Helping Long-Term English Learners Get “Unstuck”


By Mary Jewell

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.

  • Ask students about their academic strengths, and find ways to incorporate those capabilities into assignments.
  • Learn about the other languages students speak and the cultures they experience at home. Let them know that you believe experience with multiple languages and cultures is a benefit, both academically and socially.
  • Acknowledge that students have probably experienced obvious discrimination, and understand that it may take time for them to trust a teacher from a different culture. Recognizing that prejudice exists, even at school, and allowing students to share their frustrations and perceptions can help you to establish connections with your students.
  • Talk with students about whether or not they think their difficulties with English might be affecting their grades in general. If they are no longer enrolled in English language learning classes, it’s likely that they aren’t explicitly focusing on their English language skills.
  • Let students know that once they start concentrating on improving their English, you expect their skills and grades in all classes to improve.
  • Insist that students use appropriate register, academic vocabulary, and grammar on all assignments. Allow for revision as often as necessary. Emphasize that your job is to support them so they can excel.

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.

  • Engage students with work that is relevant to their lives and at the appropriate level of challenge in terms of both content and language. Start with short, well-structured tasks at which everyone can succeed. For example, group projects with defined roles that are differentiated based on students’ language and skill levels and structured oral language activities can promote high levels of student engagement.
  • Build students’ confidence with small tasks, but don’t stop there. Don’t send the message to students that you doubt their ability to do more rigorous work. As you increase the rigor of assignments, consider the language demands of each task, and scaffold lessons for language support.
  • Examine materials for areas of possible difficulty. Pay attention to things like lists, steps, or graphics; organization of information; presentation of the author’s argument; and the background knowledge necessary for understanding. You may need to model argument analysis or different text features and then provide sentence frames and visuals to support students as they attempt the tasks independently.
  • Allow time for vocabulary instruction, pronunciation practice, and small group conversations in English. LTELs often speak conversational English well but struggle with the academic register.
  • Provide frequent opportunities for “brain breaks” during class to make challenging work less intimidating for LTELs, especially those who may not yet have the stamina to focus on difficult material for an entire period. In my classes, I allow students to use their phones during these breaks as long as they are moving around.

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.

  • Structure questions or simple tasks in formative assessments to measure students’ English proficiency as well as their understanding of a concept or skill. For example, a writing prompt could include directions to use certain vocabulary in the response, or students might complete a word-sorting activity based on the lesson. This focus on language can also help students remember that they are still working on their English.
  • Use a variety of technology-based assessments in addition to simple written reflections or exit slips. Socrative and Poll Everywhere allow students to respond to questions from their devices. Using Padlet or Marqueed, students can write quick notes to share with the class on the Smartboard. Students can also practice listening and speaking skills by leaving short voicemails on a classroom Google Voice account, or they can record themselves on their phones and share the file via e-mail or Dropbox.
  • Create a simple spreadsheet on your clipboard or tablet with student names and columns for the focus skills and language. This will allow you to quickly note student progress during class. For example, you may notice that students hesitate to pronounce challenging words or resort to familiar vocabulary rather than using academic language. You might also observe that groups need support when it comes to argumentative language, deciphering labels on graphics, or organizing ideas for a presentation.

Encourage Growth

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.

  • Talk about how the brain continues to develop in the same way muscles develop. Explain that just like athletes get stronger with practice and entertainers improve with rehearsal, their English and academic skills can also grow with effort on difficult tasks.
  • Provide ample opportunities for students to create their own growth goals and share their attempts along the way.
  • Save several samples of formative assessments from each student throughout the course of a unit. Before the summative assessment, ask students to reflect on their growth in both language and skill and on the strategies they found useful in working toward the objective.

Promote Grit

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.

  • Have students respond to Angela Duckworth’s Grit Scale, which can provide a picture of how “gritty” students might be at school. Discuss how grit connects to academic success. Reinforce the idea that grit is related to effort and, therefore, within students’ control to change.
  • Practice school-related behaviors that demonstrate grit. For example, the class can develop a list of steps to follow and resources to use when homework becomes difficult. A small group might plan to meet before school or at lunch to study for an upcoming test, agreeing to turn off their phones while they work and eliminate distractions. To build confidence before a classroom debate, students can pair up and practice using sentence frames to provide evidence for a verbal argument.

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

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

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