Pandemic Learning Was Tough On Everyone. Bilingual Students Faced...

English Language Learning

Pandemic Learning Was Tough On Everyone. Bilingual Students Faced Additional Challenges

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Apr 13, 2022

Patricia Lozano, center, leads her fifth grade class in a reading exercise at Graciela Garcia Elementary in Pharr, Texas. Photo by Delcia Lopez for EdSurge.

PHARR, TEXAS — In the entryway of Graciela Garcia Elementary, visitors are greeted twice. Once by a huge multi-colored sign that says “Welcome” and again by one that reads “Bienvenidos.”

Another sign cheerfully declares, “Today is English day!”

All that is made explicit because Garcia Elementary is a dual-language school. Just a couple days after Thanksgiving break 2021, its teachers aren’t just trying to get students caught up on multiplication tables or grammar. They’re making up for months lost to the pandemic when students could have been making bigger strides with their second language, English, which they will need when they’re older and expected to take all their classes in.

This is an issue that touches nearly every student at Garcia Elementary, an International Baccalaureate school where 77 percent of the kids are what Principal Sandra Garcia calls “emergent bilinguals.” While some students at the school are learning Spanish for the first time, the term is used to refer to students whose primary language is other than English—and who are in the process of acquiring it.

In the community around the school, nestled in a rural area of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Garcia says, “A lot are recent immigrants, and a lot speak Spanish at home.” The campus is a 15-minute drive from an international bridge that connects Pharr to Reynosa, its sister city in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

Left: Students at Garcia Elementary work on a reading exercise. Right: A sign at the dual language school's entrance announces that—as with every Tuesday and Thursday—students, faculty and staff will be speaking English during their day-to-day interactions. Spanish is spoken the other days of the week. Photos by Delcia Lopez for EdSurge.

As with other problems that long dogged the education system, the pandemic exposed the lack of resources along with barriers that English-learning students face in receiving an equitable education, says Leslie Villegas, a senior policy analyst at New America’s Education Policy Program.

She was part of a research duo that interviewed 20 English-language education leaders across the country to learn how they and students managed during virtual schooling. Their new report found that the sudden shift to remote instruction—and all its limitations—had a “disproportionate impact” on students who were learning English.

“It’s a disservice to the teachers and educators, who have been working really hard, to say that no learning happened,” Villegas says. “What stood out for us was that schools and districts that fared better throughout the pandemic already had strong support and instructional systems in place. Those that didn't, realized they couldn't just create these systems overnight.

“What happened was that not-so-strong models were simply being translated into an online platform,” she says.

An Intricate Dance

One big challenge for the first graders in Abelardo Garza’s classroom during lockdown was they were just starting to learn how to read. Students in kindergarten and first grade at Garcia Elementary get Language Arts instruction in their primary language in order to build a strong foundation.

Take a simple word like “bat.” Garza might ask students to identify the sounds they hear at the beginning, middle and end to help them “decode” the word.

It’s an intricate dance to balance instruction with 7-year-olds’ attention spans. And it’s a dance that requires teachers to have control over the learning environment: something that was sorely lacking during virtual learning.

“Kids this age need a good foundation, and we were a little worried about how we were going to facilitate that,” Garza said from his classroom, surrounded by tables and chairs miniaturized for his students. “We depended a lot on adult support because 5, 6, 7-year-olds with a tablet, with a computer, they needed a lot of help.”

Clockwise from left: Patricia Lozano gives instructions to her class of fifth-graders. Young students line up in a Garcia Elementary hallway for a trip to the library. Students work together on an assignment; teachers at the dual language school pair together students who are stronger Spanish speakers with peers who are stronger English speakers so they can support each other during school work. Photos by Delcia Lopez.

After gaining a foundation in one language, students are expected to begin learning the same in their second language (either Spanish or English) by the time they leave second grade.

Across the school, the walls of Patricia Lozano’s fifth grade classroom are adorned with vocabulary words posted in English and Spanish.


Anchor chart/póster de estrategia.

Now that they’re in-person, Lozano has worked hard to get students talking. She’s been able to return students to their routine of group and paired work, where an English-proficient student and a Spanish-proficient student team up to support each other.

Engaging students virtually during lockdown was onerous, Lozano recalls. They turned off their cameras and didn’t interact with each other. Even after the initial return to campus, it was as though students were still virtual.

Many Garcia Elementary students don’t have WiFi at home. The district deployed WiFi-connected buses to neighborhoods and gave out hotspots, but Lozano’s students still struggled with choppy signals. Parents worried about their children’s academic progress opted for in-person classes in April 2021, when it became optional.

“They would just stare or say a couple words,” Lozano says. “They had not practiced the language with their peers, and they were shy.”

There was a big gap when these emergent bilinguals returned to campus, not only with academics but with confidence in speaking English. Lozano’s fifth graders were in third grade when virtual learning began, she says, and many students learning English didn’t have someone to practice speaking with at home.

Once Lozano had students back in the classroom, her strategy to get them to open up was making games out of group work, where students who interacted the most with each other got points and entered into weekly raffles. Bit by bit, their discussions became longer.

“I have seen a big improvement,” Lozano says.

Broader View

When Villegas interviewed bilingual education professions across the country, she found that the pandemic revealed which districts had invested in support for those programs and which lagged behind.

Schools that had strong instructional programs for English learners had an easier time transitioning to remote learning, she says, and one state-level administrator told Villegas that the pandemic highlighted the need to have a conversation with districts still employing more antiquated, less successful models.

“It's a good testament as to why those investments have to happen all the time, not just in the face of a pandemic or emergency,” Villegas says. “But just because [students] were logging on doesn't mean they were able to engage in the instruction and curriculum.”

Teachers were overwhelmed, too, and bilingual students lost support. Villegas’ research found that educators who teach English as a second language were pulled away to staff general education classes, while in other cases general education teachers were thrust into ESL roles with little preparation.

One model of bilingual education involves taking students out of core classes for structured English instruction, she adds, which interferes with students fully participating in those core classes.

“If they were already kind of being siloed and pushed into another class and not accessing the full range of academic courses, it also happened in remote settings—but on steroids,” Villegas says.

Clockwise from left: At Garcia Elementary—where 77 percent of students are emergent bilinguals—vocabulary in both English and Spanish can be found all around, including on common items like supplies organizers. Classroom posters appear in both languages. A student reads a story in English. Reading comprehension teacher Maureen Ibarra answers questions from students. Photos by Delcia Lopez for EdSurge.

Maureen Ibarra teaches fluency and reading comprehension to students in second through fifth grade at Garcia Elementary. Among the challenges younger kids faced during lockdown, she reports, was that they didn’t have an instructor working side-by-side anymore, or an adult who could help with assignments in their second language. Ibarra was accustomed to being able to give such one-on-one attention to struggling students.

Like Lozano, she also saw students go into silent mode upon initial return: they were used to sitting at a computer and listening. Ibarra saw a huge gap in reading and vocabulary.

That had a domino effect. Without vocabulary, students couldn’t move on to reading comprehension.

“I’m not going to say they’re on-level. They’re progressing in small steps, but I can see them progressing,” Ibarra says.

In her second-grade group, Ibarra started the year with six students who needed to catch up. Before Thanksgiving break, she had sent three of them back to regular Language Arts classes after they reached their reading level, and she was confident the remaining three would follow suit by semester’s end. As students leave the group, others who need help replace them. Ibarra’s outlook is pragmatic.

“There is a gap. Are we going to close it in one year? Maybe not,” Ibarra says. “The students are doing their best, we as teachers are trying our best, and hopefully we can do as much as possible to get them to the level they should be.”

Villegas believes it will take years to fully know the impact of the pandemic and virtual learning struggles on emergent bilingual students as they progress through school. But those challenges also revealed the need for more-holistic approaches for English-learners-—like project-based learning and assessment that schools utilized while remote.

“If we keep talking about the gaps between English-learners and non-English-learners in math and science, in terms of what they're capable of, it paints a very incomplete picture,” Villegas says. “These things eventually create barriers. The ‘English proficient’ label is often treated as a gatekeeper to full academics in school, potentially excluding [students] from things like advanced courses that will help them get into college.”

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