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What to Do with Long-Term ELLs?


Panelists and participants at the annual meeting of TESOL in New York City last week had more questions than answers on how to meet the needs of long-term English-language learners.

Kate Menken, an assistant professor of linguistics at Queens College of the City University of New York, noted at a session on high school reform that most programs serve the first of three groups of English-language learners that she's identified, newly arrived immigrants. But services are also needed for two other groups: immigrants with interrupted schooling, and long-term ELLs. In fact, she contended, educators "know next to nothing" about long-term ELLs—students who are in school systems for seven or more years without passing tests that would get them out of the category. (To learn more about Ms. Menken's views, check out her new book, English Learners Left Behind: Standardized Testing as Language Policy.)

Also, a number of teachers or ESL coordinators met for an exchange of ideas on how to address the needs of long-term ELLs. Ruthann Weinstein, who teaches ELLs in Boston, told how she got a grant from basketball player Michael Jordan to take her students on field trips. The students visited the home of author Louisa May Alcott, for example, after reading her book, Little Women. Another teacher arranges each year for ELLs to visit Washington, D.C., as part of the Close Up Foundation's Program for New Americans. Melanie Dobney, a coordinator for English-as-a-second-language programs for secondary students at public schools in McKinney, Texas, said her school district ran a six-week summer program to try to help ELLs maintain and improve English skills they'd acquired during the school year.

But no teachers or coordinators of programs for ELLs claimed they had evidence that strategies they were using had worked to bring up the academic skills of these students, who often lack literacy both in English and their home language.

Back in 2002, I wrote about how Los Angeles Unified School District educators were starting to examine more closely the issue of how students had spent years in U.S. schools without gaining fluency in English. At that time, educators were just starting to talk about how the education of long-term English-language learners might require some special approaches. Six years later, the issue still needs some fresh insight and energy.


It seems that long term ELLs are those who are not literate in English and their home language.
So, what does fluency mean for this group. Is fluency the same as literate? I guess I need to know more about the schools and programs where so-called "long term ELLs" are enrolled. After that, I'd like to know more about the students themselves.

There is plenty of research on ESOL students and how people learn English. Some so called long-term ESOL students may have disabilities or be under-achievers at school. What is a big problem however, is that federal and state programs for ESOL students are aimed at the short-term, not the long-term. State and federal studies tend not to follow students once they test proficient and data on those students doen't seem to be on anyone's radar. Except the solid studies done by Virginia P. Collier, et. all. and Stephen Krashen.
The vast majority of ESOL students considered long term are in school districts which can't claim to be doing regular education students any favors. So how would they be able to bring ESOL students up to a proficient level? There is a growing problem with the new state testing under NCLB. In NYS, the entrance test, the LAB-R, is disgracfully easy and many students are barred from receiving ESOL services altogether so they never even qualify. The state does not keep track of students who fail to qualify via this test so no data is available. The NYSESLAT is also a pretty easy test, a bit better than the LAB-R but still it's 4 days of silliness and a lack of substance that is unbelievable. And in many school districts, especially in the big cities, the students still can't pass it. I think much of the reason is that big school districts tend to isolate and even provide ESOL schools or sections of schools which prevent students from exposure to native speakers of English. Their native English speaking population is also not doing very well. ESOL students are often not included in better schools or "encouraged" to go to some of the worst schools, where ESOL programs are often placed. There is quite a lot of discrimination when it comes to ESOL students. Most of it is not for the best, while bilingual programs are more common in big cities, the options for these programs are not available for students in suburban and rural districts which hurt them

It strikes me that the field trip idea is an important one. Interventions put kids into ever more granular practice of skills and the long term ELL is more and more subject to this kind of "help" but i can't help thinking that field trips and exposure to the wider world is far more influential because it gives students a reason to do the work they need to do. I remember every inspirational thing I did in school; and very little of the daily grind. All kids need more of those experiences, and all the more those whose parents can't provide them.

As a future teacher, living near an area heavily populated by Hispanics, I have had concerns myself about how I am going to reach this particular group of students when I am in the classroom. I am even more concerned about the students you identified as being “Long Term English Language Learners”, or students who have difficulty learning the language.

I strongly agree with you that, as educators, we need to focus on addressing the needs of Long Term English Language learners, since they are still not effectively learning English. It is obvious that there are problems in the way we are addressing bilingual education and students who are not effectively transitioning to English are the group we need to identify and focus on. These students need to be provided with the tools to succeed, and it is important that the teachers are well equipped to provide the assistance these students need to learn English. But studies must be completed, so that teachers can know what “the best way” to reach these students. This is also another reason why it is imperative that studies be done on the way English language learners obtain information. Organizations like the Kathleen Leos Policy Institute, which studies the ways that English Language Learners effectively learn, are crucial to the success of any policy. Without completing an in depth study on the matter, I feel we will never be able to come up with sound curriculum policy that will truly make a difference in these children. In summary, I believe you are on the right track, and I applaud you for focusing on these groups of children, who are too often overlooked. Hopefully, because of people like you, our public schools can make a difference in the lives of these children.

I am an esl teacher at a middle school in Brooklyn with a significant population of long-term Ells. With several of the students I truly wonder why they weren't evaluated previously for special education services, as they clearly appear to have disabilities. Sadly, for these kids, I don't think they will ever be able to pass the NYSESLAT. Another part of the problem is the program changes we've had in the last 4 years. I previously had a pull-out program where the students came to me part of the week and for a few periods also went to ELA, depending on their level. This was with a structured "ESL" program I worked with, using grammar mini-lessons connected with text we read as well as writing assignments responding to the text. All of a sudden 3 1/2 years ago I was told that the region was directing us to now go to a pushin program and forget about my previous program. I was so frustrated and saddened for my kids. That year I saw so much lost progress. So to sum up, when they radically change programs and don't allow us to use what works, it adds to to the long term ell population.

I agree with Christine, that the push-in model that often works well for native English speaking special education students does not work for ELLs. I even hear the term ELL "inclusion." The reason I see for "push-in" is lack of instructional space for ELL programs. We're still teaching in hallways and closets. We need some legislation that will do for ELLs what the Americans with Disabilities Act did for Special Ed.

I believe that the use of the NYSESLAT to determine LEP eligibility for ESL services is discriminatory. The language on the NYSESLAT is considerably easier than the academic language on the NYS Regents. The NYSESLAT is also an untimed test. As a result of passing this untimed, easy assessment, the ELL is no longer entitled to ESL services or testing accommodations. This is obvious discrimination against English Language Learners. Can someone tell me how other states determine LEP eligibility for services?

Colleen: The best overview of state policies for ELLs that I'm aware of is the study released recently by CRESST, the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. Here's a link to the study: http://www.cse.ucla.edu/
I recommend that you first read the executive summary.

Mary Ann Zehr
Learning the Language

Does clustering all ELL's in one classroom work? One grade level at my school site is considering the idea. I need help! I need information on the subject. I think it is a TERRIBLE idea but don't know where to go to find reliable information on the subject.

As a coordinator of an ESL program, I have been thinking about LT ELLs for quite a while. I have addressed the issue with my teachers informally, but now that we want to tackle that problem, as well as that of a high dropout rate--I think the two issues are related--, I want us to be more focused in providing solutions.
Our school district has offered a summer program for several years, but our efforts have been concentrated on low proficient students so that they don't become LT ELLs. This year, our emphasis will be in working with students who have been in the program for more than 4 years.
In my school district students under the LT category are students who came to this country before NCLB legislation was enforced. As a result, all of these students were left at the periphery of education and were never brought to a literacy level that allowed them to succeed. Now that another part of NCLB demands that we bring them to the fluency level necessary to function well academically, we are trying to have them catch up with their education.
As an English learner, and as an educator I have learned that once you learn something wrongly, it is very difficult to correct it. Furthermore, as a human being I know that it is easier to run away from a problem than to confront it; therefore, I understand ELLs that prefer to drop out rather than continue to experience failure.
I agree with Christine who thinks that many of these students should have been evaluated for SpEd, not because they were SpEd originally, but because our failure to educate them eventually turned them into special education cases.
I also agree with Christine and Catherine on the issue of pushing in. I think both of these practices are due to a misunderstanding of the needs of ELLs, and our desire to try to understand them by means of the SpEd program. Yes, these students have special language needs, but those needs have nothing to do with special needs as in SpEd. As a result, we put into effect practices that ultimately result to their detriment.
A push in program is NOT correct for various reasons:
1. Unless most ELLs are placed in the same classroom--which, frankly, I find legally distasteful--, pull in is a waste of time/resources for both ESL teachers and their students.
2. Most ESL teachers are not bilingual --a second language could help in expediting the process of explaining content to ELLs within the regular classroom--, and they usually are not used as co-teachers; therefore, what pull in does is to slow the learning process; slowing learning would guarantee producing a LT ELL.
This is a vicious circle that could continue ad infinitum, unless we do something to change the current educational practices.

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