• The Spark

Ensuring Literacy and Language Gains for Long-Term English Learners: Shifting Policy and Practices

Author:  Dr. Elena Izquierdo, HMH Program Consultant, Escalate English  | 04/24/2017

The number of English learners in our schools continues to grow exponentially. Classrooms across the country are serving more than 5 million ELs from diverse backgrounds and languages. The variation in the types of programs that serve ELs across the nation has resulted in varied levels of literacy and academic progress. Long-term English learners (LTELs) are ELs who, although they have been in our schools for seven or more years, are struggling with academic English and have experienced significant academic gaps. This is due in part to program models that focus primarily on the development of the English language for ELs to acquire high levels of language proficiency, in order to manage more challenging academic content. Educators have raised expectations, with a greater focus on college- and career-aligned state standards. This means our approaches also must shift. Rather than focusing primarily on what LTELs can manage, which can result in imposing unintended ceilings on their growth, the focus needs to shift to what LTELs need to become strong learners of the academic and social English that will put them on the path to college and careers.

Shifts in policy have quickly moved to EL standards aligned to academic standards, and the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to report on English language proficiency as part of ESSA Title I accountability, in addition to standardizing procedures for assessing proficiency within their state. This has raised the bar on accountability for progress, which underscores the need for LTELs to have access to the levels and types of academic language essential for success across all subject matters.

Programmatic shifts have moved from an English as a Second Language focus to an emphasis on developing English through academic literacies across content areas. LTELs need access to rigor throughout their academic experience, and since they are concentrated in secondary schools, optimal use of time is nonnegotiable. The shift to integrate and connect English language development with and through academic literacy and content learning is critical, and should begin in the elementary grades.

Language in academic texts is multifaceted. Linguistic structures, multiple meanings for vocabulary, and embedded meanings that are specific to each content area require not only higher levels of language proficiency, but an understanding of how language works. This understanding is developed by working with academic texts—regularly. LTELs need to have access to and interact with grade-level academic texts on a regular basis.

Instructional shifts require teachers to provide instructional support for LTELs to learn how to unpack academic complex text in order to access its meaning: for example, a table in a science text as opposed to a table in a social studies text; or table that idea until the next meeting.

You might argue about the time it takes to discuss various uses of a word or dissect a sentence, phrase, or paragraph when guiding students on how to access the meaning of the text; however, as LTELs engage in these activities on an ongoing basis, they begin to learn how to do it independently, and begin to look at text in a very different way.

Students gain confidence and thrive when teachers expect them to produce the language of academic discourse on a daily basis, both orally and in writing. Activities that are critical to practicing the accessing of academic text might include:

  • purposeful conversations that call for students to respond to teacher prompts by using academic English to discuss the text with peers;
  • frequent, short performance tasks, stepped out with supports, and prompting students to use details from the text to draw inferences, interpret meaning, and support the claims they make.

Mindsets and Paradigm Shifts When teachers have high expectations for their LTELs, their students will also develop self-confidence in what and how they are learning. Just as important is the use of technology woven into the fabric of instruction, and grade-level materials that are rich in content and rigor. When teachers know their content, understand the complexities involved in academic text and multimedia, and know how to guide LTELs in navigating the complex linguistic structures and meanings in text, and when they have appropriate educational resources, they are better positioned to impact the academic success of their students.

Dr. Izquierdo will present a webinar on this topic as part of our upcoming Lead the Way to Literacy Leadership Talks. Register now for her presentation on May 2, and explore additional presentations from our literacy thought leaders.

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