Editor's note: This is part of a four-part series on the challenges schools are facing during the pandemic in trying to advance marginalized students and the creative ways they are trying to teach them online and in-person.
The shy girl learning to write, read and speak proficient English blended in with her peers in Kristabel Regalado’s virtual class this fall at Edward K. Downing Elementary School in Odessa, Texas. Regalado, an English language teacher and multi-classroom leader, thought the girl’s oral skills were strong, but the student was reluctant to answer questions or initiate conversations in English.
Was the child, a native Spanish speaker, behind — or was she just introverted? The virtual learning setting made it hard to determine, so Regalado tested the girl’s reading skills and reviewed a variety of her classwork. That’s when Regalado realized her performance level was lower than she initially suspected.
The girl was placed with a group of students working on the same skill level, and Regalado personalized her lessons to focus on specific reading strategies, including decoding and constructing meaning from reading passages. Now, three months into the school year, Regalado said the student's self-assurance and competency in English has grown.
“I can see that she has made progress, and she is much more comfortable asking and answering questions,” Regalado said.
It is a small moment of victory that holds the potential of a big reward — the student’s eventual exit from English learner status. As educators like Regalado and others across the country refine or develop new online or in-person strategies to support ELs in a school year like none other, their confidence in helping students become proficient in English is growing.
That wasn’t the case in the spring, when schools abruptly pivoted to distance learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. EL students were — and, in many cases, still are — disproportionately affected by extended school closures, say educators and advocates.
Data shows even before the pandemic hit the U.S., non-English speaking students were behind their English-proficient peers academically (see chart below). They also are more likely to live in homes without devices or reliable internet access, making it difficult to access remote learning. Furthermore, many struggle with food insecurity, unstable home environments or have working parents who are unable to assist their children with remote learning during the school day.
Language barriers only compound these challenges, educators say.
The pandemic "is just exacerbating the existing challenges,” said Naomi Hupert, a senior research scientist with the Education Development Center and co-director of the Center for Children and Technology.
Nationwide, EL students account for about 10% of the total student population. Spanish is the most common native language spoken by ELs, but there are more than 400 languages represented in U.S. public schools, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
The number of unique native languages spoken by ELs can vary from state-to-state and district-to-district. For example, five languages are represented by ELs in Mississippi, compared to 225 in Pennsylvania, Ed Department data shows.
While there are examples of innovative and inspiring approaches by schools to continue language development programs and give EL students access to the full academic curriculum, Hupert said roadblocks remain, including the difficulty of adapting language development instruction to online learning platforms — or in socially distanced in-person classes where students' and teachers’ masks hide their lips and muffle their voices. Spontaneous, peer-to-peer interactions and conversation are also missing, she said.
“The informal opportunities to be exposed to English and to use it are slowly disappearing,” Hupert said.
While providing language development instruction to English learners in remote settings has been challenging, EL administrators say another obstacle is the lack of valid, high-quality annual proficiency assessments that can be proctored online.
Those annual assessments measure a student’s progress toward English proficiency and can also help guide the individual placements and supports each student needs to move toward complete proficiency, said David Holbrook, executive director of the National Association of English Learner Program Administrators.
Megan Alubicki Flick, the Connecticut Department of Education’s English learner consultant and NAELPA’s president, said her state, like others, is grappling with how to administer tests safely in-person and reliably online. There are 44,000 ELs in Connecticut representing 160 native languages. The value in the annual assessment is it directly influences an individual student’s learning program and EL status, she said.
The annual assessments are federally required, though states have flexibility to develop their own tests and testing timelines. Schools must also conduct an initial assessment within 30 days after a new student’s enrollment to determine if that child qualifies for EL services.
Guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education in May said schools may use temporary entrance procedures that allow for the presumption of EL identification based on a home language survey and rely on appropriate follow up, including discussions with students and parents.
Although the department did allow state waivers to annual English language proficiency assessments for the 2019-20 school year, states should not expect the same flexibility this year, according to a Sept. 3 letter from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. A FAQ document recently issued by the department's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education explains some state-level flexibility for accountability purposes regarding the annual proficiency assessments. But, Holbrook said, the document doesn't help districts and schools with the immediate issue of identifying and serving EL students.
“The informal opportunities to be exposed to English and to use it are slowly disappearing."
Senior research scientist, Education Development Center and co-director, Center for Children and Technology
Many educators in districts with distance learning-only formats this fall are so eager to measure the proficiency levels of EL students, especially if end-of-year testing data is missing, they are inviting small groups of EL students to take the assessments in-person.
That’s what Edward K. Downing Elementary School in Odessa, Texas, is doing to get foundational scores to develop individual learning programs, said Principal Marcos Lopez. "If we don’t have a benchmark test, it’s like shooting in the dark. You don't know where you’re aiming and you can’t see your target."
‘Whole other level of difficulty’
In addition to annual assessments, EL educators must expose non-English-speaking students to language development instruction, as well as to the full academic curriculum. Balancing language development instruction and general content lessons in online learning formats is an area of struggle for EL programs.
“This is a novel situation for all of us, and so we can’t really utilize past best practices or research-based approaches to this situation,” said Alubicki Flick. “Of course, we can apply research-based strategies, but we don’t know exactly how things will look for COVID-19 because we haven’t gone through this.”
Azusa Unified School District in Los Angeles County, California, is attempting to meet this balance by inviting EL students to attend language development classes 45 minutes before and after the regular school day, which is all online, said school board member Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez.
The extra supports were created so EL students don’t miss instructional time in their regular academic courses. The twice-a-day tutoring also allows ELs who receive special education services to get extra help in both English proficiency and special education interventions, Cruz-Gonzalez said.
“They’ll be able to get that rich language when they’re in social studies classes, when they’re in science classes, and that helps them become more proficient in English than when it’s just focusing on the grammar or mechanics of learning English,” Cruz-Gonzalez said.
The district also recently started bringing special education and English learners back on to campuses for one-on-one assessments, Cruz-Gonzalez said.
In Texas, despite Regalado’s ability to help her shy student make progress, she said she’s having difficulty providing online small group instruction for the various academic and language development levels represented by her students.
“I don’t yet quite have a handle on how I can group those kids and provide those effectively, the small group lessons,” Regalado said. “It’s hard to level students and plan lessons to meet their needs in-person, but doing it online adds a whole other level of difficulty.”
Resources and new ideas for EL educators
NAELPA is providing professional development opportunities, including training and resources for general education teachers, on effective EL strategies. The association is also studying what methods are working — and not working — across the country, Holbrook said.
Several state education departments and other groups have issued guidance to districts to support ELs during the pandemic. In Virginia, for example, the Virginia Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages and the Virginia ESL Supervisors’ Association created a resource bank for schools that includes coronavirus information in multiple languages and lesson planning ideas.
Local, state and federal education systems are also providing more training and resources to parents so they can better support their child’s language development, both in their native language and English.
School districts in California are reporting an uptick in participation of parents at virtual English learner advisory committee meetings at the school and district levels because the adults can attend meetings using their phones, computers or school-issued devices, said Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together, an advocacy organization.
That’s a welcome trend, “Because now, parents are expected to play a bigger role,” Hernandez said.
Educators also are implementing new methods to reach their online students. For example, Nisha Patel, an EL teacher at Lew Wallace School 107 in Indianapolis, tried to relate to her elementary-aged students by remembering what it was like for her as a child learning English. The native Gujarati speaker said she would have been sad if she couldn’t have gone to school when she was young.
“It was difficult in the beginning but now we’re getting into a groove.”
EL teacher, Lew Wallace School 107, Indianapolis
Those thoughts propelled Patel to spend hours outside of the regular school day last spring developing strategies to keep students progressing. She would create and deliver in-person learning packets to students who didn’t have devices, and for children who did have devices, she would sit on the sidewalk outside of their homes to show them how to navigate the learning platforms.
“I didn’t want them to fall behind,” Patel said.
Every child now has a device, and the school has welcomed students back for in-person learning for those who choose that option. Patel teaches students in-person and virtually. Teaching students in-person is much easier, she said, but added her online teaching skills are much stronger than in the spring.
“It was difficult in the beginning but now we’re getting into a groove,” she said.
Supporting progress, acknowledging challenges
All these efforts, however, still don’t erase the disproportionate impact the novel coronavirus is having on ELs. At Edward K. Downing Elementary School, one-third of Regalado’s students do not have home internet access, though devices have been provided to all 800 students in the Title I school. There is additional pressure on educators to help families access basic needs, such as food, and to recover students’ learning losses.
“After March, I absolutely know that our gaps got bigger, and bigger, and bigger because some of [the students] didn’t have high-quality school for five months,” Regalado said.
“As long as they are growing either a tiny bit or a lot ... the paramount part is that they keep moving forward and improving.”
EL teacher, Aycock Elementary School, North Carolina
Staff at Aycock Elementary School in Vance County, North Carolina, is also concerned about learning gaps for EL students. The school is trying to prioritize the needs of ELs by continuously scrutinizing data about student proficiency and performance levels. A new online library gives EL students greater access to books at their individual skill levels and some students have progressed one or two reading levels, said Casey Jackson, a multi-class leader at the school.
The school is also developing its master schedule for hybrid learning around the learning needs of ELs and their teachers, as well as being more intentional about collaborations between general education and EL teachers, Jackson said.
Liliana Soto, an EL teacher at Aycock, said she’s been providing extra tutoring time to help students make up missed assignments or get additional supports for hard-to-understand concepts. The extra effort and students’ progression in skills has caught the attention of the subject teachers who have shared their praise with the students, Soto said.
The EL teacher also uses a growth mindset, meaning she and students measure progress by focusing on small, interim achievements rather than a large end goal. “Although there are score goals to meet, for me, as long as they are growing either a tiny bit or a lot, I consider the paramount part is that they keep moving forward and improving,” Soto said.
Like Soto, Regalado is optimistic about her efforts to help students progress during this unusual school year.
“We don’t have 50-plus years of research and pedagogy on best practices for online learning, but good teachers will find a way to deliver quality instruction even with a piece of chalk and a slate,” Regalado said.