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The Pandemic's Toll on English Language Learners

"Last year, I didn't learn nothing."

 Authors (Savas et al., 2021)
Source: Source: Authors (Savas et al., 2021)

By Özge Savaş, Kayla Fike, Zaynab Mahmood, and Neal McKenna

Mohammed, a 14-year-old Syrian whose family resettled in the U.S. four years ago, is eager to go back to in-person schooling. Although the thought of the classroom brings up painful memories of being bullied as an English Learner (EL), he prefers in-person education over online. He says, "Last year, I didn't learn nothing"—referring to the difficulties of online learning during the pandemic—and adds, "my goal in this life is just to learn English, then, inshallah [God-willing], when I grow up, I want to be an inventor."

His family's displacement from Syria and discriminatory educational policies in Jordan before their resettlement in the U.S. already disrupted his education twice, before the pandemic. With the sudden transition to remote learning during the pandemic, Mohammed and other ELs have experienced learning loss in multiplied and complex ways due to inequities in the U.S. educational system.

We got to know Mohammed and his experiences in the school system through the Language Advocacy Program (LAP). LAP, built on the foundation of language justice, aims to understand the experiences of Arabic-speaking ELs in K-12 education. The concept of language justice is concerned with appreciating native and indigenous languages, communities’ ability to maintain their native languages across generations, and making translation more widespread and accessible. LAP advocates for creating structures to increase every individual’s ability, regardless of the languages they speak, to be included in conversations that concern their rights, education, and well-being.

As part of LAP, Mohammed and his friends had the opportunity to tell us about their experiences in the U.S. educational system, in both Arabic and English, through in-depth interviews and focus groups. They benefited from the mentorship of first-generation Arabic-speaking college students through workshops; participated in multilingual discussions; explored notions of home, identity, and belonging; and learned to advocate for themselves. They also challenged and broadened college students' perspectives by engaging in conversations regarding the differences across class, ethnicity, and gender.

English Learners in the United States and Michigan

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s most recently published statistics, among ELs in 2014-2015, Hispanic or Latino was the largest racial/ethnic group (75 percent), followed by Asian (11 percent), White (6 percent), Black (4 percent), and American Indian, bi- or multi-racial, and Pacific Islander (less than 1 percent each). However, these race/ethnicity measures do not capture the greater diversity of the more than 400 native languages ELs speak in U.S. public schools. Arabic-speaking students are most likely absorbed between White, Black, Asian, and multi-racial categories, even though Arabic is the most commonly spoken non-English language after Spanish. The population identified as having Arabic-speaking ancestry is fast growing.

Even though Spanish speakers are still the majority of Michigan’s ELs (43 percent) with over 36,500 students, the state has the largest and most concentrated Arabic-speaking EL population in the nation with over 22,000 students (26 percent of ELs in the state). This creates a unique educational environment for EL students in districts where Arabs and Arab-Americans are highly concentrated. Mohammed and other middle schooler ELs shared their painful experiences of being bullied because of their accents, improper grammar, or lack of vocabulary. They reported being scared to ask their teachers questions in the classroom and being chronically behind in their learning, lacking support to learn the content and English simultaneously.

Barriers to Learning

The U.S. educational system is not prepared to respond to the needs of rapidly increasing ELs. Between 2009 and 2014, the percentage of ELs in K-12 grew in more than half of the states, some having more than a 40 percent increase. In the 2014-2015 academic year, 10 percent of the K-12 population were ELs. Almost two-thirds of all teachers have at least one EL in their classroom, with less than half of them having taken any class on how to instruct ELs.

ELs tend to lack access to digital learning resources (DLRs) and are more likely to lack a private study space at home. Families of ELs are more likely to live in impoverished areas with higher concentrations of COVID-19 cases, which added to their households' fragility over the past year and a half. Immigrant parents were more likely to become unemployed or work as essential workers during the pandemic, both of which resulted in different kinds of economic- and health-related precarity.

ELs in our program were not exceptions to these general national trends. Wayne County, Michigan, remained a high-risk area for COVID-19 from September 2020 until April 2021; It also contains the poorest school districts in Michigan. LAP participant Abdulfattah told us that he used his father’s smartphone to participate in class throughout the year. Sham and her brother were luckier to share one laptop they borrowed from their school. None of the students in our program who are children of refugee families owned private computers.

For ELs, learning loss is compounded by fear of losing English. Teacher training and pedagogical conditions are a primary concern when addressing the learning loss of ELs. According to a recent survey, most teachers reported supporting student learning using DLRs for general education than DLRs primarily designed for EL students. Two frequently reported reasons for this lack of DLR support for EL students were: 1) teachers' lack of expertise and time to learn how to use DLRs designed for ELs, and 2) EL students' lack of access to DLR-supporting devices at home.

Sham craved more time with her teachers while learning remotely. She says the teachers had only limited office hours, and if there were a lot of students asking questions, "Like I can't go ask the teacher what I want anytime." Abdul says that he could not meet with the teacher one-on-one every time he needed to, but when he did, it was the most helpful thing. Despite the challenges with the variants of the virus ahead, Mohammed adds, “I’ll take my sanitizer and mask and try my best.” ELs agree that online schooling did not support their English learning enough to prepare them for higher education and careers, and learning loss is layered with loss of English proficiency.

Addressing the Learning Loss

The setbacks ELs experienced to their English language development, declining school attendance, and academic achievement may be linked with an achievement gap and other systemic inequities for years to come. Students, families, and teachers often bear the brunt of learning loss after pandemics, natural disasters, or economic crises. It is unfair and insufficient to rely on individuals and communities to carry on with limited resources. In our view, the recovery plan from the learning loss should include schools, districts, states, and the federal government, with collaborative engagement of stakeholders at each level.

Some recommendations for addressing the widening gap between ELs and non-ELs equitably include:

  • Assessment: States and schools should use diagnostic and formative assessments to understand ELs's learning needs in the fall and track progress. These assessments will provide teachers with immediate data about student needs. Schools should intentionally address the areas of need after these assessments and invest in the students’ improvement based on evidence. Given that ELs experienced setbacks in improving English during the pandemic, states should guide interpreting the English Language Proficiency (ELP) results. Test results are important for pedagogical reasons and to secure funding for the schools.
  • Increased Learning Time: ELs benefit from increased one-on-one time with instructors and peers, working in smaller groups, and focused exercises and activities supporting their learning. Increased learning time could include longer school days, after-school programming, weekend schools, or summer schools. The schools should budget this time and instructional resources as they plan the following years.
  • Parent Engagement and Learning Support: Schools should consider removing barriers to parents’ participation in ELs’ educational environment. Some schools had English learning classes for adult refugees before the pandemic. Those programs should be continued and expanded. Schools should establish collaborations with local community organizations that welcome refugees to allow educational programs to be hosted in their buildings.
  • Funding and Budget Allocations: School districts and states need to increase resources for planning the curriculum as the schools identify the learning loss and ELs’ needs through assessment. Schools might consider budgeting in (1) hiring more specialized EL staff and support and compensation for teacher training specifically focused on EL pedagogy, (2) paying for additional time for teachers’ role in the assessment and curriculum development to address learning loss, (3) purchasing supplementary learning materials, and (4) staff to coordinate parent engagement and learning.

*Language Advocacy Program, a collaboration between the University of Michigan and ACCESS, was funded by Rackham Program in Public Scholarship.

About the authors: Özge Savaş and Kayla Fike received their Ph.D.s in Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of Michigan. Dr. Savaş is a faculty member at Bennington College and Dr. Fike is a Postdoc at the University of North Carolina’s School of Education. Zaynab Mahmood is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside. Neal McKenna received his MA in Asian Studies from University of Michigan and is currently managing the University’s Center for Chinese Studies.


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