Back to School for ELs after COVID -19

What will going back to school look like for the country’s 4.8 million English learners, many of whom are currently unable to access remote learning during school closure? Many families of ELs may have lost jobs or suffered from the virus itself, unable to send remittances to loved ones living in other countries, and many older ELs themselves are putting school aside to work or help care for younger siblings. When ELs return to school, how should schools reinvent their practices in order to better serve them? This post outlines four recommendations to schools and districts to consider in preparation for reopening schools and supporting ELs.

1. Tap into and build on current systems to identify areas of support for ELs

Use your district’s EL identification and intake procedures not only to meet compliance requirements for identification and programming purposes, but to gather information about the needs of ELs in your school community post-COVID.

  • Create a dedicated intake and outreach team to determine the educational history of new arrivals and learn about the students’ experience during COVID-19 school closure. Use your summer outreach team to interview or survey students and families, focusing on gathering information on every EL in the district to understand their circumstances and determine what support will be needed when students return to school. Follow up on technology needs and make plans to connect students with devices and Internet access.
  • Onboard all staff (again, even if you do not think you need to) in using your school’s student information systems to gather and disseminate critical information about ELs. Ensure that your systems elevate the relevant information about ELs (i.e., home language, language proficiency levels, and EL status) and that all stakeholders are aware of how to use that information. For example, ensure that all counselors are aware of the performance levels for language proficiency on state assessments and the home language best used to communicate with caregivers.

2. Create clear communication structures for information gathering and collaboration

Communication to Elevate Critical Student Needs - During the COVID-19 school closure, school communities that had high-functioning pre-existing communication networks moved those networks online and were able to quickly triage and identify student needs. These structures enabled various stakeholders to communicate and respond to students and families quickly. These communication structures consisted of an advisory or caseload management system, with regular routines and protocols for teachers and counselors to discuss critical student issues together.

Once educators return to school, they should establish or improve such structures to ensure that the monitoring of students continues. This includes every EL having a weekly check in with an adult who knows the student well, and a clear communication chain for information gathered from check ins to be shared with relevant stakeholders who work closely with that student. Such communication structures effectively use student information systems to document needs and actions taken in response. Information gathered by EL teachers or counselors should be shared with content teachers and leaders to ensure that there is collaboration between stakeholders in developing coordinated support for individual students and families.

Communication for Instructional Planning - Clearly naming expectations and procedures for collaboration between content teachers and ELD specialists and/or paraprofessionals can help teachers quickly respond to students. If schools need to go through periods of closure again in the future, stating roles and responsibilities of teachers who need to collaborate to support ELs will make disruptions easier to manage. Clearly established co-planning routines between teachers will ensure continuity of instruction for ELs.

Student to Student Communication - Schools can also build peer support networks for ELs or home language affinity groups. Older students can serve as mentors to younger students and ELs can share experiences and feelings about their challenges through structured interactions. These networks may become crucial if schools use altered schedules or continue some form of remote learning and can facilitate ongoing peer-to-peer interaction and community.

3. Use data to design strategic supports for ELs

Universal Literacy Screener - While the adoption of a literacy assessment into any school system even in normal times is an adaptive challenge, the downsides of not putting one in place after long-term school closure are great. Given that states suspended language proficiency assessments for ELs, we will go into the next school year with little information about students’ language development and the impact of prolonged school closure. This may lead to inconsistent or inappropriate academic programming, with students who were close to being redesignated or reclassified being programmed again for ELD courses that they will not benefit from, especially for students enrolling in a new school in the fall. Schools can choose a universal literacy screener that provides useful information about ELs’ English language development. When possible, English literacy data should be triangulated with home language assessments, classroom writing, and educational histories of ELs to gain an understanding of the strengths and assets that ELs bring to the classroom.  

To plan for implementation and develop assessment literacy, schools can convene reading assessment teams to administer assessments, analyze the data, turnkey findings about students’ language and literacy growth to content teachers, and adjust the curriculum they implement in response. These data can guide instruction for the year and will support teachers to use data to adjust online instruction in the event that schools have to return to a remote learning period.

Formative Assessment System for Language Development - If a screener is not used, schools can instead develop a comprehensive yearlong assessment system that includes a summative, interim, and classroom formative assessments. These assessments should focus on speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills to develop advanced literacy for all students including ELs. In particular, collecting and analyzing student writing from ELs can provide a wealth of information about students’ language development and surface actionable steps for ELD and content teachers to use for instruction.

Using Data for Programming - While language assessments determine EL services, how state programming guidelines are interpreted by individual school communities can vary. In the absence of performance levels from state exams, schools need to explicitly name their language development approach for ELs, how that is supported by the school program model and schedule, and determine entry and exit criteria for course pathways. Schools will need to triangulate a number of data sets (i.e., home language assessments, literacy, formative assessments, educational history and EL status) to determine the ideal program model, especially if schools continue providing some form of remote learning. This allows schools to adjust to the unique needs of newcomers and long-term ELs, as well create transfer or bridge programs for older ELs who may want to continue their education but could benefit from accommodations in class schedules in order to participate in the labor force.

4. Adjust curriculum and instruction to be responsive

Build on the assets and potential of ELs - Even before the pandemic, for many ELs, school often feels like a catch up situation and it will feel like a losing battle after losing months of quality instruction. Instructional leaders can reframe a school’s efforts to focus on building learner independence and ending practices that previously created barriers to learning for ELs. Rather than “catching up” on skills needed for state assessments, identify the essential knowledge to teach, emphasize progress and the strengths your students bring, and adjust instruction to meet their needs. Even with school closure, ELs will bring different perspectives that will benefit the classroom. Teachers should tap into their potential instead of narrowly focusing on test-taking, or remediation of basic skills.

Improve and develop coherence in curriculum and teaching -- School leaders will have to develop consensus on the use of curriculum for ELD instruction and content-area instruction for ELs. Teachers are best set up to plan coherent instruction that is consistently effective across a range of classroom contexts when they plan and teach within the framework of a shared curriculum. Deciding to choose or design a shared curriculum at the local level ensures that EL specialists can collaborate with content teachers to make instruction accessible. A shared curriculum also means a coherent experience for ELs and their families who are trying to navigate the complicated expectations and practices of different teachers.

Furthermore, a coherent curriculum supports a broad group of teachers who are still developing their capacity to serve ELs to focus less on what they will teach and more on evidence-based teaching practices. Teachers benefit from school leaders who facilitate the development of a set of shared practices to support ELs in face-to-face and virtual classrooms. These shared practices should include plans for systematic peer-to-peer interactions through virtual platforms, norms for EL instruction happening through virtual platforms, language and content-integrated lesson objectives, and teaching practices for speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Such practices that benefit ELs are also supportive of all students.

Refocus professional learning efforts on advanced literacy for all students -- One obvious inequity exposed by COVID-19 is the fact that students who struggle with remote learning (Internet access aside) are often those who struggle to independently access texts, whether it is because of a learning or attention issue, or being new to learning English. When schools reopen, the priority of professional learning efforts should be on developing learners who can independently access reading and writing tasks delivered  in any format. This requires a focus across the curriculum on the components of reading and core academic language skills for all students. ELD specialists and paraprofessionals, along with literacy specialists, can play a role in leading professional learning and support their colleagues to develop content expertise in educational linguistics and literacy.


Returning to school will be a challenge for all educators. Schools will open in the fall with a chance to reinvent their schools to better serve their students. Educators can reflect on the many creative and innovative practices proliferated by their courageous and compassionate teachers during school closure and use what was learned to remake schools into vital and resilient communities for ELs and their families.

The mission of the English Learners Success Forum (ELSF) is to collaborate with field-leading researchers, district leaders, teachers, content creators, and education funders to improve the supply and accessibility of high-quality K-12 mainstream instructional materials that address the linguistic and cultural needs of ELs while building smart demand to reach educators at scale – all with the goal of providing ELs full access to grade-level content and quality learning. Unlike most efforts that aim to improve EL learning outcomes, ELSF focuses exclusively on ensuring that full-year core instructional materials guide teachers in addressing these students’ varying needs.

We do this by connecting English learner experts and quality curriculum developers through participatory review cycles that leverage specific language criteria in ELA and mathematics to improve materials. We also provide concrete examples and clear guidance to those developing content, including districts, schools, teachers, and curricula developers.


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