A Few Strategies for Teaching Long-Term English Learners

Last month, I made the claim that one result of incomprehensible classroom language is the creation of long-term ELs. These are students who have been in U.S. schools for six or more years and have reached a plateau in their English language development. 

Years of not understanding much of the content that’s being taught can result in significant gaps in students’ foundational content knowledge. These gaps compound as students move into higher grades where they are expected to have an understanding of prior content in order to learn the new. 

So…what are teachers to do?

If you teach at the elementary level, your goal should be prevention of long-term ELs. When students receive comprehensible language input from teachers who are well equipped to teach them, they will develop both the language and content needed to be successful in secondary schools. They won’t still be classified as ELs when they reach these upper grades.

If you teach at the secondary level, your primary goal is still to provide as much comprehensible input as possible. This may come from you, but it can also come from the other students in your classroom

Here are a few additional strategies to try:

Bilingual Classes

Students are most successful when they can learn content in a language they know well. Well-designed bilingual programs are the ideal. When they are not possible, schools should consider clustering ELs in content classes with more experienced teachers. If about 1/3 of the class are ELs, the content teacher can usually provide support for their needs, and they have access to numerous native speaking peers to learn from. I realize this may not be the current reality in your context, but that doesn’t negate the fact that these arrangements are best for ELs.

Academic Language Development Classes

Another helpful structure is an academic language development (ALD) class. These classes are taught by teachers trained in language acquisition methods and are designed to teach the types of academic language skills needed in secondary content classes. It is ideal if the ELs are enrolled in parallel ALD and mainstream English classes taught by the same instructor. 

Co-Teaching & Collaboration

When ESL and content teachers co-teach a lesson, ELs receive the most benefit. Content teachers can focus on developing the content necessary for the lesson while the EL specialist focuses on academic language needs. Together, these teachers can use their specialized knowledge to plan and present lessons to meet students’ academic and linguistic needs.

Language Functions Tool  

The Language Functions Tool is an information rich quick guide on incorporating important academic language structures into your lessons. Most teachers know to address academic vocabulary, but other aspects of language are often forgotten. The guide suggests graphic organizers, key questions, and sentence frames that can be explicitly taught or provided for student reference.

Opportunities to Read

Providing all students, regardless of their grade level, with opportunities to read for pleasure and to read narrowly is a well-documented strategy for developing academic language; however, it is often overlooked. One reason may be that it just seems too easy. Giving students access to books and time to read them feels like a cop-out for some teachers. They feel like they need to be doing something, or students won’t make progress. 

Instead, I believe teachers need to have more confidence in their students and the natural language acquisition process. Reading for pleasure – not for tests, or points, or to avoid penalties – should be prevalent in all PK-12 classrooms. Reading texts that we enjoy on topics of interest is what many adults do in real life. Students can be provided with a wide range of reading materials in order to discover areas of interest. In doing so, they will be exposed to academic language and content knowledge, both of which they need. As they find interesting topics, they will begin to read more narrowly and develop deeper understandings of concepts through more advanced academic language.


Meeting the needs of long-term English learners can be challenging, but choosing to ignore their needs may deny them many opportunities, both during and after high school. Some of the strategies discussed above can be implemented in your classroom next week. Others can be the foundation for strategic conversations with fellow teachers and your administrators.

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