Since the pandemic started, teachers and students have had to transition from brick-and-mortar classrooms to virtual environments, and back. During this time, learning loss–the reversal of academic progress due to disrupted formal education–has been of significant concern to educators. Unfortunately, studies show that English Language Learners (ELLs) have been disproportionately impacted by learning loss, as compared to their peers.
According to the OECD, school closures and distance learning measures have put ELLs at a greater disadvantage compared to the general student population. A learning gap, which existed prior to the pandemic, is widening across the United States. At the same time, the demands of virtual and hybrid learning have put incredible strains on teachers throughout the pandemic.
This issue has become a point of controversy for English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers, who do not feel the term ‘learning loss’ accurately describes the complex situation faced by ELLs in America.
I can understand their perspective, because even before the pandemic, ELLs enrolled in U.S. schools grappled with disproportionately lower academic outcomes, as well as higher dropout rates. This created a learning gap that, due to COVID-19, is only continuing to grow. I believe this gap, combined with the strain placed on teachers during the pandemic, creates a perfect storm. The issue is that inequities continue to grow while there are more teachers facing burnout and there are fewer left to solve the problem.
A recent study conducted by the University of Chicago found that when ELLs are given effective resources, they can match, and even exceed, their fellow native English-speaking peers in terms of academic achievement. From my perspective, the issue of inequity comes from an institution’s inability to support ELLs and their teachers.
The issue of learning loss resulting from the pandemic is apparent but there are ways to overcome it. The first priority is to provide teachers with the support they need to effectively address the issue. Now more than ever, we need to help teachers by providing them with technology that is designed to save them time rather than replace them. Furthermore, ELLs need access to supplemental learning opportunities (such as online ESL tutoring).
To better represent the varied perspectives that exist around learning loss resulting from the pandemic, I gathered the voices of two educators to flesh out some of the different opinions that exist.
Tan Huynh: Learning loss creates a harmful deficit lens
Tan Huynh is a career teacher, consultant, and author specializing in language acquisition and literacy development. Tan began his teaching career with the Greater New Orleans Corp of Teach For America in 2007 and went on to work in Philadelphia.
In a recent conversation I had with Tan, he expressed that the way teachers perceive students becomes their reality. He insists that this is particularly true for Multilingual Learners (MLs) and that this is harmful, as MLs face constant barriers that native speakers do not. This is only amplified with the introduction of the term learning loss, which was accelerated by this pandemic. Essentially, this term implies that learning can only happen at school, away from home and one’s cultural influences. This logic enforces the idea that they are not productive learning spaces for students. So, MLs and their families are viewed from a deficit lens. Thus it is harmful to focus on defining the term learning loss.
However, Tan is adamant that the skills learned by MLs during the pandemic are evergreen and relevant. These skills are not only influenced by technological intervention, but family involvement in a child’s development. A common mindset among teachers is that students have lost opportunities amid the pandemic, but Tan believes the contrary. He feels that MLs have gained invaluable skills as a result of the cultural settings in which they inhabit and teachers must consider this.
Carol Salva: Take lessons from SLIFE (Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education)
Carol Salva is an author, educational consultant, and instructional coach based in Texas.
Carol insists upon the narrative that interruptions are commonly faced by students during their educational journey. Though students may have experienced an interruption in traditional education, it does not necessarily mean that they will be at a disadvantage in the 2021-2022 school year.
From Carol’s perspective, SLIFE provides frameworks of various possibilities. It should be noted that the definition of SLIFE varies statewide but usually refers to students who have missed more than 2 years of formal education. Carol emphasizes the fact that many SLIFE have lived through war, violence, or persecution. She provides several examples of SLIFE that have not only overcome interruptions in education but achieved great professional success. From her perspective: “If SLIFE can make progress quickly, our students who missed some educational experiences due to COVID can make quick progress too.” With this in mind, teachers must actively consider the social inequities faced by SLIFE or any child.
Supporting teachers is critical to addressing learning loss in ELLs amid the pandemic
Though every student has experienced the pandemic differently, ELLs have fallen further behind than their peers, which potentially affects their future education and career outcomes. Whether we use learning loss to describe this or not, we can agree on one thing: teachers are the answer to addressing the inequities faced by ELLs.
Ultimately, teachers need support to succeed in a post-pandemic climate. Whether this means providing technology to teachers or additional opportunities to ELLs, action needs to be taken.
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