Student Engagement and Interaction During Virtual Teaching & Learning

by Leticia M. Trower

Leticia M. Trower is a former ESL teacher with over ten years of experience designing, delivering, and managing professional learning experiences for educators. She is passionate about equity and student voice. Leticia is currently a member of Margarita Calderón & Associates, Director of Professional Learning at Velazquez Press, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, and the parent of a middle schooler.

Even for teachers who are typically superstars at promoting student interaction, getting kids talking, and engaging students in learning, those things can be difficult to do during a virtual lesson. Parents I’ve talked to describe long, awkward silences as their child stares silently at an equally silent screen, punctuated only by a teacher’s occasional prompts of “Anyone?” Here are a few ideas to get students engaged in virtual interaction:

  • Start Safe: Start with no-risk or low-risk questions, like “cats or dogs?”  Remember, your goal at first is just to get kids used to the new routine and get them comfortable talking. Once you’ve met that goal, you can work on getting your students to engage in academic discourse about their learning.
  • Small to Large: Have students talk in small groups first, then share out in the whole group afterwards. A gradual release model works best for this. Students won’t automatically start talking in the small groups either! Provide them with a structure that encourages each student to contribute at least one thing to the conversation, then have them choose one of those things to share in the whole group. Once the whole class reconvenes, call on one student from each group randomly; this requires students to talk in their small groups in order to make sure everyone knows what they plan to share. (You can start safe with this idea too, and have students discuss something fun the first time, moving into more academic topics as they get used to the new routine).
  • Chat Blast: Ask a question, and have everyone type their answer in the chat box but NOT hit “enter.” Let students know you expect 100% participation! Then, on your cue, everyone hits “enter” at the same time.
  • Quick Draw: At random points in the lesson, give students 30 seconds to draw a visual representation of something the class is discussing, then show it to the camera. Call on volunteers to describe what they drew.
  • Tech Tools: Use a tech tool like Pear Deck, Poll Everywhere, Nearpod, Kami, Google Jamboard, or Padlet to keep kids engaged. Find out which tech tools your district supports, or turn to your professional network (within the district or on social media) to find out what’s working well for others. Don’t use a tool just because it’s fun – always start with your learning goals.
  • Be Honest: Acknowledge that talking to a screen can feel awkward. Let your students know about how you’re feeling, too! The most successful virtual lessons I’ve seen so far are the ones that include the teacher as a learner, partnering with their students in this strange new world of school.
  • Use the Chat: Encourage students to type comments or questions in the chat, then use positive language like “Priyanka, I love what you wrote! Would you be willing to unmute and tell us more about that idea?” to invite students to speak to the whole class.
  • Be Patient: Even as adults, we need time to listen to a question, think of an answer, type it in the chat box, and hit “enter.” Students need even more time. Sometimes, another 30 seconds of wait time may be all you need.
  • Be Flexible: If you have a student who never turns their camera on or unmutes themselves to speak in class, look to other ways to gauge their engagement in class. Do they complete their assignments on time? Do they email you when they have questions? Have they contributed an equal share to group projects? Does their work demonstrate mastery of the content? If so, perhaps they don’t actually need to be engaged in traditional classroom interaction during virtual learning.

Here’s another idea, posted to Twitter by Theresa Wills: Breakout Room Phases

(Wills, 2020)

Wills, T. [@theresawills]. (2020, August 14). One does not simply create breakout groups, there is a sequence of gradual release when students show mastery and responsibility. [Infographic]. Twitter.

How to Keep Kids Engaged Without Requiring “Cameras On”

By Leticia M. Trower

Leticia M. Trower is a former ESL teacher with over ten years of experience designing, delivering, and managing professional learning experiences for educators. She is passionate about equity and student voice. Leticia is currently a member of Margarita Calderón & Associates, Director of Professional Learning at Velazquez Press, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, and the parent of a middle schooler.

In the face-to-face classroom, with students up close and personal, question-and-answer is just one of the many, many ways teachers assess student engagement and understanding. Teachers can also look at students’ facial expressions, body language, or posture; listen to their hmms and mm-hmms; watch the pace of their work; or notice how they look at each other (are they silently asking a peer what’s going on?). For the thousands of teachers teaching virtually this fall, though, many of these quick comprehension checks — which have become second nature — are no longer available. How can teachers assess student engagement and comprehension via computer screens?
One answer has been to require students to keep their cameras on throughout an online lesson. However, we already know that teacher actions that control students’ behavior have a detrimental effect on student motivation (Reeve, 2009). Instead, let’s look at ways that teachers can check in on student engagement and comprehension while simultaneously increasing motivation and engagement! Here are some ideas for how to engage and check in on students with cameras off:

  • Ask a quick and easy check-in question from time to time, and direct students to respond in the chat to let you know they’re still listening. This could be something as simple as “If you’re still there, type your favorite kind of fruit into the chat,” or a quick comprehension question like “If you’re listening, use the chat box to tell me one of the five themes of geography I just talked about.”
  • Building relationships with students takes time. Instead of responding to a student who turns off their camera by just asking them to turn it back on, make a note and check in with them later to ask why they turned it off. Chances are, even if it wasn’t a big deal, the fact that you cared enough to notice and follow up will bolster your relationship with that student – and will also make them more likely to keep their camera on in the future. (Of course, if there is a bigger issue at hand, checking in with the student will definitely turn out to have been the right move!)
  • Make time in front of the camera a positive experience. For example, ask students to turn their cameras on for fun games. One teacher I know does a “brain break,” in which students have one minute to find a certain type of object and show it to the camera. The rules are that they have to leave the room they’re in to find it, and it has to belong to a category the teacher chooses, such as “something round” or “something pink.” This quick activity gets students up and moving, provides an opportunity for them to share something about themselves, and best of all it’s fun!

Reeve, J. (2009). Why Teachers Adopt a Controlling Motivating Style Toward Students and How They Can Become More Autonomy Supportive. Educational Psychologist, 44(3), 159–175.

Successes, Challenges, and Tips for Virtual Teaching & Learning

What has school been like so far this year? What are the biggest challenges? What’s going well? And what can educators learn from the first few weeks of 2020-2021?
We reached out to people in various roles in education, and in various places throughout the U.S. Here is what they have to say. (Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity).

Hector Montenegro, Former Superintendent:
Meet students’ social, emotional as well as academic needs

Hector Montenegro is a former superintendent of three districts in Texas. He is currently a Senior District Advisor with the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and works with districts nationally and internationally on implementing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) strategies.
These are difficult times for both students and adults. The level of stress, anxiety and uncertainty among adults and children is considerably high. Whether it be remotely, hybrid or in person, teachers and students are having to adjust to an entirely different way of teaching, relating and managing personal health and responsibilities. Virtually, districts are experiencing major challenges with connectivity, access to equipment and the availability of computer programs and instructional strategies that are user friendly, support learning and address the basic needs of belonging, feeling included and having social and emotional needs met. The COVID Slide is already having an impact on student achievement at all levels.
Now more than ever, SEL strategies are needed to balance out the focus on academics, achievement and accountability. Teachers’ own personal health and wellbeing need to be a priority in order for them to be able to better manage their own emotions and stress while navigating the complexities of new equipment, new programs and pressures to get students focused on academic achievement. Working with teachers in establishing daily routines, whether they be 10 or 30 minutes, to calm the mind through breathing exercises, mindfulness practices such as a body scan or stretching exercises have contributed to their ability to refocus, relieve and manage stress more effectively. Likewise, students also need adults to guide them to be able to understand and manage their own emotions, feel personally connected, participate in a safe learning environment, and ask for help as needed. Teachers have successfully implemented practices such as Three Signature SEL Practices which facilitate the development of regular routines such as Welcoming Rituals, Engaging Activities and an Optimistic Closure. Just as in person, teachers are also using virtual morning meetings and community circles to allow students to touch base with each other, creating a greater sense of community and support. One welcoming activity that I have seen done successfully in the virtual classroom is to give students quality time together in breakout rooms to check in, to connect, to tell their stories and to support one another. This is best done within the context of further developing SEL skills and competencies such as empathy, compassion, relationships, and a growth mindset rather than it being an unstructured free-for-all. Teachers are finding out that spending quality time focusing on social and emotional needs first makes managing the demands of virtual learning much easier and even enjoyable.
Creating a sense of community virtually is not only good for children but also good for adults. All adult interactions should also have welcoming rituals to check in with each other to further build SEL competencies, offer support and lighten the load. Virtual meetings shouldn’t just be focused on training and disseminating information but on sharing and practicing skills that could be used with students. Adults need time in breakout rooms to process new information, to make meaning out of what is being required of them and to confide in one another and never leave a meeting without doing an Optimistic Closure to keep spirits high and self confidence intact.

Solon Hefner, Student:
Make it more efficient!

Solon Hefner is a middle school student in a large urban district that started the year 100% online.
Many schools have begun the year using a virtual platform that can be confusing or messy. So far, teachers could work on cleaning up the pages for whatever platform they are using whether that be canvas or google classroom or something else entirely. If there are too many pages or posts on this platform, it could cause students to become confused and not understand what they are supposed to work on. If the number of posts could be reduced and made more brief, then this would be greatly beneficial to the vast majority of students. Another problem I have encountered is attendance taking up class time. This seems to be an unnecessary problem but still takes up 10-15 minutes of already limited class time.
On a more positive note, something that has been going well this year is communication between teachers. They mostly seem to be on the same page on subjects such as timing, due dates, and not overloading us with work.
For schools going forward I would suggest having teachers use a link for attendance that either automatically logs absences or lets teachers do attendance at a time other than the middle of class.

Lisa Tartaglia, Assistant Principal:
Be flexible, and don’t panic!

Lisa Tartaglia is an assistant principal in one of the fastest-growing school districts in Virginia.
Our district went back to school on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. We are 100% virtual at this time. We are using a new platform, called “Schoology,” and Google Meet.
The biggest challenge was training the teachers and the students in the new platform. The second biggest challenge was the intruders in the Google Meets. This occurred several times the first week. Students were exposed to inappropriate language and pictures. We are learning how to ensure safeguards are in place when running Google Meet.
As teachers are settling in, I am beginning to see more students on camera and more engaging lessons. I’m seeing some effective management techniques and I’m seeing everyone doing their part to make this successful.
My advice is to be patient and flexible and not to panic. Technology issues will occur, but by relaxing and not worrying, it assures the children that it is okay and that learning will continue once the issue is fixed. Having a back up plan is also helpful. Lastly, constant communication with the families is so helpful. We are all in this together.

Carlos Ramirez, Principal:
It takes a village.

Carlos Ramirez is principal of an IB Title I elementary school in Arlington, VA.
What a first couple of weeks of online learning! Lots of challenges, yet many success stories, were the prevailing state of affairs.
From connectivity issues to lack of technology savviness to language barriers, each family’s story and need was vastly different. Nevertheless, we went from 60% percent connectivity rates the morning of the first day of school to 95% by the end of the first week. As we closed the second week of online learning, we were able to reach a 98% connectivity, attendance, and participation rates.
How was that possible? By looking at individual needs and providing targeted supports. We taught parents how to log in, how to connect, how to help their children navigate through the multiple learning platforms. This was safely done either in person or via teleconference. The support team we put together grew by the day in numbers. We started weeks before school opened its virtual doors and were able to recruit 10 staff members (instructional technology coordinator, test coordinator,  bilingual family liaison, administrative and instructional assistants, and teachers) who spoke different languages, were tech savvy and willing to “return” to work early. These individuals called the families of every single student enrolled at our school equipped with a series of scripted questions to find out whether or not they had internet access at home, Wi-Fi, a school-issued device, log in information, etc. Additionally, these callers also inquired about any possible needs each family might have had in terms of applying for internet access, obtaining a new school-issued device, food insecurity, imminent eviction, etc. As the reported issues began piling up on a common spreadsheet, more staff were added to this accoined “Connectivity Team” to ensure proper communication, follow up, and support in a timely manner. Our connectivity team grew to more than 20 staff members during pre-service to all staff once school started.
That was the key to success and the so many stories that each team member relayed in the process of getting every student connected, attending, and participating in online learning. As the adage goes, “It takes a village.”

Elizabeth Montes, Private School:
Start the world, I want to get on!

Elizabeth Montes has over 35 years of experience in education, in roles spanning from teacher to assistant superintendent. She currently serves as Head of School at a private K-8 academy in Texas.
The year 2020 provided us with 20/20 vision to see other people, ourselves, and the world more clearly. As humans went on lockdown, the natural world was revitalized. The oceans and other waterways were cleaner. The air quality was improved as people worked from home reducing carbon emissions. Our credit card bills were negligible without dining out and shopping. Families in lockdown spent more quality time together.
The greatest challenge for parents, teachers, and students has been virtual school. Working from home and teaching from home is like juggling several balls. Parents who did not have the opportunity to work from home had to find childcare, but nannies and grandparents were on quarantine also. Remote instruction is based on the assumption that every family has access to a laptop and internet connection. Schools have stepped up providing hot spots and equipment as needed.
Many schools and universities have created hybrid schedules this fall. When will we return to normal? Or will it be a new normal as we live with what we need, not what we want? Having been characters in the play, “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off”, we are ready for the remake, “Start the World, I Want to Get On!”

The Importance of Vocabulary Instruction in the Core Subject Areas for ELs at the Secondary Level

by Giuliana Jahnsen Lewis

Giuliana Jahnsen Lewis immigrated from Lima, Perú when she was fourteen years old. Breaking the language barrier and other challenges of being a newly arrived immigrant, she became an advocate for equitable instruction for ELs. She has served in multiple positions for Loudoun County Public Schools including EL Teacher, EL Curriculum Writer and Coordinator, EL Professional Developer, and currently serves as a Middle School Dean at Sterling Middle School. 

“Vocabulary – because of its direct association with meaning, the sheer weight of its numbers, and the natural disposition of the learner to break into a language through its words – may be the most important single factor in learning a second language” (Lado, 1988).

Acquiring new vocabulary is the key to success for any student. However, for English Learners (ELs, also called ELLs or English Language Learners) at the secondary level, acquiring new vocabulary is the most valuable path to comprehension and assimilation of a new language. “In secondary schools, ELLs have double the work in learning because they have to master both content and the language of that content” (Calderón & Soto, 2017). In addition to their academic challenges, students also face the hardships related to being an immigrant in a new culture and fulfilling other duties given to them to support their families. Considering these factors, educators should note that vocabulary instruction is not only crucial for comprehension but also that it entails processes that must be incorporated into the instructional experience of the student.


Arriving in the United States as a fourteen-year-old EL student in the ninth grade was challenging in many aspects. I had to work harder than my non-EL peers to learn English and exit the EL program so that I could take higher level courses and be able to graduate high school on time. Meanwhile, I faced additional obstacles as a result of my status as an EL student including racism and teachers telling me I was not going to succeed. Attending a university in the United States was one of my dreams, not only for myself, but also to show gratitude to my parents for their hard work and many sacrifices.

As a newcomer EL at the secondary level, you are racing against the clock. However, when EL students are presented with quality instruction that embodies an “asset-based” (Calderón et al., 2020) environment, the following takes place: (1) students’ identities and strengths are recognized (including their personal, cultural, socio-emotional, and world experiences); (2) students’ home languages and literacy experiences are viewed as assets, not deficits; and (3) all teachers recognize the assets their ELs bring to the table and also view themselves as “teachers of ELs” (Calderón et al., 2020). I was fortunate to be placed in some classrooms where these practices were present. Because of magnificent educators (teachers and counselors), I was able to overcome various challenges and feel empowered to continue learning the language and content. As Dr. Calderón and Minaya-Rowe (2011) state, “the most important factor in attaining EL success is quality instruction.”


During instruction, ELs tend to transfer the structure of the native language onto the second one. During the second quarter as a newcomer student, my brain started translating word by word as I read texts, handouts, posters, and other items in the classroom or provided by my teachers. I would read a word in English and my brain would automatically translate it into Spanish. At first, I thought I was getting my brain confused, but as I learned more academic language in English, the transfer from one language to the other started disappearing.

It is important to note that ELs are immersed into a process when learning a new word. Once the word is learned, including its functionalities, they are able to apply it in various forms through the four domains of language. EL students are then equipped to utilize the word in other linguistic contexts as well as connect it to language and behavior within specific situations (Nsar, 2010).


A powerful instructional experience must be intentionally planned by teachers in order to elicit student participation and develop an environment of ongoing learning. Vocabulary instruction should be “robust” which is characterized by being vigorous, strong, and powerful. “A robust approach to vocabulary involves directly explaining the meaning of words along with thought-provoking, playful, and interactive follow-up (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013). It needs to be understood that a powerful vocabulary instruction will lend itself to strong reading comprehension across the content areas of study.

Vocabulary instruction is dependent upon the purpose of the text and author, audience, and the content area being studied by the student. In order to build a solid repertoire of words, teachers must identify vocabulary words and corresponding features that are necessary for comprehension of the text (Calderón & Soto, 2017). Additionally, once instruction takes place, these words must appear in the students’ oracy, reading, and writing practice to ensure dominance in the four language modalities, constant practice and retention, and meaningful utilization of the words.


Three tiers of words have been identified to better direct the focus in instruction. Tier One words are identified as those being learned by constant oral interaction through conversations at most part. These words can also be acquired by looking at the word and its visual representation. Some of these words include happy, cold, cat, baby, and many more. Tier Three words are higher level concepts specifically related to the subject area or discipline being studied. Some of these words include legislative, photosynthesis, chemical, and more. While Tier One and Tier Three words are important for students to know, Tier Two words are the critical group. Tier Two words are known to influence students’ comprehension of text across all content areas. Tier Two words are encountered more often by students in written forms than orally (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013). However, as educators, we must ensure that students are able to master the usage of these words across all four domains of language.

When selecting new words for our students, it is imperative to consider the levels of students in the class. While it is stated that Tier One words are acquired through conversations, we still need to provide instruction of these words to our ELs. This includes words that are challenging to spell (e.g., rough, tooth) and pronounce (e.g., sheep, ship, chip, cheap, this/that, tenth) (Calderon & Soto, 2017).

When preparing for instruction, it should never be assumed that students already know the word necessary for comprehension of the material. As educators, our role is to constantly assess our students to be able to provide personalized and enriching instruction. Therefore, we must teach vocabulary words that will support our students’ reading comprehension and learning experience.


It is critical that students are involved in a robust and meaningful learning experience when learning new words. Therefore, vocabulary instruction must involve all key components: vocabulary instruction, oral

practice, reading, writing, and context – the purpose of learning the word. By incorporating all of the key components, we provide our students with opportunities to apply and practice with their new words, while working collaboratively with other students in class and utilizing their words in reading and writing activities (Calderón & Minaya-Rowe, 2011).

Vocabulary instruction should be the foundation of every lesson. As students master new words, acquisition of skills and comprehension of text become much easier. It is important to remember that teaching vocabulary “is not an end in itself. It is only a precursor into reading, writing, and conducting rich discussions in every content area” (Calderón & Soto, 2017).

Lado, R. (1988). Teaching English Across Cultures. Mexico, D.F.: McGraw-Hill.

Calderón, M. E., & Rowe, L. M. (2011). Preventing Long-Term ELs: Transforming Schools to Meet Core Standards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Calderón, M. E., Fenner, D. S., Honigsfeld, A., Slakk, S., Zacarian, D., Dove, M. G., Gottlieb, M., Singer, T. W., & Soto, I. (2020). Breaking Down the Wall: Essential Shifts for English Learners’ Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Calderón, M. E., & Soto, I. (2017). Academic Language Mastery: Vocabulary in Context. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Beck, I., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Nsar, R. (2010). Language Pragmatics in the ESL/EFL Classroom. Unpublished data.

Take a Virtual Museum Tour!

by Joanne Marino

Many museums across the globe have made virtual visits to their collections available online. With social distancing limiting our ability to visit museums in person, this is a perfect time to explore these virtual tours! Read on for just a few examples – and then look up your favorite museum, topic, or artist to find other virtual experiences you may enjoy!

British Museum, London, England

The Ancient Maya
This tour includes photographs of sites such as Tikal, Palenque, and Chichén Itzá; stone stelae; casts of monuments and inscriptions; pottery; carved jades; and other artifacts.
This video (07:36) shows how Mayan artifacts and hieroglyphics are recreated so the past is made available for people today.

View a collection of art and artifacts from Australia, New Guinea, and the many islands across the South Pacific Ocean.

American Museum of Natural History

Explore some of the features of the museum, such as the Titanosaur, a meteorite, and a giant sequoia tree.

Austrian National Library

This museum has an impressive collection of art and print, including elaborately decorated books and the oldest card catalog.

Stone Monuments in India

This is a tour of six of India’s stonework sites.

Louvre Museum, Paris

Take a virtual tour of this world-famous art museum by following the links below. As you scroll through each one, be sure to click the arrow to the right of each numbered artwork to read a full description.

Masterpieces of the Louvre, Denon Wing
This tour examines major works from the Italian Renaissance, including the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Masterpieces of the Louvre, Sully Wing
This tour includes major works of ancient Greek art including the Venus de Milo, as well as Egyptian art.

Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), São Paulo, Brazil

Art From Brazil Until 1900
This tour presents a selection from MASP’s Brazilian painting collection, from the 17th to the 19th century.

Picture Gallery in Transformation
This exhibition focuses on figurative art and also includes works by artists frequently excluded from the Brazilian canon of art history.

The Museum of Popular Art, Mexico City, Mexico

Several virtual tours through the museum are available at this site, including an exhibit about Mexican dress inspired by nature and another about the Ofrenda of the Day of the Dead.

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, South Korea

The 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Korean Modern Masters: Yoo Youngkuk, 1916-2002
Yoo Youngkuk was a pioneer of Korean contemporary art. The works in this exhibit celebrate his talent.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

This museum covers 800 years of Dutch art and history, from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

This tour highlights portraits of important Black Americans.

Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

The Uffizi contains one of the world’s most important collections of paintings. Take a virtual tour here – and be sure to use the 1 and 2 on the right to tour both floors of the museum!

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Take a virtual tour of this museum dedicated to the art, biography, and legacy of Vincent Van Gogh.

BONUS – Here are two more ideas for virtual tours:

In this video (29:29), Discovery Education tours Shakespeare’s family home, his father’s workshop, and his school in Stratford-Upon-Avon, as well as examining his life in London.

National Parks
Take a virtual tour of some of America’s national parks at this link.

Joanne Marino is an educator who provides professional development, coaching, and leadership support to schools with culturally and linguistically diverse students. Marino had a multifaceted career in education as a teacher (English as a second language (ESL) and social studies), materials developer, teacher trainer, and administrator.  Learn more about her on the ExC-ELL Team page.

COVID-19 and Social-Emotional Learning

by Hector Montenegro

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has created deeply disturbing unimaginable scenes of ghost towns in urban centers and emotionally unstable times for communities around the world. As we watch the numbers grow of people being infected and the death toll both locally and globally from the coronavirus we are also watching the numbers fall in the stock market. We are being impacted by terms that will forever be etched in our memory – pandemic, coronavirus lockdown, social distancing, stay-at-home orders, quarantine, and self-quarantine

As of March 25, 46 states have decided to close an estimated 123,000 public and private schools indefinitely, affecting at least 55 million students. It is uncertain the number of teachers, administrators, support staff and service providers that have also been impacted by these school closings, but what we do know is that it has totally disrupted the routines that educators are so accustomed to. Teachers bring order to their classrooms and make life secure for the children they teach by setting clear expectations and making outcomes predictable. Now carefully constructed routines have been halted, and field trips, concerts, festivals, sporting events, fundraisers and final exams all canceled with very little warning. Educators are also having to care for sick loved ones, are quarantined for their own exposures, are caring for children home from closed schools, are trying to teach virtual classes, or are otherwise coping with the rapidly changing national and local responses to the pandemic. 

No telling what impact this will have on student learning, on families, on the economy, or on teachers’ ability to cope and manage their own careers. How will we support students who rely on school for meals or the stability that their classroom provides? How will our students without access to computers or technology continue to learn? What will this do to our school and campus communities? How will this impact our schools’ funding? And then there’s the uncertainty around when teachers and students will be allowed to return to school—and what school will be like when we do. 

As we cope with these uncertain times and the radical change of routines, here are a few thoughts and practices to consider: 

  • Find Calm and Nourish Resilience in the midst of the change. This is a perfect time to revisit personal practices and nourish your inner resources by taking time to reflect on accomplishments, creative ways to manage your time, explore personal practices of self care, well-being, open-hearted self compassion, mindfulness, and even rewire your brain for resilience and calm.
  • Be Careful about Media Consumption and becoming addicted to the latest news. We are being inundated with anecdotes of both good and bad news. Take a media break and focus on your health, unfinished projects and even consider preparing for your return to the classroom better prepared and more informed about options for re-entry. 
  • Consider Looking into Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) for evidence-based practices to help you now and to support you and the students when you eventually return to school. SEL is for everyone. It’s especially critical for students with the greatest needs—the ones who will be severely impacted by the psychosocial and fiscal effects of this pandemic. In times of high stress, negative emotions like fear, anxiety and panic diminish our mental resources and ability to think clearly, make healthy decisions and behave prosocially and productively. 

Chronic stress impairs our ability to function well and impacts the quality of our relationships. Navigating uncontrollable, unpredictable, ambiguous situations like the new coronavirus, in addition to being confronted with many new demands, is challenging and for many of us amounts to chronic stress. We can’t control what has happened, but we can control how we respond to what is happening (Cipriano & Brackett, 2020).

Dr. Hector Montenegro, President/CEO of Montenegro Consulting Group, LLC, is currently Senior District Advisor for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and works with districts and administrators nationally and internationally on systemic implementation of SEL.  He is also a Senior Associate for Margarita Calderon and Associates (MC&A) and provides training on instructional strategies for ELLs, leadership development for administrators, instructional coaching.  Learn more about him on the ExC-ELL Team page.

Three Levels of Culturally Responsive Family Engagement Efforts for Families of English Learners

by Carmen J. Melendez-Quintero
Manager of English Learners Programs, Worcester Public Schools, Worcester, MA

Research and literature abounds on the topic of the impact of parental involvement in student’s success.  The biggest influencers, outside of teachers, in a child’s educational trajectory, are his or her parents or caretakers.  Families, regardless of their own educational background, are able to propel their children to excel and succeed in life, like no other adult in that child’s life can.  Schools and districts need to leverage this fact and seek families to become allies and inform schools as experts of their child. Families can inform and support what schools and teachers attempt to do every day.  In order to do this effectively, schools and teachers need to employ more culturally responsive strategies when working with students and their families, particularly families of English language learners.

Some traditional ways we regularly use to engage families like parent-teacher conferences, potluck dinners, school performances, PTO meetings and so on, may inadvertently neglect to engage families from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.  These parental engagement models and practices perpetuate the status-quo. With the increasing growth of diversity of our student population, it is critically important that we provide culturally responsive venues for families that are representative of our student body in order to engage effectively and strategically with all of our students and families.

I will share different approaches to family engagement that I have found to be very effective in connecting with families of English language learners and from diverse backgrounds.  I will speak to three levels of family engagement: district-wide efforts, school-level efforts and community partnerships. The more and different ways we use, the better chances we have to a wider extension of reach to families.

District Level Efforts

On the district level, districts could launch parent councils for families of English Language learners. Many states have passed into law for districts with large populations of English Learners, a requirement to have parent councils for English learners’ families.  For example, In Massachusetts on November 22, 2017, Governor Baker signed the Language Opportunity for Our Kids (LOOK) Act, which required districts with more than 100 EL families to have an  ELPAC(English Learners Parent Advisory Council).  Whether your state or not requires an ELPAC, district-wide meetings are a great opportunity to create a forum for families to build relationships with other families of similar backgrounds, use each as resource and ultimately join together to work alongside district leadership to inform on educational issues.. Here is some practical advice that may help districts start their own parent council for families of English Language learners:

  • Start with a cohort of parent leaders. Ask principals for names of parents of Els that they have established relationships with that could be good candidates for that parent leader cohort. Also, ask community partners that work with families to refer names as well.
  • Meet with the cohort of parents to collaboratively elaborate on the goals of the parent council and outreach efforts.
  • The parent cohort should be in charge of the agenda of the meetings with support from the district.  This effort validates the families and sends a clear message from the district that we see our parents from an asset lens.   This is a great step to start building trust with the families.
  • Create opportunities for the parent cohort to meet with district leadership to share their input and share the voices of the other families to be heard.
  • Districts could support the parent councils by providing space for meetings, childcare, food, interpreters, promotional materials and planning facilitation.

Districts could also host “Welcome to our Public Schools” events at the beginning of the school year for new EL families. Some of the topics could include: Introduce district leadership, EL Department staff, understanding ESL instruction and programs for ELs, the value of preserving the home language, and introducing community partners’ programs that may assist newly arrived families.  A great venue for this event is the public library.  Work with city offices to give parking allowance for the event so families don’t have to pay. Ask the library to give tours at the end of the event and show families where books in different language are located and share information about classes that may be of interest to families like ESL and Citizenship classes.

During the summer months is a great opportunity to run Early Literacy parent groups that promotes bilingualism and biliteracy. Families come together to share strategies to help their preschooler to read and are encouraged to use the repertoire of two languages. A great venue for this activity is a church or a place of worship, a place where families are familiar and comfortable fellowship with other families. Create a series of workshops that build on each other.

Celebrating and elevating home language with initiatives like the Seal of Biliteracy is a great opportunity for district to share with families that they not only promote bilingualism but honor the home language skills students bring to the schools. Another asset-based approach that would be well received by the families

School-Level Efforts

Comprehensive family engagement at the school level support the culture and climate of that school that will support students’ success.  With this goal in mind, schools could create events like “EL Family Breakfasts”.  One of our elementary school in our district does these breakfasts events where topics like language development, literacy, technology, are discussed in a nurturing environment. 

“This is an opportunity to build upon our ELL parent’s strengths for a continued culture of respect throughout the school community.  This intentional effort supports parents to get involved and be invested in the schools’ efforts.  Teachers also benefit immensely because it will allow the cultivation and deeper understanding of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds of their students.  The key for any school-level event is to honor the input received through action. The more parents have the opportunity to shape activities and programs that help their families, the more invested they will be in seeing those efforts succeed” -WPS ESL teacher. 

Schools could move beyond the multicultural potluck and make a “Gala Event” that celebrates culture and language where entire families and their cultures are highlighted and appreciated.  It’s a great way for families to share with others their background and the richness of their culture that goes beyond food.  Other schools have recruited “abuelos” that visit classrooms in the dual language programs and support with activities like reading and storytelling.  In this case, this effort brings the expertise of family into the classroom.

Community Partnerships

Lastly, another level of culturally responsive family engagement is with community organizations that have a history of working with families of English language learners. Districts could establish regular meetings with community partners that work with immigrant and newly arrived families to find ways of intersection. Find organizations that already have an established trust with families and perhaps using their venues and events to share common topics may be another way to increase visibility with the families. One example of that, our district worked with our community partners to collaborate on efforts of the Seal of Biliteracy and promoting bilingualism and biliteracy.

Faith-based organizations are another under-utilized venue. We learned as a district churches are very powerful and an effective way of engaging families.  Last year our district reached out to churches that serve the Latino community. At the churches, we led bilingual workshops for families that pertained to education. In collaboration with the Sped Department, The ELL Department created workshops, using feedback from the pastors, for families of children 0-5 on various topics like Behavior Change, School Readiness, Speech and Language and Fine and Gross Motor Skills.  The pastors expressed to us that doing these workshops would support gaining the trust from the families at a very early stage of the child’s education.

In conclusion, districts and schools need to expand their capacity and understanding on how to reach all families in a culturally responsive way. The first thing we have to do is learn who our students are and where they come from.  I recommend using professional development opportunities that invite families to inform staff on various issues. Doing community scavenger hunts and family home visits are other ways of expanding staff understanding of the families’ context and background. For a district to be successful in its efforts for access and equity for all students, family engagement needs to be at the forefront of their plans. Districts need to move beyond the status-quo and concentrate in culturally responsive methods that involve schools-level efforts, community resources and district-level efforts for a comprehensive way of reaching families of English Language Learners.


Johnson, M. (2012). The 21st century parent: Multicultural parent engagement leadership strategies handbook. Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

Olivos, E. M., Jiménez-Castellanos, O., & Ochoa, A.M. (Eds.), Bicultural parent engagement: Advocacy and empowerment . New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Arias, M. B., & Morillo-Campbell, M. (2008). Promoting ELL parental involvement: Challenges in contested times. Tempe: Education Policy Research Unit, Arizona State University

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gutierrez, K. (. (2002). Studying cultural practices in urban learning communities. Human Development, 45(4), 312-321. Lightfoot, S. (2003). The essential conversation: What parents and teachers can learn from each other. New York: Random House.

Systematic Vocabulary Development for Book Reading in K-5

by Dr. Margarita Calderón, creator of ExC-ELL

It is quite exciting to see that many teachers, not just ESL/ELD teachers, are interested in teaching more vocabulary. As I visit classrooms, I find many ways that teachers in K-5 teach vocabulary. While it is important to give more precedence to vocabulary, it is more important to consider “why” and “how” it is to be taught. Otherwise, the teaching of words becomes just a fun activity or takes up so much time that children do not have enough time on reading. Moreover, with some vocabulary techniques, students soon forget their meaning and do not use the new words. Thus, teachers find they have to reteach those words. Let’s take a look at some points of departure for school discussions and planning.

WHY? What’s vocabulary got to do with this?

Listening, speaking, reading and writing are the pillars of language and literacy development in one or two languages simultaneously. The more words children learn in K-2nd the faster they learn to speak, listen, discuss, read and write. Researchers have told us for quite some time that the vocabulary children know and are reading at grade level by 1st grade predicts how well they will be performing in middle and high school. In other words, their active verbal repertoire and reading fluency and comprehension are predictors of reading difficulties or no reading difficulties in later years.

  • Vocabulary in kindergarten and first grade is a significant predictor of reading comprehension in the middle and secondary grades or reading difficulties (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Chall & Dale, 1995; National Reading Panel, 2000).
  • The average 6-year-old has a vocabulary of approximately 8,000 words and learns 3,000-5,000 more per year (Senechal & Cornell, 1993).
  • By the end of 12th grade students should have learned 50,000 words (Graves, August, Carlo, 2011).

The researchers tell us that every child needs to master 3,000 to 5,000 words per year in school. Some children are fortunate enough to learn hundreds of words at home, yet, we know that many others will have to learn those in school. Nevertheless, the “how” section below provides some ideas for engaging the parents as teachers of vocabulary at home.

HOW? How can every ESL/ELD and general education teacher practice effective but efficient ways of teaching vocabulary?

Effective vocabulary instruction begins with careful planning and it is efficient when it takes only 2 minutes per word. There are several steps in planning a lesson and steps for Preteaching key words before Shared Reading, Guided Reading, Partner Reading, and even Silent Reading if that is a school policy. Albeit, silent reading is not an effective strategy for English Learners or any second-language learner unless it is for rereading a book teacher and student have already read and processed for comprehension. Otherwise, the student will resort to pretend reading and fossilize bad habit of pseudo-reading.

Lesson Planning.

When you select a book for any kind of reading, first parse it to determine where you need to chunk the book for:

  1. Finding words, phrases or clusters of words to preteach before reading (for example: shallow, deep end, over the course of). Select those you want to hear as they verbally summarize, use in discussions or you want to see in their follow-up writing activities. Narrow your list to 5 words.
  2. Finding words that can be taught on-the-run as reading begins. The students will either ask or you will notice that they need a quick definition. These can be taught with gestures, book illustrations, or a simple translation.
  3. Finding complex or long sentences that might have to be singled out. Once you deconstruct the sentence, construct it again and ask the students to use a similar sentence structure in their writing later on.

Teaching Vocabulary Before Reading.

You can preteach the 5 words you selected in 10 minutes before the students read or you read to the students. Teaching a word using the 7 steps should only take 2 minutes: one minute for the teacher’s steps 1 to 5 and one minute for the students to practice using the word with a partner. Step number 7 should only take a couple of seconds. For Kindergarten and the beginning of 1st grade, you can use only 5 steps as shown below. For 2nd grade and higher, teachers use the 7 steps.




Our on-going research (Calderón, 2007, 2009, 2019) has shown the following sequence that connects vocabulary to reading, writing and content mastery:

 Vocabulary knowledge correlates with reading comprehension.

Reading comprehension correlates with academic writing.

Reading comprehension and text-based writing correlates with procedural content knowledge.

Content knowledge correlates with academic success and grade-level achievement.

Peer Coaching or Co-Teaching.

It is always nice to have a trusted buddy to help us plan or to give us feedback on our delivery during those first few trials. One way to ease into mastering quality implementation is to plan together, particularly for step 6. The frame we provide for students to practice has to be fail proof. That means, we should test it out loud first, ideally with a colleague. See if each one of you can come up with at least 6 examples with that frame as you ping-pong back and forth for a minute.

Another effective way to work with a colleague is to ask each other to observe how you do the 7 steps using this checklist.

Some Things to Remember:

(1) that comprehension depends on knowing between 90% and 95% of the words in text. Nevertheless, those first 5 words will help children enter the text with sufficient comprehension and greater possibilities to learn more words as they read or listen to the teacher read. (2) Knowing words means explicit instruction through the 5 or 7 steps, not just exposure. Students need 12 production opportunities with a partner as they take turns giving examples for one minute, to own a word. Each one provides 6 examples (receptive and productive vocabulary or listening and speaking skills development). (3) Avoid using methods that take up to 20 minutes to teach one or a few words. (4) Reading is the main goal for all! The Word/phrase came from the book to be read, NOT an isolated word. (5) Do not ask students to look up the word in a dictionary, they usually get the wrong definition and it takes them a long time to do so.


When a teacher teaches 5 words per subject area (e.g., math, science, social studies, ELA, ESL/ELD), students will master 20 to 25 words a day, 125 words per week, and around 3,000 to 5,000 a year.


All students, English Learners in particular, will be reading at grade level, learning patterns of academic writing, and doing so much better on all exams.


Will attain exemplary status, and better yet, will not send Long-Term ELs to middle schools.


Chall, J. S. (1996). American reading achievement: Should we worry? Research in the Teaching of English, 30, 303–310.

Calderón, M. E. (2007). Teaching reading to English language learners, Grades 6-12: A framework for improving achievement in the content areas. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Calderón, M.E. (2009). Language, literacy and knowledge for ELLs. In Better: Evidence-based Education. Spring, 14-15.

Calderón, M. E., Espino, G. & S. Slakk. (2019). Integrando lenguaje, lectura, escritura y contenidos en español e inglés. Integrating Language, Reading, Writing and Content in English and in Spanish. Los Angeles: Velazquez Press. 

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1998). What reading does for the mind. American Educator, Spring-Summer, 8–17.

Graves, M., August, D. & Carlo, M. (2011). Teaching 50,000 words: Evidence-based education. In Better: Evidence-based Education. Winter, 5-6.

National Reading Panel (U.S.) & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction.