Happy Friday Teachers of Emergent Bilinguals!
Our July series highlights the diversity of English Learners in our schools. Last week I wrote about our youngest newcomers who often fall behind by the third grade. This week, I profile what can happen when literacy skills do not advance and students become Long Term English Learners (LTELs).
LTELs – learners who have received 7 or more years of English Language support services but have not been able to pass the NY State English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT) – are perhaps the most neglected and misunderstood of students.
Let me just clarify that the profiles I’ve highlighted in this series – Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE), our Youngest Newcomers, LTELs and ELs With Disabilities – are just that, profiles and labels that have been created by the city and state to collect demographic information and analyze test scores.
These labels don’t reflect the true diversity of learners within groups – every student is a unique individual who brings his or her linguistic and cultural heritage and experiences to school.
However, they do help researchers and teachers identify common characteristics among groups of students that can be used to improve teaching practices and services.
Who are Long Term English Learners?
Marianna (*not an actual student) is a rising 7th grader at a 6-12 preparatory school in Spanish Harlem in Manhattan. She was born in NYC and has gone to public school since kindergarten. Her family is originally from the Dominican Republic (DR) and she speaks Spanish at home.
Marianna quickly acquired English as a kindergartner in a transitional bilingual program and feels more comfortable using it than Spanish, although she can fluently navigate between both languages.
Her parents have limited proficiency in English and work long hours as a housekeeper and cab driver. They themselves only went to school until age 14 in the DR before having to start working.
Long Term English Learners don’t receive the LINguistic support necessary to transition successfully out of bilingual programs.
By the first grade, Marianna was transitioned out of any Spanish instruction and her classroom was English-only, although she continued to receive stand-alone ENL classes.
In Kindergarten and first grade, she acquired basic decoding and writing skills. Very quickly, however, the curriculum in the second and third grades shifted to analyzing longer and longer passages of text and writing sentences and paragraphs.
Marianna struggled to keep up. Despite needing more time to develop oral language and academic vocabulary, she was quickly moved out of stand-alone ENL classes because she was communicating well in English and had advanced on the oral portion of the NYSESLAT.
Now, she would only get push-in services in her classroom. Her ENL teachers had many students they needed to work with in each classroom, and often only had time to focus on the beginners.
Long term English learners are often transnational
It didn’t help that Marianna’s mother would often take her to the DR for 1-2 months at a time during the school year in between jobs to see her family. Although her Spanish would improve there, Marianna would be lost and overwhelmed upon returning to school in NYC.
By the end of the fourth grade, Marianna’s teacher reported that she struggled with reading comprehension, and showed limited academic vocabulary and sentence structure in writing. She knew phrases like “look for” but couldn’t read or recognize the meaning of a synonym like “explore”. She often gave only a phrase or simple sentence to a writing prompt. Her math skills were also below grade level.
Because of this, she continued to fall below the standard for passing the reading and writing portions of the NYSESLAT and maintained her EL status.
long term english learners often have emotional baggage when it comes to school
Fast-forward to the end of the 6th grade. Marianna’s confidence has plummeted. She has little interest in academics or reading. She entered middle school at a 4th grade level of reading and is still receiving push-in ENL services. Every year she gets promoted to the next grade, despite the fact that she is in dire need of remediation in basic reading, writing and academic vocabulary skills.
What we know: Long Term English Learners
Students like Marianna make up approximately 15% of ELs in NYC and 12% across the state as a whole, the majority of them Spanish speakers of Dominican heritage born in the U.S. (2018-2019 ELL Demographic Report, NYC DOE), followed by Chinese and Arabic speakers. Because classification as an LTEL requires 7+ years of English services, they are mostly middle and high school students when they receive that label.
Research shows that a student is more likely to be labeled an LTEL if they enter as a newcomer in the 6th or 7th grade (Kieffer & Parker, 2016), rather than entering in kindergarten (for a current review of LTEL research, see Artigliere 2019 ).
However, the majority of LTELs (36%) in NYC are middle schoolers, meaning they started out as young ELs in the early grades.
NY State reports that of the 2014 cohort of students, only 29% of ELs graduated high school in 2018 – leaving the rest to drop out, take longer to finish, or complete their GED. While newcomers are the most likely to drop out of high school, approximately 20% of LTELs don’t graduate.
What’s happening with Long Term English Learners linguistically?
LTELs are sadly one outcome of a failed elementary school model that doesn’t prepare students with a solid foundation in phonological awareness, decoding and spelling, handwriting and grammar, academic vocabulary and content knowledge: all components of the evidence-backed basis of strong language, literacy and academic skills.
Teachers report to me that ELs entering the 6th grade are consistently below grade level in reading and math, in addition to oral academic proficiency in English.
Contrary to the popular practice of blaming and shaming teachers, they can’t control the state’s standards, testing and the current menu of asinine elementary curricula (that’s right – I’m talking about you Pearson’s ReadyGen and Calkin’s Teachers College!).
For ELs, a further component would be programmatic Home Language support to promote bilingualism and biliteracy at school in the form of Dual Language programs, which have been shown again and again by research to significantly improve academic achievement in ALL students. Why then – NYC DOE – are only 6% of ELs citywide receiving Dual Language services?
How can we help Long Term English Learners?
There are 3 broad principles that teachers can follow:
1. Incorporate morphology into all aspects of instruction.
LTELs, perhaps more than any other EL profile, need to receive targeted instruction in morphology, or word work, to rapidly boost academic vocabulary and reading comprehension. This means that a substantial portion of unit planning for Grade 3 and up should be devoted to teaching prefixes, suffixes, and roots, and raising students’ awareness of word families. Teachers, if you’re interested in morphology teaching, sign up for my newsletter on the side-bar of this page because I’ll be offering my mini-webinar for free this summer!)
Also see William van Cleave’s morphology curriculum with detailed information for lesson planning as well as morphology instruction at different grade levels live in a classroom here.
2. Incorporate bilingual and biliteracy practices into instruction.
LTELs are bilinguals – use this to your advantage! Especially for students who arrived as newcomers in middle school and are now in high school, have instructional prompts include translation of vocabulary and text, educational videos in both English and Spanish (or other Home Language, HL), and group students when appropriate by HL. For a remote learning option, consider small group instruction for HL groups over Google Meets.
Teachers who speak the students’ HLs can scaffold comprehension of complex content in English orally, not by constantly translating, but by making key concepts explicit and having students make connections between vocabulary across their languages.
For the definitive guide to using HLs as a resource in your classroom, download CUNY’s free Educator’s Guide on Translanguaging here.
3. Differentiate UP for LTELs.
While it may be tempting to simplify worksheets and texts, especially if you have newcomers in your classroom – try and avoid this.
LTELs need to be pushed harder in a way that takes them to the next level!
Teachers, let me know what you think! How can I help you with your students? Comment below or DM me @AEBLL_Children.
I wish you all a wonderful weekend! Stay tuned for next week’s blog on English Learners with Disabilities!