Starting a new life in a new country with a language you don’t understand is difficult enough as an adult. Making that transition as a child in a pandemic, when a mysterious disease abruptly shuts down what little normalcy you’ve become accustomed to, is beyond challenging.
"A lot of schools were unprepared to address online teaching in general, but even more so for English learners," says Dr. Selena Protacio, associate professor of literacy studies. "I thought about this very vulnerable population and considered, 'How can we use this opportunity to help teachers assist English learners during this time?'"
She spoke with two graduate students in the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages—TESOL—master’s program to get a better understanding of students’ needs.
Laura Frantz and Austin Szafranski both work with children in a rural school district in southwest Michigan who are considered newcomers, meaning they’ve been in the country a year or less and are still building English proficiency. Both said they wished they could read aloud to their students, but connecting was a challenge because many did not have internet access or computers to facilitate lessons.
"I thought, 'Okay, if you really want to do read-alouds and have input, why don’t we use voice recorders?' It's low-tech. It could be more affordable," and, she says, it could also supplement paper packets that the students and their families would probably have difficulty reading. "This way, they could provide that audio support for students and also have students listening to English."
Protacio applied for a COVID-19 Response Grant through WMU's Office of Research and Innovation to fund a design-based research study focused on bridging the technology gap between English learners in rural areas and their teachers by utilizing voice recorders to deliver lessons.
GETTING TO WORK
Through the grant, Frantz and Szafranski purchased several dozen voice recorders so they could record lessons for their students. They coordinated weekly dropoff and pickup times with families and started seeing the benefits shortly after the program started.
Frantz and Szafranski noticed significant increases in homework completion rates among their students once they began delivering voice recorders.
"I sent home a little calendar with daily assignments that they were supposed to do in addition to the recordings, and I would ask them to find some sight words in a book and then write them in a sentence," says Frantz. "And they would come back with a whole sheet of sight words that they wrote. Some of them really took it upon themselves to learn all summer long."
The unintended consequences of the project were even more encouraging. In addition to young students developing their English skills, parents were also building their own comprehension.
"It was something that not only the students were excited about, but entire families were excited about," Protacio says. "It was also a good way to foster improved family-school partnerships."
"I have worked extremely hard trying to build family relationships over the last six years of working here," says Frantz, who became an important lifeline for families over the course of the project as they were trying to navigate the pandemic and understand the rapid changes in the school system because of COVID-19. "I looked at this as a great opportunity. It's really hard to build those relationships usually."
LESSONS FOR THE FUTURE
The initial success of the program has already led to its expansion within the district, with two additional ESL teachers being provided voice recorders through the COVID-19 grant. Protacio, Frantz and Szfranski hope it doesn’t stop there, especially given the hybrid format that their district is using to start off the school year.
"We're hoping to share this with other teachers so that they can use this as a model, perhaps," Protacio says, noting that voice recorders could be an important tool for many districts even after the pandemic is over when language and technology barriers remain.
"It's thinking outside the box about, how can we help these kids?" adds Szafranski. "Realizing that sometimes there are simple answers for complex issues."
The new coronavirus created crises and sent every sector into panic mode. It's important in situations like this, says Frantz, to make sure the most vulnerable don’t get lost in the shuffle.
"I know that teachers are overwhelmed right now with everything going on. So, it’s easy to think of the majority or what will work for most of these students. But we need to remember that these are kids’ lives and we can’t just forget about them or put them on the back burner. There are resources and there are ways that we can advocate for our kids and their family to give them a good, positive experience."
While providing a valuable service to young English learners, Szafranski and Frantz are also gaining valuable professional experience. The grad students’ work with these younger pupils also is a reflection of WMU’s motto: So that all may learn
"We have been so blessed to have been given this opportunity to support both our newcomers and their families during this pandemic," Frantz says. "It has been extremely rewarding to put into practice the skills and ideas that we have learned about in our coursework and see the instant benefits. We are truly thankful for this knowledge and the funding which allowed us the ability to reach all of our students."