Special Report
English-Language Learners

English-Learners May Need More Support This Fall. But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Behind

A case study on using home language as a bridge to English practice
By Ileana Najarro — June 22, 2021 8 min read
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The country’s 5 million English-language learner-students—three-quarters of whom speak Spanish as their home language, federal data show—faced unique challenges during the periods of remote schooling last year. But, experts say, it’s important to remember being immersed in their families’ languages and cultures also offered some potential benefits for this group.

COVID-19 had a disproportionate negative impact on the nation’s communities of color, including Hispanics, in terms of health and finances. And a federal government report from last year found that some English-learners had limited access to computers and the internet, complicating their remote learning experience.

While learning through screens, these students often found themselves with less time for casual conversations with their teachers and peers, causing some to worry their English skills might regress.

But as teachers plan out the next school year for English-learners, Amaya Garcia, deputy director of preK-12 education at the think tank New America said, there are ways to ensure these students are properly supported moving forward.

“We don’t want kids to, because the teacher assumes that they lost a lot of English, end up in sort of this more remedial situation where they’re trying to teach them English again in ways that aren’t that effective,” Garcia said. “We would want for that kid to be getting language-rich content, like learning language within the content, not learning language in sort of isolation where I’m sitting there teaching grammar and teaching you kind of the rules.”

For this story, Education Week spoke with over a dozen instructional experts, teachers, coaches, and parents about what English-learners need next school year and how schools can support them. Representing their reflections and insights is “Ana,” a composite English-learner returning to full-time in-person instruction in the fall.

Where things stand for Ana

Ana was in 3rd grade working on improving her reading and writing in English when she suddenly found herself spending much more time in her mostly Spanish-speaking home. She no longer had the traditional opportunities to practice both academic and non-academic English as she normally would have on a school campus, where she could easily ask for help whenever she struggled with her reading, for instance. She also had to juggle classes with helping take care of her younger siblings.

Plus, her community was hit harder by the coronavirus’ spread, with neighbors falling ill and some dying. Due to school closures and safety restrictions, she didn’t take a formal language proficiency assessment in the spring of 2020.

But Ana did make important gains over her year at home: She picked up more advanced Spanish vocabulary from the time spent with her family, particularly when her grandmother would tell her stories in Spanish, and she mastered new technology tools.

As she steps into a new grade this fall, her teachers will have to sort out just how big an impact the remote setting had on her English-language proficiency progress, and how to incorporate the silver linings that emerged over the past year into their teaching plans.

What teachers of English-learners can do

To begin to address Ana’s needs, experts and educators alike say the right mindset is key. Namely, her teachers shouldn’t make assumptions on how much or how little she progressed in English.

Most importantly, they should not immediately jump to a remediation approach.

What English-learners “need is the scaffolding and the support to get them back where they once were, and to continue progressing,” said Barbara Lora, an English-language acquisition coach in the bilingual department at the Brockton school district in Massachusetts.

Teachers should use what formal data are available—in some cases that will be assessment results from 2019. They should pair that with informal assessment results collected over the last year.

For instance, at the Center City public charter schools in Washington D.C., each English-learner gets an individualized plan. Teachers mark on a grid where the student is currently performing in each language domain (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and set goals for them. Teachers then design instruction based on the plan keeping in mind grade-level content and needed language-developmental structures, said Alicia Passante, ESL program manager for the school system.

But when sorting out how much catching up needs to be done for a student like Ana, instruction must still be rigorous. She should be exposed to all the same content as her grade-level peers.

“What they need is the scaffolding and the support to get them back where they once were, and to continue progressing."

Garcia, with New America, also points to summer, after-school, and tutoring programs as ways to boost English skills. Some of these programs are designed to continue what happens in the classroom and extend it. Group research and writing projects can give English-learners the chance to work together and learn more vocabulary.

The Dearborn public schools district in Michigan, for instance, is running a “super summer school program” for K-12 grades, during which English-learners and others will get some re-teaching and some front-loading of academics for the next grade, but also an introduction back into a regular physical classroom environment, said Rose Aldubaily, director of EL and compensatory education for the district.

English-learners in particular need explicit supports where they use their language to process their understanding of a topic and learn from and with others, said Steven Weiss, senior researcher at Understanding Language-Center to Support Excellence in Teaching at Stanford University.

Jigsaw reading, for instance, can help. In that cooperative learning activity, small groups of students work together to each become an expert in one part of a topic, and then teach each other what they know.

Teachers should also spend some time assessing students like Ana holistically, both in terms of gains and losses made in the last year, with careful attention to proficiency in the student’s home language.

For instance, Angelica, a mother in San Antonio, Texas, who asked to only be identified by her first name, said that while her 8-year-old son still can’t read in English, she taught him to read in Spanish this past year after she quit her job to help her three children with remote learning. To find out what exactly happened last year in terms of home language learning for students, schools need to ensure parents like Angelica weigh in on what support students need.

Educators and experts alike emphasized how the stronger a student is in one language, the stronger they’ll be in another. But the considerations are different for newcomer English-learners who may lack proficiency even in their home language, as Maria Garcia, an EL teacher at Alice Deal Middle School in the District of Columbia has found. (Amaya and Maria Garcia, both quoted, are sisters.)

Her school has a fair number of newcomer Spanish-speaking students with low literacy rates in their native language, so it’s designing a new literacy intervention course that will be taught in Spanish for the fall, she said.

Newcomer students that came into school during the pandemic will likely face a culture shock in the fall. Last year, many were trying to navigate classes and get to know people through computers while speaking no English, she added. So teachers have to be deliberate in providing opportunities for them to build relationships at school.

For a full picture of a student’s performance over the last year, including an understanding of major changes that happened in their home life, which plays into academic performance, schools will need to be diligent about reaching out to parents for their insight and help. Ana’s parents for instance, can share that Ana learned many new recipes while at home, so her teachers can relate measurements to other math learning, thereby incorporating her cultural learning in the classroom.

Insights for all teachers

In some cases, the pandemic exposed how little connection districts had with parents of English-learners.

Parents like Virginia Ramirez in Porterville, Calif., whose children were once in an English-learner program, urge schools to think about language barriers that may prevent parents from better advocating for their children’s needs and helping teachers contextualize their children’s progress. She added that it’s also on parents to seek out resources for their children.

“All schools I think do an open house at the start of the year, so in that meeting they should tell parents it’s very important to go to meetings because they will learn this and that,” Ramirez said. “But it’s also very important they do it in two languages, Spanish and English, because many times it’s only in English, and as Latino parents we don’t know what they’re doing or saying, and we’re uninformed.”

Parents and educators spoke of how that bridge-building needs to continue throughout. Outreach examples can include translating school websites and all documents that get sent home.

Collaboration between general education teachers and specialized English-learner teachers that happened virtually in the past year should also continue to ensure proper support for the student.

And teachers should keep using technology that proved effective during remote learning when they’re back this fall. Garcia at Alice Deal, for instance, enjoyed using an online platform where students could submit assignments and see her feedback, including whatever feedback she gave their peers: Students could learn from their classmates’ work as well and it allowed her to emphasize revision and model learning as a work in progress.

But above all, educators and experts also hope schools can address student’s social-emotional well-being, especially those who will return with trauma from losing loved ones to the virus, losing their homes, and the struggles associated with a remote and hybrid year of school.

At Alice Deal, for instance, students are put in an advisory with a teacher that speaks their native language whenever possible, to allow for more social-emotional supports.

Wellness checks should extend to students’ families, said Lora of the Brockton district. She advises teachers to take the first few weeks of the transition into the new school year to build relationships with English-learners’ families.

“Once families trust you enough to have difficult conversations about what’s going on at home—once you are humble, as an educator, enough to recognize that we’re not in this by ourselves, and that we do need parents, even if they don’t speak English, that we can’t do this job by ourselves, that it is a village approach that we need—then everything else will sort of fall into place a little easier,” Lora said.

Education Week spoke to the following sources for this article: Rose Aldubaily, director of EL and compensatory education for Dearborn public schools in Michigan; Angelica, a parent in San Antonio, Texas; Gloria Corral, president and CEO of the Parent Institute for Quality Education; Ameena Elder, language & literacy/SIOP trainer for Dearborn public schools in Michigan; Amaya Garcia, deputy director of preK-12 education at New America; Maria Garcia, EL teacher at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington D.C.; Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together; Annie Camey Kuo, senior researcher at Understanding Language-Center to Support Excellence in Teaching at Stanford University; Barbara Lora, an English language acquisition coach for the bilingual department in the Brockton public schools district in Massachusetts; LeighAnn Matthews, ESL coach at the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District in New Jersey; May Mosallam, EL & compensatory education- coordinator for Dearborn public schools in Michigan; Jeannine Oynoian, language & literacy/SIOP trainer for Dearborn public schools in Michigan; Alicia Passante, ESL program manager for the Center City public charter schools in Washington D.C.; Virginia Ramirez, a parent in Porterville, Calif.; Rodrigo Rodriguez-Tovar, bilingual literacy coach at Katherine Cook Elementary in Texas; Nadra Shami, language & literacy/SIOP trainer for Dearborn public schools in Michigan; Steven Weiss, senior researcher at Understanding Language-Center to Support Excellence in Teaching at Stanford University

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