Mitigating Learning Loss for ESL Learners This Summer

Kate Fritz
Kate Fritz
LIEP Supervisor for PA School Districts; M.A. in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist
Multiethnic students sit in a library, laying their heads down on their school books in a stressed manner.

What is Learning Loss?

To understand the best processes for mitigating learning loss, it is essential to know that learning loss is the lack of retention of knowledge and skills learned or attained. Learning loss can occur in various scenarios, such as over the summer months, due to interrupted formal education, ineffective teaching for some time, or nonsequential course offerings.

Typically, learning loss is referenced with summer break. A study published in the American Educational Research Journal found that “the average student lost 17–34% of the prior year’s learning gains during summer break, as well as that students who lose ground in one summer are more likely to also lose ground in subsequent summers.”

What Challenges Do ESL Learners Typically Face?

ESL (English as a second language) learners face unique challenges regarding summer learning loss. Recent research published by NWEA shows that: “Students who continued to require EL support… grew more than [their peers] during the academic years but also lost more learning during the summers.”

There is little research on the factors that contribute to this exacerbated amount of summer loss for ESL learners because the variables are difficult to measure. However, we do know that much of the impact of summer loss on English learners is due to where they spend their time over the summer. In general, most English learners speak a language other than English at home, not practicing or building their proficiency in English.

Even if English learners are at the park or playground, they generally spend time with peers who speak the same native language and do not practice their English speaking skills as much socially. Another scenario could be students traveling to their country of origin or visiting family who speak the same native language(s).

It is also worth noting the accessibility of summer enrichment programs and camps to ESL learners. Summer enrichment camps can be highly costly to families and can exacerbate and widen the opportunity gap for students. ESL learners experiencing poverty can have limited access to programs that prevent summer loss due to financial or transportation barriers.

Learning Loss Due to COVID

As research of the effects of COVID learning loss have begun to be released, a trend has emerged, which can be helpful when looking at mitigating learning loss. Research has found that the impacts of COVID were greater on marginalized groups of students: “Over the past two years, ELs likely experienced at higher rates than their peers a lack of access to in-person or virtual instruction and services.”

During the pandemic, learning conditions for ESL learners have negatively affected student growth and progress. Knowing that ESL learners regress higher than non-ESL learners means that the achievement gap will be even more comprehensive in the fall when school begins again.

How to Mitigate Learning Loss this Summer

Here are two ways schools and teachers can help in mitigating learning loss for ESL learners this summer:

Extended Learning Opportunities

Students should be engaged in extended learning opportunities over the summer months through school-based programs. Academic programs that focus on reading and writing have the potential not just to prevent summer loss but also to support student growth. Intentional design of programming is also critical.

Offering a summer program alone will not impact student achievement or prevent summer learning loss. Programs should be designed with sufficient duration, student attendance expectations, qualified and trained staff, small class sizes, and evidence-based instructional materials. It is also important that barriers such as fees and transportation be removed for accessibility to students. Consider offering incentives such as breakfast or lunch which will also help support student engagement.

Programs do not necessarily need to be academic-focused. Opportunities could be extracurricular, such as a board games club or interscholastic sport. Participation in activities such as these will help ESL learners continue to practice their speaking and listening skills in their language of acquisition.

Connect ESL Learners with Partner Organizations

Additional program opportunities for students exist in communities; schools can support and facilitate the connection of families to these programs through solid and trusting partnerships. One example of an excellent program opportunity for ESL learners is the Migrant Education Program. This program is active in 46 of the 50 states in the US and is a wonderful, free program that supports the children of migrant workers.

In Pennsylvania, the Migrant Education Program offers summer programs to qualifying students that in local school districts. It provides door-to-door transportation, meals, and academic and enrichment activities, all cost-free. This is just one example of a community-based program that is federally, state, or grant funded.

Schools should also nurture partnerships with other local agencies, clubs, and organizations that offer summer programs to students. Many of these programs have scholarships that families can apply for to remove any financial barriers. Libraries, YMCAs, WYMCAs, 4-H clubs, colleges, and universities are just a few options for schools to reach out to for partnerships.

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