Multilingual Learners Faced Unique Challenges in Distance Learning. Educators Stepped Up with Innovative Solutions.

Educators have used targeted intervention and innovative tech approaches and offered social-emotional support.

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Multilingual learners (MLLs) have faced unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Less than half were logging on for online instruction in the spring of 2020, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute.

Some of the many barriers included a lack of access to digital devices and broadband; parents’ limited capacity to support home learning; inadequate remote learning resources and teacher training; and language barriers on the part of both schools and families.

One impact on attendance is that many of these students work in family businesses. “A lot of our kids are working for their parents, recent immigrants who are low income,” says Dara Kammerman, assistant principal at Origins High School in Brooklyn, NY. “Some work at restaurants every night from 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. or delis from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Some families are seeing the remote learning period as an opportunity to go back to their former country.”

In order to respond to the intense challenges facing MLLs, staff at Origins and schools across the nation, including teachers, deans, principals, and librarians, have implemented targeted intervention, innovative tech approaches, and social-emotional support, while enlisting parental cooperation.

For starters, making sure students know how to log on remotely has been vital, Kammerman says. For many MLLs’ families, parents may not possess the lingual or digital literacy to follow school instructions, log children on to platforms, fill out forms, or perform other administrative functions, like converting a document to a PDF for a homework submission.

To reach out to families, the New York City Department of Education has partnered with the Child Mind Institute to run family workshops on social-emotional topics. Origins will be participating with workshops in English, Russian, and Arabic. The school also paired each student with an older student fluent in their language, as well as a teacher, to help them log on to the weekly virtual meetings via Google Meet.


A 24-hour hotline

Diana Stuart, bilingual speech-language pathologist for the Boston Public Schools, works with K–8 bilingual students who speak Portuguese, Spanish, Cape Verdian, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Arabic in addition to English. Some of her students also face cognitive impairment and autism, requiring multiple approaches. Her most valuable advice for educators working one-on-one with kids is to be explicit in all instructions, especially with distance learning.

“A lot of [directions get] lost in translation with things like idioms that can blur the meaning of what you’re trying to teach,” Stuart says. “Also, saying, ‘Now we’re going from Spanish to English, now you’re going to be taught in a different way’…is vital.”

Ignacio Ruiz, assistant superintendent of the English Language Learner Division at Clark County (NV) School District, is intent on supporting his teachers to succeed in distance learning. In the summer of 2020, Clark County schools ran district-wide language camps for MLLs, creating fertile ground for remote experimentation.

“Our goal was twofold: to support students, but also to assist teachers in the virtual setting, and it really helped prepare our teachers for the fall,” Ruiz says.

In Ruiz’s district, MLLs’ grades have reflected the challenges of distance learning. “We saw an increase in the percentage of Fs overall, but one of our highest percentages was with English learners,” Ruiz says. “On the positive side, we’re looking at the inequities of our grading system.”

To combat the pandemic’s detrimental effects on education, Clark County School District began one-on-one check-ins with each student, and crisis teams met students virtually. The Learning Line, a phone hotline for students, parents, and teachers, is staffed by coaches fluent in English and Spanish. The hotline receives 200 calls a day and is open on holidays. “It helps just having someone to talk to in order to maneuver through this new world of virtual learning, or even just to have someone help you connect to your school,” Ruiz says.

The school district has also attacked larger structural issues like internet access, partnering with the Department of Education and a local cable company to offer discounted internet. The district’s multilingual call center assists students’ families connect with this service. But some students still fell through the cracks. “We have kids living in buildings where they don’t even have the wiring for internet, and rural areas where the signals are not very good,” Ruiz says. The district allocated CARES stimulus dollars toward the purchase of portable Wi-Fi hotspots and parked Wi-Fi buses in low-service areas.


Engaging whole families

The Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department (MMED) has taken a whole-family approach, mailing 100,000 instructional books out to MLLs and their families last May and June. The books were in English and either Spanish, Armenian, Mandarin, or Korean.

“The parents take advantage of working together with the kids and learning English together,” says Lydia Acosta Stephens, LAUSD MMED executive director.

To help MLL newcomers feel emotionally adjusted in LAUSD, they are supported by coaches and counselors and are invited to a virtual welcome conference in their language, whether Spanish, Russian, Armenian, or Arabic. At one high school, the students formed an International Newcomers Club with 75 members, strengthening emotional security through peer relationships. “The educator steps out, and facilitates from a distance,” Acosta Stephens says.

Maria Ricabal, who teaches first grade at Bassett Street Elementary in Lake Balboa, CA, to students she has never met in person, asks parents to adequately prepare students for each day. Ricabal tells parents that students should be dressed as if attending school in person, fed breakfast, and set up at the computer with school supplies ready. She posts a cheerful, colorful bulletin board behind her with the phrase “Home Sweet Classroom.”

“The challenge was for me to build that relationship with them,” she says. Soon, the students started opening up and asking more questions, and the parents asked more questions, she notes.

In her daily schedule with first graders, Ricobal plans for numerous breaks and encourages them to use household items in learning applications. “I say, ‘Go find 10 beans; we’re going to do math,’ and they run to the kitchen. When it’s time to stretch and dance, they’re so excited.”

Stuart takes her bilingual students on Nearpod virtual field trips as a reward. “I’ll say, ‘You did what you were supposed to do, so do you want to go to the desert or the beach?” The trips allow students to wander redwoods, beaches, and parks at their leisure, regrouping afterward to answer questions and fill out graphic organizers.

For Larry Ferlazzo, an English and history teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, CA, who teaches MLLs, “gameifying” lessons is key. “You can make it fun with Quizizz (, a question-answer game that students can play in breakout rooms by forming teams,” the veteran teacher and author of The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox, says. Ferlazzo also uses Fluentkey, where students watch a video and answer questions at paused intervals, and Peaksay, a conversation game centering dialogue creation.

In his book Distance Learning with English Language Learners, Ferlazzo also encourages teachers to provide graphic organizers, give instructions in multiple formats (write, speak, email, etc.), and use images and gestures to accompany new words.



Assessment and translation tools

Assessment is a critical tool in the MLL educator toolbox, according to Jami Herbst, professional development manager at e-learning program Istation. “You want to have valid data of where is that child, where is each individual student in your classroom, and how can we look for their strengths and areas of growth,” Herbst says, referencing Istation’s automatic monthly progress tool.

Origins employs Lexia PowerUp to assess students’ literacy skills; they may be chosen to attend a Google Classroom with modified instructions, simpler language, and clear links. Using a program called Mote, teachers can voice record instructions and “do now’s,” which students can hear merely by clicking a button. Then, students can record an answer by speaking through Mote. Projects and assignments in the MLL classroom may also be modified so that they are achievable.

Origins has also invested in a multilingual staff for outreach. “We have tried to stack our staff with at least one person who speaks the most common languages at our school,” says Kammerman. Her school employs staff members who speak Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, and Creole, to serve its diverse student body.

In cases where an Uzbek student requires an interpreter, Origins staff often reaches out to Tajik-speaking students. Kammerman also employs the assistance of the New York City Department of Education Translation and Interpretation Unit, which offers free written translation services, phone interpretation services, and familial contact support via Field Language Access Coordinators.

It’s vital to create channels for teachers to share successes and challenges with one another, Kammerman says. Origins teachers do intervisitations, sitting in on one another’s Google Classrooms to share best practices, and also provide miniature professional development sessions for other teachers.


Elementary strategies

At Mandarin-English dual immersion school Marengo Elementary in South Pasadena, CA, third grade English teacher Noelle Fong punctuates her lectures with visuals and games. “They get tired of listening to me speak,” she says. “So I make sure to employ visuals in instruction, including short, impactful video clips.”

Fong also uses apps like Kahoot for learning games, Nearpod for field trips, and Jamboard for brainstorming and collaboration. But the most important tool, Fong says, is the document camera. “Whatever I’m doing, they’re doing as well,” she says of the contemporary version of the overhead projector that allows her to beam everything from a book to a worksheet to the students over Zoom.

Fong strategically manages her small groups, ensuring that no group has too many strong personalities or too many quiet students. She also employs leveled small groups in breakout rooms for differentiated instruction. “I level them based on reading, math, and Mandarin; then, we differentiate our groups from there,” she says.

Fong is concerned with both the emotional development of students during the pandemic and how to create an immersive environment remotely. “Immersion has been a big strugglea really big struggle. Peer learning is so huge. We set up study halls after the official Zoom hours and emphasize Zoom playdates.”

Fong’s school takes a comprehensive approach toward its dual-immersion students, including in the library. School librarian Robin Becker stocks the library with a large collection of Mandarin language books, and recently received a grant for a special Zoom read-aloud program through the California Young Reader Medal Program that will incorporate diverse books like The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson and Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks.

Stuart encourages educators to ask families to pick out books that mirror their daily actions at home, whether getting dressed or eating food. Stuart says families should read those selected books together, going over vocabulary and talking about how the book compares and contrasts with their home life. Julie Robinson, bilingual professional development specialist with Istation, encourages parents to seek out films, music, television, and books in English.

“Having language—period—any consistent language stimulation is what is so key and so important, which is why it is so necessary to have such engaging opportunities,” Stuart says.

As students begin returning to school, Ruiz says that challenges will continue, as many MLLs will still struggle with technological and social disadvantages, such as when doing homework at home.

“It’s important that as we go back, we understand what we learned and how we can continue to leverage that to meet students’ needs,” Ruiz says. “We need to advocate support for MLLs. Equity is not giving every student the same thing, but giving every student what they need.”

Dakota Kim is a Los Angeles–based writer.

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