What School Closures Could Mean for English Learners

Blog Post
March 19, 2020

As schools across the country have closed their doors in response to COVID-19, the needs of English learner students are top of mind. English learners (ELs) represent a growing share of the U.S. student population and federal law mandates that they receive specialized instruction to support their English language development. Given how rapidly school closures have happened, there remain many unknowns about how distance learning will play out for these students.

To be sure, the move to online learning will be challenging for all students, but these challenges will be exacerbated for ELs and other students who receive specialized support and instruction. As we have written in the past, while there are a growing number of educational technology tools for ELs, many of these resources are not free and teachers report needing more training on how to use digital learning resources with their EL students. We have also described the shortcomings of current tools, how students may lack access to digital technology in their homes, and how open educational resources (OER) can facilitate online learning for ELs.

In response to school closures, some states have tasked districts with developing plans for remote learning that pay attention to the needs of ELs, but details of these plans are still to come. A key consideration in the development of these plans is that online learning cannot evenly address all four domains of language development (reading, writing, speaking, and listening). Reading, for example, may be more easily tailored to online instruction for ELs, as teachers can share vocabulary resources and differentiated reading passages. Educators can also stream read alouds to their students’ to support emerging readers and facilitate listening comprehension. But the two domains that center on student production of language, writing and speaking, may be more challenging to attend to virtually. Both writing and speaking require feedback for students’ skills to develop: learning a language is a highly social endeavor and requires students to be able to engage in conversations with peers and teachers throughout the day.

Families of ELs will also require access to information in their home languages so that they can be well-informed about how to best support their child’s learning at home and how to access the resources available to them. Some of these efforts can be facilitated through technology, but schools will need to use multiple forms of communication and outreach, including through home-school liaisons who speak the home languages of EL families.

School closures are also impacting annual English language proficiency assessments, which are used to track ELs’ progress learning English, level of proficiency and reclassification. As Alicia Passante, ESL Manager at Center City Public Charter Schools in Washington DC, shared in an email, schools were in the middle of ACCESS testing when they closed and it is unclear how they will continue with statewide testing given how much instructional time we students will have missed.

Guidance from the California Department of Education also importantly reminds districts that ELs’ “progress toward language acquisition” will need to be assessed upon their return to school to identify any “additional services and supports to account for how the distance learning program may have impacted the student’s progress toward proficiency.”

The need for resources and guidance will continue to grow as schools remain closed for an indeterminate amount of time. In the meantime, teachers of ELs are turning to a patchwork of online resources to support their students and families, including Reading A-Z, Vocabulary A-Z and Brainpop ELL.

For more guidance on resources and considerations for EL students and their families, see Colorín Colorado. Also see our recently launched EL Resource Hub that compiles research on federal/state policies, instructional programs, assessment, accountability, and other factors related to EL education.

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English Learners