Chapter 10: Digital Learning in English Language Arts, Literacy, and English Language Development

Chapter 1 presented a wide range of general recommendations associated with effective teaching in a digital learning environment. The information in this chapter provides several additional suggested strategies for a focused subset of topics most relevant to English Language Arts (ELA) and/or English Language Development (ELD) instruction and aligned to the ISTE Standards for Educators and National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, which were introduced in Chapter 1. 

When implementing the strategies in this chapter, educators are encouraged to create ongoing partnerships with family members and caregivers who help their students with their learning. This cultivates a robust support system for students as they work through assignments that may be challenging. Educators might invite family and caregivers to online office hours and/or one-on-one meetings with students to identify interventions and resources and further strengthen the support system. 

Preparing and Supporting Teachers for Digital Teaching 

Professional Responsibilities 

As referenced in Chapter 1, both the ISTE Standards for Educators and National Standards for Quality Online Teaching emphasize that it is vitally important for teachers to stay informed about the best digital learning practices by participating in quality professional development. In addition to the professional learning opportunities listed in Chapter 1 Professional Responsibilities, the National Council of Teachers of English provides several focused resourcesincluding books, articles, and journalsto build teachers’ knowledge of new digital tools and strategies they can use in online or blended learning settings.1 These resources are organized by grade band and feature ideas for specific activities for students. 

Teacher Presence 

In Chapter 1, both the ISTE Standards for Educators and National Standards for Quality Online Teaching emphasize the use of digital tools to foster teacher-student relationships that build students’ sense of belonging within the school community. This focus on relationships is especially important in distance learning, where teacher presence is critical to helping students feel best supported for their success. This does not suggest that teachers have to be connected to students synchronously all of the time. Instead, it can be achieved through a personalized note, quick feedback on an assignment, a private message of encouragement during group time, or email messages. 

In the learning environment specifically, digital tools for ELA, literacy and ELD that allow teachers and peers to communicate feedback via video and/or audio help make the learning experience much more personable than purely text-based feedback. Additionally, videos allow students to stop and replay the content if they missed information the first time they heard it. 

Digital Citizenship 

Digital citizenship, as one of the core tenets of both the ISTE Standards for Educators and National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, calls on teachers to model, guide, and encourage legal, ethical, and safe behavior related to students’ technology use. Additionally, the CDE School Library Standards provide guidance to students for accessing, evaluating, and using information as well as to teachers for integrating information literacy skills into all areas of learning.2 Chapter 1 presented the DigCitCommit competencies3 as a framework through which teachers may consider reinforcing a comprehensive set of digital citizenship skills. 

The ELA content area provides rich opportunities for practicing the “Informed” competency of the DigCitCommit framework“I evaluate the accuracy, perspective, and validity of digital media and social posts.” Sources of information for this type of evaluation by students might include print materials, e-books, databases, websites, and internet search results. Reinforcing this competency complements the research and media skills currently incorporated in the College and Career Readiness (CCR) Anchor Standards of the California State Standards for ELA and Literacy:4 

Students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and summarize information and ideas, to conduct original research to answer questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and extensive range of print and nonprint texts in media forms old and new.” 

By giving students ample opportunities to reinforce these information and media literacy skills, students are empowered to navigate the information age and beyond. Suggested strategies for helping students practice this skill include the following: 

  • Hold a whole-group discussion about how to evaluate resources.5,6 Working with the whole class, students can first reflect on how they typically search for information. Building on that discussion, the teacher might add ways for students to evaluate sources more effectively. The teacher can use Zoom to facilitate breakout rooms where students can look at specific resources and make collaborative discussions as to whether or not they would use them and why. This process allows students to reinforce digital citizenship skills, while applying ELA/literacy and ELD skills of listening and speaking. 
  • Provide students with a checklist, such as this list of questions from Edutopia,7 to confirm the authenticity and validity of online resources. Older students can help develop the list or evaluate an existing list for gaps. 
  • Ask students to find online articles about the same event that present different facts. Use this as an opportunity to discuss heuristics and fallacies, such as confirmation bias. Some sample questions could include the following: 
    • How do we respond to information or evidence that contradicts our beliefs or assumptions? 
    • How can confirmation bias influence the way people select and respond to information? 
    • How does confirmation bias affect our ability to judge information accuracy? 
  • Develop a lesson in which students compare news from varied sources to identify and illustrate media bias. 

Furthermore, ELA instruction may incorporate the “Alert” competency of the DigCitCommit framework“I am aware of my online actions, and know how to be safe and create safe spaces for others online.” Suggested strategies to help students practice this skill include the following: 

  • Build a “Digital Citizenship Graphic Organizer” that asks students to reflect on their digital footprint.8 To raise students’ awareness of varying perspectives and to reinforce the importance of remaining mindful of their actions in the online learning environment, teachers may have students use the “share screen” function of a video conferencing tool to have students share and discuss their reflections in the graphic organizer. 
  • Prompt students to reflect on their digital identity. In this writing or discussion exercise, students can first reflect on a well-known person (such as a music artist or leader they admire) and relate how the individual’s digital identity has impacted the artist/leader. From there, students can reflect on the impact of their own digital identity. 
  • Hold a group discussion on what it means to be positive, socially responsible, and empathetic online. What does it look like? What does it sound like? Brainstorm ways that students can practice these behaviors. 
  • Identify an opportunity to model the use of posting to social media and perform a “think aloud” to craft a post. 

Teachers will find additional ideas for ELA/literacy and ELD lessons for digital citizenship in resources, such as Common Sense Media9 and Tech InCtrl.10 Refer to Digital Citizenship in Chapter 1 to learn about more strategies. 

Data-Informed Instruction 

Both the ISTE Standards for Educators and National Standards for Quality Online Teaching emphasize the importance of the teacher’s use of ongoing data to inform instruction. Within the context of ELA/literacy and ELD, there are many ways digital tools can be used for formative assessments to help determine pedagogical effectiveness. By analyzing formative data, the teacher is also able to determine individuals or groups in need of additional support or acceleration and move toward more individualized instruction. 

As mentioned in Chapter 2, assessment for learning allows teachers to take a glimpse at students’ understanding of specific concepts frequently before, during, or following instruction. 

This may be achieved through written work, such as synchronous entrance slips and asynchronous exit slips, or quick “check for understanding” questions to gauge student comprehension to adjust the speed of instruction accordingly. Online polling is another way teachers can quickly assess where students are with their understanding of a concept. 

For writing projects, students might meet with teachers through virtual check-ins and reflect on their progress to identify next steps in their writing process. Teachers can create rubrics, such as a know/show chart (see Chapter 2, Figure 2.3) built in Google Forms [an online survey tool], that students can use to guide their self-assessment. Additionally, students can write in a shared document so that teachers can actively follow their progress to provide ongoing, supportive feedback and notes to help bolster students as they continue their writing process. 

Assessment can also be varied and provide an opportunity to build student agency by incorporating choice boards. The choice boards can include options for writing activities, such as journal entries, letters, and postcards. Students can also use digital tools, such as Jamboard [collaborative digital whiteboard] or Padlet [online brainstorming tools] to create visual representations of their knowledge through picture collages and drawings, as well as video and/or audio recordings, using cell phones, slide shows, or cameras. Refer to Data-Informed Instruction in Chapter 1, as well as Chapter 2, to learn about more strategies. 

Designing Meaningful Digital Learning Experiences 

Aggregating Quality Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instructional Time 

Both the ISTE Standards for Educators and National Standards for Quality Online Teaching call on educators to design learning experiences that are best-suited for the specific context, such as deciding what information is better conveyed in real-time (synchronous) or without direct, simultaneous interaction (asynchronous).11 

As mentioned in Chapter 1, when meeting synchronously, it is advised to present content as concisely as possible and dedicate the majority of the time to engage in active learning activities. In the context of ELA/literacy and ELD, these might include, but not be limited to, the following: 

  • Interactive Read-alouds: When meeting synchronously with students for read-alouds activities to model pitch, tone, pace, and volume, teachers can invite students to read aloud as well. After each page, teachers can pause, ask questions of students to check for listening and comprehension, and ask students to provide comments and interpretations based on what is happening in the story. In this way, students are invited to practice their own speaking skills. 
  • Co-Created Virtual Vocabulary Walls: As students read the text asynchronously, teachers can ask students to identify words that they are curious about. Teachers can create a vocabulary wall using a shared document or digital graphic organizer (e.g., Padlet). When the class meets synchronously, the teacher and students can discuss what words are on the vocabulary wall. This shows students that they are not the only ones curious about or struggling with a certain word. This activity also gives students perspective on how others are relating to a term based on their cultural and experiential contexts.  
  • Connections Between Text to Self: As an optional activity, teachers can ask students to take pictures of their life experiences that are connected to what they are reading. Students can add their pictures to a shared digital space for the teacher to put together a collage. During the synchronous time together, students can reflect on why they took the picture they took, specifically relating it back to the readings. 
  • Echo Reading: During a synchronous session, teachers can invite students for an echo reading activity to increase fluency. When conducted in a large group, this can be done with students muted to avoid overlaps in audio. The teacher can also choose to do these echo readings with students individually. 
  • Presentations to Increase Fluency: Teachers can invite students to use digital tools to create interpretive presentations based on a story the class is reading. The student can create a version of the story based on their own lives, which can help them connect the text to their culture and experiences. The presentations can also increase students’ fluency and provide students an opportunity to practice their listening and speaking skills. 
  • On-Demand Writing Prompts: During synchronous meetings, teachers can invite students to write in an electronic journal that students are keeping. While the students are writing, the teacher can interact in real time with students and provide encouraging comments and feedback. 
  • Students Teaching Peers: Invite students to teach their peers about certain concepts they are learning from their reading and writing practices. One of the best ways to learn something is to teach someone else (Koh, Lee, & Lim, 2018). Invite students to create informative and explanatory presentations or poster tutorials for other students. Teachers can record these tutorials (with permission from students and parents) and curate a collection of student-produced tutorials on a variety of topics, cultivating an ever-expanding library of tools that other students can use into the future. This activity also provides students a chance to take control of and have an empowered voice in their learning. 

Asynchronous learning activities can include materials students need to review in order to prepare for synchronous time, such as short, teacher-created videos or audio files introducing lessons and background reading. Other activities include, but are not limited to, the following: 

  • Virtual Field Trips: To help bring stories to life, teachers can create virtual field trips for their students to explore a setting in which a story takes place.12 
  • Recorded Read-alouds: Invite students to do read-alouds with their families, caregivers, and others in order to practice speaking. Teachers can ask students to record and share their read-alouds so they can provide feedback. 
  • Daily Electronic Journals: Ask students to keep a daily journal where they can reflect on their lives as they connect with the readings. This will allow students the opportunity to practice comprehension and writing. 
  • Digital Writing Portfolio: Teachers can invite students to set up a digital portfolio to collect the writing that students do throughout the year. At certain points, (e.g., quarterly), students can look back at how they have progressed over the year and add that reflection into their portfolio. 
  • Character Descriptions: Using a graphic organizer or digital comic strip software, students can provide an illustration of what a period character would be like today, providing students with an opportunity to connect what they are reading to their lives. 

Many other general strategies and examples of learning activities for synchronous and asynchronous time can be found under Aggregating Quality Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instructional Time and Developmental Considerations within Chapter 1. See the introductions to Chapters 11 through 16 for additional suggestions for when synchronous or asynchronous learning may be best suited in the context of ELA, literacy, and ELD instruction. 

Universal Design for Learning 

The ISTE Standards for Educators and National Standards for Quality Online Teaching emphasize that educators must design digital learning experiences that take individual learner differences into careful consideration. This includes leveraging the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, introduced in Chapter 1, to help support all learners with accessible learning experience design. 

LD OnLine, a national education service organization working in partnership with the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD), shares a number of key technology-empowered approaches grounded in the UDL framework that teachers can use to “support struggling students and those with learning disabilities in acquiring background knowledge and vocabulary, improving their reading comprehension, and making connections between reading and writing:”13 

  • Relieve cognitive load by using digital tools that have just-in-time support, such as built-in dictionaries, encyclopedias, thesaurus, so that students can focus on comprehending what they are reading and creating a written representation of their knowledge. 
  • Provide multiple ways for students to understand a concept. For instance, include videos, how-to diagrams, animations, illustrations, and other visual tools to help students make connections related to sequencing, interactions, and relationships between ideas, words, and concepts. 
  • Using digital text can allow students to enlarge fonts and change background colors. Students can also use text-to-speech (TTS) software to have the text read aloud to them. For those students who struggle with reading, hearing a passage read aloud can free up their cognitive space for attention and comprehension. 
  • Digital tools that allow students to annotate provide a way for students to build their skills in active reading. These tools typically include features like sticky notes, bookmarking, highlighting, and color coding. 
  • Digital tools provide word-prediction ability that can help students with suggested words or phrases. Nearly every platform, including iOS and Android mobile devices, Windows tablets, Chromebooks, Windows 10, and macOS includes this feature.14 
  • Graphic organizing software provides students a way to map out the connections between ideas, which can aid in their comprehension and transfer of learning. 
  • Voice recognition software, such as voice typing in Google Documents [collaborative online document], can help students express their ideas in different ways, especially for those who have difficulty with motor skills. 

Other suggested strategies for integrating the UDL framework in ELA/literacy and ELD contexts may include, but are not limited to, the following: 

  • Use screencasting tools to share read-alouds so that students can review the recordings as many times as they need. 
  • Use synchronous learning tools that facilitate video discussions to offer collaborative spaces, where students can share their reflections on key concepts, as well as practice speaking and listening. 
  • Leverage tools, such as Quizzizz, Quizlet, and Kahoot! [online quiz applications], which feature digital flashcards that allow students to practice vocabulary. Students can also use Camstudio, Screencast-O-Matic, and Explain Everything [screencasting tools]. 
  • Explore news websites specifically designed for students with different reading levels to support students where they are. These sites also provide many visuals to further aid students in fully understanding a concept. 

CDE also includes a webpage with resources for supporting EL students in distance learning environments.15 This page includes webinars from WestEd16 that feature activities for EL students at various grade levels that provide multiple means of engagement with ELA/literacy and ELD content. The page also includes a curated list of resources designed for EL students developed by the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA) Curriculum and Instruction Subcommittee (CISC).17 

To support students with disabilities, organizations like Common Sense Education have curated useful tools for diverse learners.18 Refer to Universal Design for Learning in Chapter 1 to learn about more strategies. 

Infusing Opportunities for Creativity 

The ISTE Standards for Educators call on educators to nurture creativity and creative expression to communicate ideas, knowledge, or connections. There are many ways to infuse imaginative and creative activities for students within ELA/literacy and ELD content. Some of these include, but are not limited to, the following: 

  • Host a literature circle using web conferencing tools. Students can engage in these literature circles, sometimes called literary seminars or book studies, where students can play specific leadership roles, ask reflective questions, and more.19 These groups provide students with the opportunity to engage with other students in creative exploration of literature. 
  • Invite authors to give virtual book talks and engage with students, providing an opportunity for students to learn from a professional writer about concepts such as the writing process, literary analysis, as well as where their ideas originate from. Inviting members of the community to participate virtually can promote student creativity as they learn about how others relate to the literature. 
  • Encourage students to collaboratively create digital infographics that share information from resources they have evaluated and curated to support informative and explanatory writing. As students work in teams to complete the task, they learn how others perceive a particular resource, thus gaining additional skills in deciphering which resources are more reliable than others. As students explore the perspectives of others, they may also acquire new information that promotes or enriches their creativity. 
  • Invite students to create their own stories individually or with peers using Google Slides [online presentation tool]. If working in groups, each student can share the part of the story that they have been assigned using text, images, video, etc. Students might also assist each other in expanding the story and deciding which words might be better to use in certain places. 

Refer to Infusing Opportunities for Creativity in Chapter 1 to learn about more strategies. 

Encouraging Authentic Collaboration 

The ISTE Standards for Educators call on educators to collaborate and co-learn with students to discover, use, and create new digital resources. This type of collaboration in online learning environments is critical to establishing meaningful relationships, cultivating a supportive community, and providing a foundation to grow students’ sense of belonging. In ELA/literacy and ELD, opportunities to encourage authentic collaboration can include, but are not limited to, the following: 

  • Invite students to create a video response to a specific reading and encourage other students to respond via video to that student’s video with reflections or questions for their peer. Many learning management systems allow for this type of online discussion and peer, multimedia feedback. 
  • Encourage students to reflect with others on readings in a virtual, shared, inclusive space with others, and ask them to relate their responses to their own experiences. This not only provides students with the opportunity to share connections between readings and their own culture but also allows them to practice social awareness by developing a respect for the experiences of others. 
  • After providing appropriate protocols and guidance for students for productive and positive communication, teachers can invite them to engage in peer editing of each other’s work. This also provides students with feedback and evaluation experiences to further reinforce digital collaboration skills.20 

Some additional examples of encouraging authentic collaboration can be found from the International Literacy Association.21 Refer to Encouraging Authentic Collaboration in Chapter 1 to learn about more strategies.