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Teaching Opinion

‘Make It Clear to Long-Term English-Learners That Their Voices Matter’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 20, 2020 19 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways we can support Long-Term English-Language Learners?

In Part One, Tabitha Pacheco, Antoinette Perez, Aubrey Yeh, Jana Echevarria, Dr. Rocio del Castillo, Dr. Julia Stearns Cloat, Cindy Garcia, and Wendi Pillars offered their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Tabitha, Antoinette, and Aubrey on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Kevin Jepson, Margarita Calderón, Shawn Slakk, Claudia Salinas, Dr. Catherine Beck, and Dr. Heidi Pace contribute their suggestions.

Academic language

Kevin Jepson is an ELL curriculum specialist and a professional-development specialist for EL Education. He was born in Korea and lived and worked abroad as a developing multilingual for 15 years in five countries. In the past 17 years in the United States, he has taught elementary through adult multilingual learners, designed curricula and assessments for K-adult multilingual learners, and coached and learned from teachers and leaders:

You likely know Long-Term English Learners if you’ve spent time in classrooms. They’re the students who “sound good” in social settings. But listen carefully during rigorous academic work, or closely read their writing tasks, and you probably notice that they have critical academic English needs that remain unaddressed. There are needs inherent in that string of simple sentences that could be made more powerful with a conjunction or a semicolon, or that missing preposition in a phrasal verb, or a vague pronoun reference.

In other words, Long-Term English Learners (LTELs) need to examine the subtleties in how English works, for example, how to strategically use gerunds in comparison to infinitives, or why authors use language structures such as If/then. They need to talk frequently, productively, and equitably with their classmates about language and content, and they need opportunities to demonstrate and enhance their already strong personal character.

According to Elementary and Secondary Education Act reporting requirements, LTELs are our students who have been classified as English-Language Learners (ELL) for five years or more. The tragedy is that these students often get “stuck” at this level their entire lives.

LTELs are far from a small subgroup of ELLs, or to use an asset-based term, multilingual learners. In fact, the EL Success Forum states that about 60 percent of the multilingual-learner population nationwide is considered LTELs. More than 30 percent of multilingual learners in 49 of the nation’s largest public school systems are LTELs, according to the 2019 survey report from the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS).

Clearly, it is our opportunity and our imperative, as educator-agents of equity, to move multilingual learners from intermediate to proficient levels of English. However, many teachers feel ill-equipped to deliver the targeted support LTELs need when tasked with the rigor of college- and career-ready standards: Less than 20 percent of teachers in the U.S. are certified to teach multilingual learners, said the CGCS survey report. So, how can we better equip ourselves to support LTELs?

Image by Kevin Jepson

Talk About How Academic English Works

As the ELL curriculum specialist and an instructional coach for EL Education, I’m seeing promising shifts for LTELs engaging in Language Dives in mainstream and designated language-development classrooms. During Language Dives, multilingual learners are thinking about their thinking (metacognition); developing an inquiry stance to learning language and content (habits of mind); mastering the knowledge and skills necessary for both language and content; and building on their knowledge and skills to produce high-quality communication.

Language Dives engage multilingual learners in chunking key sentences from grade-level complex texts and asking compelling questions about language and content: “What does this sentence tell us about author Margot Lee Shetterly’s purpose for writing Hidden Figures?” and “What does the not as/but as structure tell us about the relationship between ideas in this chunk of the sentence?”

Create Structures for Equitable and Productive Conversation

Conversation Cues are fundamental to Language Dives. In the EL Education language arts curriculum, we use the Conversation Cues structure to create the comprehensive foundation for rich, collaborative discussions between multilingual learners and their classmates.

It’s not enough for one student to respond to a teacher’s compelling question. Instead, students go deeper with one another, expanding their conversations about the compelling questions they pose during Language Dives. They use Conversation Cues to meet four goals:

  1. Talk and be understood: “Can you say more about that?” and “So, do you mean _____?”
  2. Listen and understand others: “Can you repeat what you just said?”
  3. Deepen their ideas: “How did this Language Dive add to your thinking about our module guiding question?”
  4. Build ideas with one another: “I think you’re saying that because _____. I’d like to add _____”

Increase Courage and Confidence Through Competence

Language Dives and Conversation Cues increase students’ competence; “getting” the language also enhances their developing learning habits. Courage and confidence have a profound impact on students’ learning—both their ability to learn and their interest in learning. At EL Education, character—including traits like courage and confidence—is one dimension of student achievement, equally as important as mastery of knowledge and skills and high-quality work. All three dimensions work together synergistically with Language Dives and Conversation Cues. Here are two examples:


LTELs often demonstrate courage every moment of their lives. In school, multilingual learners are developing at least two languages: the dominant classroom language—academic English—and at least one home or native language. In addition, they must also master content. Finally, they may be expected to “fit in” to a dominant school culture and inequitable system where, for them, there is no place at the table.

Language Dives and Conversation Cues build on the inherent courage LTELs have by inviting them to take risks as they practice new language structures and discuss challenging questions about language, writers, and culture.

Grade 8 students at August Boeger Middle School in San Jose, CA, took courage in both hands as they expressed their emerging identities and played with the cause-effect structure in the complex sentence: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Said one student: “Until you’ve been discriminated (against), you wouldn’t be able to understand the Golden Rule (that you need to treat people the way you like to be treated).” His perspective on discrimination and the author’s message were supported by his competence with the fluidity of the cause-effect language structure (reversing the order of the two clauses).

And José, a grade 3 student from Lead Academy in Greenville, S.C., took a courageous step in sharing a feeling about immigrants (from 7:36-8:30 in the video) as he practiced using a comparative English-language structure (as _____ as_____) to describe character traits in the complex text Peter Pan: “Peter turned out to be as adventurous as an immigrant.” In response, a peer at José's table used Conversation Cues to courageously initiate an unprompted, productive conversation about the ways in which immigrants are courageous.


Language Dives allow students to gauge what they know and what they need to learn. When LTELs are invited to reflect on an author’s purpose and use of language, for example, they must be metacognitive, that is, they must become more aware of their own learning strategies. Rigorous Conversation Cues such as, “What strategies helped you succeed in using the language structures in this sentence?,” give multilingual learners space to identify the tools they can use to help them succeed again and again when faced with creating or completing rigorous academic tasks, thus building their confidence.

In this video from Lead Academy in Greenville, S.C., Jasmin, a grade 4 student confidently reflected on how Language Dives have helped her (6-6:11): “It makes me feel proud of myself because I never thought that in this point I would be able to be teaching people ... that even though English isn’t my first language, that I’m still helping them become better English speakers.”

Establish Equity for Multilingual Learners

Schools implementing Language Dives and Conversations Cues well are showing promising evidence of equity. For instance, Conway, a K-6 school in Escondido, Calif., is methodically tracking how Language Dives affect student outcomes. Their instructional team identifies the greatest area of need in student data, designs Language Dives to support students in meeting that standard, and then administers a Common Formative Assessment (CFAs) to gauge students’ current knowledge. Across two CFAs and several connected Language Dives in three months, students moved to more than 60 percent exceeding the standard, from about 20 percent. In addition, 4 percent moved out of below-standard performance. At Conway, about 50 percent of the students are officially designated as English-Language Learners, but the school believes that closer to 85 percent of students are in the beginning to advanced levels of English-language proficiency.

Make it clear to LTELs that their voices matter, that their education counts. Structures such as Language Dives and Conversation Cues open a pathway to equity by enabling every multilingual learner to go beyond simply accessing the English language and the curriculum. We can support LTELs to fully own the language, the content, and their own, already strong character.

Vocabulary building

Dr. Margarita Calderón is professor emerita/senior research scientist at Johns Hopkins University. She is CEO of Margarita Calderón & Associates, dedicated to the success of English-Learners. Shawn Slakk is partnered with Dr. Calderón as the VP of operations for Margarita Calderón & Associates. Throughout his 25 years of service, he’s worked with ELs and teachers of ELs as a teacher, school and central-office administrator, and the Massachusetts DOE.

Why have so many LT-ELs have been in our schools since kindergarten— some even for as long as six years? Because they’re not reading enough, comprehending what they are reading, and showing what they comprehend in their writing. That’s why it’s so critical that we improve their reading comprehension, and that starts with vocabulary building, especially within the context of text (Graves, August, & Carlo, 2011). Researchers tell us that students must master 3,000 to 5,000 words a year to keep up with their native English-speaking peers plus comprehend 90 percent to 95 percent of the words. When we facilitate this kind of learning, our ELs will acquire approximately 25,000 words by 6th grade. Recognizing this, why have we failed to meet this all-important need?

LT-ELs’ limited vocabulary demands a comprehensive vocabulary program connected to discourse, reading comprehension, and writing skills within all content areas in K-12. When key words are pretaught before students read any text, we are enabling rich and varied language experiences. Listening, speaking, reading, and writing are best developed within the context of content learning. “From upper elementary school onwards, reading becomes the principal language experience for increasing students’ vocabularies. If we can substantially increase the reading they do, we can substantially increase the words they learn” (Graves, August, & Carlo, 2011, p. 7).

In our book, Teaching Reading to English Learners, Grades 6-12: A Framework for Improving Achievement in Content Areas, Second Edition, we discuss the 12 components that take LT-ELs from learning five words or phrases to discourse, reading, and then writing. Reading comprehension, however, starts with contextual vocabulary comprehension.

Component 1 - Preteaching of Vocabulary is crucial to helping ELs comprehend what they are about to read. Select five words or phrases from the text they will read and introduce and practice these words and phrases.

Component 2 - Teacher Think-Alouds has teachers modeling metacognitive dives into the text highlighting text features, text structures, more comprehension strategies, connections to background knowledge, and expectations.

Components 3 & 4 - Peer Reading & Summarizing help students support each others’ comprehension, fluency, and growth via partner reading and verbally summarizing ideas and concepts.

During Component 5 - Depth of Word Studies/Grammar teach word-learning strategies during and after reading by selecting sentences, words with prefixes, or polysemous words to show students how to approach these.

Components 6 & 7 - Class Debriefings/Discussions and Cooperative Learning Activities provide more opportunities for comprehension and text re-entry. Students practice academic-level discourse, teamwork, and self-management as they work through the texts.

Component 8 - Formulating Questions and Numbered Heads places the onus of mastering the content on the students when they dig into the text to create text-based questions, answer as a class via discussions, debriefings, and respectful discourse.

Component 9 - Roundtable Reviews refresh and remind students of all the vocabulary they have acquired during Components 1-8 and propels them into text-based writing.

Components 10-11 - Prewriting, Drafting, Revising, & Editing support students through the process of writing with help from their teammates. ELs learn to draft, self-edit, add or remove items to clarify, support or reorganize their writing.

All of this culminates with Component 12 - Reading Final Product to celebrate all the hard work of Components 1-11 to highlight not only mastery of content but how far they have moved forward in their literacy.

Posting the Tier 1, 2, and 3 words (see Calderón & Slakk, 2018 and Calderón & Miyana-Rowe, 2011) helps students begin to internalize the different categories and identify them in future readings. Activities with polysemous words or words for specificity foster word consciousness and an appreciation of word power. These activities can be organized in centers/stations for individual work, peer work, or with a teacher. Notwithstanding, explicit instruction of words precedes all word-work or word-study activities. Vocabulary learning is only a precursor to reading comprehension. Without reading and writing, the words aren’t utilized and LT-ELs go from grade to grade without the reading comprehension necessary to leave the LT-EL/LTELL classification behind.


Calderón, M. E., & Miyana-Rowe, L. (2011). Preventing Long-Term English Language Learners: Transforming schools to meet core standards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Calderón, M., & Slakk, S. (2018). Teaching reading to English learners, grades 6-12: A framework for improving achievement in content areas (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Graves, M., August, D., & Carlo, M. (2011). Teaching 50,000 Words. Better: Evidenced-based Education, 3(2), 6-7. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University.

Teaching with an asset-based philosophy

Claudia Salinas is the vice president of English learning at Curriculum Associates and regional manager for Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona. In her current role, Claudia is responsible for working with school districts to meet the needs of their English-learners and struggling learners by bringing research-based professional development, assessments, and instructional materials that work in unison to provide a comprehensive system:

Long-Term English Learners (LTELs)―students who have been in school for six or more years and who are not progressing academically due to a lack of adequate progress in their language skills―are one of the fastest-growing student populations in the United States. These students have mastered conversational English and, therefore, provide an illusion that they have also mastered academic English. During the course of normal day-to-day classroom activities, this can result in their needs being invisible to the teacher, which, as a result, means they won’t get the timely support needed. Being mindful of this reality, and using the right tools and strategies to uncover LTELs needs, is an important first step.

The foundation of an approach to supporting LTELs should start at the same place as an effective approach for all English-Learners: Help students acquire knowledge, through engaging and rigorous content, while simultaneously learning language. Our students from all backgrounds have numerous different strengths, and the diversity of strengths and experiences represented in the classroom can, in fact, make the learning environment richer for all students. It is important to approach teaching with an asset-based philosophy that uses students’ background knowledge, experiences, and insights to their advantage when engaging them in learning. This is especially important for English-Learners. Here are a couple of instructional-design principles that are important to understand for supporting LTELs:

Instruction must promote engagement and access

As mentioned above, content should help ELs acquire content knowledge while they also acquire language. This matters because authentic learning is not siloed: All students, regardless of the language they speak, are picking up on both academic and nonacademic language throughout their learning, as they are also learning content. Consider the amount of academic language required to engage in a classroom discussion on mathematics―language and content knowledge work together to help a student succeed.

An important way to achieve this kind of classroom is through an awareness of culturally responsive instruction. This is applied in the way we choose terminology or discussion topics that are relatable to our students. As one example, if we are working on a math word problem featuring cowboys, but our students have never seen a cowboy before, they may miss the math lesson due to a cultural difference in language and experience. This is a type of gap we can close to make instruction more accessible to all.

Integration of strategic scaffolds

Strategic scaffolds, a term popularized by the Council of the Great City Schools, means making sure not to overscaffold for students. In the learning process, we must allow our students to go through productive struggle. Determining the right amount of scaffolding to appropriately challenge students isn’t easy, but it makes the difference in ensuring their continued progress and ability to reach proficiency on schedule.

This is especially important for LTELs because we must push them to really be challenged, to ensure they are really progressing at the rate at which they are capable. If we overscaffold, or make things too easy for these students, their language development may stagnate because we are not challenging them.

By teaching with an asset-based philosophy, promoting engagement and access, and thoughtfully integrating strategic scaffolds, we can help our Long-Term English-Learners make tremendous progress!


Dr. Catherine Beck is superintendent of the Cheatham County schools in Tennessee and author of Easy and Effective Professional Development and “Leading Learning for ELL Students.” Follow her on Twitter at @cathypetreebeck.

Dr. Heidi Pace is a retired superintendent and author of Leading Learning for ELL Students:

Supporting long-term English-Language Learners is not unlike supporting our students whose first language is English. Both sets of students still need vocabulary development, academic language, and reading and writing support.

One of the keys to providing this support is to provide ongoing training and co-teaching in the academic classroom. All teachers need to feel confident in teaching ELL students. Offering ongoing interactive workshops that allow teachers to not only learn important content but to ask questions and learn from one another is essential. Differentiating can be challenging. Adding a range of ELL students to the equation increases the complexity of differentiation. Co-teaching can alleviate some of that complexity.

Effective co-teaching models are not simply about supporting the English-Language Learners during classroom instruction. The most effective models begin with co-planning. While it may be difficult to coordinate time to co-plan, the benefits make it worth the effort. Planning on the front end to deliver grade-level content to ELL students helps to ensure their success during class time.

Another strategy is to provide the content ahead of time, so that hearing information in class is not the first time ELL students encounter it. This can be done through a flipped classroom, technology programs that accompany the content, as part of a school’s MTSS (multi-tier system of supports ) process, or other means that schools identify.

Finally, we must continue to monitor our ELL students to ensure that they are continuing to progress, both academically and in their English proficiency. Regardless of whether they have earned a fluent-English speaker label through assessments, we must continue to give ELL students daily opportunities to converse, read, and write in English. These opportunities will strengthen their English and improve their student achievement.

Thanks to Kevin, Margarita, Shawn, Claudia, Catherine, and Heidi for their contributions.

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