When Taniya Ria moved from Bangladesh to the Bronx in 2019, she didn’t know a word of English. Within months, the now 12-year-old Taniya was translating for her mother, making American friends in class and getting good grades. Then the pandemic arrived.
This fall, she took classes on an iPhone from her family’s one-bedroom apartment in Parkchester, struggling to understand teachers’ English through the small screen. The words and grammar she once knew have evaporated, as has her confidence.
“It’s the hardest school year of my life,” said Taniya, who is in sixth grade. “I feel like the year is going to be wasted.”
While the disruptions of 2020 threatened to lose the learning of nearly every student in the country, the toll has been particularly dire for students who come from immigrant homes where English is rarely, if ever, spoken.
In-person instruction is essential for these students, say teachers, parents and experts. Not only are they surrounded by spoken English in their classrooms; they also learn in more subtle ways, observing teachers ‘facial expressions and other students’ responses to instructions. Teachers also depend on non-verbal gestures to understand their students. All of these things are much harder to see through a screen.
“You can’t take everything you do in person and put it online,” said Christopher Wagner, member of the Citywide Council on English Language Learners. “So we need to determine what works particularly for our multilingual learners.”
And beyond the classroom, these students, known as English Language Learners, absorb untold amounts of syntax, slang, and vocabulary information just by hanging out in hallways and halls. playgrounds with other students – experiences that have been lost for most New York school children this year.
“For English language learners, if you don’t have these casual, informal, low-stakes opportunities to practice English, you are at a real disadvantage,” said Dr. Sita Patel, professor of clinical psychology at the University. from Palo Alto. studies the emotional health of immigrant youth.
These concerns are happening across the country. Parts of Virginia, California and Maryland are starting to see ELL students falling behind their peers, according to early fall data from each school district. In Connecticut, attendance is becoming a bigger issue for English learners, who were second to homeless students in their decline in participation in virtual and in-person classes.
In New York City, the Department of Education does not yet have estimates of the learning loss of the city’s estimated 142,000 English-learning students – among the largest populations of English learners in the country. It is also unclear how many of these students opted for blended learning over distance learning.
Officials from the city’s Department of Education said they had asked schools to prioritize English learners in deciding who will be allowed to return to full-time in-person lessons – and insist that ‘they use all available resources to enhance distance learning.
“Whether they are learning in person or at a distance, we are committed to providing a high quality education to our English language learners and have put in place essential supports and services to meet them where they are,” said Sarah Casasnovas, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education.
Yet students like Taniya are working under the radar and struggling to ask for help in the new virtual setting.
During a music lesson, Taniya was convinced that she knew the answer to a question posed by her teacher, but her enthusiasm was quickly dampened by the fear that she might mispronounce a word.
Over and over again, she repeated silently saying the answer. But by the time she had gathered enough courage to speak, the iPhone she was using for class froze. When he restarted, his classmates were gone. She was silent the rest of the period.
“It’s hard for me to explain what I mean correctly,” Taniya said. “And there are so many people in class that I’m nervous about making a mistake.”
Educators who work with English language learners are going through difficult times.
When Aixa Rodriguez, who teaches English learners at a college in Manhattan, was in a classroom, she said she could understand her students’ posture and behavior when they needed help. But now his students are often silent and off camera.
“I don’t know if they are engaged or not, I don’t know who needs to be redirected and therefore my ability to be effective is hampered,” said Ms. Rodriguez, who has been teaching English learners for almost two decades.
“I am afraid that the children who fall through the cracks will stop working so hard and stop pushing themselves,” she added. “They’re going to reach a point where they’re comfortable with their English and that’s it.”
Nadal Bertin is worried about it himself. Now 18, he moved from Haiti to New York last November, where he learned English the best he could and worked hard to earn school credits that would be accepted in the United States. . He is determined to graduate on time this spring.
“I have to go to university and make my family in Haiti proud,” Nadal said. “But I’m worried about my English.”
Nadal saw his English improve dramatically in a matter of months as he was immersed in the language at his lower Manhattan high school. This is no longer the case now that it is in fully remote classes. “By doing online classes, I don’t speak much English anymore,” he says.
English learners who need additional support for learning disabilities have been particularly affected by the pandemic.
When Huiyong Yu and his family came to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, from Hong Kong two years ago, his 12-year-old son struggled to learn English and did poorly in school. She felt he was not getting the right support for his autism, so this year she enrolled him in a school in District 75 to receive services like speech therapy. But her progress is still hampered by virtual learning, she said.
“It’s hard for both of us to figure out how to use Google Drive and Google Meet,” Ms. Yu said. “Because of this, homework sometimes is missed.”
Ms. Yu herself took an online English course at University Settlement, a non-profit human services organization working with immigrants in New York City. After a long shift in a senior center, she and her son do their English homework separately. It became a liaison activity during the pandemic.
“I just hope my son learns enough English so that he can make friends,” Ms. Yu said through a translator.
Opportunities to practice English may be even more difficult to find for students in immigrant neighborhoods where other languages are primarily spoken. Even the most motivated students can learn a new language at a slower pace if they are not surrounded by people who speak that language, experts say.
“ELL students can lose more than other students and at a faster rate,” said Julie Sugarman, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank.
Sofia Green, whose family emigrated from the Dominican Republic five years ago, said her son, Sebastian, 14, already speaks Spanish most often because that’s what is spoken in his home and in his Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn. Now that he’s taking distance education, her son is even less inclined to practice English, she said.
“I feel he’s slowly going backwards, since he started learning online,” Ms. Green said in Spanish. “If he learned better English it would help me and our family,” she added. “He could also find a part-time job, and that could help a lot.”
In the Bronx, Taniya also feels lost without having the opportunity for spontaneous conversations with her peers during lunch, the gym time, and in the hallway between classes – the times when she thinks she’s made the most progress in school. learning english.
“I feel like I’ve become more shy because I can’t really talk to other students in online classes anymore,” she says. “I feel like it’s all my fault.”
Now Taniya, who fan-girls of BTS, the K-pop group, and practices TikTok dances, rarely speaks or shows her face in class, unless that’s to explain her internet sluggishness.
When Taniya first noticed her English slipping in September, she was reading aloud to practice speaking, pulling from a stack of picture books and young adult novels stacked on her dresser.
But over time it became more difficult to pronounce the words and it took longer to complete each chapter. Finally, she stopped trying.