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How to Expand ELLs' Access to Technology for Distance Learning

Learn what schools and districts can do to ensure that ELLs and their families have access to the technology, internet connections, tech support, and information they need to succeed in distance learning.
young girl working on tablet
Published: 08/2021

During the spring of 2020, numerous districts and communities looked for ways to expand technology access for students, including English language learners (ELLs) and immigrant families. Here are some helpful tips and lessons learned from those efforts that can help schools prepare for the fall of 2020-2021.

Special thanks to educators who provided feedback through surveys and social media, as well as to the staff of Wolfe Street Academy, a community school in Baltimore, MD, for great insights!

Identifying lessons learned and priorities

Even before COVID-19, teachers of ELLs nationwide were concerned about their students' access to digital learning opportunities at home. In a 2019 survey, more than 75% of educators reported barriers that limited their students' access to digital learning outside of school, including a lack of devices, tools, and internet access at home.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on these disparities as districts have scrambled to first reconnect with families and then set students up with technology access to support distance learning. Those challenges, however, provide some useful lessons for the fall.

Lessons learned

Again and again, educators referred to a single key factor that allowed ELLs to succeed with distance learning. This did not have to do with one-on-one computing initiatives or major donations of devices — although those things certainly made a difference.

Instead, the schools and districts that were most successful in those efforts — and they are out there! — were the ones that already had solid relationships with ELL families. The better schools knew their families, the more effective their school-family partnerships around distance learning were.

As districts look ahead, they can build a foundation for those relationships and identify lessons learned from the spring by:

  • asking students and families what worked or didn't work well in the spring
  • partnering with ELL and bilingual educators, interpreters, family liaisons, and the PTA to discuss opportunities and challenges
  • encouraging their staff to network and learn what has worked in other districts
  • building upon strong family networks that communicate regularly with each other via text, social media channels such as Facebook Messenger, or phone trees
  • sharing questions from technology surveys via phone or text in families' home languages to increase accessibility.

In addition, districts should keep in mind the following:

  • Families have a legal right to information in their home language.
  • Immigrant families may have unique privacy concerns (see more on this below).
  • Technology surveys that are only online and/or in English may not be accessible to ELL families.
  • Sharing tips, questions, resources, and tutorials via families' preferred ways of communicating is a great way to share information about technology. For example, this Facebook group for Karen families in Roseville, MN is being used to share updates with families for the fall.

Finally, it is important not to make assumptions. Many immigrant families may use technology to help with their international communication, and some ELLs are so advanced that they provide technical support for other students and their teachers! Students may also be quite familiar with one kind of digital tool, like apps, but not others.

Access to devices

Lessons learned

During the spring, multiple districts provided laptops or tablets for students. However, it is important to keep in mind the following situations in order to optimize technology access in the fall:

  • In many ELL families, multiple siblings shared devices for their schoolwork.
  • Students without devices often used cell phones to complete assignments.
  • Some families did not know that devices were available from their district, and they did not find out about these options in time to get a device. (And in some cases, ELL families did not get any information in their home language once schools closed.)
  • Educators heard from families who were reluctant to take a device home due to concern about damaging the device.
  • Immigrant families may have been concerned that using a device provided by the school would impact their immigration cases under new public charge rules. (It would not, but the new policies have left many families with more questions than answers.)

Planning ahead

It is important to evaluate what families' needs are, which may vary greatly from family to family and school to school. Schools and districts may wish to start with a needs assessment and talk with families about their child's access to a device for schoolwork. It is important for educators to be on the lookout for students who:

  • do not have a device
  • plan on sharing a device with a sibling
  • plan on using a cell phone to complete schoolwork.

If you do identify students who don't have a device for schoolwork, talk with an administrator about whether there are devices or funding options available to fill the gap. In addition to any district programs or grants to expand technology access, local community partners, businesses, or individuals may be able to contribute to a technology fund.

Districts may also wish to consider programs that offer a device as part of a digital literacy course so that families learn important technical skills, such as this program in Boulder, CO.


  • Schools that have used their own computers and devices to increase student access may have very little technology accessible in the school building itself to support learning.
  • In addition, schools should not assume that educators have devices or internet access at home.

Internet access

Even if all students have a device, however, providing internet access may prove to be another obstacle in distance learning.

Here are some of the situations that educators of ELLs shared with us from the spring:

  • If internet companies required a social security number and no "past due" bills to register for free access, this deterred some families from signing up.
  • Information about internet access was not available in families' home languages, or it was too confusing.
  • Families lived in residences whose address was not recognized by the internet company.
  • If multiple families were sharing a residence, there were cases in which the internet company only allowed one registration per address, leaving other families in the residence without an option of setting up their own connection.
  • Students in more rural areas were not be able to get a signal even with reliable internet providers and routers.
  • Some families did not have electricity at home, as in the case of migrant farmworkers living in temporary housing or trailers.

In order to overcome these challenges, schools and districts tried some creative solutions, such as:

  • providing devices with data, where students could connect anywhere and anytime
  • offering hot spots, including on buses that would travel to neighborhoods where internet access was an issue
  • offering free wi-fi at the school (or partnering with another institution in the community to provide wi-fi) that families could access from the parking lot to download relevant information
  • partnering with municipal governments, internet providers, and cell phone companies to expand access.

There is no "one-size-fits-all" solution to this challenge, which is why understanding your families' circumstances will lead to a better solution for your students and educators.

Partnering with the PTA

"The PTA officer team was pivotal in problem-solving around the issue of internet access. It was the PTA officers who suggested the idea of getting the tablets with data on them as a solution for the families who could not access wi-fi due to barriers with registered housing. The PTA officers also helped navigate tech support with families. Several PTA officers are bilingual in Mixtec and Spanish, so they were a huge help for many of the Mixtec-speaking families."

— Leah Beachley, Community Schools Coordinator at Wolfe Street Academy

Tech support and training

Once students have devices and data, there is still one more important step needed to ensure students can successfully use their distance learning platforms — training and tech support. Many English-speaking families described being overwhelmed by the number of platforms and log-ins needed for their child or children to complete schoolwork.

You can imagine what that challenge was like for ELL students and families who were often navigating new platforms and trying to get their technical questions answered.

Multilingual tutorials

To increase student success, schools and districts might consider offering translated student and family tutorials about the platforms they will be using. Some platforms have translated tutorials available, or districts have created their own. For example, Hartford Public Schools shares this Google Classroom tutorial in Spanish on their website and the New York City Department of Education has a collection of multilingual Google Classroom tutorials available on YouTube.

Providing technical support

In order to identify key needs and priorities around tech support, you may wish to ask families about the challenges they had with technology during the spring. In addition, the following steps can improve technical support for multilingual families:

  • providing a translated form where families can keep track of their child's log-in info and any family log-in info they need
  • providing "how-to" instructions through short videos or screen shots with highlights or arrows (which can be added through "markup" features on smart phones)
  • ensuring that families have a way to ask questions related to tech support with the assistance of an interpreter
  • setting up a process for collaboration and communication among educators, interpreters/family liaisons, and tech support staff
  • providing training for families on how to use their device or platforms to support learning.

Building empathy with multilingual tutorials

To experience what it feels like to receive technical instructions in another language, or to help your colleagues understand this experience, take a look at this Google Classroom tutorial in Chinese.

You might also take note of a critical scaffold — English text on screen! Our related resource section on what it feels like to be a language learner offers additional ideas.

Protecting student privacy

It is critical to keep in mind that privacy concerns may be particularly complex for families of English learners and immigrant students. At the same time, families who are using internet and wi-fi at home for the first time may need additional information about how to protect their privacy.

Your district may have policies in place regarding student privacy and online learning. For example, some districts restrict the use of videos of students. Check with your school administrator for clarification as needed and also to share appropriate information with families on protecting their privacy in their home language.

Offline instruction at home

Finally, there are numerous resources for helping to support instruction at home when technology access is not available (or to complement online learning). You will find many of these resources and activity ideas, as well as tips on how to build upon families' cultures, languages, and strengths, in Offline Learning at Home: Ideas for ELLs.

Partnering for success

There are numerous steps schools and districts can take to expand ELLs' technology access for the coming year, and we hope this information provides some ideas that might work in your setting. We encourage educators and administrators to keep networking, sharing what works, and developing solutions. Making these efforts a priority early on will yield rewards for the rest of the year, and, perhaps, get everyone just a little closer to focusing on flying the plane we are still building!

Focusing on family partnerships

"This summer, we piloted the tablets with data during our summer tutoring program. We piloted the tablets with a small group — 17 students. Our biggest 'lesson learned' is that the support at home is crucial....We thought the tablets would be a silver bullet and that with them, we were removing all the barriers that our families reported as reasons for their lack of engagement in online learning. However, we still had a couple families who received the tablets with data and never participated in online tutoring.

"The social work team is going to spend time in August and during the school year developing and hosting parent sessions over Zoom that will provide training for how to use online platforms such as Google Classrooms, Clever, and Zoom. We will also host virtual discussions with parents about how to create a home environment that is conducive to learning by establishing routines, utilizing headphones, designating a specific space for schoolwork in the home, etc. We realized that we spent so much time in the Spring addressing barriers to learning that we forgot about our equal partnership with parents. This school year, we are going to work with the parents to highlight the importance of their role in their students' at-home learning."

— Leah Beachley, Community Schools Coordinator at Wolfe Street Academy

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