they understand the content and bring more information to the class discussion in English.


Haynes, J. (2019). 10 scaffolds to support EL learning. TESOL Blog