English-Language Learners

Virtual Learning Made Persistent Problems Worse for English-Learners

By Ileana Najarro — June 03, 2022 4 min read
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Bit by bit researchers continue to piece together how virtual learning impacted English-language learners’ education, from limiting vital in-person interactions with teachers and peers to leaving some without a robust support system at home.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office released in May found that teachers who were teaching in a virtual environment with at least 20 percent English-learners reported that their students “struggled with understanding lessons and completing assignments, having an appropriate workspace, accessing school meals, and getting assistance at their workspace.”

The findings are based on a nationally representative survey of elementary and secondary public school teachers conducted last summer. The report is part of a series from the GAO looking at how learning through the pandemic has played out for students both in terms of the obstacles they have faced and best practices to support students moving forward.

A 2020 report from the agency, for example, found that when schools turned to virtual learning early in the pandemic, English-learners lost access to learning and resources, such as not having reliable internet access at home to log in for classes, and more broadly lost access to peers and teachers who could help with language development.

Yet researchers including Jacqueline Nowicki, director of K-12 education for the federal agency, said many of the challenges English-learners experienced in virtual learning aren’t new—and neither are their solutions.

“I think [the pandemic] really just exacerbated and made more obvious gaps that researchers have known for years,” Nowicki said.

Pre-pandemic issues under the spotlight

Some of the GAO findings include:

  • Elementary school teachers with a high percentage of English-learners were at least three times more likely than other elementary school teachers to report their students regularly lacked an appropriate workspace at home.
  • Middle school teachers with a high percentage of English-learners were about six times more likely than other middle school teachers to report their students regularly had difficulty understanding lessons.
  • Middle school teachers with a high percentage of English-learners were about six times more likely than other middle school teachers to report their students regularly had difficulty completing class assignments.
  • Teachers with a large number of students who received free or reduced-priced meals also reported similar disparities.

The findings complement other researchers’ insights about virtual instruction for English-learners in particular—some the function of longstanding issues.

The lack of preparation that general education teachers receive to support English-learners in their classroom was an issue pre-pandemic that was showcased more clearly in virtual learning, said Amaya Garcia, deputy director of Pre-K–12 education at the think tank New America.

Garcia and Leslie Villegas, senior policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America, wrote a report released in April based on interviews with 20 English-learner advocates, experts, and researchers. They looked at everything from how identification of English-learner students to funding was impacted by the pandemic.

Younger students got less direct English instruction overall due to educators limiting screen time, they found. Older students lost opportunities to interact with and learn from their peers. Virtual learning didn’t allow for the usual visual aids, like charts and diagrams, students might have seen in the physical classroom.

Garcia and Villegas fear that now educators will be focused on catching students up and on what students weren’t able to learn during virtual instruction instead of thinking about what they did learn and how to use that to fill in gaps in understanding and language development.

Research shows how strengthening a home language can facilitate English language development, and some English-learners were able to make gains in language development while attending school virtually. But “our education system is not really prepared to assess those gains in those home languages,” Villegas said.

Strategies for success aren’t new

For now, strategies to better support students going forward are rooted in practices that were successful before the pandemic.

The GAO report, for instance, found that one-on-one check-ins between teachers and students, and small group work in person were successful strategies teachers used to help students stay on track academically.

Schools, districts, and school networks that were better able to meet students’ needs through virtual learning already had strong communication and engagement plans and strategies with parents and families, Villegas said.

“I think that moving forward making sure that that continues to be a priority across schools is one of the big opportunities here,” Villegas said.

And while COVID-19 federal relief funds for schools are being used to buy more products such as software and headphones for English-learners, Garcia said there’s an opportunity to better ensure students are well supported by instead investing in human capital such as bilingual counselors, home-school liaisons, teachers, and more.

“As districts continue to think about ways to invest these ESSER funds, I think that there needs to be some consideration of how to create more holistic supports and systems to serve [English-learners],” Garcia said.


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