English Language Learners

4 Ways to Support Long-Term English Learners

As students continue building up their academic English skills, teachers can offer a variety of structures to meet their specific needs.

May 20, 2024
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I started my teaching career about 20 years ago, in a public school English language learner (ELL) program. I was the reading and writing teacher for four levels of ELLs. I was starry-eyed and assumed that I would be teaching all newcomer ELLs. When I walked into my classroom, I noticed that my students had pretty strong social English. Was I confused? My assumption was that they didn’t need the support I had intended to give. I was wrong. I had an interesting start to teaching with students in that classroom because I didn’t know any better at the time. 

Long-term ELLs can be defined as English learners who have been in a language support program for over five years. They haven’t exited services and are still gaining English proficiency. There are times where they struggle with proficiency in both their native language and English. It’s sometimes hard to tell that a student is a long-term English learner because their social English is usually up to par with their peers, but their academic English is lacking.

For us as teachers, it’s important to know that support is vital for these students regardless of how strong their social English may appear. This blog will provide teachers with four easy-to-use strategies that support long-term ELLs in the classroom with listening, speaking, reading, and writing across content areas. These techniques don’t require extra supplies or much prep. They simply work in classrooms to benefit all learners.

1. UsE Oracy for Reading Comprehension and Writing

If social English is a student’s strong point, build on that with oracy support through academic teaming models. When students work in teams to discuss content they’re reading and content they’re writing, it builds more confidence in language input and output. As teachers, we can start off with small structures like turn-and-talk and then move to larger structures such as full-on class discussion. We just need to give students the environment and resources to feel like they can take risks in a classroom community speaking to their peers. 

It’s important to find ways to manage discussions in our classroom in order for students to be able to engage in a meaningful conversation. The benefit of utilizing oracy support for long-term ELLs is that it’s an effective way to support reading comprehension and writing. In Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings, Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford state, “The language that happens in a person’s head is the main set of tools for constructing meaning from texts and for writing. Conversations are opportunities to practice using such tools.”

If we give learners space to speak about content in class and motivate them to want to engage in conversation, we’re providing a catalyst for stronger literacy comprehension and writing. Who doesn’t have to talk things out after reading a text or talk to someone about what they write before and after writing? We all do. Try some of the following structures: 

  • Fishbowl: This strategy, as seen in this high school classroom, is a great way to have students engage in Socratic seminars about texts. It’s also great to utilize when students provide feedback to each other about writing.
  • Inside Outside Circles: This is a great structure to use when providing a platform for students to ask each other questions about their comprehension of a text. For long-term ELLs, it’s a great way to have a conversation with a peer about a text in a low-risk space. Read about the structure here.

2. Create Activities Requiring Students to Mindfully Listen 

When students have to mindfully listen to their peers, they gain comprehension of what the other person is saying in addition to building empathy. Listening is a soft skill we all need. For long-term ELLs, it’s a gateway for content comprehension.

There are two ways that I teach students to mindfully listen to each other in my classroom. I’ve taught my students to use empathy interviews as a way to build relationships with each other. To support this, I’ve used the game “What’s Wrong With Grown-Ups?” Students ask me deep questions and vice versa, and they also ask each other. And I work with students to ask each other questions in mindful-listening triads where they can’t interrupt each other and can only ask clarifying questions. This goes a long way to deepen linguistic understanding.

3. Utilize Small Group Reading Structures 

Even older students need to still practice their reading fluency. Creating a community where students feel safe reading to each other helps long-term ELLs build their reading fluency skills. Academic teams are a helpful way to have students be in a space where they’re confident to practice their reading skills. Middle and high school students are never too old to read texts aloud to each other. I have students alternate paragraphs as they read aloud in pairs or groups of three or four. My own students have told me that this builds their confidence in understanding language. 

4. Deconstruct and Reconstruct Sentences for Meaning

Make sure not to water down content or change the text you give to students who read one grade level below. Instead, try scaffolding up. According to Lily Wong Fillmore and Charles J. Fillmore, giving students the opportunity to focus on a “juicy sentence” to deconstruct it, reconstruct it, and then even use it as a tool for writing supports them in gaining access to complex texts.

I do this in my classroom in order to give all students access to grade-level texts. I make sure to select a sentence that supports the main idea of the text. When students are able to break it down, they understand the meaning of the text. When they reconstruct the sentence, they have to state what the text means in their own words. Later, they can use pieces of the sentence to help them construct their own writing. ELL and long-term ELL populations will continue to increase.

According to the United States Department of Education, the graduation rate for English learners in the 2019–20 school year was 71 percent, and the overall graduation rate nationally was 86 percent. With many of those learners being long-term ELLs, rethinking how we teach our students is critical to filling in the gaps.

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  • Differentiated Instruction
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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