Lost in translation: Language barriers difficult for ELD students to overcome when learning online

By Nargis Afzali and Yana Sergiyenko, Staff Writers The Eagle Eye

Students and teachers in English Language Development classes at El Camino are facing educational difficulties in the distance learning format this semester.

Often, the reason for this issue is because of the language barriers for EL students, that prevent them from being successful at school.

From the beginning of the year, ELD students have had a hard time working in an online format because not only are they learning new content, it can be difficult to completely comprehend directions and assignments in English without the in-class resources they are used to.

Teachers are also struggling, with many of their students plagued with missing assignments, regular absences, and a lack of class interaction through Zoom.

ELD Transition III Teacher Joyce Bernhoft, who teaches students who have moved to an intermediate level of English proficiency, notes the challenges of teaching at a distance. Often students attend her class but don’t engage in the activities.

“If we were in the class, I could look them in the eye and call on them, and they would have to do something,” Bernhoft said.

In hers and other classes, a lack of participation is leading to failing grades. Because of the difficulty with communication to families, Julie Polis, ELD Transition I teacher, also cited the struggle of talking to students about staying on track for graduation.

“Even though we tell our students that their grades are part of their graduation requirements they still do not care,” Polis said.

However, students that take care of their grades find online education somewhat beneficial, as they have more homework and less time to get it done, so they tend to improve faster. But it’s harder for students who don’t get to talk to English speakers besides school — Mahdi Amini, who is also an ELD Transition III student, thinks that with the establishment of online education, his English speaking and listening skills started lacking because the teachers write everything down and the students don’t get to interact with each other the way they did before. 

“At school, we can talk to our classmates and teachers and ask for explanations, but we can’t do that online, [because it takes more time]” shared Lima Ebrahim Khel, ELD Transition III student. 

El Camino has bilingual instructional aides (BIAs) on staff to help teachers communicate to students that class attendance and participation are important. BIAs often contact families by phone or email to have those difficult conversations.

BIAs help with other subjects like math, science, and history, but the methods to explain complex concepts in distance learning can be limiting for the aides. BIA Mushtaba Hanif has been at El Camino for a few years. 

“There is nothing in math that we could translate,” Hanif said. “ Math is mostly numbers ”

Bahar Haft Shayjani agreed that there would be a lot of ways to help if she were in class physically with students.

“The only way that we could explain something is through Zoom,” Haft Shayjani said. 

Both of the teachers share the aides’ concerns about how students don’t have their cameras on and don’t reply to the teachers when questions are asked or students are called on. Often those students are the ones who are struggling with grades because, according to Bernhoft, they distract themselves with video games and online chats during class lectures and then don’t understand the tasks afterward.

 The teachers don’t have enough time to talk to every student and the students aren’t always able to get help with their assignments. Usually, teachers dedicate their class time for an explanation of the topics and leave some time for students to ask questions, but as many students are experiencing connection issues, or other distractions from home, it becomes difficult for them to contact the teachers.

But, whatever obstacles the students are facing right now, teachers want students to accept it and do their best. 

“It’s really becoming a choice. If you want to do better online or if you don’t care and you’re not going to improve,” Bernhoft said.

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