English Language Learners

Building Momentum With Long-Term English Learners

These students may be socially bilingual but have gaps in their academic vocabulary, and there are ways to keep them moving forward.

July 1, 2021
FangXiaNuo / iStock

Many of us have new-to-English learners who, well, aren’t so new anymore—long-term English learners (LTELs), students who have participated in dedicated English Language Development (ELD) programs for six or more years without exiting. More than a quarter of English language learners become LTELs.

Before unpacking this more carefully, let’s clarify an important shift in terminology: Students who meet the above criteria and who have historically been designated as LTELs are now considered long-term emergent multilinguals (LTEMs). This tilts our attention away from a deficit of English-language production and toward the incredible socioeconomic asset that is multilingualism.

Who Are LTEMs?

Long-term emergent multilinguals—a majority of whom were born in the United States—are often overlooked in traditional classroom settings. LTEMs are often socially bilingual—that is, they move with cultural and linguistic fluidity throughout the school day. Yet many experience underlying gaps in language comprehension and application (especially in the domains of reading and writing).

Many LTEMs have highly developed basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), which capture essential communication abilities. Because these students are likely to engage fluently in day-to-day interactions, it’s easy to assume that deeper and more expansive cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) skill sets are equally strong.

However, this isn’t always the case. Some LTEMs—and especially those who were previously designated as “newcomer”—while indeed bilingual, have a less developed command of academic and content-specific vocabulary. Too frequently, these students miss out on the targeted instruction they need to become socially and academically successful multilinguals.

What This Looks Like in the Classroom

Many newer-to-English learners cruise through the starting and emerging periods of language development and then seem to plateau in the later stages of acquisition. They may even appear to become stuck in the Expanding and Bridging periods.

In the classroom, this may be apparent in students who do the following:

  • Struggle to employ language development strategies independently
  • Demonstrate gaps in one or more language domains
  • Experience and/or express frustration at their slowed progress

Moving LTEMs toward language mastery requires celebrating their existing multilingual capacities and building on these skill sets to help them grow as more dynamic practitioners of the newer language. This isn’t the time to reduce or eliminate supports—it’s time to adjust them so that they reflect students’ developing language skills and needs. In short, LTEMs must receive targeted language instruction akin to what early emergent multilinguals receive—the dynamic just looks and sounds a little different.

Creating Forward Momentum

What’s the biggest difference between long-term emergent multilinguals and exited English-proficient students? LTEMs are dependent upon the teacher; masterful bilinguals and multilinguals are dependent upon strategies.

The following three research-supported strategies can help move the needle for LTEMs.

Practice communicating in complete sentences: When students engage with the target language using complete sentences, they’re training their brains to think complete thoughts in that language. Writing in complete sentences is a great way to practice this skill.

Asking students to communicate in complete sentences is a seemingly small but super-dynamic move. Even better, it’s easy to implement and doesn’t require any curriculum shifts. Some students may benefit from the continued use of sentence frames, especially in writing. And repeating information back to students in complete sentences creates a natural feedback cycle and increases the number of words a learner is exposed to in a school day.

Example: “I love your thinking, Dzimbe! Try to hold that in your brain as a complete thought. Which organizer or frame will you choose to help you write your idea as a complete thought?”

Facilitate domain transfer: LTEMs can benefit from classroom learning that stretches them to transfer knowledge across the four language domains (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and builds upon existing funds of knowledge. For example, activities that embed cooperative structures encourage both speaking and listening practice. Project-based learning invites participation across all four domains. 

We can practice greater intentionality in the way we construct our lessons, so that LTEMs have a multitude of opportunities to put their language-based tool sets to work. In doing so, we are ensuring that they are engaging with the instructional language in more complex and content-specific ways.  
Example: “Zahra, could you read Abbas what you just wrote? And then, Abbas, could you paraphrase what you heard Zahra say?”

Remember frequency and context: Students need to hear language multiple times and in multiple contexts. The learning day should include opportunities for students to hear examples of proficient target-language use from the teacher, themselves, their peers, and outside sources (like a television or podcast presenter).

Target-language exposure should also occur in a variety of contexts. Optimally, these experiences build onto and affirm a student’s first language or second and third languages outside of the target language. When LTEMs listen to and interact with the target language in a variety of authentic voices, they’re exposed to more nuanced aspects of language (like culturally influenced cues, historical context, or sarcasm). These subtle insights can be hugely impactful when it comes to growing long-term emergent multilinguals.

Example: “Let’s listen to two passages together. In the first passage, a person is applying for a job using sentence fragments. In the second passage, an interviewee is applying for the same job but speaking in complete sentences. Then we’ll discuss in small groups: Which one would you hire? Why?”

Long-term emergent multilinguals are often perceived as stuck. But with strategic and intentional moves, forward momentum is not only possible but probable. Wherever they are in the process, keep in mind the superpower that’s already in development. Emergent multilinguals (long-term learners too) are already in possession of an incredible asset—cultural and linguistic mobility.

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