ESL students losing ground during pandemic, educators fear

Kids who were just getting comfortable with a new language risk losing their hard-won skills due to the pandemic.

Kids who were just getting comfortable with a new language suddenly isolated from school routine

Five-year-old Hala Alodih loves looking at English books, but she misses the comfortable routine of school. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

"First we eat something, then we read books and then we go outside and play."

That's how five-year-old Hala Alodih describes a typical day at Ottawa's Carson Grove Elementary School.

But months away from the classroom and its comforting routine has the little girl missing her teacher and friends — and forgetting some of the new English words she had just learned.

Alodih and her family are among a cluster of Syrian refugees living in an apartment building near St. Laurent Boulevard.

Until the pandemic arrived, the children spent their days immersed in English, both in the classroom and on the playground. Now, there's precious little exposure to the new language. 

Alodih's neighour Fadel Alail, 10, also misses "the homework and playing games our teachers put for us" during his English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

"Because you don't have teachers to help you," explained his big brother Imad Alail, 11.

Imad Alail, 11, says he's forgotten some of the English words he learned at school. (CBC)

The sudden absence of the ESL classes in these children's lives, along with the socialization the school setting provides, has some educators concerned that these students are losing not only their newly acquired language skills, but also their ability to adapt to their new lives in Canada.

"A lot of language acquisition and understanding of the new culture they find themselves in takes place in an unstructured setting," said Francis  Potié, executive director of the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers.

"You're going to lose ground in other classes because you're having difficulty understanding and following."

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board says 12,451 elementary and high school students are enrolled in its ESL program. When the pandemic struck, the board began issuing laptops and internet hotspots so kids could continue learning from home, even if their families lacked the tools they needed. Teachers were given strategies to draw up lesson plans and engage with their ESL students online.

'Interaction with other people, with other native speakers, is key,' says the University of Ottawa's Margret Norenberg. (submitted)

But some educators say nothing can replicate the school environment when it comes to learning a new language.

"Interaction with other people, with other native speakers, is key," said Margret Norenberg, a professor at University of Ottawa's Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute who has developed the university's first fully online course for ESL students.

Still, "there is no substitute for the real thing," Norenberg said. "I'd like to think that once this is over the rebound will be great and everybody will just be so enthusiastic and it will just right itself."

About the Author

Sandra Abma


Sandra Abma is a veteran CBC arts journalist. If you have an event or idea you want to share, please do at

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