School Reopenings: Key Considerations for Supporting English Learners

Blog Post
July 14, 2020

In Hawaii, English Learners (ELs) have faltered due to the pandemic. In California, teachers are concerned that opportunity gaps between ELs and their non-EL peers have grown. In Colorado, school districts have faced challenges in providing EL students with targeted English language development. And in New York, ELs have encountered obstacles to distance learning due to the digital divide.

English learners (ELs) represent 10 percent of K-12 public school students yet still face gaps in accessing high-quality instruction to support their language and academic development. It’s clear from recent headlines that these gaps have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As school districts prepare to open their doors(either virtually or in-person), here are six considerations that can help strengthen EL instruction in the upcoming school year:

  1. Prioritize ELs for in-person instruction: Education leaders are still grappling with how to reopen schools this fall, but some states, such as Virginia and Illinois, have already indicated that due to their unique learning needs, English learners should be prioritized for in-person instruction (to the extent possible). English learner students face the double task of learning a new language and mastering academic content. Learning a new language is a dynamic process that requires authentic opportunities to both hear and speak the language, which can be challenging to provide via a virtual lesson. English learners should be in mixed groupings that include students with varying levels of English language proficiency to foster peer learning and collaboration.

  2. Devise a plan to closely track ELs’ language skills and academic development: States across the country suspended annual testing that is used to track ELs academic development and progress towards attaining English proficiency. States will need to develop guidance on how to conduct initial EL language screening and placement virtually and the process for administering English language proficiency assessments this fall. Schools will need to conduct these assessments in the fall to get an understanding of whether EL students’ language learning has continued to progress, stalled or declined. Based on those data, individualized learning plans can be developed to help differentiate instruction and better target EL students’ areas of growth in the four domains of language learning (listening, reading, speaking and writing).

  3. Invest in technology designed for ELs: Many school districts will rely on hybrid models that offer in-person instruction blended with distance learning. That means, schools will need to invest in technological tools designed specifically to support ELs’ English language development and academic growth. The landscape of educational technology for ELs is broad ranging from free tools to licensed products such as Imagine Learning that are focused on supporting ELs’ language and literacy development. School districts should leverage the expertise of English language teachers to determine the best tools to use and/or purchase. School districts must also make efforts to ensure EL students have access to devices and broadband to facilitate their learning from home.

  4. Offer extended learning time for ELs: We have written about the role that extended learning can play in providing ELs with additional exposure to content and language instruction, including targeted after school programs. Programs such as these should not be sidelined due to the pandemic, rather they should be integrated into the services offered to ELs. This would allow ELs to receive small group instruction with their peers while still being exposed to academic content and provide more opportunities for teachers and/or paraeducators to work more closely with EL students. Extended learning time will be critical to make up for lost learning. Early estimates show that students likely lost a third of a typical year’s learning gains in reading and half of a year’s learning gains in math due to school closures, and these projections may be worse for ELs.

  5. Support family/teacher communication: School closures require teachers and families to work together in brand new ways to facilitate student learning. Many teachers reached out to individual students and families to learn more about the support they needed and identify challenges with distance learning. But for ELs and their families, language barriers can impede communication. A recent survey by the Parent Institute for Quality Education found that 45 percent of EL families were not receiving the help they need. School districts often have limited capacity to provide translation of materials in languages spoken by a minority of ELs and so must rely on other strategies to convey necessary information to families. Technology tools such as Talking Points, which allows teachers to send texts to parents in over 100 different languages, can help by offering translation. Bilingual liaisons who are fluent in students’ home languages are an invaluable resource for conducting outreach and facilitating communication with EL families. Paraeducators, parents and community volunteers can also be leveraged to assist with translation and outreach efforts.

  6. Provide training for teachers and paraeducators: All teachers should be provided with professional development focused on how to support ELs’ language development and be equipped with tools to support their learning. But, facing limited capacity and funding, school districts should offer at minimum a resource that outlines best practices and strategies for working with English learners and points to digital tools that can help supplement instruction. Paraeducators should not be overlooked and offered the same professional development opportunities and resources afforded to teachers. These essential support staff should be leveraged to ensure that ELs still have access to small group, and even one-on-one, instruction. School principals should devise opportunities for teachers and paraeducators to engage in planning time and help determine the roles that paraeducators will play in supporting student learning.

Much of this work will not be possible without the allocation of significant resources. Local budgets have been deeply impacted by the pandemic’s economic fallout. School district leaders have been transparent about the need for increased federal funding to support the safe reopening of schools. The HEROES Act, for example, would provide a necessary supplement to local dollars and states that funding could be used to support the needs of English learners, with attention towards addressing learning gaps that have become even starker due to school closures. While the bill’s prospects appear dim, Congress must step up and provide schools with the funding they need to safely reopen and to offer the resources necessary to support student learning both within and outside of the classroom walls.

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English Learners