The “pause” offered during the coronavirus pandemic permits me to reflect on principles about language, children’s bilingualism, and their education long considered mainstream. I propose that this is a time to unlearn, and relearn anew. I address the invalidity of traditional principles for Latinx bilingual students and propose other understandings.
Key words: Bilingualism, language, language teaching, Latinx, pedagogical practices, translanguaging
I write this as I sit home in isolation after having recovered from the coronavirus. New York City is silent, except for the sounds of sirens carrying patients to hospitals. What can I still say about the education of Latinx minoritized bilinguals when interaction with others is limited and schools are closed? when standardized tests have been suspended and educational authorities have stopped talking about standards, academic language, and categories of children? There is much suffering and much darkness in this time of crisis, but there is also time to unlearn and relearn.
Children in the United States and all over the world are suffering. In New York City, children are questioning their isolation, the absence of parks and playgrounds, of friends and family. A health crisis like the one we are facing hits all children with fear, even if some can escape to summer homes and have the advantages of technology and homeschooling by parents whose jobs can be done from home. What will children know when they come out of this? How will educators continue to care for them, to relieve the fear? What lessons will we have learned? These are all questions that we will have to face.
The question for me now as I write this is: What understandings do I still hold on to when language education, as we knew it, has ceased to exist? How do we navigate the wounds, the heridas that have surfaced in these dark times to reconstruct life anew for all children, and especially for those like Latinx minoritized bilinguals who are most vulnerable?
In what follows, I reflect on some principles about language education and the education of Latinx bilingual children that have been considered mainstream understandings. I propose that we need to unlearn, so that we can relearn anew. I address three categories of mainstream understandings about language and education––1) our understandings about language, 2) our understandings about language proficiency and how these produce categories of learners, 3) our understandings of language teaching.
Here I take up the call made by the Portuguese philosopher Boaventura de Sousa Santos in his work on the “epistemologies of the South” (2007, 2014). Santos calls for a different logic, a way of knowing that includes the knowledge systems of those who have suffered most from the effects of colonialism and global capitalism. I first discuss mainstream understandings, and I propose some alternative thinking of alternatives (Santos, 2007). Thinking from “both sides of the line” allows us to adopt a measure of cognitive justice for these children. The education of these children then is refocused as we relearn what it means to educate with difficult loving care so as to attend to their suffering and fear.
I address here two mainstream understandings about the language of Latinx bilinguals:
These understandings of language have been constructed in ways that render these bilingual children deficient because they are compared to what is understood as the only valid knowledge—that of monolingual white middle-class children and their communities. When knowledge of language is seen only from the powerful side of the line, with what is said to be “modern science and scholarship,” what is, in reality, the practice of one group is then expected of those whose knowledge has been relegated to the other side of the line, and thus rendered invisible or non-existent.
When these monolingual white middle-class students learn another language in schools, their additive bilingualism, with two languages that reflect different nation-states and cultural systems, is then the only form of bilingualism that is validated. In this way, the dynamic bilingualism that characterizes bilingual communities who live their lives in what Gloria Anzaldúa has called “borderlands” (1987) is maligned. The community’s bilingualism is seen as a “mixture” of languages; their knowledge of language is rendered incomplete, full of errors. When their bilingualism is studied, it is to point out phenomena that does not conform to monolingual use—the use of loans, calques, and what is described as code-switching. In reality, however, the language of bilinguals in communities simply does not fall squarely within the boundaries that have been constructed around named languages like English or Spanish and what is fashioned as “standard language.” The concept of a standard language has been constructed by nation-states and their institutions in an effort to control whose language and knowledge systems are rendered valid. The language of bilingual communities has been made deficient by imposing the knowledge-system of white monolingual middle-class people. In so doing, those on “the other side of the line” have undergone a process of minoritization. Latinx bilingual children’s language is characterized by absences, by what is not there. This renders their translanguaging, that is, their own complex language which does not fit the constructed canons of what states and their institutions propose to be English or Spanish, more and more silent, until it is rendered inaudible and non-existent (for more on translanguaging, see especially García & Li Wei, 2014; Otheguy et al., 2015, 2018).
In the last few years, schools have imposed another language construct that restricts our view of Latinx bilingual students as knowledgeable about language. This construct is what has been called academic language. It is now said that Latinx bilingual students fail not just because they do not “have” English or Spanish, but because they also do not have academic language.
Although scholars have worked assiduously to try to define it (cf. Snow & Uccelli, 2009; Uccelli et al., 2015), we understand less and less what it is. Is it just the language of written academic texts used in the United States? And if this is so, does it include all texts said to be academic, including those in the Humanities and the Social Science? Does it include texts of Latin American philosophers, for example? Is it the language of teachers? Which teachers? Doing what?
System Functional Linguistics (SFL) has been applied to the construct of academic language to identify how grammatical structures are derived from different types of socially relevant tasks within varied social contexts (Schleppegrell, 2012). But even when this work is done by critical sociolinguists who incorporate the language and cultural repertoires of Latinx bilingual students, SFL leaves out the knowledge-system, the forms of consciousness of those considered to be “on the other side of the line.” That is, since Latinx bilingual students are not considered valid members of the only culture and group that has been constructed as legitimate, their knowledge-practice, that is, the ways in which they think about and act on language has been left out. Thus, the concept of academic language adds to the burden and the failure of Latinx bilingual students and renders their knowledge of language and bilingualism as non-academic, popular, intuitive, incomprehensible, or simply wrong.
There are two mainstream understandings about language proficiency and how it relates to the categorization of students that circulate as “truths” in educational circles. They are:
The concept of language proficiency is one that responds to the advent of measurement, with modern science restricting the field of knowledge so that it fits within the contours of what can be measured. In order to measure language, it had to be made into an entity made up of grammatical components, an object that human beings either have or do not have more or less.
But language is an activity, a product of complex social action (Becker, 1995; Maturana & Varela, 1984). Language is always a languaging, a verb, always in motion and in relationship to life and its context. As such, language is immeasurable, an ongoing process that defies measurement.
Yet it is the first definition of language as an object that is used in education. Through measurements of what is objectified as language, reflecting the language of white monolingual middle-class people, the “others” are rendered “limited.” And thus, many Latinx bilingual students are labeled as “Limited English Proficient,” or as “English Language Learners.” Note well what I am saying, which is worth repeating. It turns out that Latinx bilingual children are “invented” through these measurements as “limited” and “learners” of a language that actually makes up their bilingualism. The translanguaging of Latinx bilinguals, a more complex and dynamic way of doing language, of languaging with many different interlocutors, is then reduced to a limitation and a deficiency, a lack of proficiency. This in turn makes it possible to create categories of children—those who can be educated, and those who have to first learn “English,” in ways that are simply not theirs.
Latinx bilingual children labeled “English learners” are then seen and listened to through absences, through what they do not have, through what are seen as their limitations. Their emergent bilingualism is negated. Instead of being recognized for what they do with language, with their complex translanguaging, they are penalized for not “having” a language that has been constructed precisely to leave out their own language. The limitation is not that of the children; it is of an educational system that uses invalid measures to rob some of them from rich instruction and enrichment programs in the arts. It is a limitation of an educational system that then reduces instruction for these children on remediating what they are said not to have. Instruction becomes a way to make these bilingual children reach an English language “standard,” that will remain out of reach for them because it requires them to “have” something that has been defined a priori as simply not theirs.
The so-called objective measures of language proficiency have served to amplify categories of limitation, so that more Latinx bilingual children qualify for remedial instruction. Instead of opening up a more generous space where all children can receive an enriching education, more and more Latinx bilingual children fall short of standards that were never meant to include them.
Language educators often adhere to two principles that are accepted as universal:
Curriculum for language teaching follows a scope and sequence that responds mostly to the language use and development of monolingual middle-class children. But most Latinx bilingual children are simultaneous bilinguals, which means that they are developing their bilingualism at home, usually from the time they are born, as they interact with siblings and family and community members. And yet, the teaching of, for example, English as a second language to Latinx bilinguals labeled “English learners” proceeds as if they have little practice with English, although many have heard it and have used it from the time they learned to talk. For some, now labeled “Long Term English Language Learners” because of faulty notions of language proficiency, English may be the only language they speak.
When teaching Latinx bilingual students who have recently arrived in the United States, the scope and sequence followed in English as a second language programs also treats the language as an object, a series of phonological, morphological, syntactical and lexical elements that can be taught through skill and drill. And although the curriculum of bilingual education programs breaks from this focus on teaching and learning language as an object, the creation and growth of dual language programs where white English-speaking monolingual students participate has meant that a sequence based on a tradition of “foreign language” learning is now given priority. This means that Latinx bilingual children are asked (at least officially, even if it does not happen in reality) to never use “Spanish” during “English” instruction, and never use “English” during “Spanish instruction. This demeans even further the bilingual community’s use of translanguaging. As such, many dual language education programs have become simply a language education program that ignores and punishes with even more fury the bilingualism of the Latinx community.
Everything that we have done in the past to “remediate” the language of Latinx bilinguals has failed us. It is time to unlearn these understandings that we have held dear.
But then, what is it that we must relearn? How can we then teach Latinx bilingual children with loving care that is not simply an emotion, but an action? The answer has to do with teaching Latinx bilingual children lovingly about the difficult histories that have surrounded language. The answer has to do with incorporating the knowledge-practice from both sides of the line, not just from the powerful side of the line.
Educators of Latinx bilingual students must pose two questions of their teaching:
Instead of teaching with a goal of helping Latinx bilingual children meet externally-imposed criteria, educators must ask themselves:
Living with the coronavirus crisis might help give educators the courage to act differently when they return to classrooms. To heal we will need to understand the difficult histories of how the crisis evolved. This might give us the courage we need to help children understand the role that language in schools has played in the systemic and unjust suffering of Latinx bilingual children. As language educators, we must relearn, as we reflect during this time of coronavirus. Only by shifting gears will we ensure that Latinx bilingual children resignify their lives and education with dignity.
Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands/La frontera: The new mestiza. Aunt Lute Books.
Becker, A. L. (1995). Beyond translation: Essays toward a modern philosophy. University of Michigan Press.
García, O., & Li Wei. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education. Palgrave Macmillan Pivot.
Maturana, H., & Varela, F. (1984). El árbol del conocimiento: Las bases biológicas del entendimiento humano. Lumen/Editorial Universitaria.
Otheguy, R., García, O. & Reid, W. (2015). Clarifying translanguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review, 6(3), 281-307. https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2015-0014
Otheguy, R., García, O., & Reid, W. (2018). A translanguaging view of the linguistic system of bilinguals. Applied Linguistics Review, 10(4), 625-651. https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2018-0020
Santos, B. de S. (2007). Beyond abyssal thinking: From global lines to ecologies of knowledges. Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 30(1), 45-89. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40241677
Santos, B. de S. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice against epistemicide. Routledge.
Schleppegrell, M. J. (2012). Systemic functional linguistics: Exploring meaning in language. In J. P. Gee & M. Handford (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of discourse analysis (pp. 21-34). Routledge.
Snow, C. E., & Uccelli, P. (2009). The challenge of academic language. In D. R. Olson, & N. Torrance (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of literacy (pp. 112-133). Cambridge University Press.
Uccelli, P., Barr, C., Dobbs, C., Galloway, E. P., Meneses, A., & Sanchez, E. (2015). Core academic language skills (CALS): An expanded operational construct and a novel instrument to chart school-relevant language proficiency in preadolescent and adolescent learners. Applied Psycholinguistics, 36(5), 1077-1109. https://doi.org/10.1017/S014271641400006X
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced adult basic skills and ESOL programs to offer instruction at a distance. The uncertainty of the future means programs must rethink sustainable alternatives to traditional classroom programming. In this way, the pandemic has forced a change that might just reshape adult learning—potentially making it more flexible and personalized in the days to come.
Key words: COVID-19, adult ESOL, online learning, Adult Basic Education
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced teachers to rethink the way they support learners and provide instruction. This is a global challenge: according to data from UNESCO (n.d.), the coronavirus has instantly forced 1.9B students and teachers worldwide, effectively 70% of total enrolled learners and their educators, online. Since mid-March 2020, the Ed Tech Center @ World Education has been supporting adult basic skills programs, as they have moved their instruction online, by sharing research, resources, and innovative strategies we’ve seen percolating in Adult Basic Education (ABE) and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) “classes” across the United States. As programs have risen to the challenge to meet the needs of their learners, the growth in distance education we’ve observed has been unprecedented.
This rapid expansion of distance education in many states is built on a foundation of incremental growth in adult basic skills and ESOL programs over the past several years. Federal enrollment data for IDEAL Consortium1 member states, states that have prioritized development of distance education programs and collaborate as a community of practice to do so, show that in FY 2014-2015, 12,820 distance learners took more than 50% of their coursework online in these states. In FY 2018-2019, that number grew to nearly 30,000.2
This is promising to be sure, yet, those learners are only a fraction of the total number of students enrolled in adult basic skills and ESOL programs, and those enrolled represent only a fraction of adults in this country who have basic skills and literacy needs or lack a high school diploma. This reality is mapped nicely in a new Barbara Bush Foundation resource which shows the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) adult literacy data at the county level. Figure 1 shows a screenshot of the interactive map on the foundation’s website, which illustrates areas of the United States with the lowest scores on the most recent PIAAC literacy assessment and then layers on data showing the connection between literacy levels and factors that negatively impact well-being.
How is this related to the current pandemic? The map shows there is clearly great need for programming to support adult literacy in the United States. Even before the pandemic, the programs in place were not meeting all of the need. Leveraging technology can extend and enrich learning to make it more available to a greater pool of adult learners (Rosin et al., 2017; Vanek et. al, 2019). Despite the steady progress establishing distance education, there have always been programs that have struggled making distance and online learning a priority—perhaps because of concerns about access to technology or the challenge of helping students and teachers feel comfortable working together remotely. These are still valid concerns, yet today, because of the pandemic, reticence about moving online is no longer an option. Programs that had previously been uncertain about distance education have now had no choice but to figure out how to make it work. Though it has not been easy, many have made the shift and are now offering at least some instruction at a distance, and much of that using online resources and technology.
As I’ve watched all this unfold, I’ve been reminded of a book called Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen. Somewhat dated now (written in 2011), the basis of the book is a concept called disruptive innovation, a theory that explains how a new strategy, process, or tool disrupts existing structures (Christensen et al., 2011). The theory, applied to education, describes how new technologies (or use of them) can disrupt existing learning structures (traditional classroom programming). The theory of disruptive innovation suggests the trajectory of online learning is a path that could lead toward creating relevant and more flexible learning experiences for more students—expanding opportunities that are more accessible and personalized, in contrast to the classroom-bound structures that don’t always work for learners because of time and place constraints (e.g., learners can’t make it to class because of work or family obligations).
The pandemic and the forced move toward more use of online technologies is a disruption that has required a shift to more flexible learning opportunities. Since mid-March, I’ve seen programs offering a range of online learning options and teachers across the United States move more to a facilitator role. The result has been increased student-centered learning made possible as instructors draw on multiple technologies and online resources to meet different students’ needs. As teachers and learners grow more comfortable working together online, instruction becomes more and more student-driven because learners can work independently, collaborate via technologies with their classmates, and access personally-relevant instructional content.
For example, adult ESOL instructors are creating opportunities for learning online outside of their scheduled Zoom class sessions. A common practice is to use a class website as a place to bank supplemental resources that they can assign according to the needs or interests of the learners who are present. The same site can be used to integrate Google docs and slides to support collaborative learning online. Another common example is use of such a website in tandem with a free online learning curriculum (e.g., USA Learns or We Speak NYC). The teacher can monitor learners’ work and assign supplemental resources according to what they observe in the curriculum. Other teachers are delivering micro-learning opportunities sharing media-rich content through WhatsApp. Specific examples of how teachers have used these strategies and the resources they created can be found in the EdTech Center’s archive of Distance Education Strategy Sessions.
Such instruction may seem far-fetched in some places, but I think, starting small and building on the forced innovation in place now during the pandemic, we can reshape the work of adult basic skills and ESOL programming to deliver more flexible, truly personalized, and relevant learning experiences for more adult learners than our programs have had the capacity to reach via the old structures.
You may have already taken the plunge and have worked out how to move instruction online. For programs still feeling their way and hoping to expand their distance offerings beyond paper packets, here are some critical first steps, based on work published on the Ed Tech Center’s Tips for Distance Learning, to help.
Collect all relevant contact information for your learners (e.g., cell phone numbers, email, home addresses), so you know how you will keep in contact with them. Be sure to know which of them is preferred by the students; possible communication channels might be phone calls, videoconferences, texting, apps (such as WhatsApp or Remind), or email.
What technology access do your teachers and students have (e.g., licenses to online products, web-based teacher-created curricula, devices, Internet)? Make a list of these assets and plan how you will communicate them to learners and staff. Consider steps you might take to prevent access-equity gaps from getting wider. What resources can you refer your learners to—things that leverage the access they have, like mobile phones? If you know that there is no access, you may consider packets with some essential learning materials.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) has curated a list of special offers for access to broadband from Internet Service Providers across the United States. Consider starting a tablet or laptop lending program if you have the devices.
The Minnesota Department of Education, Adult Basic Education, has published guidance to help programs move instruction online. Updates can be found on the MNABE support website. If you are not from Minnesota, do check with your state professional development leaders to see what’s available.
There are a multitude of technical support and professional learning resources for teachers. ABE teachers in Minnesota should follow the COVID-19 resource site put together by ATLAS. The linked newsletters featuring teacher stories, ABE Voices Across the Distance, are very useful. The EdTech Center @ World Education also has a site, Tips for Distance Learning, which links to offers from curriculum developers and directories of free open education resources. The site also shares briefs describing essential distance education components, which are based on past IDEAL Consortium and EdTech Center research.
Learners need proactive support. Consider recording a webinar or creating a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page that maps out key steps for accessing the technology resources used in instruction. Make some screencasts with audio instructions to help learners navigate the online resources you hope they will use remotely. You can use free screencasting tools like Loom, Screencast-o-Matic, or Screencastify. Send links to the videos using communication channels or technologies you know are most easily accessed by learners. Many resources have developed tutorials, several in multiple languages, so check first before spending time to create your own and generate inspiration by building off of existing community resources. For example, St. Paul ABE has posted this site with multilingual how-to videos. New York TESOL has created and posted videos about how to use Google Classroom in this YouTube playlist.
After providing some initial proactive support, you need some way for students to get help with educational technology if they cannot meet with a teacher. Consider a dedicated phone line or chat system (you could use WhatsApp). You might have office hours using the free version of Zoom or BigBlueButton. Have teachers practice with each other and practice using these with as many learners as you can while they are still with you in person.
Learning at home is going to be very difficult for many learners. They might be trying to work from home, raise children, or educate their children while trying to continue their studies with you. Even if they have technology skills, they may not have independent learning experience, so they may not know where to begin when it comes to making choices about scheduling time, choosing resources, or reaching out to you with questions. While this is a unique opportunity to push learners toward more digital literacy, be wary of the cognitive load required.
Preferably introduce one technology at a time, and start with one that learners know how to use already. Texting and use of the app WhatsApp is a solid choice. (The image to the right is adapted from WhatsApp promotional materials.)
In 2019, 68.1 million United States mobile phone users accessed WhatsApp to communicate (Clement, 2020). Anecdotal reports and informal surveys done by teachers who have posted to the LINCS Integrating Technology Community show that many ABE learners are among this group. WhatsAPP is great because students can communicate with a familiar technology through a familiar action—texting. Pew Research data from as far back as 2011 show that 76% of Americans texted (Smith, 2019).
WhatsApp (or Remind as an alternative) is an excellent means by which to communicate essential information. Because you can send video, audio recordings, images, links, and text notes, you can deliver instructional resources to learners easily. For a comprehensive guide to using WhatApp for instruction, check out ABE expert and LINCS facilitator David Rosen’s continuously updated resource. As posts to the forum show more WhatsApp strategies, Rosen adds them to the document.
Though options are now falling into place for remote standardized testing using (e.g., CASAS, TABE, and Best Plus), you may not yet be doing official pre- and posttesting to record level gains. You will still need to assess your learners to better understand what learning resources you might share with them. There are several strategies I’ve noticed in use by programs across the country during the pandemic.
The easiest way to pretest is to make use of placement assessments that may be integrated into an online curriculum your program may have access to. The benefit to doing this is you’ll have a range of assessments across the content areas you are teaching, and the learner will likely get a learning plan created for them within the product.
If your program does not have access to a licensed curriculum, you can still do an initial assessment for literacy level. Read Theory is a free app that gauges a learner’s reading level and then helps students improve their reading comprehension skills by moving through increasingly more complicated passages.
For students who cannot pretest using a technology, you might consider an oral assessment. A simple phone call with a student can help you understand their speaking and listening proficiency. For more formal assessment, consider using the verbal skills proficiency assessments from CASAS or Best Plus if your program uses either one of them.
Because learners are likely struggling to balance supporting their children, working, and managing the stress of the pandemic, they may not be in the best mindset for making academic progress. This does not mean they should be dropped! Many of these learners may not have other sources of information and support at this time, so the goal for those who are not making progress is to stay connected. You might sustain the connection by providing vital information about how to stay safe or access support resources. The connections you can sustain now will make it more likely that these students will return when your program doors reopen. A very useful site for information about the pandemic is Switchboard, a resource hub for refugee service providers developed with the support of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The site features multilingual videos, posters, and informational PDFs explaining COVID-19 and how to stay safe during the pandemic.
The distance education options in place now provide a glimpse of what adult ESOL classes in the United States might look like after the pandemic—a new model of more personalized blended learning. It is likely that even when doors to programs open, it may be with a requirement for social distancing. With fewer learners in the classrooms, more will need to be taught online. Using a blended approach, a teacher might support a classroom of students, but instead of all being in class at the same time, small groups of students would take turns being in the classroom. The teacher could work with each small group in person, in a classroom setting, on activities that expand on or prepare students for online learning that happens in between class meetings.
Some programs new to distance education during the pandemic have begun to circle back and revisit initial strategies and processes put into place; they’ve moved beyond the triage way of working and are looking to strengthen distance education with sustainable instructional practices and administrative processes. This work is being done with the view that we may not return to the old normal for quite some time, if at all. There is so much in the works now that will support forward momentum of distance education—more gracious National Reporting System policies, including one that allows for remote testing; a plethora of professional development opportunities; increased access to devices and broadband for many students across the country; more digital instruction resources; and most importantly, students who have now had a glimpse of the flexibility and personalization afforded through distance education. We’re not likely to look back at this time and see any silver lining, but hopefully, we’ll look back and see a time of incredible growth and innovation in the field of adult ESOL and literacy instruction.
Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., & Johnson, C. W. (2011). Disrupting class: how disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns (2nd ed.). McGraw Hill.
Clement, J. (2020, January 8). WhatsApp Status daily active users 2019. Accessed 19 May, 2020 at https://www.statista.com/statistics/730306/whatsapp-status-dau/
Rosin, M., Vanek, J., & Webber, A. A. (2017). How Investment in technology can Accelerate Collective Impact in Adult Learning. World Education, Inc. https://edtech.worlded.org/resources/investment-in-technology/
Smith, A. (2019, December 31). Americans and Text Messaging. Accessed 19 May, 2020 at https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2011/09/19/americans-and-text-messaging/
UNESCO. (n.d.) COVID-19 Educational Disruption and Response. Accessed 19 May, 2020 at https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse
Vanek, J., Rosin, M., Silbert, J. H., Tashjian, K., & Webber, A. A. (2019). Technology, innovation, and adult career pathways. COABE Journal: The Resource for Adult Education (November), 124-132. https://coabe.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/TheResourceforAdultEducationCareerPathwaysSpecialEdition.pdf