Addressing the needs of English learners during the pandemic

The following commentary was written by APPS member Cheri Micheau and published by The Notebook on April 15, 2020.

During the coronavirus crisis, staff and administration in the Philadelphia School District have been understandably concerned about equitable access to online/virtual instruction for all students, including those with special needs. I am sure that the public applauds its plan, in this rapidly changing and unpredictable situation, to buy and distribute Chromebooks, work with service providers to ensure that all students have internet connections, and produce educational packets and online resources.

Instructional approaches will inevitably evolve, and the outbreak provides an opportunity to consider how, and how well, the District has been addressing the learning needs of English learners (ELs) and how it will meet their instructional requirements online. This attention could pay off in more appropriate instructional approaches and policies, both now and in the long term.

I have long advocated, from both inside and outside the District, for high-quality, thoughtful English learner education. It has been clear to me that the needs of English learners have been poorly understood and only superficially addressed by the District for decades.

Despite pleas in recent years from administrators, teachers, parents, and activists, the District has made few changes in many problematic policies and practices. These include how to treat English learners when it comes to academic assessment, how to approach content-area instruction, how to design programs for English learners with special needs, how to assure appropriate high school selection, and how to treat English learners when calculating the all-important School Progress Report scores.

English learners have suffered through incomprehensible content-area classes, have been assigned homework and home projects that were not adjusted to their linguistic needs, have been placed in newcomer programs that do not ensure college and career readiness, have been assessed and graded without fair consideration of their linguistic levels, and have even been blamed for lowering the School Progress Report scores. School administrators and teachers have not been held accountable enough for accommodating these students’ academic, linguistic, and social needs, or even understanding what those needs are.

English learners, particularly those at beginner and intermediate levels, would be unable to handle the recently distributed educational materials designed for native-speaker students and probably would not have parents at home who could help them with English-language assignments. So it is encouraging that efforts have been made to adjust the materials in the learning packets. There is a “focus on language activity” for each segment in each subject, as well as additional strategies to make materials more accessible. The packets include newcomer materials for grades K-12, and directions have been translated into five languages.

But that same level of concern for these students’ lack of access to comprehensible instruction had been sadly lacking before this crisis.

Before the shutdown, how many materials and assignments have been sent home with absolutely no consideration of the resources that children would have to complete them successfully? How many classes were delivered with no concern for ELs’ lack of listening skills or relevant vocabulary? How many times have newcomers been seated in the back of the room, lost in a fog of confusion or acting out because of frustration? How many parent conferences were missed by ELs’ parents because of a school’s unwelcoming culture? We can definitely do better, and perhaps through this current challenge, we will learn how to do that.

I have several suggestions for doing better both during this crisis and afterward.

At one time, back in the days when legal pressure was on the District to accommodate ELs, teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) were actively recruited to assist with selecting materials and creating curriculum, including lessons, activities, and projects. That is no longer the case.

With a few notable exceptions, most people in the District’s central office have little expertise or experience in ESOL instruction, as compared to master ESOL teachers across the city. We would be wasting a rich resource if we didn’t involve teachers — and compensate them — in helping to create instructional materials for this new online platform. The District may be moving in that direction with a recent call for teachers to assist in creating online materials; ESOL teachers should be included in this effort.

Second, guidelines for content-area teachers working with ELs online should be published by the Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs, based on best practices from the professional development program Quality Teaching for English Learners (QTEL). A number of content-area teachers at Philadelphia middle and high schools have been trained in QTEL techniques, and the District should draw on their expertise, especially experienced sheltered content teachers. These guidelines should also contain a set of reminders about resources (online dictionaries, bilingual resources, etc.) that teachers may share with their EL students.

Furthermore, I hope that ESOL class is not disregarded when thinking about online instruction through Google Classroom and the daily office hours. Over the last few years, the District took what I think is an ill-considered move to “push-in” instruction, where the ESOL teacher assists or co-teaches in the regular content-area classroom. As a result, in many schools, students have not been receiving much – or any – targeted language support. But using the online format would make it possible for students to participate in ESOL classes at their level and get the kinds of grammar, vocabulary, writing, and reading support that once was part of a fully developed and research-supported language program.

As the District develops lessons for each grade, ESOL teachers could provide the kind of adjunct language instruction – repeating the main ideas, reinforcing language of the lesson, providing more oral participation opportunities – that is unfortunately not offered anymore in most schools. This face-to-face instruction through Google Meet could allow students to progress linguistically and find greater academic success, giving them an opportunity not regularly afforded many ELs. The main barrier to this is that many schools have small ESOL staffs and many English learners. The central office should, therefore, give them clear guidance to make sure that they are working effectively and assisting as many students as possible.

It is also important to give clear guidance to Bilingual Counseling Assistants (BCAs) during this crisis. From their home computers, parents will now be able to talk to and see BCAs who might be able to answer questions and address their concerns in their native languages. Many of the BCAs are assigned to various schools on different days of the week, but perhaps during the crisis, they could be available to parents in all their schools each day during school hours and set up a schedule. It might also be possible to give parents a list of all the BCAs who speak their language and may be contacted for help. BCAs should also be required to reach out to students from their schools periodically to check on them, much like teachers and counselors are now. Some BCAs are already doing this.

Finally, principals and assistant principals have never been afforded more than superficial training in addressing the needs of ELs. Because training was never mandatory, few principals attended sessions on EL instruction. Nor does state certification for administrators include sufficient relevant coursework on teaching students with special needs such as ELs. So during this time when principals will be available online, some mandatory virtual training could be provided by qualified District staff. Topics could include how to provide linguistic and academic accommodations, how to create a truly culturally welcoming school, the science behind second language acquisition, and insight into the language and culture of different immigrant groups in the city.

There are many unknowns during this pandemic, evoking fear and pessimism. Yet students and schools could reap some long-term benefits from the shift to online instruction. To make lemonade out of the lemon of this crisis, the District should expand its current efforts, taking several actions that could transform how it educates and accommodates its large and varied English learner population.

Cheri Micheau, now retired, is a former German and ESOL teacher, university instructor in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) in graduate programs at West Chester University and the University of Pennsylvania, a former multilingual manager for the School District of Philadelphia, and an education advocate and member of APPS (Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools). This piece was adapted from testimony presented before the Board of Education on March 26.