LTELs - One Consequence of Incomprehensible Language
Note: Taking October 2019 to new levels of community by focusing on relevant discussion topics, 
this article continues a five-week series raising the value of community where teachers of English
Learners can give and receive support.

Last week, I talked about how students acquire a second language. The bottom line is that acquisition is possible when language is made comprehensible. In some way, students need to be able to understand the written or oral messages they are given. 

But what if they don’t…because it’s not?

A significant consequence of incomprehensible language during content lessons is the creation of Long-Term English Learners (LTELs). These are students who have been in U.S. schools for six or more years and have not made significant progress in English. As a result, they lag behind their peers academically. They are, essentially, stuck like this.

Imagine being in a classroom where the teacher speaks completely in your second language. He/She primarily lectures and during small group discussions, you are not allowed to use your native language to debrief the lesson content with peers.  The teacher provides minimal support, such as visuals or demonstrations, to make the information comprehensible. 

Regardless, over time, you begin to understand more and more of the teacher’s language. However, now the problem is that the teacher assumes you know the content taught during all of those previous lessons. With an academic knowledge base that looks like Swiss cheese, it is very difficult for you to comprehend new information. 

Through the years, you are socially promoted despite your lack of knowledge and each subsequent teacher assumes you understand the lessons because you seem to converse well with friends during class. What the teacher doesn’t realize is that you’ve picked up an everyday level of the language, but not an academic one.

Soon, you begin to think that school isn’t the place for you. You have tried for years, but just can’t understand. The best option may be to dropout as soon as you’re old enough.

This scenario is reality for many English learners once they reach middle or high school. The majority are U.S. citizens, but they have not been provided equal access to the curriculum of their U.S. school. As a result, they become frustrated and defeated. English learners have disproportionally high dropout rates, low graduation rates, and low college completion rates.  

This doesn’t have to be their reality.

Effective teaching for LTELs is possible. Yes, it is challenging to compensate for many years of lost instruction, but in most cases, it can be done. The biggest hurdle is not typically for the student, but for the school and the educator. 

Teaching LTELs takes commitment and focus and some specific strategies. They will not succeed by being relegated to remedial programs intended for native English speakers. And they most certainly will not be successful thrown into a sink or swim approach.


I’ll have some ideas for you to try in an article next month, but for now, I’d like to hear about your work with LTELs. 

  • Do you have many in your district? 
  • What are some strategies that you have tried? 
  • Were they successful? If not, do you have insight into why?

Share your thoughts in the new Discussion Topic…

Strategies for Working with LTELs

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