SLIFE Lessons: How Schools Can Draw on Strategies Designed for Students with Interrupted/limited Formal Education to Help English Learners in the Aftermath of COVID-19

Blog Post
May 14, 2021

COVID-19 upended our education system and challenged schools to re-evaluate many long standing structures and practices. Suspension of standardized testing; free access to distance learning; distributing technological devices and wireless access to students and their families; exceptions to graduation and college entrance exams; extended graduation timelines; and pass/fail grading for an initial time period. These are just a few of the accommodations that have been implemented to soften the impact of COVID-19 on student learning, but to be sure, these ideas are not new.

Many of these approaches stem from instructional strategies used to support students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE)*, a subset of the English learner (EL) subgroup. Prior to the pandemic, SLIFE comprised relatively small numbers in the education system, and supports for these students were often both marginal and in the margins of mainstream education. However, in a recent article (paywall), ‘Generation Interrupted: Rethinking “Students with Interrupted Formal Education” in the Wake of a Pandemic’, educator and researcher Chris Chang-Bacon argues that COVID-19 has forced us to re-think how we conceptualize the ‘SLIFE’ label beyond our current narrow view. And in doing so, we are able to see that SLIFE policies and practices can be beneficial for other students as well, including the broader English learner population.

The term SLIFE has traditionally been used to describe students whose lives have been upended by war, civil unrest, migration, or other factors who find themselves grappling with what it means to integrate into the U.S. education system. However, as Chang-Bacon explains in his paper, interruptions to formal education can be caused by other factors as well such as housing insecurity, natural disasters, punitive suspension, incarceration, and chronic health issues. Over the last year COVID-19 created what Chang-Bacon calls an entire SLIFE generation as no student was spared from the interruptions to education caused by the pandemic.

The pandemic has created a sense of urgency for students to ‘catch up’, with English learners being identified as one of the groups most behind. Fortunately, schools and districts have been able to draw on a significant field of research that has evolved to help SLIFE and apply solutions (such as those mentioned at the beginning of this blog) to help the broader student body. Given the inalienable connection between English learners and SLIFE, it would behoove education leaders to pursue more targeted strategies from that field to help ELs recover—academically, linguistically, and socioemotionally—from the pandemic.

Here are three important takeaways from SLIFE research that can help schools and districts direct the unprecedented amount of COVID-relief funding towards helping ELs recover from their interrupted schooling experiences:

1) Cultivate a learning environment focused on fostering connection and support among English learners and educators to allow them to rebound from the challenges and trauma brought on by the pandemic. To do so, school and district leaders must have a good understanding of how the pandemic has impacted their ELs in terms of their economic security, mental health, as well as their academic standings.
To ensure ELs are receiving targeted supports, general education teachers and ESL specialists should aim to provide highly differentiated and individualized instructional practices which have been proven to enhance academic language development and content attainment for SLIFE students. For older ELs, this may mean implementing flexible schedules that accommodate both their academic needs and obligations outside of school. Like SLIFE, many ELs have taken on adult responsibilities during the pandemic which they will now have to weigh and balance against the benefits that a formal education is purported to provide. And formative assessments should be continually used to establish targets and measure growth towards those goals.
2) Consider English learners’ abilities upon re-entry to full-time schooling and provide a rich curriculum to accelerate their learning. “Schooling and learning are not always synonymous” Chang-Bacon states, which means ELs will be returning to school with cultural and linguistic assets developed at home and in other in/out of school settings. Teachers should not assume that all students arrive in the classroom with a common knowledge base, especially in cases of interrupted schooling, and should be given a certain degree of autonomy to develop and share curricula that caters to where ELs are both linguistically and academically.
During this time, it is critically important that curriculum and lesson plans work to unify language and content for ELs through intensive literacy and language instruction, especially given the limited in-person time students will have access to for the foreseeable future. When possible, schools should offer sheltered instruction/home language instruction with visuals, collaborative learning activities, and demonstrations with a heavy focus on building oral language abilities, instead of remedial coursework. Classrooms should be equipped with teacher assistants that speak the ELs’ language and can also help facilitate small group work which has proved successful with SLIFE students.
Additionally, SLIFE researchers have found that lessons focused on topics that have immediate relevance to the students’ lives are the most engaging. This kind of responsive curricula should include items that are closely linked to ELs’ realities in this post-COVID world that are supported by quality materials that are age appropriate, culturally relevant, and accessible.
3) Collaborate within and across schools and districts to build supportive environments that respond to the immediate social, cultural, and linguistic needs of English learners. SLIFE educators have been known to benefit from intentional time and space to collaborate and plan their approach, and the most effective programs have had administrators who take an active role in designing the program.
Educators who interact with ELs—teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, administrators, and school psychologists—should meet regularly to reflect on how students are doing and collaboratively decide on the best course of action that will facilitate continual improvement. Parents should also be engaged in decision-making processes like providing input on the type of professional development teachers need to better support their EL children.
And for older ELs who are close to graduating or aging out of the system, partnerships with local businesses, higher education institutions, and adult education programs can help ensure continual engagement on the part of these students.

Up until now, our education system has over-relied on curriculum and policies that have not been responsive to the diverse experiences and educational backgrounds of all students, including ELs, and have instead created one-size-fits-all expectations for education trajectories that focus on where students should be rather than where they actually are. COVID-19 has broadened our understanding of how the education system can be molded around the needs of our students instead of the other way around. For our English learners, it is important that urgency to catch students up doesn’t come at the expense of a quality and equitable education. Luckily the SLIFE field can be a guiding light to help schools and districts in their recovery efforts.

* Although the terms SIFE — Students with Interrupted Formal Education—and SLIFE are often used interchangeably, scholars have argued that SIFE is not wholly representative of these students’ diverse backgrounds as many have not had interrupted education per se, but have actually experienced limited education. For the purposes of this blog, the term SLIFE will be used to refer to both students with limited or interrupted formal education.

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