English Language Learner

A collage of 3 photos. 1. A woman holding her young daughter. 2. A group of four students in a coffee shop. 3. A male sitting in a study booth on his laptop.

Key Characteristics:

  • Can be any age, though typically 18-23.
  • Attending post-secondary full or part-time
  • A student whose first language is not English
  • Often immigrants or international students
  • May be boarding and not living with family

The English language learner and online learning

English language learners (ELLs) face a dual challenge when participating in online learning, as they have to overcome the challenges inherent with online learning while also overcoming the challenges in learning in your second language. ELLs are typically trying to understand language acquisition and simultaneously develop their writing proficiency, and may struggle without the benefits of direct instruction, where feedback can be provided immediately. Many of these students have not had adequate exposure to the nuances of English in both spoken word and in written communication, and may struggle to participate in discussion forums, synchronous sessions or group projects to the same extent as someone whose native language is English. They may be less inclined to actively participate, choosing instead to observe peers’ collaborative dialogue passively in order to better comprehend course content.

In addition to struggling with the language and communication, ELLs might not be used to the independent learning style associated with online environments. For some ELLs, this may be very different from the style of education they are used to. Additionally, they may not be able to get support from family members if they are also ELLs. ELLs may not have the desired ICT skills required for online learning, and will need tutorials and scaffolded instructions (chunking) in order to comprehend content. Finally, ELLs may experience cultural conflicts between home and school, and have other socio-emotional challenges including exposure to trauma and PTSD.

English language learners and Learning to Learn Online

ELL learners may find many aspects of the MOOC to be supportive of their needs. The MOOC’s “Get Started” module includes a “Welcome” page that begins with a detailed video introducing the main instructor and describing the course. The instructor speaks slowly and clearly in this video, and all others that follow. Although the pace might be too slow for traditional learners, ELL’s will be able to comprehend the information more easily at this pace. Additionally, videos are hosted using YouTube, and learners are able to take advantage of the closed captions and the playback speed function. This module also includes a discussion forum with instructions to introduce oneself to the greater learning community, and a detailed section with tutorials on computer and internet skills. At the end of the course, a resource page is made available to encourage learners to continue working on their digital literacy skills, such as communication. These resources link to outside websites that offer further skill-building, especially in the areas of written and interpersonal communication.

The structure of the MOOC also caters to the needs of English language learners. The Canvas platform is well laid out and organized, and the sidebar includes visuals as well as text for easier navigation. Each of the sections follows a similar format of text-based content, activity, and discussion (exploration). This repetitive format enables the learner to focus on the content, and avoids any added challenges of figuring out where to navigate next or adjusting to newly introduced digital tools. Additionally, due to the mainly asynchronous course format, learners can learn content at their own pace, utilizing the course timelines as a means to organize and manage time spent learning online, and allowing learners to effectively balance other social roles.

Although the MOOC met most of the needs of ELL’s, it neglects to include advice related to digital privacy and ethics, which may differ in other countries. Finally, the MOOC could benefit from the inclusion of a resource page dedicated to specific ELL needs such as Google Translate, Google Read and Write, and tutorials on slowing down video speed.

Image credit: Photos by Jhon David on Unsplash, Brooke Cagle on Unsplash, and Tim Gouw on Unsplash


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Learning To Learn Online Copyright © by Nicole Crozier and Joanna Lake is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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