Long-Term English Language Learners: Helping Them to the Finish Line

Wednesday, June 10, 2015 -- Shari Rios

As an English as a Second Language (ESL) consultant, I have the opportunity to work with districts and glean a variety of insights into their ESL programs. We discuss the materials they use to support their English Language Learners (ELLs), what kind of support is available for teachers in their programs, which strategies they find effective or ineffective, and what their long-term plans and goals are. ESL educators are continually trying to find the magic pill that will help these learners gain proficiency in English and also ensure that they learn the academic content. What’s more, ELL students can range from no English proficiency and no formal education in their native country to advanced proficiency and extensive education, with anything in between. This leaves ESL educators with, to say the least, a monumental challenge.

In this offering, we will explore one subset of ELLs—Long-term ELLs—and identify some practical strategies that educators can implement to help these students in their quest to exit ESL services.

A Long-term ELL is a student who is classified as an English Language Learner, has been in an ESL program for six-plus years, and has not met exit criteria. As I visit with districts across the nation, I always ask what is the biggest challenge that they face with their ELL student population. The answers I receive vary somewhat, but one that has risen to the top in the past year is Long-term ELLs. Oftentimes, Long-term ELLs have English speaking and listening skills equivalent to their native-speaking peers, but they get stuck in the areas of reading and writing, which prevents them from reaching program exit criteria. Research shows that these students are also at a higher risk of academic failure and dropping out of school. This makes sense when we consider how critical reading and writing are to academic success.

Many times, I find that the focus for ESL programs is on newcomer- and beginner-level students because we have to get these students to a point where they can have some comprehension of academic content. We expose them to a vast amount of new vocabulary, reinforcing their learning with various activities and scaffolding instruction with audio, visual, native-language support, and various other strategies. We tend to see fast progress and growth, and these students move to the more intermediate and advanced levels of proficiency. However, all too often, they then hit a brick wall. They have difficulties because they don’t have the necessary literacy skills to take them to the next level.

While it is important to focus on newcomer- and beginner-level students and help them progress, we can’t neglect the more advanced or Long-term ELLs in the process. We have to continue to challenge and support them so that they will get to where they need to be in order to exit the ESL program. How do we do that?

As a starting point, let’s look at three strategies outlined by the Research Institute for the Study of Language in Urban Society at the City University of New York to support Long-term ELLs:

  • Maintaining the consistency of students' programs and services is important. Students who move in and out of bilingual, ESL, and mainstream programs from year to year had a harder time acquiring English. This may mean that parents need to be informed about the importance of keeping their children in similar programs, even when switching schools.
  • Schools should create, implement, and adhere to clear and coherent school-wide policies and programming to be able to provide Long-term ELLs with consistent support.
  • Secondary schools must be prepared to explicitly teach literacy to Long-term ELLs and cannot assume that such students have prior literacy instruction (either in their home language or in English). This can include infusing literacy instruction across the curriculum.

Reviewing these suggestions from my perspective as a consultant, I see room for expansion on the second and third strategies:

  • “Schools should create, implement, and adhere to clear school-wide policies for consistent support.”

Too many times, I find that we are trying to do so much that it becomes too much. Sometimes, we need to take a step back and streamline our programs a bit in order to achieve real growth. Introducing more programs doesn’t equal more success. Rather, a clear focus, adequate support for teachers and students, and consistency can lead to success.                                                                                                        

  • Secondary schools must be prepared to explicitly teach literacy to Long-term ELLs.”

Literacy is critical to academic success no matter the content area. If students do not possess the literacy skills needed to access the content, they will experience frustration, which can lead to academic failure. Remember, Long-term ELLs struggle with reading and writing, so ensuring that literacy practice is infused throughout their learning is crucial for them to reach the next level.

Providing Long-term ELLs with personalized learning is extremely effective. Identifying where they are struggling and providing rigorous, yet accessible, instruction tailored to individual students will help catapult them and get them over the hump. I am a proponent of online programs for this. Allowing students to work at their own pace and in their own paths and having the data to show their progress equals a win for the student and the educator. Combine this with excellent teaching, and you have a recipe for success!

Have you found some effective ideas and strategies of your own to help your Long-term ELL students? We would love to hear from you in our comments section! Interested in learning more about Edmentum’s programs for ELL education? Check out this brochure on our English Language Development Solutions.