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ESL online: bridging the digital divide

ESL teacher on youtube video inviting students for a phone chat

ReWA’s ESL Coordinator, Yuliya Matyushkina, doesn’t usually make house-calls, but last week she did. Wearing a face mask and social distancing, she visited several adult English learners to help them learn to use a laptop for English classes.

ReWA’s six classrooms in Seattle, Kent and SeaTac, reach over 200 students each year. English learners come from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Syria, among others.

Since the COVID outbreak, ReWA English teachers have created a distance-learning curriculum and integrated technology into instruction.

 “The challenge with online learning is that many of our students are not tech savvy. So, when classes were suspended for the COVID-19 outbreak, we had to get creative–not only with English lessons but making sure they are informed about the pandemic so they can keep their families safe.”” 

According to a 2018 study, 21% of low-income households in Seattle have no internet access.

ReWA’s English teachers report that while students’ tech skills vary, some are connecting with teachers on apps like Viber, WhatsApp, or make regular calls or text. “For some students getting ESL lessons is a way to have a routine during the day,” ESL teacher, Karin Kaups said.

ESL teacher's finger pointing to mailed homework packet

When ESL classes were cancelled in March, teachers sent homework packets by mail.

But many English students lack laptops or wifi access, and those with school-age children have extra challenges at home. “It’s hard to engage families when their kids are struggling with online education, too,” Yuliya said.

But with recent donation of laptops for the ESL students, Yuliya is making home visits to provide hands-on instruction on how to use the computer and access online learning resources—not just about English, but about Covid-19 health information, job resources, applying for unemployment, finding food banks, and learning how to video conference. 

Kaups observed, “When I talk to a student on video chat at home, we realize shared hobbies, like gardening. And that opens the door to meaningful, authentic conversations, which is where the best language learning happens. Also, when I introduce a new vocabulary word, like ‘fork’, it’s easy to just grab one in the kitchen to show.”

With a return to some in-person services this summer, English classes will likely remain a hybrid of YouTube videos, homework packets arriving by mail, and weekly check-ins by phone with their teacher.