Skip to main content

By now, we all know that the coronavirus presents schools with unprecedented challenges. Most K–12 campuses across the country closed in the spring—and scrambled to continue their work in a different setting. The pace of the crisis left the country’s public education system with little time to plan—or prepare for—this major undertaking. Predictably, this created chaotic, uneven implementation of distance learning plans within and between schools and districts. Early returns from the first weeks of this spring’s school closures suggest that historically underserved children and their communities are at particular risk of being left out. 


As the country’s schools and early learning programs prepare for an unsettled, uncertain fall semester, they must expand, refine, and improve their remote learning models to serve all children. In particular, they must focus on the needs of young English learners (ELs), often referred to as dual language learners (DLLs) because they are still developing in their native languages when they begin learning English. These students face particularly significant challenges as schools move to distance learning. High-quality distance learning resources are scarce for students continuing to develop their proficiencies in English and home languages. In addition, DLLs/ELs are disproportionately likely to be growing up below the poverty line. Further, while the majority of DLLs/ELs are native-born American citizens, many are children of immigrants and live in communities under particular strain from recent shifts in immigration policies and enforcement. Finally, there is evidence that DLLs/ELs are on the wrong side of a “digital divide” between them and English-dominant, often-privileged peers. 


In other words, DLLs/ELs deserve to be at the center of educators’ planning this fall. But that’s easier said than done. There’s no pile of studies on how to deliver bilingual education or support English language development via distance or hybrid learning models. 


What should schools do as the national distance learning experiment relaunches? Start some experiments, check to see if they’re working for DLLs/ELs, and then share their experiences with other educators. 


That last part is key: good ideas don’t always spread on their own. To that end, The Century Foundation has launched an online forum for educators, researchers, and advocates to discuss best practices for supporting DLLs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The forum is already facilitating communication between educators working with ELs in communities across the country. By sharing experiences of what they're trying, what's working, and the challenges they're facing, forum participants are trying to speed the design and implementation cycle for new distance learning ideas for ELs in their schools. 


Some of the early discussions have focused on immediate resource needs, such as communication logs for families, linguistically- and culturally-diverse curricular resources, and technological solutions for getting ELs access to instruction and content. Other discussions have begun to explore instructional practices that facilitate ELs’ oral language development—how can teachers make sure ELs keep talking in English and their home languages while schools are closed? Participants are also sharing a number of EL-related online resources (compiled in this evolving database). 


Are you an educator working with English learners during the pandemic? Do you have questions — or ideas — about how to serve them best using distance or hybrid learning models? Join the English Learners Virtual Learning Forum! We're an online community of educators, experts, and advocates working together to advance better educational opportunities for English learners during the current public health crisis. The Forum's discussion boards are full of ongoing conversations about translation apps for communicating with families, DLL/EL-supportive curricular choices for distance learning, links to online DLL/EL resources, and much more.


Participating in the EL Virtual Learning Forum is free, and all teachers and administrators are welcome — click here to join the discussions today

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!