What to Do with Long-Term ELLs?

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 08, 2008 1 min read
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Panelists and participants at the annual meeting of TESOL in New York City last week had more questions than answers on how to meet the needs of long-term English-language learners.

Kate Menken, an assistant professor of linguistics at Queens College of the City University of New York, noted at a session on high school reform that most programs serve the first of three groups of English-language learners that she’s identified, newly arrived immigrants. But services are also needed for two other groups: immigrants with interrupted schooling, and long-term ELLs. In fact, she contended, educators “know next to nothing” about long-term ELLs—students who are in school systems for seven or more years without passing tests that would get them out of the category. (To learn more about Ms. Menken’s views, check out her new book, English Learners Left Behind: Standardized Testing as Language Policy.)

Also, a number of teachers or ESL coordinators met for an exchange of ideas on how to address the needs of long-term ELLs. Ruthann Weinstein, who teaches ELLs in Boston, told how she got a grant from basketball player Michael Jordan to take her students on field trips. The students visited the home of author Louisa May Alcott, for example, after reading her book, Little Women. Another teacher arranges each year for ELLs to visit Washington, D.C., as part of the Close Up Foundation‘s Program for New Americans. Melanie Dobney, a coordinator for English-as-a-second-language programs for secondary students at public schools in McKinney, Texas, said her school district ran a six-week summer program to try to help ELLs maintain and improve English skills they’d acquired during the school year.

But no teachers or coordinators of programs for ELLs claimed they had evidence that strategies they were using had worked to bring up the academic skills of these students, who often lack literacy both in English and their home language.

Back in 2002, I wrote about how Los Angeles Unified School District educators were starting to examine more closely the issue of how students had spent years in U.S. schools without gaining fluency in English. At that time, educators were just starting to talk about how the education of long-term English-language learners might require some special approaches. Six years later, the issue still needs some fresh insight and energy.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.