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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Ways to Support Long-Term English-Language Learners

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 17, 2020 22 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

Many students in our schools are “categorized” as Long-Term English-Language Learners (commonly viewed as students who have been ELLs for six years or more). This series will explore what that term means, and how we can support students who fit into that criteria.

Coincidentally, I just published a lengthy article in ASCD Educational Leadership about how our school is supporting LTELLs, so you might consider reading Research in Action: Ramping Up Support for Long-Term ELLs (it’s not behind a paywall). You might also be interested in The Best Resources On Supporting Long-Term English Language Learners.

Today, Tabitha Pacheco, Antoinette Perez, Aubrey Yeh, Jana Echevarria, Dr. Rocio del Castillo, Dr. Julia Stearns Cloat, Cindy Garcia, and Wendi Pillars offer 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.

Evaluate your own bias

Tabitha Pacheco is a national-board-certified teacher in exceptional needs. She has 10 years of classroom experience in public, charter, and digital education settings as a teacher, instructional coach, mentor, special education coordinator, and educational consultant. In 2013, she was awarded the Utah State Office of Education “Significant Disabilities Teacher of the Year” for outstanding leadership and commitment to students with disabilities. She now serves as the director of the Utah Teacher Fellows:

Scenario A: A mother, whose first language is not English, enrolls her children in the local school that boasts about their English-Language Learner program. She hears comments from the English-only speaking parents in the neighborhood, “Those kids will never read on grade level,” or “I feel bad for those kids having to do school in a different language—how hard,” or “They should learn English at home; it shouldn’t be the schools’ responsibility.”

Scenario B: A white, native English-speaking mother enrolls her children in a dual-immersion school. She gets comments from her other white, English-only speaking friends, “Oh my gosh—your kids will be so glad they speak two languages when they grow up,” or “What a neat experience for your kids to learn another language,” or “Knowing two languages will be such an advantage when your children are applying for jobs someday!”

Why is it that we see native English speakers learning a second language as a unique skill and an advantage and schools that offer foreign-language options and dual-immersion programs as innovative and advanced? Yet, we view English-Language Learners as disadvantaged?

How can teachers support the English-Language Learners in their classes?

Change the paradigm - As a teacher, start to recognize that the English-Language Learners in your class enjoy benefits from being bilingual. Help all students in your class appreciate the great skill set of speaking two (or more) languages. During parent conferences, emphasize to the family that you value their home language and think their student is at an advantage knowing multiple languages.

Acknowledge the students home language - Just because the student in your class may know English, do not assume that is the home language. Take the time to learn about the student’s home environment. If the parents communicate best in a language other than English, use that language. While that may seem like a daunting task, technology has made this a much more realistic endeavor. There are tools and applications that can be used to translate class emails and newsletters. Your district may have interpreters on hand to attend parent meetings, research what community resources are available, or utilize a call-in service.

Evaluate your own bias - Yikes. This can be hard. Start by reflecting on these questions: Do I think my students who are English-Language Learners are as capable as other students? Do I express the same high expectations for all students? Do I communicate with students’ parents who speak a different language from me as frequently and meaningfully as I do with parents who speak the same language as me? It can be difficult to reflect on the implications of your implicit bias and how your beliefs affect the students you serve in your community.

As with most best teaching practices, it all comes back to building relationships. The time and effort you take to connect with your students who are English-Language Learners will have long-lasting positive effects.

“We are all teachers of language”

Antoinette Perez is currently a high school ELA and ELD teacher at Buena High School in Ventura, Calif. She also works as a language and cultural instructor to adult ELLs. She enjoys cooking, watching baseball, and traveling around the world to visit her former international students:

Long-Term English-Language Learners need continual support, and that doesn’t mean only in English classes. It’s important to offer support across the curriculum. This might sound obvious, but unfortunately, LTELs are often mainstreamed and left to fend for themselves with occasional “slack” offered. The key is to challenge all students regardless of language struggles and to remember that we are all teachers of language.

Some easy best practices for supporting LTELs in mainstream classes include front-loading vocabulary, providing sentence frames or sentence starters, and offering valuable feedback on writing, just to name a few. It’s actually a great idea to provide all students with these supports, not just ELs because it eliminates singling students out. For students who don’t need the resources, they simply don’t use them. This has been particularly successful in my own practice, and oftentimes, my native English speakers utilize the additional resources to support their own learning. It certainly can’t hurt.

Front-loading vocabulary could be as simple as a mini lesson defining words or as complex as students completing independent practice to search for their own definitions. If student are defining vocabulary on their own, it’s important to offer resources that allow them access to audio to hear how words are pronounced. This can be done on computers or phones with Google or Dictionary.com. Either way, ensuring students have the right definitions needed to access the content is crucial. The more we guide them, the better prepared they’ll be for success.

Sentence frames or sentence starters tend to be a favorite in the EL support toolbox. This helps students grasp what is expected of them and offers a simple starting place. It’s important to encourage students to branch away from the provided sentence frames when they feel comfortable, but it helps to get them going. It takes some time, but it’s helpful to create sentence-starter posters for responding to texts and questions.

Last, but certainly not least, we must provide valuable feedback to support LTELs. This is especially important for students to reflect on their progress and growth as writers. Valuable feedback does not mean focusing on grammar but instead focusing on concepts, ideas, and content. Feedback can be intimidating to anyone, so any opportunity to conference with ELs should be taken. We want to make sure our students not only get the extra support they need, but that they feel supported.

Supporting “Emerging Bilinguals”

Aubrey Yeh is a director of fine & performing arts in Boulder, Colo. Outside of work, she enjoys creative endeavors, working with relocated refugee families, and enjoying the beautiful outdoors!

As teachers, we need to remember that Emerging Bilinguals are not only learning a new language—they are adjusting to a different culture, as well. Even for students who have lived here for years, the culture they experience at home is likely different from what they experience at school. One of the best things teachers can do is show an interest in students’ home culture and language! Do you know what kind of food they eat at home? What they like to do? If they still have family in a different place? If they get to connect with them regularly? Asking these kinds of questions can really help students feel valued and disrupt the implication that one culture is superior to another. It also helps students connect their lives and activate background knowledge to bring to their learning.

The other thing that really supports Emerging Bilinguals is continuing to hold high expectations for them. I have seen teachers get into a pattern of excusing students from assignments due to their status as an Emerging Bilingual, but ultimately, this sends the message that they won’t be able to learn at the same level as their peers. Giving accommodations, alternate ways of demonstrating learning, and additional time are all appropriate supports, and I would never advocate for taking these away. We just need to make sure we don’t lower our expectations of their learning, because that is robbing students of the opportunity to reach their full potential!

Capitalize on student assets

Jana Echevarria, Ph.D., is professor emerita at California State University, Long Beach, and is a founding researcher and creator of the SIOP Model for English-learners. She has published widely on effective instruction for English-learners, including those with learning disabilities. She has presented her research throughout the U.S. and internationally and was inducted into the California Reading Hall of Fame in 2016. Currently, she serves as an expert on English-learners for the U.S. Department of Justice:

Too often, LTELs are passed from class to class and grade to grade with the assumption that, given time, they will advance in their English-language proficiency. However, the best outcomes are the result of teachers providing consistent instructional supports for making grade-level content comprehensible while at the same time focusing on academic language development.

Apathy can be insidious with this group of students. Some students understandably have lost a degree of motivation; they have struggled academically for years. Unfortunately, teachers sometimes also become apathetic about these students and inadvertently have low expectations for them.

The following are four ways to reduce apathy and to support the linguistic, academic, and socioemotional needs of long-term English-learners.

  1. Practice student agency. Capitalize on the assets and interests students bring to the classroom by providing activities that are meaningful and relevant to them. Allow students to complete assignments through alternative means, driven by their interests, with appropriate guidance from teachers. Student agency gives students voice, and often, choice in how they learn. In so doing, students are empowered to influence their own learning, which is sure to increase motivation.

  2. Develop a learning profile. By definition, LTEL students have been in U.S. schools for at least five years so they have a foundation of knowledge and skills on which to build. For each LTEL student, find out: What are her strengths? Where are there gaps in learning? Which specific literacy skills need targeted instruction? If a student has strong listening and speaking skills, less time needs to be devoted to oral-language activities and more time spent on the area that will get them “over the hump” in attaining proficiency. In creating a learning profile, teachers get to know each LTEL student as an individual learner and can better tailor instruction to meet their academic and linguistic needs.

  3. Use proven instructional strategies and techniques. Students who have yet to reach English proficiency likely have not had the benefit of instruction that provides access to the core curriculum and is designed with their linguistic needs in mind. In research with the SIOP Model, English-learners whose teachers consistently used proven instructional supports outperformed those students whose teachers were more hit-or-miss in their use of supports. Quality of teaching matters.

  4. Collaborate with colleagues. During grade-level planning or in a PLC, the progress of LTELs should be part of the discussion. Share ideas that have worked, offer one another suggestions for helping LTELs access grade-level materials, and discuss ways to integrate language development into content lessons. Creating a community of support with fellow teachers benefits LTEL students and teachers alike. It’s a win-win.

The need to be culturally responsive

Dr. Rocio del Castillo began her career as a school psychologist in Peru and has dedicated her professional career to being an advocate for educational equity and social justice. Her rich and diverse experience includes serving for over 20 years in both public and private school systems, where she has received recognition and accolades for her work in the special education, bilingual, and dual- language settings. Rocio currently serves as assistant superintendent for special services in Huntley Community School District 158, Illinois, and as an adjunct professor.

Dr. Julia Stearns Cloat has spent the past 25 years working in unit school districts in roles including literacy specialist, instructional coach, RtI/MTSS coordinator, and curriculum director and has earned awards for her work in student services. Julia is dedicated to providing equitable and accessible learning experiences through the development of curriculum and the continuous improvement of teachers. Her areas of expertise and passion include educational equity, literacy, curriculum development, instructional coaching, and RtI/MTSS. Julia currently works as a coordinator in Kaneland School District 302, Illinois, and as an adjunct professor at Northern Illinois University:

The number of students in U.S. public schools who speak a language other than English at home is on the rise, as is the number of students who surpass the expected 5-7 years for language acquisition and are considered to be Long-Term English-Language Learners (LT-ELs). Perhaps that is why the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017) consider effectively educating ELs to be “a national challenge with consequences both for individuals and for American society.” To rise to the challenge of having LT-EL students meet requirements for academic success and avoid the potentially life-altering consequences that would result if they didn’t, we must consider the best instructional practices and how to implement them in ways that are culturally responsive in order for LT-EL students to be able to access grade-level materials despite limited language experiences.

Findings from key research studies such as the ones conducted by the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth and the Center for Research on Education and National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017) guide educators toward the best instructional practices and provide findings regarding improving the learning environment for ELs. For the scope of this piece, we are highlighting three of these recommendations.

  1. Content-rich curriculum
  2. Quality literacy instruction
  3. Response to Intervention (RtI)

Content-rich curriculum

An integrated approach to teaching language through content and themes connects reading with oral language and writing (Beeman & Urow, 2013; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017). Ideally this content-rich literacy learning occurs through topics and themes that are of interest to the students and provide choice to the adolescent LT-ELs. Utilizing interest, culture, and engagement in this way will help to facilitate robust learning and high expectations. As reported by the U.S. Department of Education in 2008, ELs should acquire grade-level content with high standards in rich learning environments with high prepared teachers.”

Quality literacy instruction

The robust learning and high-quality instruction that should be the expected outcomes of school practices is not just the responsibility of the ESL teachers. In fact, as Calderson & Minaya-Rowe (2011) assert, “Entire school facilities must serve the ELs” by using practices such as the ones identified by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017) to be particularly effective for ELs including:

  • Regular, structured opportunities to develop written language skills
  • Text-based, analytical instruction using a cognitive-strategies approach to develop reading and writing abilities
  • Direct and explicit comprehension strategy instruction
  • Opportunities for extended discussion of text meaning and interpretation
  • Regular, peer-assisted learning opportunities

Response to Intervention

Response to Intervention (RtI) and Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) systems have been proven to be effective structures to support students with identified needs. This is true for ELs as long as specific conditions are put into place to meet the needs of English-Learners. The WIDA Consortium (2013) has identified the necessary conditions for ELs to fully experience the benefits of RtI in both the general classroom and intervention settings.

Culturally and linguistically responsive RtI and MTSS systems begin with appropriate tier 1 EL literacy instruction, and academic language instruction across content areas should be provided by differentiating according to students’ academic language-proficiency levels. As needed, provide linguistic support when assessing students’ content knowledge in the classroom setting.

At the tier 2 and tier 3 levels of support, early intervention is a priority regardless of the student’s native language. However, it is imperative that the English-proficiency level be considered before placing EL students in a tier 2 or 3 intervention. Students who have not had the time to allow their English oral language and reading levels to develop sufficiently will not benefit from the targeted interventions delivered in the intervention setting. Even when LT-EL students are placed in appropriate interventions, it is still important to continue to differentiate based on students’ academic language-proficiency levels. To do this fully, it may be necessary to look not only at classrooms but also at languages and outside social/educational setting for insights into students’ performance.

One final consideration in supporting LT-EL students in the instruction and intervention settings is to support teachers by providing time for team members to plan for students’ instruction that establishes cohesiveness between instructional and intervention and that is authentic and meaningful.

Find Resources here.

Reading comprehension strategies

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 14 years and is currently the district instructional specialist for P-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics in the Pasadena Independent school district (Texas). She is active onTwitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

One thing we have to keep in mind about long-term English-Language Learners is that they have been enrolled in U.S. schools for six or more years. Their attendance, program placement, or support they received might not have been consistent, but they have been part of our education system. That means that for the most part, these students know how to read, but they do not have the reading comprehension needed at their current grade level. We have to be careful about what types of reading supports are provided to these students.

In all of their content areas it is imperative that reading-comprehension strategies are emphasized and that students are taught how to think about what they are reading and what they are thinking. Working on their metacognition will help students not just be word callers but work to figure out the meaning behind what they are reading. In order to understand what they are reading and what the teacher is saying, students also need to develop their English academic language.

They need explicit Tier 3 and Tier 2 vocabulary instruction. Tier 3 vocabulary are content-specific words such a fraction, numerator, denominator, and portion. Tier 2 vocabulary are cross-curricular words such as represent, explain, justify, and determine. These words cannot just be posted or given to students. The teacher and the students need to practice saying the word, seeing different examples or visuals of the word, use the word in multiple contexts, draw the word, act out or use gestures to represent the word, and make connections to cognates in other languages the student knows.

By the time a student is classified as an LTELL, they have spent years in schools not being successful. It is important to keep them motivated and encourage them to keep working hard. One way to do this is by bringing their personal interests into the classroom. Once their interests are known, choose reading selections that are connected to those interests or create scenarios/tasks that deal with their interests.

Increasing language production

Wendi Pillars, NBCT, has been working with language learners for more than two decades, both overseas and stateside. A strong advocate for global education, creativity in the classroom, and teacher leadership, she is constantly seeking new lenses and perspectives to encourage her students’ thinking. Find her on Twitter @wendi322:

If I had to choose one suggestion to support our LTELs, it would be to emphasize language production by increasing time in class for our students to talk and write.

One of the trickiest aspects of working with LTELs in my experience has been finding ways to ease any anger or embarrassment associated with areas of needed growth. If their facility with spoken social language has allowed them to compensate their way through academia thus far, there may be some resentment or pushback when we push them with more specific expectations. Teachers often equate social-language proficiency with academic understanding, and although both social- and academic-language proficiency are challenging, our goal is to help them, and ALL learners, feel comfortable in new language-dependent situations with richer academic language. (That includes teachers, too. Modeling the language we want to hear takes conscious, continual effort.)

It’s increasingly apparent that nearly all students can benefit from explicit instruction on verbal etiquette, conversational norms, registers, and modeled use of rich language. Learning a language is an ACTIVE pursuit, not passive, so demonstrating comprehension through writing and discussion are key yet receive the shortest shrift in my experience, most likely because the planning, implementation, and timely feedback take more time.

As teachers, one way to honor the complexity of students’ lives is to realize that their time in our class may be the only time during their day they speak English. Lunchtime, hallway mingling, time at home, time at work, and cellphone communication—all of these communicative opportunities may be in their native language or abbreviated texting slang. I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is for students to have discussions and conversations during class. A variety of writing tasks further broadens their opportunities to respond well. Crucially, timely feedback can only be given when there is actually something produced. (spoken or written) In turn, students’ incremental progress can be valued and acknowledged a bit like video games, increasing the chances of tiny dopamine releases to keep them going.

Increasing language production, however, requires some uncomfortable demands of teachers: 1) We need to design and ask better questions to elicit discussion; 2) we need to cede time to students to struggle through conversations instead of jumping in to “save” them; 3) we need to be creative in the ways we structure learning so that all students, not just those in honors classes, have multiple opportunities to join in and build upon others’ ideas; 4) we need to understand and embrace disagreement and alternative viewpoints as evidence of learning; and 5) we need to guide students intentionally and reflectively, providing scaffolded support and ensuring curriculum alignment. There’s a difference between guiding and sitting off to the side as conversations unfold.

This is far from easy, but in order for us to help our LTELs move the needle on their success, they need to apply their acquired knowledge in problem-solving situations because that will help them transfer their learning. Encourage the use of precise academic vocabulary; advanced questioning, listening, and conversation-building skills; and enhanced metacognitive awareness that learning occurs best when they produce language. Doing so will equip ALL of our learners to respond more successfully to questions and situations lacking definitive answers that will most likely characterize their futures.

Thanks to Tabitha, Antoinette, Aubrey, Jana, Rocio, Julia, Cindy, and Wendi 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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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.