Young children who are learning English require special consideration during virtual instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately 1 in 6 children in kindergarten and 1st grade in the United States are learning English as a second (or third) language. As teachers grapple with the monumental task of providing remote instruction to English-language learners, it's important that state and district leaders provide extensive support and clear guidelines for engaging their ELLs.
Virtual learning for elementary school students, particularly those in the early grades, has been provided in a wide range of formats, including live online sessions with teachers, videos, internet links, and printed packets. The responsibility of connecting young children to these resources often falls to parents. In many ELL communities, internet access may be limited to a cellphone, making it difficult for parents and children to navigate learning activities, especially if multiple children are in the home.
This spring, 48 states suspended school for the remainder of the school year, resulting in millions of students who will miss over 20 weeks of in-person learning. Given what we know about learning loss during the traditional summer months, it is critical to support families and teachers to ensure that children are able to engage in learning activities during this unprecedented time.
Under federal Title VI requirements, school districts are required to ensure that English-language learners can meaningfully participate in instruction. Although the types of in-person instructional services vary both across and within states, ELLs typically spend most of their school day in the general classroom with English-only peers and receive specialized instruction from English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teachers for a specified number of hours a week. In the current climate, it is critical that ELLs continue to make academic progress and receive social-emotional support from their teachers along with their English-only peers.
As state and district leaders consider outreach through email, phone calls, and physical copies of instructional resources for providing equitable access to possible remote instruction when schools reopen, we offer the following evidence-informed suggestions for consideration.
1. Support students' emotional and mental health by maintaining relationships with schools and teachers. During the abrupt end to in-person schooling because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to virtual instruction, it was important for school leaders to pay special attention to their districts' outreach efforts to families who do not speak English as their first language. Many families with English-language learners may also face significant challenges during this time from loss of work, separation from extended families, and concerns about their health. Information to help parents support their children allows for continuity of the central place of the school in the lives of many families. Additional resources from schools and districts for interpretation and translation with clear two-way communication may be necessary to support both teachers and families during remote instruction for ELLs.
2. Encourage and support families to use their best language. As parents have moved into a home schooling role, it is important to provide a clear message to families that by using their home language, they can continue to support their children's progress in literacy. In fact, recent research shows that young ELLs with strong early-literacy skills in their native Spanish at kindergarten entry made greater growth in English reading from kindergarten through 4th grade. In this study, the effect of early Spanish reading ability was more influential than students' ability to understand and speak English. Given the results of this study, the message for virtual learning is clear: Support and encourage families to use their best language. Skills learned from reading in native languages support learning in that language and can also transfer to learning to read in English.
3. Build on the considerable strengths of bilingual families. Families of English-language learners have considerable strengths that can be leveraged by schools and teachers to help them through this difficult time. By building on families' cultural wealth when planning virtual learning activities, ESL and classroom teachers can collaborate to tap into their students' cultural and family backgrounds through instructional activities that originate from a strengths-based viewpoint and can engage and sustain connections with families. Such a model can be used to recognize and build on family strengths and cultural knowledge. For example, teachers can offer learning activities that include the entire family, such as taking turns in storytelling or having older siblings read to younger ones. In the Latino community, for instance, parents may engage their children by using "cuentos" (stories) or giving "consejos" (advice in the form of a proverb).
4. Provide opportunities for enhanced teacher collaboration. Imagine kindergarten and 1st grade students and their parents trying to navigate virtual instruction from multiple teachers with different content, web portals, and instructional strategies. From our research in elementary schools, there are clear benefits for students when ESL and classroom teachers collaborate to provide aligned instruction with coordinated scaffolding for their ELLs. For example, after briefly planning together, ESL teachers can provide direct instruction to preteach specific academic vocabulary to support ELLs' comprehension during literacy lessons provided by their classroom teachers. Or ESL and classroom teachers can align instruction by using the same instructional strategies to teach phonics or reading- comprehension strategies across settings. Meaningful access to remote instruction for ELLs requires intentional collaboration between classroom and ESL teachers. As this type of collaboration is all the more difficult as the teachers themselves work remotely, it will require support for teachers from education agencies at the school, district, state, and national levels.
Focusing on supporting English-language learners and their families during virtual instruction will help teachers provide access to the curriculum and keep lines of communication open. While this is critical as families, teachers, schools, and communities adjust to life during various phases of stay-at-home orders in many states, these principles can also support families in the transition back to in-person schooling.
Leslie Babinski is an associate research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and the director of the Center for Child and Family Policy. Steven Amendum is an associate professor of literacy education in the School of Education at the University of Delaware. Steven Knotek is an associate professor in learning sciences and psychological studies and the coordinator of the School Psychology Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Marta Sánchez is an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and a faculty affiliate at Duke University.