3 Ways We Can Support the Unique Needs of English Language Learners After the Pandemic

Nov 4, 2021 12:00:00 AM


Picture this: a Spanish-speaking student in the back of the classroom struggling to understand a lecture. 

Now picture this: a Spanish-speaking student in the back of the classroom struggling to understand a lecture and then being told afterward to do work in English on computer software he doesn’t recognize. 

Now picture this: a Spanish-speaking student, at home, struggling to access the learning platform where instruction is happening, using software he doesn’t recognize, without anyone nearby who can help him bridge the access gap. 

Too often, English-learning students (ELs) faced challenges like those in that third scenario during the last two school years. And it is true that data on digital divides suggest that this last picture was the reality for many EL students across the nation for the past year. But a truly equitable pandemic recovery for ELs will require schools to wrestle with the underlying factors creating this reality to begin with. 

[pullquote]ELs faced particularly deep systemic biases well before schools shuttered in March 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic deepened these.[/pullquote] Given that the United States’ EL population continues to grow, it is imperative that policymakers and education leaders take the necessary steps to craft a pandemic recovery strategy that also confronts and closes these pre-pandemic gaps. 

To address and support the unique needs of English language learners and their families, policymakers and education leaders must consider the following recommendations.

Prioritizing Family Wellbeing

First, now more than ever, policymakers must ensure that schools provide linguistically and culturally competent family engagement that effectively reaches EL students and their families. This means translating all communications, overtly supporting ELs bilingualism and biliteracy, and taking families’ feedback into consideration when making decisions. Schools must make it standard practice to—at the very least—provide apps that offer translation between teachers and families and simultaneous translations for parent advisory meetings or training.

Family engagement is a key indicator for EL student success. When these families feel misunderstood, this can inhibit their involvement in their child’s education. Here are a few other ways to bridge the communication gap and improve family wellbeing.

  • Local education leaders can create ‘how-to’ videos in the top 5-7 languages most spoken by the district’s EL families, explaining how to access school resources, particularly digital learning materials. For example, check out this DC Public Schools video on how to use the digital learning platform Canvas.
  • Schools and teachers can collaborate with refugee resettlement agencies, community-based organizations, or faith-based organizations to connect more deeply with EL families and help them access online resources.
  • Schools and districts should hire bilingual staff—from the community, when possible—to facilitate more effective relationship building with ELs’ families. 

Increasing Funding 

Second, to support equitable access to first-rate learning opportunities for EL students after the pandemic, policymakers must finally provide them and their schools with sufficient funding. Some of this funding must go towards specified, consistent efforts to close the language barrier and digital gap combination that prevented EL students from gaining access to an equitable education during—and before—the pandemic.

This must begin with addressing basic needs, such as internet connectivity, access to a device for EL students, and training so that families are able to effectively use digital learning materials. Furthermore, funding should be provided to ensure that students can access online learning services in their native languages.

In pre-pandemic times, adequate educational services for EL students cost more than non-EL students, and available EL-focused funding was insufficient to cover those costs. The pandemic has only increased this gap. Policymakers must increase the current funding levels for serving EL students. There are three ways that state policymakers can increase funding for EL students. 

  • States can increase their per-pupil allocation for EL students. For example, the state of New Hampshire provides an extra $740.87 per EL student. Arkansas, by contrast, only provides schools with an additional $359 per student.
  • States can increase their weighted allocations for EL students. Some states calculate EL funding through percentages. For example, Oregon’s EL weight of 50% means that an EL student receives an additional 50% of the per-pupil base amount per student. Texas, by contrast, only provides schools with an additional 10% of the per-pupil base amount per student.
  • States can provide specific guidelines—and resources—to guide schools’ instructional approaches for serving ELs. For example, Georgia provides funds to hire one teacher for every seven EL students. Other states require districts to hire a higher baseline of EL-dedicated staff in schools with significant numbers of ELs, preferably those who are bilingual or multilingual. 

Re-Assessing EL Assessments

Finally, given that many schools’ remote learning approaches were not designed to meet ELs’ particular linguistic and academic needs, it is likely that many of these students did not make as much progress as they would have during normal school years. But data on this are scarce—this school year, policymakers and education leaders must prioritize gathering valid, reliable, authentic information about what EL students know and can do.

This starts by setting clear deadlines and providing materials to allow schools to update their data on each EL’s linguistic and academic development. Going forward, this also means investing the time and resources to create new standardized assessments, benchmarks, and goals for ELs as soon as possible. Here are a few ways policymakers and educational leaders can reassess and re-invent the assessment of EL students' learning.

  • Allowing ELs to use different language domains (oral presentations, non-verbal assessments, written assessments, etc.) to explain or demonstrate their understanding of grade-level content.
  • Developing STEM assessments in the top 5-7 languages spoken by EL students in their native language. These STEM assessments are meant to test their understanding of science, technology, engineering, and math— not their emerging mastery of the English language. Native-language STEM assessments will provide ELs with a quicker measurement of students' understanding of STEM subjects.
  • Providing EL students with a 6-8 week timeframe to settle into school prior to taking diagnostic linguistic screening assessments. These linguistic assessments are often done before students fully understand assessment practices. With COVID-19’s impact, this adjustment gap will be more than necessary. 

Jonathan Zabala

Jonathan Zabala is a policy associate at The Century Foundation, where he works on issues related to educational equity, English language learners, and dual language immersion programs. Born and raised in the city of Reading, Pennsylvania, he has a deep passion for urban education reform and anti-poverty policies. Prior to joining TCF, Jonathan was a teacher at McLain High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma through the Teach For America program. Most recently, he was a fellow at the Office of the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education. Jonathan holds a bachelor's in Political Science from Penn State University.

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