Photo: Zaidee Stavely/EdSource
Jessica Gutierrez, a Fresno Unified preschool teacher, pictured here before schools closed.

Teachers across California are worried that students who are learning English will fall behind in their language skills due to the school closures and are trying various approaches to connect with those students and their families.

Even as concerns have been raised about the quality of instruction for native English speakers, those who are still new to the language face an even greater hurdle.

“The big missing element is that we learn language, usually, in a face-to-face context,” said Leslie Hubbert, who teaches 3rd grade in the small agricultural town of Boonville in Mendocino County. “And English language learners are not getting as much face-to-face contact as they need. It’s just another way that this gap is widening more and more.”

About 40 percent of California public school students speak a language other than English in their homes. These students are considered English learners until they pass a test and meet other requirements to show they are fluent in English.

“The kids that were on the cusp of being lost are now just gone,” said Julie Groya, English Language Development teacher at Culver City Middle School.

Classes held in real time on online platforms like Zoom aren’t ideal for English learners, teachers say, especially if they include large groups of students.

“Very few of my students really feel comfortable speaking in the format that Zoom has given us,” said Julie Groya, who teaches English Language Development at Culver City Middle School in Los Angeles County.

To learn English, children need a lot of practice speaking aloud and interacting with others. Many of those opportunities to practice interacting in English were lost when school campuses closed in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Several organizations that work with teachers to improve education for English learners are offering help through webinars and other online support. They recommend that teachers supply parents with resources in their home language and do more synchronous online classes for English learners, meaning they happen in real time, instead of recorded videos or assignments that students do on their own. Instruction in small groups or one-on-one is ideal, with activities that get students talking in English.

With campuses closed, not only is the in-person connection lost; a host of other obstacles make distance learning harder for English learners. Teachers have a hard time communicating with parents when they don’t speak their language. In addition, many English learners didn’t have internet access at home before the pandemic. And many immigrant parents are essential workers who have to leave home every day to work in the fields or grocery stores, for example, so they can’t be home helping their children with schoolwork.

“We’re hearing lots of stories of older siblings taking care of younger siblings, just more kind of survival-mode family care situations,” said Anya Hurwitz, executive director of SEAL (Sobrato Early Academic Language), a nonprofit organization that provides training and assistance to help elementary schools and preschools across the state improve how they teach English learners. Hurwitz said many English learners “don’t have what many middle- and upper-income kids have, which is one or more adults giving them a lot of their time to support their online learning right now. Just in general, we’re hearing stories of teachers who can’t get ahold of the kids or the families at all.”

Hurwitz said it’s crucial that teachers have time to reach out to families individually, by phone if the family does not have internet or is not responding to other communication.

“Knowing that bilingualism is a gift, it is amazing that they have this time to really bathe them in their home language,” said Jessica Gutierrez, a preschool teacher in the Fresno Unified School District.

Groya is especially worried about one recent immigrant student who she has not been able to communicate with much since the pandemic began. He had already been missing many classes when campus was open, but he didn’t want to talk about his home life.

“The kids that were on the cusp of being lost are now just gone,” Groya said. “There’s not a lot we can do to bring them back, unless we do home visits, and we make sure there is someone to monitor them at home, and technology is available.”

Most students learning English in California are in English-only programs, where teachers may not speak a student’s native language. In a survey conducted in April of about 2,000 California parents, most of them Spanish speakers, the Parent Institute for Quality Education found that close to a third of parents did not understand the instructions sent home about distance learning. Almost half of the parents of English learners surveyed said their children were not receiving the language support they need. The Parent Institute for Quality Education is a nonprofit organization that holds workshops and seminars for parents and schools to improve family engagement.

“A lot of parents call me, email me, or send me text messages asking me what to do or how to do it. They have children who just got to this country. They don’t speak the language, and they don’t know the language or how to use the technology,” said Angélica Cárdenas, parent liaison at Maywood Academy High School in Los Angeles County. Cárdenas also went through a Parent Institute for Quality Educationprogram and now helps give seminars to other parents.

“We know that parent engagement is key. Now more than ever, we really need to support parents,” said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California, a nonprofit organization that promotes early learning.

Lozano and other experts on English learners agree teachers should encourage parents to read and talk with their children in their native language as much as possible. Having more time to spend with parents or other family members who speak another language can be an opportunity, they said.

“Knowing that bilingualism is a gift, it is amazing that they have this time to really bathe them in their home language,” said Jessica Gutierrez, a preschool teacher in the Fresno Unified School District. “We know that English is not hurt by developing the home language. It’s actually helped by having knowledge in the home language.”

Many of Gutierrez’s students speak Spanish or Hmong at home. Gutierrez has been recording videos of herself reading books aloud to her students in English and Spanish and sharing other videos of books and children’s songs in Hmong.

She also holds Zoom calls for all her students twice a week at different times of the day, to fit with more families’ schedules. Gutierrez has also noticed many of her students speaking in their home languages during the calls, often to their family members. She said she uses that as an opportunity to encourage them, even when she doesn’t understand the language.

“I say, ‘It’s so great. I hear your mom speaking Hmong to you. What is she saying?’” Gutierrez said.

Teachers have shared ideas for teaching English learners from a distance in a series of webinars organized by Californians Together, a statewide coalition focused on improving education for English learners in California.

Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, former executive director and now strategic advisor for the coalition, said a high school English Language Development teacher had students reflect on how they are experiencing the pandemic by drawing a picture of themselves and writing words about what they have seen and learned about the coronavirus and how it makes them feel. Then they talked with each other about what they had written.

“That’s the kind of interaction we’re talking about,” Spiegel-Coleman said.

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