Under an IES grant, Drs. Leslie Babinski, Steve Amendum, Steve Knotek, and Marta Sánchez are evaluating the impact of the Developing Consultation and Collaboration Skills (DCCS) program. The DCCS program is a year-long professional development intervention designed to support English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) and classroom teachers to develop their skills in collaboration, literacy instruction, and parent outreach and engagement for their Latino students. Unfortunately, COVID-19 disrupted their study, but rather than calling it quits, the research team used it as an opportunity to explore how teachers are responding to a new normal and learned some important lessons along the way.
Last spring, we were in the middle of conducting a randomized control trial in elementary schools working with teaching teams of kindergarten, first grade, and ESL teachers when COVID-19 hit, and schools pivoted to online instruction.
As we paused our efficacy trial and adapted our plans, we continued to stay engaged with teachers despite the rapidly shifting circumstances. We realized that the foundational skills central to our intervention—using high-impact instructional strategies for English learners (ELs), building on families’ cultural wealth, promoting collaboration between ESL and classroom teachers, and ongoing, supportive implementation coaching—could be modified and adapted for different contexts and modes of delivery. These ongoing interactions with teachers provided us with an up-close look at their experiences as they connected with families remotely and adapted to this new and unfamiliar way of teaching. We learned about the challenges, successes, and possibilities for providing online instruction for young ELs.
While online teaching during the current school year looks and feels very different from the emergency shift to remote teaching from last spring, we learned important lessons from the experiences of teachers and students.
First, we learned that our implementation coaching model could be productive in a virtual format. In fact, teachers were eager to engage in reflective conversations despite the demands on their time and the stress of the pandemic. Each of the school teams continued to meet with our implementation coach. Together, they found new ways to scaffold instruction for ELs during online learning. Teachers supported one another in finding creative ways to use technology to communicate with families and provide support that reached beyond academics. They also created lessons that intentionally adapted instruction to reach ELs in their classrooms. For example, embedded in the videos the teachers created, they continued to use our core instructional strategies, such as previewing academic vocabulary before reading a new text, supplementing student background knowledge related to the content, providing sentence frames for both oral and written participation, and selecting texts related to student cultures and families.
Second, it is clear that there are serious inequities in access to online schooling. In our study, even as teachers made the commendable efforts described above, they also reported that more than half of their EL students required a device from the school district, while one-third of the families also needed a Wi-Fi hotspot to access online learning. This rate is considerably higher than a Pew Research Center poll that found that one in five parents reported difficulties with online learning due to lack of a computer or Wi-Fi access, highlighting the fact that many English Learners may have limited access to the technology necessary for online learning.
Third, online learning requires a partnership between teachers, families, and other caregivers. Even with a device and internet access, many young children and their families had difficulty logging onto their school accounts and navigating the technical aspects of the learning platforms for online schooling. Teachers reported that about half of the EL students in their classrooms had a parent or guardian who was able to help them with schoolwork at home. About 20% had help from another adult or a sibling. In one case, a teacher described a family in which a kindergarten student received support for online schooling from her brother in second grade. In our study, support at home was critical for student participation in online lessons. Our work with teachers during remote teaching and learning highlighted how parents and other caregivers are important advocates for their children’s education and are eager to partner with teachers and schools to help their children succeed.
Looking to the future, it is clear that instruction for ELs will need to focus on equitable access to high-quality instruction, whether online or in-person. Access to devices and Wi-Fi is essential, not only for online teaching and learning, but also for extending learning into the home. Finally, we note that teacher collaboration and coaching can be effectively adapted for an online environment and is an essential component in providing support to teachers for high-quality instruction for ELs.
Although we could not have anticipated the value of continuing to work with teachers during the pivot to remote instruction, we are grateful for the experience and all that we have learned during the process.
For more information, see this EdWeek article and this interview on The TakeAway.
Dr. Leslie Babinski is an associate research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Director of the Center for Child and Family Policy.
Dr. Steve Amendum is a professor at the School of Education at the University of Delaware.
Dr. Steve Knotek is a professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Dr. Marta Sánchez is an associate professor in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
This is part of a series of blog posts focusing on conducting education research during COVID-19.