Newcomer families, school officials fear 'substantial regression' in language development

P.E.I.'s Department of Education says this year's pandemic school closure has sparked frustration for many newcomer families, and fears their children's English or French language development is suffering. 

'The language is the first barrier they have to overcome in order to [succeed] in the other classes'

Parents Tam Nguyen, left, and Hiep Cao moved to Charlottetown from Vietnam a year ago, along with their son Minh and daughter Anh. The family says learning English has been a challenge since schools shut down in March. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

P.E.I.'s Department of Education says this year's pandemic school closure has sparked frustration for many newcomer families, and fears their children's English or French language development is suffering.

The department says it's heard concerns from many parents with children enrolled in English or French as an additional language (EAL/FAL) classes, like Tam Nguyen and Hiep Cao. 

They moved to Charlottetown from Vietnam a year ago, along with their eight-year-old daughter Anh and 10-year-old son Minh. 

Up until March, both kids got an hour of focused EAL training each week, and constant exposure to English in other classes at West Royalty Elementary. 

It worries us very much.— Tam Nguyen

They say the pandemic took that away. 

"At home, it's very hard," said Anh. "Because at school, we make eye contact with the others. And at school, there's Canadians, which maybe know more English than my parents."

"It worries us very much," added her father. "To learn the language, the interaction, it's very important.… And the language is the first barrier they have to overcome in order to [succeed] in the other classes, like math or social science."

Hiep Cao, left, and Tam Nguyen worry their children's struggles practising English over the past few months may lead to problems in other school subjects in September. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Janet Perry-Payne, the province's EAL/FAL administrator, said teachers did their best to engage with students and parents throughout the pandemic, using a variety of online tools, recording videos, and even visiting some families' doorsteps.  

But she acknowledges, it was no replacement for in-class learning. 

"Many of our families became frustrated because they didn't have the language skills themselves," said Perry-Payne.

"So in some cases, when it was something that was being given by a classroom teacher, if they didn't understand it, they would go, 'OK, we can't do that.'"

'We're watching quite carefully'

Perry-Payne said because the province's 2,400 EAL/FAL students didn't do any formal testing while schools were closed, it's difficult to know how effective home learning was, or how it affected language development. 

But she expects the impact will be significant. 

"What we do know about language acquisition is when you don't have the ability to engage it, you can also lose the ground you've gained in the language. So that's something we're watching quite carefully for this upcoming school year," said Perry-Payne.

"And you have to remember, it's not just the last three months. The summer is in between too. So it's the three months plus the summer. So it could be a substantial regression for sure."

Janet Perry-Payne, the province's EAL/FAL administrator, says her team is working on strategies to deliver home learning more effectively, in case schools are forced to close again. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Like all teachers in the school system, she expects her staff will have to condense their language curriculum in September, and spend a lot of time playing catch up. 

Her team is also focused on how to make at-home language learning easier, in the event schools are forced to close again. 

"If we can work with our parents, and show them, and teach them what tools we're going to be using, some of that won't be as foreign to them, if in fact we have to do more home learning in the future," she said. 

Though some families aren't waiting around for September. 

Perry-Payne said a record number of students, 180, have signed up for six weeks of summer EAL and FAL courses.  

More from CBC P.E.I. 


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