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English Language Learners Clinical and Special Education

Supporting English Language Learners: Opportunities in Unprecedented Times

Dr. Pedro Olvera
Written By Dr. Pedro Olvera
On Mar 10, 2021
6 minute read

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc in ways that our society could not have imagined one year ago.  The effects have been felt across different sectors of our society, including, but not limited to, the economy, politics, housing, employment, and last but not least, K-12 education. While the pandemic's long-term effects are still being debated, it is clear that student gains during the 2019 -2020 years were less than the same period the year before, especially in math (Kuhfeld et al., 2020). Academically, the students most impacted by the abrupt change in learning from brick and mortar to remote have been children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students from these backgrounds have struggled to keep up with their peers without the necessary tools required to access their curriculum. Essential resources like reliable WIFI, working computers, and economically stable home environments have proved elusive, further cementing the gap between the "haves and have nots."


English language learners (ELLs), who have traditionally lagged behind their peers in academic outcomes, have been hit especially hard during remote learning. The lack of access to necessary resources to complete their academic work is but one challenge. Equally important are the limitations imposed that are common in communities where access to resources that may serve as stepping-stones for improving life outcomes are few or non-existent. Researchers have highlighted that 37% of ELLs live in low-income homes, most attend high-poverty schools, and are more likely to attend schools where the student body is homogeneous (Quintero & Hansen, 2021). Living in predominantly low income communities deprives promising students of access to higher-performing schools, better curriculum, more Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings, and, for the most part, going to school in a safer community.


Furthermore, most ELLs, the majority of whom are Spanish-speaking in the U.S., live in communities with limited access to English-speaking opportunities (Education Week, 2015). The lack of integration is staggering in some settings. For example, in states like California, Arizona, and New Mexico, 44 percent of Latino students attend schools in which the majority--defined as 90 to 100 percent of the total student body--are from non-white backgrounds.  Even further, compared to 8 percent of white peers, 45 percent of Latino students attend such schools (Tankard Carnock & Ege, 2015). The lack of exposure to diverse students compounded by limited opportunities to develop their English-speaking abilities further impedes the development of Basic Interpersonal Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) acquired through interaction with English-speaking peers. Without adequate opportunities to practice and engage in English-speaking activities, these students can lose English skills gained prior to the pandemic and that have been further exacerbated by remote learning resultant of the stay-at-home orders common in many states. This loss will not only impact academic skills, but socialization opportunities with non-ELL peers, which is imperative to English-learning and encourages cross-cultural relationships.


"Out-of-the-box thinking should take precedent in unprecedented times, particularly as it relates to ELLs who have suffered the steepest losses this past year."


As school-based practitioners, it is essential to capture both academic and linguistic loss through tools that are valid, reliable, and useful to improving student outcomes. The Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey®, Third Edition (WMLS III™) is a comprehensive tool that educators use to monitor BICS and CALP proficiency.  The ease of capturing verbal (expressive and receptive), reading, and writing in English and Spanish helps understand present levels of performance by conducting periodic progress-monitoring checks. The sensitivity of the WMLS III can provide vital information related to language proficiency gains or loss. This information can also help determine which students would benefit from targeted interventions within a Multi-tiered Support System (MTSS) framework. Sensitivity to intervention effectiveness can provide informed-decision making and understanding of the depth and degree of lost skills in English and Spanish, providing a comprehensive picture of the needs of the students we serve. 


With the elevated hopes of the vaccine's impact on society on the horizon, we are hopeful and can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Federal, state, and local leaders are now debating how to re-integrate children and adolescents into their typical learning environments in the safest way possible. What is not immediately apparent is the degree of learning loss that has occurred with these students, given that we are still amid the pandemic. However, as educators in the frontlines, this is an opportunity to insert ourselves into this dialogue. Out-of-the-box thinking should take precedent in unprecedented times, particularly as it relates to ELLs who have suffered the steepest losses this past year. Here are a few ways to start the conversation:


1. Advocate for ELLs to have access to evidence-based interventions and English development programs within general education settings with English-speaking peers instead of special education or English and a Second Language (ESL) programs, which only separate ELLs from their English-speaking peers and further alienates them from the mainstream. This service delivery approach will ensure that ELLs have access to the core curriculum and that they don't fall behind their mainstream peers by missing out on important content.


2. Utilize social-emotional curriculum and facilitate ELL and non-ELL students' interaction in social settings like recess, school clubs, and after-school programs. This type of exchange benefits both groups of students and results in the appreciation of culture and language. It is not unusual to see the effects of linguistic isolation in preschool settings resulting in the limited socialization of ELLs with their English peers on the playground. Proactively encouraging such interactions benefits all students.


3. Encourage ELLs to hold public leadership positions in the student council.  Elevating students to such roles will change the perception that ELLs are different or a lower track group.  This recommendation will demonstrate that ELLs are capable students and will increase acceptance amongst the mainstream student-body. Obviously, these recommendations are not exhaustive but serve to capture the moment while education is being re-conceptualized for all students.  


The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent forced-transition to remote learning have further alienated students that were already at a disadvantage. With the hope of better days ahead, mental health practitioners should seek to insert their voice in the ongoing dialogue pertaining to ELLs while promoting learning environments that can have positive lifelong outcomes in their social-emotional and academic learning. 




Get to know Dr. Olvera!

Dr. Olvera Headshot

Dr. Pedro Olvera is a bilingual school psychologist with over 20 years of experience working in K-12 schools, providing teletherapy and higher education. As a former dual language learner (DLL), son of immigrant parents, and an upbringing along the southwest border, Dr. Olvera knows the intricacies of working with culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD). Dr. Olvera’s scholarship and training have focused on assessing DLLs, home-school collaboration, virtual mental health, and creating inclusive school climates for children that are CLD. 



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