An adult wearing a mask stands in an empty classroom where tape on the floor marks off distances between student desks.

As learning moved online in the pandemic, ESL teachers saw difficulties with engagement.

Courtesy of Salem-Keizer School District

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Learning a new language can already be difficult, but how did going online affect students in English as a second language programs? We’ll hear from Kevin Brown, an ESL teacher from Glencoe High School in Hillsboro, and Bryan Reed, the ELD coordinator for Springfield Public Schools, on the changes they saw with online learning.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We start today with two English as a second language programs in Oregon schools. Learning a new language is never easy, but the pandemic has introduced new challenges, like distanced learning, and masks. We wanted to get a sense for what this has meant for teachers and for their students. Kevin Brown is an ESL teacher from Glencoe High School in Hillsboro. Bryan Reed is the English Language Development Coordinator for Springfield Public Schools. They both join me now. It’s good to have both of you on Think Out Loud.

Kevin Brown: Thanks for having me.

Bryan Reed: Yeah, thank you

Miller: Kevin Brown first, can you give us a sense for what your ESL classes in the high school were like before the pandemic?

Brown: Before the pandemic, our model is primarily an in class model, and also push-in. So we have, for students with lower English proficiencies, we typically have what you might consider a pretty standard language classroom for lower level proficiency students in their English. And then for students who are higher or have demonstrated high proficiencies, they are pushed in, and get various supports in their content classrooms.

Miller: So for the lower level of English proficiency, they’d be there for some portion of the day or some days per week?

Brown: Yeah. So the lower level students, we call them newcomer or level one students, we have them every day for an hour and a half. We’re on a block schedule, so about an hour and a half each day. And then the other levels typically are every other day for an hour and a half.

Miller: Bryan Reed, what about in the elementary school? Pre-pandemic, what did English language development classes and programs look like?

Reed: So I work primarily with kinder through fifth grade students. We have a pullout model, so students leave their regular grade level classrooms, and come to a 30 minute English language development class. And in class, we sing songs, we play games, we have conversations. We really try to structure as many interactions as we can, to put miles on the tongue, as we like to say, for English learners.

Miller: Miles in the tongue. Just to get kids used to it. I mean that actually sounds, with games and songs, it sounds maybe more fun than regular class for a fourth grader. But maybe I’m wrong.

Reed: Oh, it definitely is. It’s really fun. Students get to be in a safe space with teachers that they know for multiple years in school, with a cohort of peers who they’ve been with, sometimes for years. It’s a place where people speak their own language, and support them in learning their new language.

Miller: What kinds of languages are most common in your classrooms?

Reed: We are over 90% Spanish speaking as the first language for our English learners.

Miller: Are there others as well?

Reed: There are. Just small numbers of students who maybe speak a language from the Philippines. Hmong is a language that we sometimes run into in our school district. But really predominantly Spanish speaking.

Miller: Kevin Brown, what languages do you encounter most often in Hillsboro?

Brown: Predominantly, we do have Spanish speaking students as our majority. We also have a large amount of students who speak Mayan, and also Vietnamese and Russian are also very common students to have in our program.

Miller: And what are your specific goals, Kevin Brown? At the beginning of the year, what do you want to be able to say you’ve accomplished by the end?

Brown: At the end, we really just want to see students feeling open, and being able to interact with both their peers in our classrooms and in their other classrooms. We want to have them be able to see their own achievement, and to find opportunities for them to demonstrate that and celebrate with them when they reach benchmarks, and when they reach their goals. We always have them try to set their own goals and work with them to meet them. Really just being able to see that growth in their language and celebrate that with them at the end of the year.

Miller: Bryan Reed, what about you? How would you describe your goals?

Reed: Well, we typically want students to progress one proficiency level each year, in each of the four domains of language: reading, writing, speaking and listening. And I really like this way of summarizing the goals of an English as a new language program. We want our students to learn English, to do well in school, and to be happy, well adjusted people

Miller: So let’s turn to the pandemic, starting with the beginning of it for all of us, and the abrupt changes to school systems all over the country, in the early spring of 2020, when basically everything shut down instantly. Bryan Reed first, what happened in terms of ESL or English Language Development classes in the spring of 2020?

Reed: In the spring of 2020, they were kind of optional. Oregon had some really good goals in mind. They really wanted us to focus on health and safety, on care and connect, and then to focus on equity. And so ELD class sort of took a back seat, where we were just trying to get kids plugged in with their regular classes. Our ELD team spent a lot of time helping to navigate technology problems. To get wifi, to get devices, and to help families and students be able to log in and access their classes and participate.

Miller: So, ELD teachers spent some of their time just helping with, in this case, the logistical basics so that kids could even take part in anything else.

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Reed: That’s right. And when I think about the difficulties that we faced at that time, there’s a short story I would tell about a student named Tony. Tony was not coming to class, and we had reached out several times. His dad came with him from Guatemala, and they’d never used a computer or had email. They had some experience with a smartphone and some apps. But we reached out over and over and tried to get Tony to come to class. Eventually, we were allowed to do a home visit. We ended up going to this kindergarten, where his father worked in the kitchen, and we found Tony with an iPad, sitting on the floor in the kitchen where his dad was washing dishes. And it was just clear that there were so many barriers that were preventing him from being able to access and participate.

Miller: So how did you approach that?

Reed: Well, we mitigated it, and we tried to remove as many bears as we could. Set him up in a booth in the restaurant. And fortunately, we were able to get a volunteer who really plugged in and took Tony under her wing so she could help with that. But that was another real difficulty, how can we give feedback for technology if we can’t be there with the students? If we were in person, we could navigate, we could show them the buttons that they need to click. And a lot of young students are able to do it. The apps are designed to be pretty user friendly. But if they’ve never done it before, and we can’t be with them to help them learn how, it’s a real logistical challenge.

Miller: Well I’m just trying to imagine what it would be like to try to navigate various online education websites. I remember hearing a year and a half ago that it’s not just one module, different classes required and maybe still require different setups. But to do that if you’re both not that used to a computer, and also don’t really speak or read English, it seems almost insurmountable. And then if you add to it that your parents in some cases both don’t have computer skills or English abilities either, I don’t see how you navigate that as a teacher or an administrator.

Reed: It’s really problematic. It took us a long time to set up a family tech support line, staffed with somebody who is fluent in technology and Spanish. And it took us a few more weeks to be able to allow for in person tech support, so that families could come in and troubleshoot with someone who could help them with the technology.

Miller: And again, it’s worth reminding folks that in this early part of the pandemic that you’re talking about, at least in Springfield schools, and I think we can imagine many others, all of this was in the service of getting kids to take part in mainstream classes. This wasn’t even about adding enrichment in terms of specifically the English language development or lessons.

Kevin Brown, what about you? What do you most remember in terms of your ESL students in the early days of the pandemic?

Brown: Yeah, it was definitely a shock for a lot of the students for sure. Luckily, our district was able to provide each student with their own Chromebook, really did a fabulous job of reaching out and getting wifi for all the families and really trying to hit the technological needs of our students pretty quickly. With the high school, the students are not only having to navigate one class, but about eight. So trying to walk through just the fundamentals of using things like Google Classroom, which is what we primarily used, but just other features that other teachers were having to experiment within this new dynamic.

It was definitely a time of connecting with students, keeping them engaged, helping them with their struggles. We made sure to give at least an hour of office hours each day for students to come and request assistance and request help. And we always had high numbers of students who are, besides classroom content, just asking for help. “Where do I find this?” “How do I access this?” And just seeing students struggling with things that, a lot of times, we take for granted, like typing, and being able to translate and add captions, kind of the things we take for granted

Miller: Kevin, what about the fall of 2020, which was the start of the first full academic year in the pandemic? How much have things changed in terms of ESL, six months in, when there was more time, theoretically, to plan.

Brown: We spent a lot of summer and prep time before starting really trying to iron out our approach to the online model through Google Classroom. We spent a lot of time trying to navigate programs, spent a lot of time connecting with families in their first language, setting up technology days beforehand, just to try to give as much prep for the students as possible, and the families, just to have them know what the expectations are, and the skill sets in order to meet the challenges. We kind of thrive in the community of EL students, and the families, face to face interactions. So it was definitely a new struggle and a new hurdle. But I think we were able to approach it with enough prep beforehand.

Miller: What did work online? What actually translated to distanced learning?

Brown: The necessity of technology skills is vital for a lot of our students in their lives outside of school, being able to provide them with that skill set. We did see amazing progress in our student’s ability to navigate technology during that time.

Miller: So in other words, the necessity of getting used to technology itself, even though that wasn’t the point of it, it provided a lesson that in itself could be helpful going forward?

Brown: Absolutely. Again, we want these students to become advocates for themselves, and develop skill sets that they can be proud of, and then they can take beyond themselves, outside of their schools, to help their families and help them themselves once they reach either higher education or the job market.

Miller: And Bryan Reed, what about you? In the first full year of school in the pandemic, when it was basically still all distanced learning but you had more time to plan for it, what was that like for you and your students?

Reed: That’s a good question. Our English learners were coming to their ELD Class regularly. They were not optional or enrichment, they were part of their core instruction. If I was to say what really worked, the way that technology can give students multiple means of engagement, multiple ways that they can respond to a question. We use this platform called Seesaw, which is an engagement platform where students can respond with videos or audio or pictures or clip art, and put together multimedia responses. And this gives them a lot of ways to express their learning. So students can do something simple with writing, but then they can add their voice to reading it, and they can comment with their peers. And there can be a real boost to the creativity that the students are able to bring, because of the technology.

We did have one to one devices for all of our students, we had that figured out. And a lot of our teachers really dug in and figured out how to use the digital environment to do things in novel and creative ways. So there were definitely some positives that came out of it, but it still felt like a net reduction in our effectiveness at teaching and learning.

Miller: Is there a quantitative way to measure that? Do you have assessments that give you a sense for, zooming to the present, what the pandemic has meant for your students’ English language learning over the last 20 months?

Reed: That’s interesting. We were not able to do the sort of apples to apples comparison with a regular English language proficiency assessment, called the ELPA. We couldn’t give that. We were able to use a sort of a modified version of the ELPA, a little bit shorter. and sort of see where the students are with their proficiency. They didn’t progress as much as we’d hoped. According to the ELPA screener, which is what we ended up using, most of them did not make headway, and some of them even went backwards in their proficiency.

Miller: Kevin Brown, what about you? What have you seen, either quantitatively or experientially, in terms of how much your students have progressed in terms of their English language abilities over the course of the pandemic?

Brown: As Bryan was saying, the ability to do our standard tests that we do, the ELPA, was a little bit limited due to the restrictions. We were able to still test a few students. And like Bryan, we did see a stagnation that we don’t typically see in the progression of students, specifically in the verbal. Typically, students do very well in their speaking, just because they’re so exposed to social and informal interactions in a school based environment, to where maybe if they’re just at home, they’re primarily using their home language. So those are some areas specifically we didn’t see as much progression. So there were, while there were still some highlights during the year as far as instruction and individual goals, overall we definitely saw a little bit less of an increase in proficiency scores that we typically see in a year.

Miller: That’s fascinating, and it makes sense. This whole conversation so far, I have been focusing on the kinds of programs that teachers like you provide, and wondering about how the pandemic has affected that, and students’ abilities to learn English. But what you’re saying is maybe the biggest thing is that they’re not around plenty of other English speakers, and so they’re less likely to get that kind of socialization in terms of the language.

I’m curious about, with almost everybody back in school, everybody wearing masks. Bryan Reed first, how does that affect your ability or a teacher’s ability to teach English, and a student’s ability to hear it and understand it?

Reed: I don’t think the masks are presenting a very big barrier. I would say that pronunciation is a small percentage of what we focus on with students, and it would be more in the domain of a speech and language pathologist that’s really working with the enunciation and pronunciation.

I think that we’re back in school, we’re back into a learning environment where we can eliminate so many distractions and we can support with resources, charts and whiteboards, images, anchor charts to sort of use as a springboard to the interactions that we’re able to provide in person. The masks are not a really big detriment. I feel like we’re firing on many of our cylinders at this point.

Miller: Kevin Brown, what’s it been like for you to be back in person with your students?

Brown: There’s definitely a dynamic increase as far as the community, which for our students, I believe is one of the most important aspects to building their language, establishing a positive community where students feel vulnerable to speak and to act. And having them be able to be here, even if it is with masks, having them here in person I believe is obviously a net gain. Like what Bryan said, there are some restrictions in regards to things like pronunciation, facial recognition during conversations, the generalized comfort of students during the class and interaction. That doesn’t outweigh the fact that they’re still able to interact with each other in a classroom environment, and be here, and be exposed to the language and practice that they might not be able to get in a home environment.

We do a survey at the beginning of every year about what the kids are looking forward to, how they feel. And all of them just said how excited they are that they’ll be back in a classroom, and being able to be in this kind of environment.

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