Management Tips for Delivering Intensive Linguistic Support for Long-Term English Learners in Grades 4–5

Are you still abuzz from ILA? The conference generated lots of interest and activity around meeting the needs of English learners, specifically the needs of long-term English learners (LTELs). One resounding theme at ILA—one that is not new but persists, is that teachers are increasingly accountable for meeting the needs of a diverse range of learners, from students who struggle, to those who have advanced well beyond grade level. But more urgently than ever, we need to ensure growth for the fastest growing segment of learners: students whose first language isn’t English (ELs). We heard that teachers need the benefits of professional learning, combined with best-in-class resources, in order to successfully differentiate their teaching.

When we consider the challenges of meeting the needs of English learners in today’s classrooms, we have the added dilemma that our ELs are not one dimensional. Meeting the needs of newcomers in the classroom is very different from meeting the needs of other ELs. In fact, our long-term English learners have not reached the milestone of proficiency with cognitive-academic language. They need intensive and accelerated support for progressing with academic English and the content of their grade-level standards. When the demands for rigor grow as students progress through the grades, our LTELs are falling further and further behind.

How do we help LTELs leverage their skills?

Despite these challenges, long-term English learners offer a wealth of potential for our schools and communities. This group of students is, after all, our largest segment of emerging bilinguals. They have made great gains in developing the social language and communicative skills that enable them to converse socially in both English and their first language. Our job as educators is to ensure that they leverage their knowledge of their first language, along with their growing English skills. This will enable them to engage in intensive support for the academic language they must acquire in order to meet grade-level standards.

Without continuing to support our LTELs in reaching this next milestone, by reclassifying them too soon or assuming they’re doing fine because they have acquired social communicative language in English and are at an intermediate level of English proficiency, we leave them behind. We’ve also learned from research that we cannot sacrifice instruction in LTELs’ grade-level standards for English instruction. If we are to optimize results for our LTELs, we need to shift our approach to one that delivers a focus on academic English and on the content of grade-level standards simultaneously.

How do we deliver intensive support beginning in our core elementary classrooms, so our LTELs can reach both academic language and grade-level content milestones? There is no simple solution to this question. Overall, we know that a combination of ongoing, high-quality professional learning is needed. In addition, teachers need a program specifically developed to focus on learning language and learning content simultaneously without compromising rigor. It needs to be a program they can easily integrate into their core instruction, without taking valuable time to invent the wheel themselves. Only then can LTELs receive the specialized linguistic support, geared to their unique needs, to make the necessary academic progress.

How do we identify these programs to integrate into core instruction, beginning in the core elementary classroom?

Look for a program with an instructional design that offers three key elements: flexibility, rich grade-level text, and multimedia. Regarding flexibility, it is easier to integrate short segments of instruction into the core elementary classroom, each with a discreet beginning and end point as ongoing routines. Deliver these multiple times during the day, each with a specific focus, rather than implementing one longer lesson.

These routines may look something like this:

Routine 1: Small-group supported reading

Look for an intensive language program that provides 20–30 minutes of time dedicated to small-group, supported reading of high-quality informational and literary texts and media that align to the grade-level content standards. In addition, ensure that the program offers you strategies to unpack these complex literary texts with your LTELs. These texts serve as the wellspring for exposure to and engagement with academic language.

Management Tip: Few things are more powerful than targeted, small-group instruction. A small group really does work best! Sometimes, small groups can be students with a variety of backgrounds and needs, and at other times, they should be homogeneous. Consider pulling together a small group of LTELs who function as a guided reading group. While working with them using your intensive language program that is designed for LTELs, guide this group through the texts and lessons. The rest of your class will be engaged in station rotations, partner work, and independent work, just as they would be during your more traditional guided reading groups. Look for a language program designed with multiple and rich partner and independent work opportunities that LTELs can engage in while you’re working with other groups (i.e. collaborative discussions, short performance tasks, authentic speaking and writing activities).

Routine 2: Short vocabulary segments

Ideally, this program for LTELs also provides short lesson segments on vocabulary—perhaps 10–15 minutes a day. This vocabulary instruction should tie directly back to the academic texts students are reading, and also reinforce the concepts within a unit topic or theme. In this way, LTELs can expand and grow their academic lexicons and conceptual knowledge in both wide and deep ways during the unit.

Management Tip: Most teachers can find 15 minutes per day to pull their LTELs into another small group for targeted vocabulary support. This could be at a time when the rest of the class is engaging in working online, doing independent reading, or completing homework.

Routine 3: Mini-lessons on how English works

Finally, look for a program that provides mini-lessons on understanding how English works. Even with a level of social language proficiency under their belts, our LTELs will still struggle with the grammar, usage, and mechanics of English, especially in the academic register. Explicit instruction for 15 minutes a day, again, already laid out for teachers in a program that ties the lesson back to the texts and media they are studying, will go a long way toward accelerating academic English growth.

Management Tip: Many teachers find that the last few minutes of the day are a good time to discuss the day’s learnings and goals for the next day, and then offer students some quiet time to complete assignments. This is the perfect time to grab those 10–15 minutes for this lesson segment with your LTELs.

For further reference, take a look at a visual model for strategic grouping.

The right program is key.

As challenging as meeting the unique needs of all students is for today’s teachers—and with the added imperative to accelerate the growth of LTELs—teachers can do what they do best if they have the right program in hand. They need a program that is specifically designed to provide high-quality text and media at grade level, along with the rich and varied scaffolding to ensure grade-level access and success. This program should offer systematic instruction that ties together the lesson segments outlined above across listening, speaking, reading, and writing. And it should be organized for flexible implementation with the mission of accelerating academic English. Let’s make these shifts and realize academic growth for our LTELs!

Stay tuned to The Spark for tips to support Long-term English learners in the middle grades.

Dr. Izquierdo presented at our Spring 2017 Lead the Way to Literacy webinar series. Watch her webinar and sign up for our Fall 2017 webinar series.