July 5, 2022
There are roughly 5 million English learners (ELs) enrolled in K–12 schools across the country, many of whom come from diverse backgrounds with unique linguistic abilities and cultural assets. Yet schools have historically struggled to meet the needs of these students for a multitude of reasons, ranging from inadequate funding, to insufficient resources, personnel, and preparation. By now it is well understood that the pandemic exacerbated many of these issues, and as a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows, remote learning did not affect all ELs in the same way.
To investigate how remote learning affected high-poverty students and English learners, the GAO surveyed almost 3,000 teachers across the country. Teachers in classrooms made up of at least 20 percent ELs reported a disparate impact across grade bands. For example, ELs in grades 6–8 had the most difficulty understanding lessons, completing class assignments and engaging with academic work, and as a result, were more likely to be behind academically than ELs in other grades. ELs in grades K–5, however, were most affected by a lack of access to school meals and an appropriate workspace, whereas older ELs in highschool (grades 9–12), were more likely to have inconsistent attendance, and limited class participation.
In addition to highlighting this differentiated impact, the report also included some strategies teachers found useful in supporting their English learners during the pandemic. For example, small group lessons and one-to-one check-ins with ELs helped teachers alleviate some of the barriers to access these students faced, which is not surprising given that small group activities allow for tailored instruction. Small group lessons can also be used to match a student’s ability level and can be an opportunity to learn from, and work with, peers at the same level. These types of activities are especially important for ELs because they can help encourage conversation and speaking skills which are important aspects of the classroom experience students lacked during remote learning.
The importance of understanding the differentiated impact the pandemic had on English learners should not be understated, as this type of student-level information can be used to connect resources to student needs. To start, schools will be able to continue providing free, healthy meals twice a day during the 2022–23 school year thanks to Congress’s recent decision to extend the federal waiver for free meals in public schools, but the work doesn’t end there. States and districts also have an important role to play as they decide how to allocate their share of COVID relief dollars to ensure their funding decisions match student needs. For example, in Illinois, Chicago Public Schools directed $2 million to expand summer programming for their ELs, and Colorado set aside $30 million of their covid relief funds as Response Innovation and Student Equity (RISE) grants to prioritize schools that serve historically underserved students, including Indigenous youth and ELs. And in an effort to strengthen school-family partnerships to support student learning, Fort Worth ISD in Texas decided to use $11.7 million of their COVID relief funds to hire 100 additional family engagement specialists. Decisions such as these have the potential to meet English learners’ differentiated needs.
Family engagement specialists play an integral role in a school community and I can recall as a former bilingual teacher how collaboration with these specialists strengthened my ability to respond to students’ needs. Thanks to their invaluable insights about my students and their families, I was able to learn more about my students’ home lives which I could then connect to the curriculum and lessons in the classroom. Connecting the curriculum to students’ experiences is an important aspect of culturally responsive teaching, which research has shown can support the academic achievement of culturally and linguistically diverse learners, such as ELs. With culturally responsive teaching there is also a greater sense of belonging and connection that enhances engagement which leads to increased academic achievement. However, it must be emphasized teachers can’t do this work alone as it takes a community to help a student succeed.
Moving forward, schools should consider families as a critical resource in building a community around the student that can be utilized to meet their learning needs. Strong partnerships with families can also support ELs’ academic achievement through consistent communication which allows for greater understanding of the school’s expectations and families’ needs. As schools, teachers, and educational leaders continue to think about how to make up for reduced/limited instruction time, it is critical that those decision makers think carefully and strategically about how to ensure the differentiated needs of English learners’ are being meaningfully addressed.
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