Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

How is COVID-19 affecting ESL students?

Haz clic aquí para leer este artículo en español.

Amid the remote learning experiment sweeping North Carolina and the nation, there are some students impacted more by the change than others. For non-native speaking English students who struggle to both learn the language and get good grades in the best of times, the challenge of learning from home increases the difficulty level of their task.

Emily Francis, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Concord High School in Concord, says trying to teach her students remotely is taking some getting used to.

“It’s like I’m talking to myself, and it’s so different,” she said. “Language is acquired through interaction.”

If you visited Francis’ class before COVID-19, you would see just how much her relationships with students matter. There is an easiness with which she relates to her students that helps facilitate learning. A lot of that goes missing in the switch to remote learning.

“Being with them in a classroom is just so different than posting assignments online,” she said. “It’s just a whole different ball field.”

Joan Lachance is an associate professor of education and the Graduate Certificate/TESL Minor program director for UNC Charlotte’s Teaching English as a Second Language Programs. She said that it’s not just interactions with a teacher that ESL students are missing. It’s the give and take they usually have with one another in the classroom.

“From a language development perspective and even from a brain development perspective, we know that language development is a social construct, and kids need to sit with each other and have lots and lots of peer interaction,” she said.

Interaction between students can help facilitate skills like problem solving, not to mention the fact that students are more willing to try speaking in a second language if they are doing so with other students focused on the same task, Lachance said. These are things that just can’t be replicated online, she said.

Lachance also said that a lot is missing when it comes to online learning. For instance, non-verbal communication. Body language is an essential tool humans use to communicate, and that can be diminished or missing online.

And remote learning can be particularly difficult for ESL teachers, because they are often co-teaching with traditional classroom teachers. That means that the ESL teacher needs to be able to coordinate what he or she is teaching with the traditional classroom teacher, or in some cases, multiple traditional classroom teachers.

“Is the general education teacher able to include the ESL teacher in all their Canvas courses with all their students?” Lachance asked. “Or does the ESL teacher need to have their own Canvas page?”

And all of these challenges are just the ones that come up assuming everybody has access to the tools they need to do remote learning. But that is a wrong assumption to make.

Francis said her school called all of their students to see who had an electronic device and who didn’t. Those who didn’t could make an appointment to pick one up.

But some of the parents of her ESL students work one or more jobs and couldn’t get out of work long enough to pick up a device. And then, even if a student is able to get a device, there is the question of understanding how to access remote learning.

“You have to be fluent in the language just to know how to access the content, and a lot of my students are not,” Francis said. “We’re still having to contact parents at least three times a week. If we see students who have not accessed any of the documents that we have online for them, then we will have to provide paper assignments for them.” 

And then, what if the students don’t even have the time to do the remote learning? Francis said that is a problem she has run into with some of her students.

She said students tell her they can’t do the face-to-face online instruction because they’re working. Their parents told them that if they’re not going to go to school, then they need to be working. And there are other challenging situations that keep students from class as well.

“I have other students who are having to stay home with other siblings, so they will say Ms. Francis, I can’t do the face-to-face because I have four siblings running around me,” she said.

Nevertheless, Francis said she’s been encouraged by her students. She has a kid at home too, and it’s hard for her to find time. But she is staying in contact with students via email, social media, and phone.

“I’m not worried about them not doing it. I think it’s just a tool for them to be able to keep themselves in the learning path,” she said. “It’s just the matter of keeping your brain sharp.”

And she said that even if a student can’t practice their English skills with anybody in person, speaking and reading in their native language can still help grow the language synapses in their brains.

Another issue around remote learning is concern about safety. Some ESL students come from families where some or all of the members may be undocumented.

“I think another layer that we’re all maneuvering through for the first time in this way is just the notion of digital securities,” Lachance said.

Ivanna Mann Thrower Anderson, an ESL / Title III Consultant at the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), said that her team is on the board of a national organization called the National Association of English Learner Program Administrators. Anderson is the immediate past president. She said they have reached out to the federal Office of English Language Acquisition to ask questions around security, and they’re hoping that guidance will be coming from the federal government soon.

Anderson’s team at DPI has been busy helping out ESL teachers around the state. She said the department has a section online with resources for English learners. Anderson points out that while ESL students are learning English, the same can be said for most young students.

DPI also has put together an English-learners support team, full of administrators and educators with expertise on ESL. That group usually does face-to-face professional learning and coaching, though obviously things are a little different now.

The team has put together things like webinars and Twitter chats. They’re doing a series of talks aimed at helping teachers find better strategies for teaching online. And Anderson said that what she’s hearing from the field is positive. She said teachers are exchanging notes and talking together to figure out how to do remote learning better. They’re not just interested in improving now, but also being ready if something like this happens again.

“Our teams are really listening to what’s being said around the state and really trying to do everything we can to provide the resources that are needed,” she said.

Despite all the challenges faced by the ESL community — both students and teachers — Lachance said she is confident that everybody will come through. ESL professionals are a dedicated bunch, she said.

“Any of us in teaching English as a Second Language … we will do whatever it takes to support our students and support the teachers who support the students,” Lachance said.

Here is a complete list of resources Anderson sent

EL Sites:

DPI Resource Site

National Sites

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.