English As A Second Language Students Are Falling Further Behind For children learning English, speaking the language can be a way to fit in. But teachers worry that remote learning means some students aren't hearing even casual English outside their classes.

Millions Of Kids Learn English At School. Teaching Them Remotely Hasn't Been Easy

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are 5 million kids in the U.S. who speak English as a second or third language, and online learning has hit them hard. Several districts, including in Maryland, Virginia and California, already have data showing these students are falling farther behind. Children learning English are more likely to struggle in school and to drop out. But it's more than that. Speaking English is also a way to fit in. Kavitha Cardoza of member station WAMU followed a class at a school in Prince George's County, Md., just outside Washington and saw some of the challenges up close.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Bread.

TANYA GAN LIM: Bread, very good. Say bread.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Bread.

GAN LIM: OK, how do we say this in Spanish?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Pan.

GAN LIM: Pan, yes.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: A year ago, kindergartners in Tanya Gan Lim's English class were thriving. She was teaching them the names of common foods using little plastic toys.

GAN LIM: So we're going to pretend we're going to have our favorite meal. OK. Favorito - right? - favorite meal. Very good.

CARDOZA: Six-year-old Manuel loves this lesson. We're not using students' last names to protect their privacy.

MANUEL: Pizza.

GAN LIM: And...

MANUEL: Ice cream and soda.

GAN LIM: OK, very good.

CARDOZA: Ana goes next.

ANA: For dinner, I like to eat apple and banana and eggs.

GAN LIM: Very good job. Can we do finger snaps for Ana?

(SOUNDBITE OF FINGERS SNAPPING)

GAN LIM: Great job. Awesome.

CARDOZA: For millions of children like Manuel and Ana, school is where they learn English, but the pandemic has made that much more difficult. There are fewer resources for teachers, and many English learners are less likely to have access to technology. Even in a school district like Prince George's, which has distributed free devices and mobile Wi-Fi units, these children may not have support at home to navigate the technology. Teacher Tanya Gan Lim sees this every day.

GAN LIM: Kerry - good morning, Kerry. How are you today, Kerry?

CARDOZA: This happens a lot.

KERRY: I'm good (inaudible).

GAN LIM: Very good.

CARDOZA: Screens freeze. A child wanders away. Sometimes, her kindergartners don't have supplies.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: I don't have - I need my book. My mommy didn't bring it.

CARDOZA: It's definitely tougher. How much more challenging?

GAN LIM: I can't quantify it, actually - maybe 10 times. (Laughter) Yeah, that seems to be accurate.

CARDOZA: Lim, a former English learner herself, says it's harder to build relationships and engage her students online. She doesn't see them in the hallway or during lunch duty.

GAN LIM: This year, I only get to interact with my class for 30 minutes. And then, you know, we log out, and that's it.

CARDOZA: It's not as easy to make out facial expressions and other non-verbal signs on the screen. She worries about her students when they go to their regular online classes for the rest of the day.

GAN LIM: So in the mainstream classrooms, it's very common they feel shy or they don't want to talk. They don't want to make mistakes.

CARDOZA: Ninth-grader Jimmy came from El Salvador when he was 10. Back then, he knew just three phrases in English.

JIMMY: Hello. How are you? Nice to meet you.

CARDOZA: Last year, when school was in person, he says some kids picked on him by calling him names. So when remote learning started, Jimmy was sometimes afraid to speak up in class. He does have an American friend at school who helped him with words he didn't understand.

JIMMY: He's like my brother to me. He helped me a lot.

CARDOZA: But with schools closed, Jimmy only saw his friend in his Zoom class.

MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO: Having one friend who speaks English well is a very, very good predictor of your grades.

CARDOZA: Marcelo Suarez-Orozco has spent years researching immigrant youth. He and his wife co-authored a study about the process of learning English.

SUAREZ-OROZCO: Very few of our youth in our study could say that they had one friend who was an English-dominant speaker.

CARDOZA: Those friends are even harder to find during the pandemic. Teachers worry students like Jimmy aren't hearing English on the playground or at the bus stop. Many live in neighborhoods where they don't hear English spoken at all.

These students aren't the only ones affected when their English skills fall behind. Seven-year-old Ana, who we heard in the class, translates for her mom when they go to the grocery store.

And how does your mother feel when you help her?

ANA: Good - she feels good. She says, I love you.

CARDOZA: I asked Ana, why is it important for you to learn English?

ANA: To be smart.

CARDOZA: For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardoza.

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