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Helping ELLs Excel
February 25, 2016 | Volume 11 | Issue 12
Table of Contents
Helping Long-Term English Learners Get "Unstuck"
Long-term English learners (LTELs) are one of the most challenging groups of students in our schools today. Generally, LTELs are students who have been in U.S. schools for more than six years but are not proficient in English. At the high school level, more than half of all English learners are LTELs (Olsen, 2010). As many as 50 percent of LTELs were born in the United States, although they may have never attended a U.S. school, have gaps in their U.S. school enrollment, or have received inconsistent language development support (Flores, 2012).
Essentially, the language development of these students is "stuck" at the intermediate level. They typically speak social English well but lack the high-level academic language skills to succeed in school. LTELs have usually exited English language learner programs, though they tend to struggle with basic English and perform poorly in content-area subjects. Overall, just 59 percent of English language learners in the United States will graduate from high school, compared to the national graduation rate of around 80 percent (Stetser and Stillwell, 2014).
The following strategies can address the unique academic and language needs of LTELs across all content areas, whether they are in a classroom with English speakers or receive support in a specialized setting.
Build on Strengths and Develop Rapport
By definition, LTELs have not been academically successful in U.S. schools, so it's likely they've endured many years of frustration, boredom, and the embarrassment of poor achievement. They may stumble over the pronunciation of challenging words, resist asking for help, disengage from the class, or even act out rather than admit they don't understand something. By building on strengths, you can help LTELs move beyond their reluctance to fail.
Acknowledging student strengths and developing rapport helps students recognize their own capabilities and realize how much you care. I will never forget the moment Guillermo, a 16-year-old Mexican American LTEL with a particularly hard shell, said this to me: "At first I thought you were white, but now I think you're cool." He challenged me every day to find ways to meet his learning needs, but at least he was willing to let me try.
Scaffold for Engagement and Success
Many LTELs have learned how to be practically invisible at school. They've figured out that if they don't draw attention to themselves, they can sit passively through most classes. This disengagement strategy means that the students who most need to use and explore language as they build their academic skills often get the least practice. Here's how to increase engagement while also challenging students.
Employ Formative Assessment
In addition to providing immediate feedback on students' development of the focus skill, carefully crafted formative assessments provide a window into students' use of the language required for a task.
People with a growth mindset view their intelligence and abilities as flexible, and they believe that with sustained effort they can learn almost anything. For them, challenge, risk, and even failure are necessary steps on the way to mastery. Those with a fixed mindset, however, think that intelligence and ability are static, regardless of effort. They believe that struggling is a sign that they don't have the ability to learn the skill. It makes sense, then, that LTELs might tend toward a fixed mindset, since they have not experienced much success at school. They may believe they just aren't good students, or worse, that they may never be successful, so there's no point in trying.
Students who are "gritty" persist in challenging situations and don't let failure or normal setbacks get in the way of accomplishing their goals. LTELs need support in developing the grit necessary to advance their academic skills.
Prepare to Continue Learning
When LTELs understand that learning a new language is a lifelong process for anyone, they can learn to be mindful of their own language progress. When they believe that challenges and occasional failure are positive indicators of growth, they can develop strategies to overcome obstacles. Armed with these skills and a sense of confidence, they are well on their way to academic and career excellence.
Flores, S. M., Batalova, J., & Fix, M. (2012, March). The educational trajectories of English language learners in Texas. Migration Policy Institute.
Olsen, L. (2010). A closer look at long-term English learners: A focus on new directions. Research and Resources for English Learner Achievement, (7). Retrieved June 12, 2014, from http://en.elresearch.org/uploads/Starlight112410r4.pdf
Stetser, M., & Stillwell, R. (2014, April 1). Public high school four-year on-time graduation rates and event dropout rates: School years 2010–2011 and 2011–2012. National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved July 10, 2015, from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2014/2014391.pdf
Mary Jewell is a teacher at Mira Mesa High School in San Diego, Calif.
ASCD Express, Vol. 11, No. 12. Copyright 2016 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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