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Virtual ESOL Classes for Afghan Women

by Darlene Fahrenkrug

Last year, I taught two virtual English classes for Afghan women at a beginning level (including emergent readers). They studied on Zoom four hours a day, four days a week to develop their English, digital literacy, and workforce skills in the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia’s Destination Workforce® program. This article includes some of the strategies and resources that were used to facilitate language learning opportunities in the community of learners. 

These women were new to using a laptop and Zoom, and many had only been in the U.S. for a short time. They were processing trauma and grief, yet celebrating daily when they conquered a personal goal like going to the grocery store by themselves, reading a food label, or riding a bus. The course design provided opportunities for them to connect, build confidence, practice skills, and make progress toward their goals. 


Before the course started, learners participated in an orientation. This included 1:1 time with a staff member to practice the digital literacy skills they would need to unlock their loaner laptops and sign into Zoom the first day of class. They received their schedule for class and contact information for the organization and instructor. 

Their orientation packet contained annotated screenshots of visual vocabulary such as the battery power icon, power button, sign in screen, and password.  It also included the process for joining Zoom, creating a Gmail account, signing in, and sending a Gmail.  

During class, I referred to the packet frequently as we practiced these skills, and learners continued to annotate the document in their L1. Using this packet gave them confidence and helped develop learner independence. They felt very proud when they could solve their own challenges without needing to ask a family member for help. 

Quizlet Sample

Resource: Quizlet

Building Community

The learners were placed into levels by assessment, and initial focus included building class community. These activities also provided an in-depth needs analysis since the learners had varying educational backgrounds.

One objective was to practice asking and answering personal identifying information questions. Each day we would practice a new “Question of the Day”, and after several days, we started to use a Wordwall Random Wheel. Learners could respond using their own information or fictional provided information. Using the screen share and remote control options in Zoom, learners practiced navigating on my screen until they could follow an inserted hyperlink in the chat to practice in breakout rooms with their peers. After each question was asked, it could be removed to prevent repetition or left in for questions that needed reinforcement. 

Wordwall Example

Resource: Wordwall Question of the Day 

Teaching Strategies

Many of the learners were processing recent trauma. Each class followed a structure designed to provide support and stability. They knew we would start with class routines such as asking and answering questions about the day, date, time, weather, a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) check in, objective, and an introductory conversation. During the conversation, time was spent listening to learners reflect on their daily challenges and lessons were adapted to provide practice for the language they needed to meet those challenges. 

The number of words on each slide was minimized to provide plenty of white space for their eyes to rest. Each question was highlighted to make it easier for emergent readers to participate, and the free Didact Gothic font was used to differentiate lower and upper case i, the number 1, and lower and upper case L. Pictures were chosen that did not cut off or isolate a body part such as a foot or hand when practicing vocabulary about the body. Since representation is critical, high quality photographs that resembled the class were chosen for illustrative purposes. 

Each hour, brain breaks for a few minutes provided moments to stretch, blink our eyes, take some deep breaths, and check in. At the end of each day, learners completed a formative assessment, reflection, and homework assignment. In between, we practiced digital literacy skills, numeracy, conversation, reading, writing, listening, vocabulary, grammar, and lots of English… with a bit of translanguaging as well. Often, Screencastify videos were used to provide flipped content as a preview to class activities, such as digital literacy skills or readings with embedded comprehension questions. 

Resource: Class Routine Slides

Communication was a key part of consistent learner engagement. Learners were asked to contact the instructor before missing a class or being late. They turned in homework by taking pictures, Zoom screen sharing, using What’s App, or typing in the Zoom chat. Providing choices helped dismantle barriers to participation. Conferences were held frequently to provide feedback and to check in. During learner conferences, a volunteer worked with the rest of the class, or the class worked in small groups. 


We were fortunate to have a volunteer aide for one hour each day supporting our class, as well as an additional volunteer aide that worked with our emergent readers for one hour each day. Each week, I sent an email with information about our unit and focus of the week as well as prepared a Google Doc with daily lesson plans for each set of volunteers. The daily lesson plan gave volunteers a way to see previous work, collaborate with their volunteer team, and pull out vocabulary, phrases, and questions that needed reinforcement..

Resource: Sample Volunteer Lesson Plan- Literacy Tutor

sample volunteer lesson plan

Lesson Plans and Projects

I used backwards planning from desired outcomes to create Project Based Learning (PBL) assignments based on learner identified areas of need. Each differentiated project contained personalized choices to provide learner agency and scaffolding to help them succeed. 

After completing an objective for learners to identify their child’s school, grade, and teacher, it was clear that the class did not have the information to contact their children’s teachers. A project was created for them to collaborate on a Google Doc, copying and pasting hyperlinks with descriptions and pictures for the learner identified questions: What is the uniform today? What is for lunch today? How can I talk to my child’s teacher?

Resource: Google Doc

Another project involved giving advice to a friend through an email. The lead-up scaffolding prior to writing the email included practicing typing our names in the Zoom chat, using emails for several of our reading passages, noticing that they always have certain pieces (e.g. subject, greeting), and then labeling those items in a few emails. Then, we completed a cloze of an email and put an email’s pieces into order on Jamboard. We watched a Screencastify video demonstrating how to create an email. Finally, we worked on creating emails together, with additional support being provided to learners by requesting to control their screen. 

Resource: Jamboard

Each class was an experience for me to learn more about facilitating language opportunities for beginning learners and meeting their needs. I’m excited for the next virtual class to start in a few weeks and hopeful that we will be able to resume in-person classes soon. 

Additional Resources

Serving Refugees PLC Panel Discussion

Maryland TESOL ESL Story Banks: Jamboard/Wakelet/Color Vowel Chart/Flippity Activities

Bow Valley College Readers

Reading Skills for Today’s Adults (Marshall-ABE)

New Readers Press: What’s Next? Series

Northstar Digital Literacy

Darlene FahrenkrugDarlene Fahrenkrug has been an Adult ESOL Instructor since 2012. She graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English (linguistics), as well as a graduate certificate in TESOL and a CELTA. Her focus has been on facilitating inclusive classes that develop learner agency as well as English, digital literacy, and workforce development skills. She is passionate about leading educators through professional development and programs through compliance with federal assessments.