Teaching Chat

Educating Long-Term English-Language Learners

Many schools districts are at a loss on how to best educate long-term English-language learners. Kate Menken, an assistant professor of linguistics at the City University of New York, answered questions about what she’s learned during three years of researching long-term ELLs in New York City. The study also included an intervention in two high schools with long-term ELLs that is showing promising results.

Educating Long-Term English-Language Learners

Thursday, September 10, 2 p.m. Eastern time

Many school districts are at a loss on how to best educate long-term English-language learners-students who have been enrolled in special programs to learn English for years but who have never tested as fluent in the language. Kate Menken, an assistant professor of linguistics at the City University of New York who wrote the book English Learners Left Behind: Standardized Testing as Language Policy, answered questions about what she’s learned during three years of researching long-term ELLs in New York City. The study also included an intervention in two high schools with long-term ELLs that is showing promising results.

Related Stories:

Kate Menken, assistant professor of linguistics, City University of New York

Mary Ann Zehr, assistant editor, Education Week; blogger, “Learning the Language”will moderate this chat.

Educating Long-Term English-Language Learners(09/10/2009)


1:24 Web Person: Casey: Today’s chat, Educating Long-Term English-Language Learners, is open for questions, so please start submitting them now. The chat will begin at 2 p.m. Thank you for joining us.

2:01 Mary Ann Zehr: Hi, everybody. I’d like to introduce Kate Menken, our guest for today. Many school districts are at a loss on how to best educate long-term English-language learners-students who have been enrolled in special programs to learn English for years but who have never tested as fluent in the language. She’s an assistant professor of linguistics at the City University of New York and one of the few researchers in this country who focuses on studying English-language learners.

2:02 Kate Menken: Hi Everyone

2:02 Mary Ann Zehr: Here’s a quesiton from Jessie.

2:02 [Comment From Jessie]
What kind of specific programs for long-term Ells have you observed in your research and are these programs supervised by professionals trained in Ell education?


Kate Menken:

Hi Jessie, thanks for your question. One of the issues we faced when we began was that there were no such programs - only now more are beginning in New York City as pilot programs, which are supervised by TESOL/bilingual educators. But because of this, we began our own program this year to meet the needs of these students

2:04 Mary Ann Zehr: Here’s a question about the diversity of students who are ELLs. Can you talk about some of the characteristics you’ve found of long-term ELLs and how they aren’t all the same?

2:04 [Comment From New Mexico]
Are the differences in the ELL subgroup? We recognize that there are at least two groups: immigrational ELL (recent immigrants) and generational ELL (PHLOTE students who have the “influence” of another language and are not at “proficient” levels of English.

2:07 Kate Menken: ELLs - or “emergent bilinguals” as I prefer - are a very diverse group. there are long-term ELLs, students with interrupted formal education (or SIFE) students, new arrivals, etc. Even long-term ELLs have many differences. In our research we’ve discovered two main groups of LTELLs: transnational students who move back and forth between the US and their country of origin, and students who have experienced inconsistencies in their schooling here in the US

2:07 Mary Ann Zehr: We have a number of questions about your research on long-term ELLs in New York City.

2:07 [Comment From Guest]
What have yuo learned from your research? Why do they not test out? How are long term ELLs motivated to test out? Daphen Coffey


Kate Menken:

Hi Daphen. The students in general have strong oral bilingual skills for social purposes in English and their native language, such that they can appear like native English speakers. But they have limited academic literacy skills in English and their native language.

2:09 Mary Ann Zehr: Folks want to know more about the program you established and studied there in New York City.

2:09 [Comment From Guest]
Can you tell us about the program you began? and what are your plans for evaluating its effectiveness?

2:11 Kate Menken: Many students are highly motivated to test out, but are unable to pass the test to do so which is based on literacy. To address these needs we began a program in 2 NYC high schools that focuses on developing biliteracy among Spanish-speaking students, and whereby an explicit focus on literacy is infused into all content-area courses. Content courses are taught in English (but with attention to language and literacy), and all students take a SPanish for native speakers course focused on developing spanish literacy

2:12 Mary Ann Zehr: Can you elaborate more on the strategies to improve literacy?

2:12 [Comment From Sonja]
What are the strategies used in your program to enrich literacy?

2:14 Kate Menken: Hi Sonja. At the outset teachers had little awareness of this student population, so we find that just understanding who they are and about their needs seems to have an impact. In addition, some of the strategies involve explicit attention to language (metalinguistic awareness), the use of oral language as a way to help students develop academic language, etc.

2:14 Mary Ann Zehr: Let’s take a moment here to define this group of students.

2:14 [Comment From Guest]
How are long-term ELLs identified? In other words, what criteria determines if a student is a long-term ELL?


Kate Menken: More strategies for Sonja: Activating prior knowledge, using
Read Alouds for high school students.

Long term ELLs are emergent bilinguals who have attended US schools for 7 years or more, yet are still eligible for receiving language support services (eg Bilingual Ed or ESL)

2:17 [Comment From Robin]
What do you think of intervention programs such as Read 180 for improving the literacy skills of LTLs?

2:17 Kate Menken: I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with READ 180 - is it one of the numerous prescriptive reading programs now available under “Reading First”?

2:18 Mary Ann Zehr: A number of people are interested in how to raise awareness about this group of students.

2:18 [Comment From David from Chicago area]
How are you helping folks to recognize these students and what their issues are?

2:20 Kate Menken: If memory serves READ 180 is one of the programs for adolescents with an online portion but I can’t speak to its effectiveness. In New York City in general, awareness is finally increasing about these students. For example the city’s Office of ELLs has begun incentive grants for schools to begin pilot programs for these students. But much work remains to be done, as awareness is still very limited.

2:20 Mary Ann Zehr: Please tell us more about why you chose biliteracy as one of your approaches in New York City.

2:20 [Comment From New Mexico]
Is biliteracy the way to go? Bilingual education programs are often accused of “NOT” teaching English or developing semi-linguals. In New Mexico, we believe in biliteracy; it’s even in the state constitution, yet there seems to be an attitude of the importance of English because of testing.

2:21 Mary Ann Zehr: Here’s more about Read 180 from a reader.

2:21 [Comment From Robin]
Read 180 is a prescriptive reading program published by Scholastic. To follow it exactly requires a daily 90 minute block in which students rotate between reading a text, independent reading, and vocabulary building exercises on the computer. Teachers are supposed to follow a script. We are searching for alternatives besides our traditional ESL program for these students, because their needs are different than recent arrivals.

2:22 Kate Menken: We found that the students’ prior schooling had been subtractive - that the students’ education has emphasized English, and they have never fully developed their native language skills. But we know that students who do develop their native language skills develop stronger literacy skills, because the skills they develop in their native language transfer to English. So, we felt it important based on these initial findings to incorporate a focus on the native language into our overall program.

2:22 Mary Ann Zehr: LIndsey has a good question about consistency in programs for ELLs.

2:22 [Comment From Lindsey]
In your research, you note that inconsistent programming is a major contributor to students becoming long-term ELLs. Do you think there should be more consistency between schools regarding types of programs offered (on a local, state, or national level), or that when students move, schools should simply make an effort to find a local program similar to the one the student came from? Any other suggestions on how to address this issue?

2:23 [Comment From Libby]
le’ts move on from Read 180. It is a canned program.

2:24 Kate Menken: Yes, Lindsey - very important! And yes, we must reduce movement in and out of bilingual education and ESL programs because we create double language learning situations each time they move. Part of the problem is movement between schools as you mention, and we also need to limit program inconsistencies within the same school too.

2:25 Mary Ann Zehr: Here’s another question about how to build on student’s home language skills.

2:25 [Comment From Ken--Chicago area]
--How can we best serve students with another home language background yet who are clearly English-dominant and have little linguistic experience in their “native” language?


Kate Menken:

Most of the students in our sample are primarily US-educated and English dominant (though interestingly, some are actually Spanish dominant in their reading comprehension even though they prefer reading and writing in English). It is very important that we tap into those native language literacy skills. If they have some level of oral bilingualism, then this is likely a good resource that educators can use to meet these students’ needs.

2:27 Mary Ann Zehr: And what do you have to advise for places where biliteracy isn’t an option?

2:27 [Comment From Jennifer]
Our state has ouver a hundred languages biliteracy is not an option. What other suggestions do you have?

2:28 [Comment From Carol]
How can we support students who come to U.S. schools from myriad countries? It isn’t feasible to do what’s being done with biliteracy programs for Spanish speakers.


Kate Menken:

Right - in schools that are highly diverse (such as here in Queens where I live) then challenges are greater. HOwever, much can be done to offer students the opportunity to bring in their native languages, read in their native languages etc. In addition a major part of our program is infusing explicit attention to literacy development in all of the content subjects the students take -- high schools rarely do this, but must be prepared to teach literacy skills in very explicit ways.

2:30 Mary Ann Zehr: Let’s move to another topic, the overlap of special education and language services...

2:30 [Comment From Cristina]
I am especially interested in how LEAs are handling situations when an LEP also qualifies for Special Ed and it is evident that the student will always remain labeled as LEP because they cannot meet the criteria to exit the ESOL program due to either their learning dissability or physical dissability. Thank you!

2:32 Kate Menken: When we began many people asked us: Aren’t these students just special ed students? The short answer: NO. In fact, very very few in our sample also have learning dis/abilities. The needs of special education bilinguals and long-term ELLs are different. With that said, we have a real problem of special education students over time falling into the LTELL category because they are unable to “test out.” This problem will remain as long as a single test score is used to define who is an ELL and who isn’t.

2:32 Mary Ann Zehr: Do you have any more to say on this same topic of special education and addressing language issues...

2:32 [Comment From Alice Brown]
Often it is difficult to tell whether a long-term learner has difficulty acquiring the language or whether there might be something else interfering with language acquisition such as a learning or speech disability. Can you shed some light on this and offer some suggestions for rescources? Thanks.

2:34 Kate Menken: Hi Alice,
As I said the majority of students in our sample have learning disabilities. But we really need better ways to separate language learning and learning disability - our over reliance on standardardized testing to do so does not work.

2:34 Kate Menken: WOOPS - do not have learning disabilities!

2:35 Mary Ann Zehr: You raised the issue of using a single test score to define who an ELL is. Here’s an opportunity to say more about this issue in the context of your research in New York City.

2:35 [Comment From Guest]
How are the needs of the Long-Term ELLs assessed?


Kate Menken:

This is a complex issue. However, particularly under No Child Left Behind we have seen in recent years more uses of standardized testing to make high-stakes decisions about students. In most states, a single test is used to determine who is an emergent bilingual/ELL. Similarly, test scores are used to evaluate language growth and content learning. However, tests administered in English will only tell half of the story, and are typically invalid when used to evaluate an English learner’s content knowledge. Long-term ELLs must complete all of the same assessments as other students, yet are disproportionately likely to fail.

2:38 [Comment From Monte Blair]
How are students determined to be Fluent English Proficient in New York?

2:39 Kate Menken: By achieving a certain cutoff score on the NYSESLAT (New York State ESL Achievement Test). in other words, by passing a standardized test.

2:40 Kate Menken: This answer would be similar in most states, Monte.

2:40 Mary Ann Zehr: Kate, want to take another shot at the question about places where ELLs speak many languages.

2:40 [Comment From Carol]
You don’t have to post this. But the question Jennifer and I asked wasn’t answered regarding areas where dozens of languages are spoken other than Spanish. Obviously, this is an issue that must be pursued with concrete solutions.

2:43 Kate Menken: Hi again Carol. Programs can do two things in such contexts: 1) Find ways to bring in students’ native languages such as those I mentioned above (ESL classes need not only happen in English). And 2) we need to infuse ESL strategies, and explicit attention to literacy develop into ALL of the classes that students take. For example, in Math class it is not enough to say open to p. 25 and read chapter 2. The Math teacher must also be prepared to scaffold that chapter to make it accessible to students in the process of learning English. And as I said before, using oral language to do so is very helpful, activating prior knowledge, and so on.

2:43 Mary Ann Zehr: Readers are want to know more details about your intervention program.

2:43 [Comment From Claude]
Vocabulary is a huge issue for these students; if they’re ELLs who come with high levels of education, then it’s usually a matter of teaching the English vocab that corresponds to many concepts they already know. If they’re LTELLs with little/irregular/inconsistent schooling, then it’s a more complex challenge. Does your program deal with vocabulary explicitly? alternatively, where if at all have you seen this addressed successfully?

2:46 Kate Menken: Hi Claude. Yes, we do. Vocabulary is indeed another important part of helping this population of students. We found early on that LTELLs write much like they speak - their written work is much like their spoken English, which is primarily social rather than academic. So the teachers have been emplying strategies to help the students develop academic vocabulary. For example, two of our teachers had the students “speak like lawyers” as part of their work, having students substitute academic terms for the mroe common everyday terms they typically use.

2:46 Mary Ann Zehr: Should long-term ELLs always be taught separately from ELLs who are newcomers?

2:46 [Comment From Carine]
In most high schools that I visit for my research, recent arrivals and long-term ELLs are in the same sheltered classes. Have you found this to be a good practice or does your research indicate that they should be taught in separate classes so that the teachers can attend to these groups’ specific language development needs (i.e., developing oral language in tandem with literacy skills for newcomers, as opposed to concentrating on academic literacy skills in case of the long-term ELLS)?

2:48 Kate Menken: To clarify one thing: there is still a long way to go in identifying which strategies are best to meet the needs of long-term ELLs. but our initial analysis of our data so far indicate what we have been doing is making a difference. What is not clear is among everything we’ve done, which elements of the program are most effective - we’d need more research to determine this. In a sec I’ll answer Carine

2:50 Kate Menken: Interesting question Carine - thank you. In the ideal, we do recommend separating new arrivals from long-term ELLs because their needs are very different. While new arrivals need to develop basic English skills instruction geared towards these students will not sufficiently challenge long-term ELLs, who have a strong foundaiton in English - particularly oral English for social purposes. Instead, these students need demanding academic literacy to be a central focus of teaching and learning in teh classes they attend.

2:51 Mary Ann Zehr: As a reporter on ELLs, I haven’t seen a lot of research particularly on long-term ELLs. But here’s a reader who thinks we’re covering old ground.

2:51 [Comment From Guest]
These comments reflect issues that have been reseached, explored...again and again. Is it willful neglect or ignorance?

2:51 [Comment From Tony]
Many of the suggestions are the same types of things that we do or should be doing in primary grades with ALL students as they acquire language skills. So is the problem with ELLs who come to U.S. schools after these skills are taught and we are dealing mainly with content based studies? Therefore, are you suggesting a pull out type of class for older students that teaches them the primary language acquisition skills?


Kate Menken:

In our study at one school the long-term ELLs are together for all language arts classes (ESL, ELA and Spanish). At the other, however, they are mixed with new arrivals for some classes as well as with some students who are native English speakers with low literacy skills.
Tony you make a great point - hang on a sec

2:55 Kate Menken: One of the main issues is that high schools operate very differently from elementary schools, and high school teachers are not prepared to teach literacy in the ways elementary teachers are. They assume literacy, but do not teach it. So yes, many strategies used at the elementary level are very effective for these students. And yes, quite a few students arrive in upper elementary grades which already assume higher levels of literacy skills.

2:55 Mary Ann Zehr: Before we sign off...Kate, please give more specifics about why you think the intervention you used in New York City is promising. Did you see evidence in student achievement?


Kate Menken:

To Tony: I am not suggesting however another pullout program. Rather, I am recommending we taylor programs to these students as well as to new arrivals.
To Mary Ann: At the start of the school year, we found that they students were typically reading about 3 grade levels below their grade level in English (ie a 9th grade student reading at a 6th grade level) and about 3.5 grade levels below in Spanish. We are just now analyzing our data and finding that the students in our program made gains, and far greater gains than the students in our control group (not in the program).

2:59 Kate Menken: I would like to acknowledge my research team: Prof Tatyana Kleyn from City College as well as graduate students at the CUNY Graduate Center: Nelson Flores, Nabin Chae, ALexander Funk, and Laura Ascenzi-Moreno who can tell you far more than I can about these students.

2:59 Mary Ann Zehr: This last comment honors the teachers who couldn’t participate in the chat because they are in class. Kate, anything you’d like to see before we end here?

2:59 [Comment From Dawn Marie]
I had class and I would have loved to have particpated. I did read the chats and it was a great experience. thank you

2:59 Mary Ann Zehr: I mean, anything you’d like to say?

3:00 Kate Menken: I too wish I could have heard from you - feel fre to contact me directly or go to our website: http://web.gc.cuny.edu/dept/lingu/rislus/projects/LTELL/index.html

3:01 Kate Menken: And as I understand it this chat will be accessible after it’s done - yes Mary Ann?

3:01 Mary Ann Zehr: Thank you all for participating. Yes, our Web team will shortly put up a transcript of the chat. You can find it at this same link.


Education Week's Spotlight on ELLs in the Classroom

Related Tags: