In for the Long Haul

Mary Soto, Yvonne S. Freeman, and David Freeman offer strategies to help understand and support secondary long-term English learners

“It was good how she [the teacher] helped us know what to do but I didn’t know the answers and my partner didn’t either.”

“The group work didn’t help because no one in my group understood what to do except me.”
“I didn’t read the chapter so I didn’t know anything.”

These three quotes are from secondary long-term English learners (LTELs) studying in a south Texas high school (Soto, 2011). They reflect students’ academic struggles and frustrations. LTELs are the largest group of older English learners and, until recently, have been the least understood and least studied. In New York City, one third of English learners in secondary schools are long-term English learners (Menken & Kleyn, 2010), and in California, a larger percent, 59%, have been identified as LTELs (Olsen, 2010). When typical traits of these students are described, secondary teachers across the country consistently confirm that LTELs make up their largest group of English learners.

Researchers have found that LTELs have specific characteristics and needs that are different from those of other secondary English learners (D. Freeman & Freeman, 2009; Y. Freeman & Freeman, 2002; Menken & Kleyn, 2009; Olsen, 2010; Soto, 2011). It is important, then, to understand the characteristics of these students and consider their language needs. In this article, we first describe and define long-term English learners and distinguish among the different types of schooling LTELs have experienced. We then lay out their academic language needs and suggest an approach to help them develop academic language. Finally, we discuss the findings of one study of long-term ELs that suggests specific supports these students need.

Long-Term English Language Learners
Menken and Kleyn (Menken & Kleyn, 2010) define long-term ELs as students who have attended U.S. schools for seven or more years and whose prior schooling has been linguistically subtractive because their native language was not fully developed in school and instead was replaced by English. Long-term ELLs are usually below grade-level in reading and writing, and often math as well. In fact, Olsen (2010) states that, “a definitional characteristic of long-term English learners is that they are not doing well academically” (p. 21). Although these students have basic communicative skills and sometimes can pass basic coursework, they do not have the necessary academic language proficiency to succeed in challenging academic classes or pass high-stakes tests (Freeman & Freeman, 2009; Olsen, 2010). Many drop out of high school and few go on to college.

Inconsistent Programming
As researchers have begun to identify LTELs, they have found that, because of their varied experiences, LTELs experience inconsistent schooling. One group identified by Menken and Kleyn (2010) are the vaivén (loosely translated as “They go and they come”) students. These long-term ELs move back and forth between their new countries and their countries of origin. They experience inconsistent schooling as they move. Immigrant students, even those who are not vaivén students, are often “school hoppers” — that is they frequently move within their new countries because of their family circumstances. This makes academic success difficult, since their school experiences are so varied.

Even when students stay in the same school system, they often receive inconsistent schooling due to differences in each school’s language policies. For example, some long-term ELs experience one type of program in elementary school, a different program in middle school, and still an altogether different program in high school. An EL might be in a bilingual education program in kindergarten, receive some ESL support in elementary grades, and move to an English-only school in upper grades.
Menken and Kleyn found that even within the same school, students experience inconsistent programs. This can be due to shifts in their school’s language policy or uneven implementation of that policy in classrooms. For example, a school might have a transitional program one year and then might implement a dual language program the next year.

A final type of inconsistent schooling for students occurs when schools have no resources for supporting ELs (García & Godina, 2004). Most of these students receive English-only instruction with no language support provided. LTELs have often experienced several of the subtractive schooling experiences described above and as a result are not adequately prepared to meet the academic challenges of secondary schools.

Academic Language Needs
ELs entering secondary schools must learn complex academic subject matter in a second language. These students face a number of challenges that are “local and global in nature, as they negotiate the linguistic academic and social world of schooling” (Walqui, 2006, p. 159). Understanding and using academic language is at the heart of their secondary experience. Academic language is the register of language used in schools, and English learners need to be able to use the academic registers of different subject areas to read, write, and discuss academic subjects. Students must be able to think, read, and write like literary scholars, historians, mathematicians, and scientists. Each of the disciplines requires different language skills. These include reading different types of texts and using different text structures, different presentation formats, and different ways of organizing language (D. Freeman & Freeman, 2009; Gottlieb & Ernst-Slavit, 2013; Meltzer & Hamann, 2005).

Academic language is challenging for all ELs, but for LTELs, it is especially difficult. Because they have been in school(s) for several years and often appear to understand instruction and to speak English, educators often have the impression they are not trying or that they have learning problems when they do not do well academically. However, as Cummins (1984) explains, there are two types of language proficiency. The first type is reflected in the ability to hold a conversation about everyday topics. The second involves talking, reading, and writing about school subjects. While LTELs develop some level of conversational proficiency, they do not develop academic content knowledge or the academic language needed to comprehend and produce that knowledge.

Secondary teachers are prepared to teach their subject-area content to help their students meet state or national standards, but they seldom understand or think about the academic language required of their students to access the content they are teaching. For example, social studies teachers expect students to write and talk about the causes of World War II, but may not know that in order to do this, students need to be able to create clauses using causal expressions such as as a result, consequently, for these reasons, or therefore.

Academic language contains technical vocabulary. In addition, it is abstract and lexically dense. That is, academic language packs more content into each sentence than conversational language does. One way this is accomplished is through the process of nominalization, which involves changing verbs and adjectives into nouns. For example, the sentence “the Earth rotates around the sun” becomes the noun phrase “the rotation of the Earth around the sun.” This phrase can then become the subject of a longer sentence. Teachers often do not realize they need to help students understand and use academic language as they are learning subject-area content.

Supporting ELs
Researchers have suggested different ways to support ELs as they are learning content and English using teacher modeling, visual and verbal scaffolds, cooperative learning, and partner work to help students move towards independence in a kind of gradual release of responsibility model (D. Freeman & Freeman, 2011; Frey & Fisher, 2009; Gottleib, 2006; Kagan, 1986; Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). With adolescent ELs, additional research-based strategies are suggested including integrating reading, writing, and listening skills, building and activating background knowledge, and engaging in reading and writing regularly (Krashen, 2004; Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007).

The development of academic literacy is key to the academic success of English learners. García and Godina (2004) argue for process literacy approaches. Some of the basic characteristics of process literacy approaches include the use of trade books, writing from multiple drafts, integrating reading and writing, peer interactions, a student-centered curriculum, giving students choice for reading and writing, inquiry-based projects, and open-ended activities in which students are encouraged to explore the various meanings of texts (p. 310).

García and Godina (2004) emphasize the importance of understanding students’ sociocultural backgrounds, educational experiences, and literacy levels in their native languages. LTELs, in particular, need teachers who understand their needs and can support their development of academic literacy so they will be able to read and write at grade level.

A Hunger to Learn
Soto (2011) looked at the academic language development of secondary long-term English learners to determine what pedagogical structures for teaching academic concepts and vocabulary supported students’ acquisition of academic language and which structures were perceived by the students as most helpful.

Soto worked with a secondary language arts teacher who had several LTELs in her class. She and the teacher chose as a major theme the power of the individual. They wanted to help the students understand how they, as individuals, have the power to make a positive difference in the world. They chose a novel, The Hunger Games (Collins, 2008), which tells the story of a teenage girl who fights against a corrupt government. They developed activities related to the different chapters of the book. Instruction followed the gradual release model recommended by researchers. This consisted of the pedagogical structures of teacher modeling, guided discussion, group work, partner work, and independent work.

Soto looked in depth at six long-term English learners in the language arts class, interviewing them, reviewing their work, and observing them as they participated in the different pedagogical structures. She wanted to discover how helpful the LTELs perceived the different structures to be and how the different structures affected their academic performance.

The reading and writing activities the students engaged in met state language arts standards. Students made outlines and wrote personal narrative essays about people who had influenced their lives; they worked together to identify the tone of various passages; they created movie posters to show their understanding of terms such as protagonist, antagonist, conflict, setting, and summary; they did an idiom project that required them pick idioms from the text, draw the literal meanings, and then explain the idiomatic meanings; they drew a scene from the novel and laid out the chronological order of events; and they identified figurative language in a song and wrote a paragraph that included personification, simile, hyperbole, and onomatopoeia. For each of these activities or projects, specific academic vocabulary was identified. For example, in the personal narrative, students identified words like influence and impact. In the argumentative essay, students were to use and show an understanding of argument, topic sentence, and conclusion.

Soto analyzed the work that six LTELs produced during a series of 21 lessons. She also interviewed the students after each lesson to determine how helpful they found the structure (such as teacher modeling or partner work) to be and how well the understood the academic language that was the focus of the lesson. Students’ acquisition of academic language was charted by looking at their essays, outlines, reviews, responses to short stories and novels, and projects.

Based on the data she collected as she worked with these secondary LTELs, Soto reached the following conclusions:

1. Teacher modeling is effective when teachers involve students and when students understand both what to do and how to do it;

2. Guided discussions help students get ideas from classmates and review key concepts;

3. Group work is only effective when there is positive group interdependence, that is, when students work together effectively with each one making contributions;

4. Partner work is only effective when both students come prepared and understand a task;

5. Independent work should only be assigned when students are well prepared.

What was perhaps the most important overall conclusion from the study was that LTELs can benefit from some strategies suggested for working with ELs, but only when teachers provide extra support and give them more time. Comments like the one about teacher modeling that we used to begin the article, “It was good how she [the teacher] helped us know what to do but I didn’t know the answers and my partner didn’t either” help make this conclusion clear. The student understood what he was supposed to do, but he still wasn’t prepared to do it. Comments about other structures such as partner work, group work, and independent work were often similar:

“I didn’t understand what to do. I was confused and my partner was not even paying attention so I just put whatever.”

“My partner didn’t know how to do it and I didn’t really understand the tone words we had to pick from.”

“The group work didn’t really help because a lot of people in the group were not really trying.”
Looking at the student work and drawing on interviews following lessons, Soto found that the long-term English learners in her study could only demonstrate that they had learned academic concepts and vocabulary when the teacher provided extra support. Soto concluded that modeling should be followed by teacher monitoring. Group and partner work were only productive when teacher instructions were clear and students in the groups were prepared. In addition, although students were sometimes able to explain concepts and academic vocabulary orally, they were often not able to complete written assignments. Therefore, Soto suggests that alternative assessments should be included, such as having students create illustrated posters or dictionaries. In many cases, the students simply needed more time to complete the assignments.

Long-term English learners are the largest group of ELs in secondary classes across the country. It is important for secondary teachers to know the characteristics of these students. Long-term ELs benefit when teachers teach both subject-area content and the academic language needed to access that content. Finally, when teachers use different pedagogical structures, such as teacher modeling, guided discussions, group and partner work, and individual work, following a gradual release of responsibility model, it is important to only move to the next stage when students are fully prepared. Even then, LTELs may need more time and more support than other English learners or native English speakers to develop the content knowledge and the academic English they need in order to succeed in secondary school.

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Mary Soto is a lecturer at California State University, Chico, working mainly with secondary teachers. She is an experienced high school ESL teacher.

Dr. Yvonne Freeman is a professor of bilingual education, and Dr. David Freeman is a professor of ESL and literacy at the University of Texas at Brownsville. Both are interested in effective education for English language learners. They present regularly at international, national, and state conferences. They have also worked extensively in schools in the U.S. The Freemans have published books, articles, and book chapters jointly and separately on the topics of second language teaching, biliteracy, bilingual education, linguistics, and second-language acquisition, including the program On Our Way to English. Their latest books include Between Worlds: Access to Second Language Acquisition 3rd edition (2011), Academic Language for English Language Learners and Struggling Readers (2009), English Language Learners: The Essential Guide (2007), and a book they edited, Diverse Learners in the Mainstream Classroom (2008).