Skip Navigation
We use cookies to offer you a better browsing experience, provide ads, analyze site traffic, and personalize content. If you continue to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies.
NEA News

Addressing the Needs of ELLs in COVID Era

The academic challenges during the pandemic have disproportionately impacted English learners.
bumping elbows
Published: February 28, 2022

Key Takeaways

  1. The linguistically, culturally, and ethnically diverse students continue to be the fastest growing student population in public schools.
  2. All educators, including general education teachers, need to ensure language acquisition lessons are integrated into classes.
  3. SEL strategies can help ease inequities experienced by ELLs, including by celebrating their contributions and making them feel welcome and included.

English language learners (ELLs) are the fastest growing population of K-12 public school students. With more than 400 languages spoken, these students bring an array of cultural experiences and perspectives to public education, but schools are not as ready as they should be to welcome and nourish this diversity.

All student learning suffered during the pandemic, but ELL’s were impacted by COVID 19 challenges disproportionately in ways educators are just beginning to fully understand.

To discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by this growing and critical population of K-12 students, NEA convened a roundtable, “Advancing Educational Opportunities for English Language Learners in the COVID Era.”

The panel, moderated by NEA senior policy analyst Luis-Gustavo Martinez, included Joel Gómez from the Center for Applied Linguistics, Monica Generoso from the Englewood Teachers Association in Englewood, New Jersey, and Julie Sugarman from the Migration Policy Institute.

Following are highlights from the in-depth panel discussion, which have been edited for brevity for purposes of the article.

What have been some specific challenges for ELLs and the schools that serve them during the pandemic?

Julie Sugarman: We know that the pandemic hit our ELLs very hard. One of the things that was expected was difficulty with remote access and having digital devices and internet access in order to be able to participate. Language access for parents to help them was also an issue that the instructions would only be in English and parents didn't necessarily have the digital savvy, or the instructions in languages they understood, to be able to help students.

We also know that parental supervision was a great difficulty in a lot of households where parents were frontline workers.

It was really a struggle to transition to remote learning, and certainly everyone did a heroic job, but many materials were not necessarily appropriate for ELLs. Also, many teachers didn’t have the training to work with ELLs in general education classes.

What is the responsibility of a general education teacher to their English language learners?

Monica Generoso: Fewer than half the states require all teachers to have at least some training in working with Ells.

We know that integrated and designated English language development models of instruction work best. Instruction that emphasizes English skills as part of the overall curriculum and provides targeted time specifically for honing English language skills is a recognized best practice, but school districts are falling short. They're not implementing this.

I believe we should start training our teachers on best practices in second language learning acquisition. General education teachers must be given the opportunity by their schools, by their districts, and by their unions to access the professional development they need.

ELLs come in with so much culture, language and knowledge – there are so many things that they can bring to the table that will help them learn. It's just a matter of the general education teacher being exposed to training.

But it’s important to remember that we are all responsible for educating ELLs. It’s not just the responsibility of the general education teacher but the entire school system.

What are some current characteristics of ELLs?

Joel Gómez: There are five million students who meet the definition of English learners under Title III, but there are about 12.1 million students who are who are not ELLs but are speakers of different languages other than, and in addition to, English. That is about 23 percent of our K-12 student population, or one in five students nationally.

In 2021-2022, the average majority-minority enrollment in public schools  – the number of students who are linguistically and culturally diverse – is more than half at 53 percent. They are no longer outliers, and there can no longer be school district policies for the “normal children” and a new program for the multilingual learner. Policies must be inclusive and central to the schooling needs of bilingual or multilingual students as part of the core school practices.

How can we address the inequities ELL students face?

Joel Gómez: ELLs are still behind non-English learnersin test scores, ELLs are 20 percent more likely to be suspended, they tend to be over- and under-identified for special education, they are less likely to participate in extra-curricular activities, and they have a higher dropout rate.

Beyond that, the curriculum and assessments given to students are oriented toward English speakers, which creates a set of inequities in learning and testing.

To address these inequities, schools must be inclusive and central to the needs of ELLs. In many schools, ELLs comprise at least half if not the majority of a school’s student population. Meeting the educational needs of ELLs must become part of the core of the school’s practices.

Julie Sugarman: I ask educators to make sure you are prioritizing ELL services. They are not optional. It's incredibly important that students get the services that they are entitled to by law.

Also, for equity advocacy research, we need data to show how ESSER dollars are spent for ELLs and the positive impact they make. That way, policy makers can’t say “we gave you this amount of money and you didn’t use it so we’re not going to give more.” If we can show how ESSER funds have been used to support ELLs, the next time we go asking for money, we have a chance of getting it.

How might SEL instruction impact academic learning specifically for English language learners?

Monica Generoso: Most of the SEL strategies for ELLs are the same as those for all students, like helping them with self-awareness, self-management, and self-evaluation by building connections and relationships with them.

One of the things that I find with ELLs is that they need to feel security. We, as educators, need to know that they're often coming into a new country. They're just trying to fit in, and it's very hard. Imagine yourself going somewhere you've never been and you don't know the language or the culture. Sometimes the children come into a community without their families, without their parents. We can help by creating a buddy system, creating ways that they can express in their language details about their culture that their bilingual buddy can help share with you and the other students. Make the school and classroom inviting. Create opportunities for all students to share and learn about each other’s cultures, and know that all of our students have feelings and passions. You can bring those out by building relationships with them.

The learning process is a lot easier when the children know that you care.

Learn More: ELLs: What You Need to Know

Get more from

We're here to help you succeed in your career, advocate for public school students, and stay up to date on the latest education news. Sign up to stay informed.
National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.