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December 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 4

Research in Action: Ramping Up Support for Long-Term ELLs

My high school piloted a set of interventions for long-term ELLs. The results were so promising, we're doing it again.

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Instructional StrategiesCurriculumEngagementSocial-emotional learningEquity
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Innovation is an overused word in education circles, one often used to mask top-down directives demanding that teachers do more with less. However, in a school that values teacher leadership, an "innovation" mindset can power strategies to respond to critical challenges.
One issue facing U.S. schools that requires innovative thinking is how to support long-term English language learners (students who've been officially classified as English language learners for at least six years). Long-term English language learners generally function well verbally in English but may not have the oral or literacy skills needed for academic success. These obstacles frequently result in setbacks at school, including a higher likelihood of dropping out (Haas & Brown, 2019). Of the 4.9 million English language learners in U.S. schools today, between one-quarter and one-half are long-term ELLs (McFarland et al., 2019; Sahakyan & Ryan, 2018). In some states, like California, an even higher percentage of students who've been classified as language learners are long-term ELLs (Hanover Research, 2017).
At my school, Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California, we recently tested a set of interventions and found that they helped long-term English language learners make gains academically and otherwise. I'd like to share what we learned. First, however, some background on our school and long-term language learners.
Approximately 27 percent of the 1,650 students now at Luther Burbank are ELLs, and a sizable number are long-term language learners. We have long had a strong institutional commitment toward supporting language learners; we welcomed ELLs during the No Child Left Behind years, when other schools discouraged their attendance because of their being a potential "drag" on test scores. Our administration and faculty believe that inviting large numbers of students whose home language isn't English into our student population challenges us to be better teachers for all students.
Luther Burbank has a tradition of being open to trying new methods to support our entire student population, all of whom are eligible for free lunches. For the past 15 years, we've divided students into small learning communities—groups of 300–500 students who stay together with the same 20-or-so teachers during their high school career. Rearranging into smaller communities reduces the chances of students getting lost in the cracks. The school also supports teacher action research—exploratory projects initiated by faculty to serve our students (while adhering to the dictum "Do no harm"). One teacher, for example, initiated an expansion of our restorative practices by training peer mentors and tracking their impact.
Despite this commitment to support all our students, however, we had never initiated an effort to specifically support our long-term English language learners. Those of us at Luther Burbank who've worked with long-term English learners realized that verifying an approach that could get these learners over the plateau of mid-level English skills that many get stuck on could benefit students even beyond our own school. Millions of U.S. students have been classified as ELLs for six years or more. Yet six years is nearly the longest amount of time researchers estimate it should take to acquire social and academic English proficiency—assuming students receive adequate support (Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000).
The key phrase is "assuming students receive adequate support." Lack of specialized English development classes, ELLs' limited access to standard curriculum (because teachers haven't received professional development in supporting non-native speakers), and socioeconomic issues are a few of the many reasons behind this common language-acquisition delay. In addition, family mobility for economic reasons, or fear of immigration enforcement, can result in a lack of stable school attendance for some children.

Research to Practice

In the spirit of encouraging teacher innovation and supporting all our English language learners, we piloted a program last school year to aid long-term ELLs, choosing a group of 20 9th graders who would receive a specific set of interventions. (We also identified a separate group of 9th grade long-term ELLs, with a similar gender and language-level make-up, who would receive regular instruction and serve as a control group.) We studied interventions that researchers have identified as providing the extra support that students who've long struggled with deepening their English skills need to be academically successful. These include enrolling the learners in a support class to supplement core academic classes; monitoring their academic progress and providing extra assistance when needed; and "cohorting" them in academic classes (though not exclusively, meaning they stay together in core classes, but there are also non-English learners in those classes). Creating a positive, inclusive school climate and implementing culturally responsive teaching have also been found to help long-term ELLs (Olson, 2014).
But we also realized that we needed to know what would work best with our particular learners. So we examined our local situation, our students, and our instructional experiences. Out of that work came a plan for support that relied on four research-based practices—and didn't cost our school or district any extra funds. Although I was the prime catalyst and developer for this initiative, the idea was met with 100 percent enthusiasm from other teachers and administrators and wouldn't have been able to happen without their support. I'll describe here the main practices we used, with tips for how to successfully implement each one.

Putting Them All Together

We "cohorted" these 20 students so that they each attended all the same academic classes. Around 12 other students who weren't long-term ELLs (different ones in each class) would be their classmates in every class, except in a support class we started solely for the cohort. Our pre-existing arrangement of small learning communities made scheduling easier.

Creating a Support Class

For this cohort of long-term ELLs, we created a special academic-support class that met every school day, which I taught. Freeing my time to teach this class wasn't that difficult to manage; it just meant I would teach one less elective class (and that a handful of other classes might have one or two additional students).
Researchers recommend that this type of class should focus on academic literacy. We decided to target it more specifically: We planned for all teachers of this cohort's academic classes to send me a weekly email—a few sentences explaining what they planned to teach the following week and what prior knowledge would be helpful for students to know. I, in turn, would prepare and teach a lesson supporting that topic.
Offering this kind of support across a range of subject areas was less challenging than it might seem, since I'd taught the regular English and social studies curriculum for years and had long included science instruction in my classes for ELLs. The key to getting teachers in the content classes to take the step of giving me information about upcoming lessons was to keep the process simple and ask only for the main topic and a few items of background knowledge that I should brief students on.
Through these introductory lessons, not only would our "pilot" students be in a better position to learn, they would enter their classes knowing more about the subject than most of their classmates! Since a lack of academic self-confidence is characteristic of many language learners, this strategy, we reasoned, could put them in a very different position than in previous years.

Monitoring Progress

We checked on how the cohort was progressing in two ways: Making my support class an "advisory on steroids" and assigning each student a peer mentor. To turbo-charge the "advisory" aspect of the support class, I kept in regular contact with parents (it helped that I speak Spanish). I made at least one phone call home each month, with the student present, to highlight positive and specific things I saw that learner doing or heard they were doing in another class. I would also throw in one thing they could improve on—like do some of the extra credit work available. I periodically pulled students out of their academic classes during my prep period to have short check-in conversations ("walk-and-talk conversations") asking about their hopes and goals and what they thought they needed to do to achieve them, along with providing support for specific issues. I did this with all cohort students, but more often for those who were experiencing struggles.
Meanwhile, we selected students in one of our International Baccalaureate-track classes to become peer mentors to the intervention students. These IB students pulled their "mentee" from the cohort aside for 15 minutes each week to check in and discuss things like goals, challenges, or just what they do for fun. The IB students would complete a form after each visit, writing what they learned that might be helpful for a teacher to know.

Incorporating Social-Emotional Learning

We knew that a positive school climate in which students of all cultural backgrounds felt welcomed, respected, and safe would contribute greatly to these learners' experiences. And we believed that sharpening the social-emotional and cultural sensitivities of students and teachers would help create a consistent and positive climate for these students. I prepared ready-to-use lessons connected to social-emotional learning (SEL) that teachers working with this cohort could adapt for their classes, and shared strategies for strengthening SEL skills.
I also occasionally focused on SEL competencies in my support classes. For instance, to learn about growth mindset, I showed a few short cartoon clips that involved characters looking at problems as opportunities and persevering. After each clip, I asked students to share what "lesson" was being conveyed by the main character. We then made a class list of growth-mindset qualities. I shared an example of how I exhibited a growth mindset after teaching a bad lesson, by learning from it and doing a better one the next day. The students used sentence frames to write in English about a time when they, too, had shown a growth mindset.

Developing Goals and Going Forward

Before launching our interventions, several colleagues and I met with staff from the district office. They helped us develop a set of measurable goals for our pilot and determine a variety of pre- and post-assessments to use. District staff agreed to help us collect quantitative data.
We added two supports as the program evolved throughout the year. I introduced a daily warm-up activity in the support class, which I termed the retrieval practice notebook. Students wrote about important knowledge they'd gained in each of their classes during the previous day, then shared this with the class. In addition, we allowed especially responsible members of the cohort to occasionally leave their regular academic classes, with teacher permission, to work independently in our support center for ELLs. There, students focused on work that their teachers felt they could complete independently. Many of them loved having the freedom to work on their own or with other cohort members.

Quantitative Data: Cohort Students Did Better

We didn't enter into this pilot program planning to evaluate it through a rigorous scientific analysis. There would just be too many variables: We were applying several specific interventions, and we wouldn't be able to be sure which ones might contribute—positively or negatively—to whatever outcomes the data analysis would reveal. Further, it was possible that something we weren't deliberately manipulating, like the quality of the teaching, might have a big effect on how well each group did as well.
But we administered several assessments of academic skills to both the cohort and control students at the beginning of the 2018–2019 school year and the end of that year. Based on our district's analysis of students' scores, cohorted students outperformed the controls in every area assessed (meaning that on average, the cohort group's scores increased more than the control group's scores), including in writing and "cloze" measurements to gauge students' reading comprehension and vocabulary. While the differences were small, they were an encouraging sign that our pilot had an impact.
Significantly, the cohort students outscored the control group students on what was arguably the most important assessment, the English Language Proficiency Assessment for California, which is a key test for determining if ELLs can be "reclassified" as English-proficient. On average, cohort students' scores on the post-intervention ELPAC were 22 points higher than their pre-intervention scores; control students' scores were only 14 points higher.
Data from non-test-based measurements we used to assess student engagement showed that cohorted students had a nine percent higher rate of attendance, an eight percent lower rate of behavior referrals, and a nine percent lower rate of suspensions than the control group.
Although the better performance of cohort students may not stand up to rigorous data scrutiny, it appears to us likely more than coincidence that students in the support class had a greater rate of improvement in every data point we had decided to measure.

Qualitative Data: Students Found the Interventions Helpful

At the end of the year, we asked students in the cohort to anonymously rank how much they felt each of the specific interventions "helped them learn." Having peer mentors was rated the highest. Students made comments like, "I like having a mentor because they are fun and cool to be with; they are also very supportive" and "They help me by giving advice and guiding me to do well in class and school."
The intervention ranked second-most helpful was being able to come to the support center during the day to work independently. Next came taking classes together as a cohort, followed by getting the "previews" of lessons coming up in their academic classes. Rated lowest were using the retrieval practice notebook, and the "walk-and-talk" conversations they had with me during my prep period.
Students rated the overall support class very positively (and gave me an A- as a teacher). Most participating teachers also felt positive about the experience, and particularly appreciated students coming to class prepped with prior knowledge, having the opportunity to send students to the ELL support center to work independently, and receiving my help in intervening both with students and parents.

Trying Again, Looking Ahead

Since the participating students and teachers liked the class so much—and we saw promising results—Luther Burbank is repeating this intensive experience to support our long-term ELLs in the first semester of this school year, with a few tweaks. We're doing the same actions as in the pilot year (with 12 "cohort" long-term ELLs and a comparable control group) except that the support class is being taught by the same teacher the students have for English language arts (some researchers suggest this is the ideal arrangement). I'm working closely with this teacher.
As the group of us who carried out this pilot last year (with a few new enthusiasts) have been "repeating" the pilot, we've reflected on what we've learned about our innovation and what we might do differently if we continue doing this supportive approach. Questions we're asking ourselves include:
  • Since peer mentors were rated so highly by the cohort group, should we expand peer mentorship to all our English language learners?
  • If we expand the support classes for English learners, how might we help teachers who don't have previous experience in some of the other academic classes effectively teach a support class, including pre-teaching material for coming lessons?
  • If we want to be able to generalize more from these results, how big a sample of cohort and control students will we need to have for future trials of this approach?

Follow in Our Footsteps

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act has upped the ante for schools to develop strategies to move long-term ELLs toward English proficiency, since successful "reclassification" of ELLs is now an ESSA accountability standard. We hope other schools can build on our successful experience by trying this approach to supporting long-term English language learners.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Does your school provide targeted academic supports for long-term ELLs? Are they effective?

➛ What parts of Ferlazzo's research project most impressed you? How could you replicate these at your school?

➛ Based on Ferlazzo's findings, what do you think are long-term ELLs' greatest needs? How could your school or district better address them?

References

Haas, E., & Brown, J. E. (2019). Supporting English learners in the classroom: Best practices for distinguishing language acquisition from learning disabilities. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hakuta, K., Butler, G. B., & Witt, D. (2000). How long does it take English learners to attain proficiency? The University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute Policy Report 2000-1.

Hanover Research. (July, 2017). Effective interventions for long-term English learners. Arlington, VA: Hanover Research.

McFarland, J., Hussar, B., Zhang, J., Wang, X., Wang, K., Hein, S., et al. (2019). The Condition of Education 2019. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.

Olson, L. (2014). Meeting the unique needs of long-term English language learners: A guide for educators. Washington, D.C.: NEA.

Sahakyan, S., & Ryan, S. (2018). Exploring the long-term English learner population across 15 WIDA states. Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

End Notes

1 In addition, videos and activities connected to the educational site Brainpop were particularly helpful with this support class. I used the videos to supplement my limited science knowledge and minimal math-instruction experience, and I encouraged students to use the site at home to supplement work in their academic classes. Brainpop agreed to let us use their program for no cost during the year of the pilot class.

2 Cloze measurements are passages with words removed and replaced with blanks; students use context clues and prior knowledge to fill them in.

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