How Educators Are Tackling Disrupted Learning in ESL and Bilingual Students

New whitepaper highlights three strategies for helping English learners catch up — and how educators nationwide are making those innovations work

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Ten students walk through the entrance of a K-12 school in America. Go by the data, and at least one will be an English learner. 

In the United States, there are 5.3 million English learners (also known as multilingual learners, dual language learners or emergent bilinguals), the fastest-growing student population in U.S. K-12 education. In some districts, this can translate into serving a student population that speaks over 70 different languages. 

Traditionally underserved even before the pandemic, English learners were heavily impacted by COVID-19. At the same time, 32 states are experiencing shortages in English as a Second Language and bilingual teachers. 

Still, teachers are innovative and resilient. As a provider of tools for ESL teachers in districts across the U.S. and more than 120 countries, Off2Class witnessed student-centered innovation as districts effectively tackled disrupted learning. Our new whitepaper, “Listening to the Teachers: Six Ways to Tackle Disrupted Learning in English Language Learners,” captures some of those innovations and lessons from the pandemic in a series of case studies and results from a 2021 survey of Off2Class educators.

Focus on the right tools

In a time of scarcity, effective and research-backed ed tech is critical in saving teachers time. But there is a dizzying array of choice. One educator highlighted in the whitepaper, Tarro Funchess, works to place evidence and outcomes at the heart of adoption of any new education technology.

Funchess is the English language coordinator for the Canton, Mississippi, Public Schools. Before an ed tech product is adopted and rolled out, she collects evidence and buy-in from teachers to ensure it has the highest chance of success. She also founded an informal consortium of English learner coordinators around the state, sharing research and best practices and their own ed tech experiences. All those strategies increase the likelihood of a successful implementation. 

“You have to work the program,” said Funchess. “You can’t just sit students on the computer and expect them to do what they’re supposed to do.” 

Prioritize newcomers

Schools across the country are witnessing an increase in English learner populations — in the case of Ohio’s Springfield City School District, for example, a 31% rise over the last year. Learners from vulnerable environments are always a reality, and an increasing number of schools are now looking to integrate refugees from conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Ukraine.

These students face significant challenges in assimilating to their new schools. Effective educators prioritize newcomers, from ensuring classroom content is suitable to their age level and filling in instructional gaps (i.e. grammar) to providing virtual tutors, extending learning opportunities and offering a Newcomer Academy to ease the transition and integration for students into a new community.  

Oklahoma City saw a prime example of this type of support this year. Putnam City School District offered a special “Summer Recharge” program, targeting newcomers in middle and high school who had been in the U.S. for less than a year, with the goal of helping them improve their English proficiency, acquire computer literacy skills, fulfill graduation requirements — including passing a state-mandated citizenship test — and obtain high school credit. 

Led by Sally Diaz, secondary English language facilitator, the school-based program provided a mixture of hands-on learning and technology-enabled instruction targeting language skills in the classroom, as well as providing real-world learning opportunities, external lectures and field trips. The program saw strong results: attendance averaged 88%, 100% of students passed the citizenship test and 70% earned credit for computer literacy by demonstrating proficiency in programs such as Powerpoint and Excel. Based on observation, teachers reported improvement in participants’ language skills. 

Expand teacher capacity

By 2025, 1 in 4 classroom students is projected to be an English learner. But even before the pandemic, teacher supply had fallen far short of the demand. Addressing that need requires targeted interventions, such as grow-your-own teacher prep programs that take a holistic and comprehensive approach. 

One example is found in Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma, which serves 9,400 multilingual learners, representing 76 languages and about 37% of the entire student population. Dr. Laura Grisso, executive director of language and cultural services, believes great language teachers can come from all parts of the school and walks of life. So the district is prioritizing professional development to build the skills of existing teachers, while a program called Tulsa Teacher Corps, which follows what would traditionally be an emergency certification pathway, offers prospective educators who already have a bachelor’s degree state-funded coaching and graduate coursework.

Capacity is not only about training and hiring new teachers; it is about helping existing educators work more efficiently and providing a support system of translators and instructors who can work directly with students, parents and the local community. Springfield City, for one, is doing this by hiring English learner students and graduates. 

English learners will play an important role in the future of education in America. Districts need to ensure that students are able to get the support and training they need to thrive and succeed in the workforce and society. To do that, schools should consider how to ensure that all teachers have the tools and training to serve language learners. 

The lessons presented in the whitepaper are a start, but a shift in imagination and practice is needed, a shift that sees the ability to support language learning as a new basic competency for all educators.

Back to school cannot simply be back to normal. The stakes are too high.

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