Why is this a particularly urgent time for supporting ELs?

April 29, 2020

Beginning on March 19th, 2020, states and school districts across the nation began issuing stay-at-home orders for residents in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This spread quickly to schools, and as of April 19th, 32 states, three U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia have ordered school building closures for the rest of the year. As described by Education Week, Colorin Colorado, and others, it quickly became apparent that English Learner students were going to be more negatively impacted by these school closures.

Through its national network of EL specialists and leaders, English Learners Success Forum (ELSF) sent out a Strategies and Needs survey. Educators across the country—from California to Massachusetts, and Florida to Minnesota—responded to the ELSF survey between March 26 and April 22, 2020. These respondents consisted primarily of teachers (60%), school or district leaders (11%), and instructional coaches (11%). Furthermore, ELSF’s Experts also conducted interviews with stakeholders whose experiences were not represented by the survey—including content developers, teachers, students, and parents—and ELSF continues to collect data and experiences to inform the field as the situation develops.

For the next 5 weeks, ELSF will be tackling problems of practice as they emerge from these findings, while offering insights and practical suggestions to educators. This week, we answer the question: Why is this a particularly urgent time for supporting ELs?

This Week’s Data Highlight: According to ELSF’s Strategies and Needs Survey, internet connectivity at home was cited as the #1 barrier to EL students accessing learning materials remotely (89.4%), with a lack of computer or tablet accessibility (73.8%) and family language barriers (70.2%) coming close behind.

What does this mean for students?

Hector, a recently reclassified EL student in California, writes that distance learning is “very stressful.” He continues, “I have to get my work done without much help and without wifi. So I have to do all my work on my phone... Two of my brothers don’t have a phone [to use for schoolwork] because they are too young.” Hector explains that his younger siblings try to use his parent’s smartphone for school when his parents are available, but this access is inconsistent. Meanwhile, Hector is often the primary caretaker of his younger siblings during the day. He explains, “I have chores that I do like washing the dishes, taking care of my siblings, and sometimes cooking when my mom leaves for work. I have 3 younger brothers and a sister.”

“I have to get my work done without much help and without wifi. So I have to do all my work on my phone... Two of my brothers don’t have a phone because they are too young.”

Hector’s experience illuminates the difference between his distance learning environment and the environment of many of his non-EL peers, who may already have WiFi and computers or tablets at home to complete their online learning. While some of the nation’s school districts have already made plans to loan out Chromebooks or other digital devices to support remote student learning for all students, this access to technology is inconsistent and inequitable across neighborhoods and socio-economic settings. Hector’s school district is  financially under-resourced. At Hector’s school, there are not enough devices (Chromebooks or tablets) available in the school to provide 1:1 devices for every student, and, so far, a number of students have been turned away from checking out Chromebooks because there simply were not enough devices available at the school. Meanwhile, even having access to a Chromebook is not helpful for a student like Hector who does not have WiFi at home.

Hector’s experience is particularly poignant because during the early transition to remote-learning, many teachers and districts were presented with a deluge of educational apps offering to provide free or reduced-cost remote learning to their students until the end of the school year. However, these were often new and different platforms from what EL students were used to, and there was always an embedded assumption that all students (including ELs) had adequate access to technology at home.

What does this mean for districts?

Hector’s proposed solution to the problem is to the point: “The school should find a way to give students work without needing WiFi or give students all the resources they need to do the work.” Without this solution, current and former EL students like Hector and his siblings will struggle to access any online learning for the rest of the school year, and this could further widen the existing opportunity gap. It is therefore incredibly important for districts to: 1) prioritize getting remote learning devices into the hands of students, and 2) train EL students on how to use these devices successfully. These actions would support  both an immediate and a long-term digital literacy need for ELs.

“students need physical, in-person interactions [...] I can’t see his face to see if he got what I’m saying.”

Chelsea, an 11th grade teacher, talks about how she has leveraged social media sites that her EL students already use. She says, “The way that kids communicate is different than adults. Just the platform itself is different, so [trying to provide remote lessons to EL students presents] two barriers in one: the platform and the language.”

Chelsea continues that another problem is that “students need physical, in-person interactions.” Now the English Learners who asked for regular supports during her in-class lessons are just staring at a screen - if they have one. One particular EL student that Chelsea supported during the school year “asked me 1000 questions with every lesson. Now he’s not able to do that as much as he would be. I can’t see his face to see if he got what I’m saying.”

In general, the transition to online learning exposed the fact that much of the classic support offered to ELs during the regular school year happens inside the classroom via one-on-one teacher check-ins and other personalized support scaffolds. These in-person supports disappeared during the quick transition to distance learning, and educators and families have since been scrambling to pick up the pieces. Despite the introduction of new educational apps to provide distance learning, the majority of educational apps were not designed for full-time use on a smartphone and/or do not include embedded language supports for ELs. Consequently, teachers are still struggling to use the tools of distance learning to give their ELs the same personalized support.

Local Discussion: As a way to apply the findings in your own context, consider what data your school or district collects about the access to online learning specifically for English learners. Are the percentages similar to what ELSF is finding? Are you currently collecting this data? If not, how can you work with local school leaders and IT departments to get this information?

A few of the resources that ELSF have already assembled to support districts in thinking about these transitions include the following:

In the upcoming weeks, ELSF will address 4 more urgent problems of practice to support all stakeholders in providing the necessary support for English Learners during this unprecedented time in U.S. history. Going forward, we will look at these challenging times as opportunities to harness the creativity of the field to work on forward-thinking solutions.

Next week, Joanna Yip will use survey data and notes from the field to explore the topic: Back to School for ELs after Covid-19.”  


Colette Kang is an Instructional Teacher Leader for grades 6-12 with the Oakland Unified School District where she coaches teachers and collaborates with school leaders to ensure that all students are demonstrating College and Career Readiness in English Language Arts. Prior to working with ELSF, she worked with district and charter schools across Seattle and the Bay Area as a teacher of both English and Mathematics, during which time she focused primarily on creating equitably differentiated instruction for high-needs students, including English Learners. Colette received her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Washington in Seattle, and completed her M.A. in Education with an Emphasis in Teaching at Mills College, where she received the “Social Justice Research Award” from the Mills faculty for her work on developing math confidence with historically marginalized student populations. Colette originally hails from San Francisco and now lives in San Leandro, CA.

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