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Teaching Opinion

‘Prevention Is the Best Way to Support Long-Term English-Learner Students’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 22, 2020 17 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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 ten-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.

In Part Two, Kevin Jepson, Margarita Calderón, Shawn Slakk, Claudia Salinas, Dr. Catherine Beck, and Dr. Heidi Pace contributed their suggestions.

This three-part series is “wrapped up” today with comments from Eric Haas, Mary L. González, Ed.D., Tonya Ward Singer, and Dr. Connie D. Banks, as well as a tweet from a reader.

The next “question-of-the-week” can also be found near the end of this post.


Eric Haas is a professor and director of the educational leadership doctoral program at California State University, East Bay, in Hayward. His latest book, co-authored with Julie Esparza Brown, is Supporting English Learners in the Classroom: Best Practices for Distinguishing Language Acquisition from Learning Disabilities (2019), published by Teachers College Press:

Long-term English-learner (or LTEL) students are generally considered English-learner students receiving formal English as a second-language supports in their sixth year and beyond. The vast majority of LTEL students are in middle and high school. The most effective way to support LTEL students is to provide strong learning experiences so that they learn English sufficiently to be successful in their mainstream classes in five or fewer years. Once a student reaches LTEL status, schools should provide even more intensive and targeted individual supports. These additional support needs usually result from one or more of the following: prior interruptions in their schooling, substantive differences between their home culture and the culture of U.S. schools, trauma, and a learning difference or disability.

We can reduce the number of LTEL students by providing strong, coordinated English-language support services, which include at least these four elements.

  1. Know your English-learner students and their families. Learn who they are, what their lives are like, and what they dream for their futures. Develop two-way relationships with students and caregivers. Partner new English-learner students with a native English-speaking buddy and their caregivers with a partner family. Assigning a mentor teacher also works.

  2. Provide rich listening, speaking, reading, and writing activities along with structured support. English-learner students need rich activities—demanding, complex, and relevant—where they can learn both content and practice expressing their ideas in English. They need to talk a lot in order to write well. And they need to practice specific examples of how to express themselves that relate to the rich activities.

  3. Support elementary, middle, and high school English-learner students differently. In kindergarten through about 3rd grade, all students are learning to read. Then, in about 4th grade, students begin to read to learn—that is, they read more to learn new content and vocabulary than the mechanics of reading itself. So, early-elementary English-learner students are learning to read English along with their peers, taught by teachers trained in literacy development. In contrast, English-learner students in middle and high school are learning to read English while their assignments involve reading to learn, taught by teachers skilled in content, not literacy. Add in the social and emotional stresses of adolescence, and you have secondary-English- learner students with especially demanding school experiences. Therefore, the supports for secondary-English-learner students must be different from and more extensive than those for elementary school students.

  4. Help struggling English-learner students promptly, especially if you suspect a learning difference or disability. It can be very difficult to determine why an English-learner student is struggling in school. It is hard to learn complex academic content in another language, so some struggles should be expected. As a result, teachers often wait until a struggling English-learner student is more fluent to make a learning difference or disability assessment. This is a mistake. A comprehensive assessment should be done as soon as struggles seem atypical by experts in second-language acquisition and special education with input from the family and classroom teachers.

Despite a strong curriculum and timely interventions and supports, some English-learner students will still be receiving English-language services for six years or more. We recommend two ways to enhance their learning experience.

  1. Try an alternative English-fluency assessment. Some students struggle with standardized tests. For some, their learning difference or disability limits their ability to demonstrate their English fluency, even with accommodations. So, administer another type of assessment and see if their English-fluency score improves. No assessment is perfect.

  2. Tweak your approach. Some students need six years or more of English-language support services. Still, we should always look to improve our support. Try changing pullout classes to more mainstream in-class supports. Try more targeted nonlanguage supports such as those related to trauma or learning differences. Encourage more pleasure reading. Small changes can lead to big improvements.

Prevention is the best way to support LTEL students. With a strong curriculum and timely intervention services, few English-learner students will need six or more years of language support service to be successful in mainstream classes.

The need for high expectations

Mary L. González, Ed.D., has 28 years of experience in K-12 and higher education. She is a retired educator from the San Diego County Office of Education - Migrant Education Program. She is a co-author of Five Practices for Improving the Success of Latino Students:

In supporting Long-Term English-Language Learners, based on research conducted in the writing of Five Practices for Improving the Success of Latino Students, some of the elements we discovered to be essential in providing support to students included: administrator leadership, building relationships, high expectations, instructional collaboration in modifying and refining instructional practices, as well as the use of data.

Administrator Leadership: We found administrators interviewed in these schools had a clear and shared vision to ensure all their students received an excellent education whether students decided to continue on to higher education, military, or a job site. As administrators, they viewed their leadership team as instrumental in guaranteeing that the needs of students were being met and addressed in order for their instructional staff to focus on instruction. Primary focus is doing “what is in the best interest of the student” in all decisionmaking regarding their schools. Administrators view all their students as possessing potential in order to have courageous conversations when needed—especially in dealing with LTELs.

Building Relationships: The value of building relationships in order for LTEL’s to succeed and meet their academic goals cannot be underestimated. Students need to feel they are safe, respected, and in caring environments. Connections with both classified as well as certificated personnel are important for students. All staff on campus should feel they have an impact on student academic success and as result of their relationships with students, students perceive the staff’s commitment and reciprocate by putting their best foot forward. Importantly, these relationships allowed staff to discover additional social, emotional, financial, or health concerns impacting the success of each student. As schools identify the needs of their students, they are proactive in securing the resources needed to help students succeed.

LTELs have the potential to succeed with additional resources provided. As we found in our research, school leaders as well as their staffs sought out ways to provide additional instructional support by providing tutoring before and after school, Saturdays, during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and summer breaks. Tutoring and additional reading and writing support are provided on a one-on-one basis, small group, or classroom setting. Committed teachers make themselves available to students based on student needs.

High Expectations: It is important to ensure LTEL’s also have high rigor in their curriculum in order to prepare students for higher education even if they are not interested in attending. Students will perform better in the workforce if they are highly skilled academically. This will result in students leading more productive lives regardless of the path they decide to take after high school graduation. Providing students with opportunities or curriculum, which is not always available to students who have fallen behind, gives students motivation to succeed. For instance, in the schools we observed, additional support was provided to students wanting to participate in extracurricular activities (i.e., sports, clubs, etc.), internships, certificate classes (i.e., medical assistant, computer repair, etc.) as well as Advance Placement courses, just to name a few.

Instructional Collaboration: Administrators, as well as instructional staff, need to be focused on setting priorities for professional development, especially for LTELs. Setting professional development as a priority includes allowing time for instructional staff to train, practice, and reflect on the practices being implemented. Too often, we see schools focus on professional development for a year and then proceed to the next new trend without giving staff appropriate time to make improvements or to thoroughly train.

In addition, allowances should be made for teacher prep time to happen during a common time to permit for teacher collaboration to work together. Opportunities to observe other classrooms as well as be observed increase the fine-tuning of instructional practices. Administrator visibility in classrooms with constructive feedback provides opportunities for continued growth.

Use of Data: It is important to use various data allowing for administrators and instructional staff to make the appropriate decisions in order to help students reach their academic potential and goals. How else can you really determine the academic success of your students? Although this is often stated, the use of data needs to include types of data, multiple uses of data, formative or summative data to determine, “What do the students know and not know?,” which will lead to, “What’s our action plan to provide students the support they need?” Frequent assessments provide insight into how you are meeting your goals with these students in particular.

All stakeholders should have some form of access to data, which includes providing data to parents and students in order for them to be active partners in their own success or their student’s success. However, it is also important to note that administrators should also allow for staff to be trained to interpret and understand the data provided.

Conclusion: In working with LTELs, there needs to be a sustained and focused effort in helping these students succeed. The extra efforts will be well worth the benefits to everyone involved as continued growth in their success is obtained.

“High-level, engaging, and relevant core teaching is the key”

Tonya Ward Singer consults internationally to support K-12 educators in transforming teaching for equity and English-Learner achievement. Tonya is the author of bestsellers EL Excellence Every Day and Opening Doors to Equity, and co-author of Breaking Down the Wall (Corwin, October 2019) and EL and literacy curricula for major publishers. Connect with Tonya on Twitter @TonyaWardSinger and at www.tonyasinger.com:

High-level, engaging, and relevant core teaching is the key to accelerating long-term ELs. The bottom line is that students need access to high-level academic literacy and learning to build the academic language required for such learning. Many long-term ELs are classified as such because they have yet to pass the reading or the writing section of the English-proficiency test—or have yet to demonstrate progress on grade-level measures of academic reading and writing. Any support solution must focus on building academic language and literacy in tandem with core content and not on watering-down learning or on segregating long-term ELs from their non-EL peers.

How do we do this? We build shared ownership and collective efficacy of all teachers to teach long-term ELs. This is not about hiring a single EL teacher or putting long-term EL classes on the schedule; it is about building collaborative protocols for teachers to engage in continuous inquiry about impact together.

There are many different protocols for collaborative inquiry—and it’s not as important what you call it as how you approach it—with a shared vision that every student you serve is capable of excellence and that together you will adapt teaching until they thrive.

In a team of English teachers or math teachers, for example, we collaborate to clarify our expectations and criteria for success with our highest priority goals for student learning. We choose our goals from our standards and from the language required for success with speaking, listening, reading, and writing in these academic tasks. Based on these goals, we co-plan lessons with at least one priority task we’ll all do to gather formative data. We then collaborate to co-analyze student work (e.g., conversations or writing) to identify specific strengths and priorities for growth.

For efficiency during the co-analysis, each bring in three work samples that include (1) one at grade-level, (2) one that is approaching, and (3) one that is below or far below. Make sure at least two samples are from long-term ELs so you can also identify together the specific strengths and needs of students in this subgroup in your core classrooms. Cluster the work samples into the three levels and make a T-chart for each. On the left side, write strengths you see in the student work at this level. On the right side, write next-level goals.

Reference your grade-level expectations for this task including content and language standards to help you get specific together about what the students now demonstrate and what they next need to learn. If you are using a rubric, write the rubric criteria you see in the work samples. Next, get specific about the long-term ELs represented in the work sample—what needs do they demonstrate that are similar to the needs of other students and what needs are unique?

T-Chart Example

Collaborative-work analysis, with a focus on grade-level content expectations, is a powerful way to get clarity about what specifically long-term ELS need to thrive at grade level. I’ve seen teachers who initially don’t feel confident about “EL” teaching have sudden “ah ha” moments when analyzing students’ academic writing. They get clarity about the specific aspects of academic language to teach and how to teach it aligned to what they teach all students every day.

If your school or district has the luxury of funding EL specialists, include specialists on teams of core teachers to collaborate in data-driven inquiry about impact. Be open-minded problem-solvers together, both to identify the supports your students need AND to rethink the most strategic ways to leverage your human resources to ensure every long-term EL has a strong sense of belonging and success in rigorous, relevant, core teaching.

“Relationships are essential”

Dr. Connie D. Banks serves as an ESOL coach/lead teacher in District 6, South Carolina, EL consultant with Transforming Learning Cultures LLC, and Eury Consultants in Spartanburg, S.C. She provides professional development focusing on ELs and how to build efficacy in teachers and ELs. Connie has presented at multiple national, regional, and state conferences on topics related to ELs & SPED/GT, academic-content strategies, and building an effective ESOL program. Connect with Connie on twitter @3Drs_TLC and @cbeescustoms:

Long-Term English-Language Learners need to be supported by all staff! Most importantly, the majority of L-TELLs are high school students. First, we need to find out WHY they are still classified as English-Learners. Is it because they feel they should never have been an EL? Are they failing the assessment on purpose to get back at the system? Were they potentially in need of special services? Is it an attendance issue? Are students working to help out their families and fail to see the need? Are we meeting the needs of the WHOLE child or just looking at the test? This is especially important with L-TELLs. Students are students; therefore, we need to address these concerns AND we must know our parents and students. In order to do this, relationships are essential because they build bridges for communication.

Different states have different exiting criteria. South Carolina requires an EL to score a composite of 4.4 AND a 4.0 in each domain. Many L-TELLs in high school participate and excel in honors and AP classes but fail to meet the exiting criteria. If states were to utilize multiple pieces of data, a much more informed decision would be made to assist L-TELLs.

Strategies to strengthen the pathways for L-TELLs success:

  • Parental Awareness - Do parents of ELs understand the U.S.A. and individual state education system? This is especially true with EL identification and exiting criteria, attendance, discipline, and diploma credits.

  • Teacher Efficacy - We need to improve teacher efficacy regarding second-language acquisition. There should be more access to high-quality professional development.

  • Relationship - In order for L-TELLs to achieve success, we must build better relationships with our parents AND students. We need to understand their stories, whether the focus is poverty, trauma, or unusual family dynamics. This assists with serving to meet their basic needs and meeting students where they are in academic learning.

Build relationships with English-Language Learners/ L-TELLs, their parents and cultures; therefore, we will strengthen the efficacy of all stakeholders.

“Communication and relationships are the roots to success.”

Comment From Reader

Next Question!

The next question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to connect current events to what we’re teaching in the classroom?

Thanks to Connie, Mary, Tonya, and Eric for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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