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6 Strategies to Engage Long-Term English Learners

4 Min Read
WF1402210 Shaped Long Term English Learners HERO 1

What are Long-Term English Learners?

Long-term English learners (LTELs) are defined as students who have been in a U.S. classroom for more than six years but have not yet acquired the academic language skills necessary to flourish in content classes. They often appear fluent in social English but typically have insufficient vocabulary and syntactic knowledge to independently complete grade-level literacy assignments and have poorer academic performance compared with their peers.

Whether you have one LTEL student in your class or hundreds throughout the day, you know planning effective instruction requires much more than an interesting curriculum and classroom management.

Strategies to Support LTEL Students in the Classroom

Since LTELs are at high risk for disengaging from school, it’s imperative to thoughtfully plan instruction. Thankfully, there are tangible ways to support them in the classroom that will also benefit all learners.

1. Talk to the Student

No two LTEL students are alike. Get to know them and their perspective on education. What are their aspirations? What’s their view of their academic progress? How are they supported at home? Do they take advantage of all the available supports at school? If students aren’t addressed individually, they may not understand their class placement, their results on language assessments, or how their academic performance could impact their next steps.

Since LTELs are at high risk for disengaging from school, it’s imperative to thoughtfully plan instruction.

2. Establish and Utilize Consistent Teaching Routines

The plethora of classroom expectations and instructional practices throughout the school day often leaves students confused and overwhelmed. After a tumultuous year in education, many standard practices may have changed or been forgotten.

By creating and maintaining consistent routines, teachers remove a cognitive and emotional barrier so students can focus on internalizing the new content, concepts, and language. Whether you’re evaluating the routines in your own classroom or designing a standard of practice across a team or school, all students will benefit from knowing exactly what to expect and how to participate every single time. An opening routine or warm-up exercise establishes the tone at the beginning, while step-by-step partner and group work routines keep learners on task and accountable for their learning throughout the lesson.

3. Provide and Analyze Models of Academic Language

LTELs need explicit instruction in academic language. Yet simply reading more or discussing an idea doesn’t provide sufficient practice in academic language because many literary texts or natural peer interactions use more social English. Students need specific examples of academic terms and phrases modeled in the teacher’s speech, posted on the wall, in their notes, and as models for upcoming writing tasks.

Furthermore, LTELs need regular chances to analyze and discuss the elements of academic writing and speaking as they prepare to complete future assignments and assessments. Digital annotation tools for highlighting, underlining, and note-taking are one way to draw students’ attention to elements in a model piece of writing.

4. Teach Language Forms and Functions

Long-term ELLs need designated time in their schedule for explicit language instruction, with the goal being that they can transfer the language skills into their work in other classes. When they don’t receive explicit syntax instruction, they develop gaps in knowledge that prevent them from competently participating in academic discourse.

Response frames and word banks help teachers model academic vocabulary in context and point out linguistic features found in academic language. Then, students can participate in guided practice and create their own accurate response.

5. Activate and Build Background Knowledge Alongside Vocabulary

Tapping into students’ prior knowledge and having high expectations for all students are important. Since LTELs may not have the necessary topic-specific academic vocabulary to participate in grade-level tasks on a given topic, vocabulary instruction needs to happen as a part of building background knowledge.

Whether in a language class or a content class, it is important to routinely check in with students about their knowledge of new words. Have they seen those words before? Can they use them in a sentence? Then, teachers can explain the meaning and provide examples before diving into the text. The goal is that when students encounter the word later, they will be able to engage in fluent reading and grade-level discourse.

6. Structure Peer Interactions

Now that students have the vocabulary and response frames to share ideas, they should be held to high expectations to use them. LTEL students need the practice of using academic language, including during partner and group work. As Dr. Kate Kinsella outlines here, clearly explaining and modeling the language target, monitoring group work, and giving immediate feedback ensures that students have access to as much practice as possible.

Since these practices can benefit learners at any level, educators can use them in any class to meet the needs of all students. As you prepare for next school year, these strategies for engaging long-term English learners are a great place to start.


Accelerate students' academic English language development through culturally responsive instruction, relevant topics and texts, and structured peer interactions with English 3D for Grades 412.

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