December 2013
TESOL HOME Convention Jobs Book Store TESOL Community
Your content here
Mary Soto, California State University Chico, California, USA

There has been a tremendous growth of ELs in U.S. secondary schools in the past decade. Some estimates claim that the numbers of ELs in Grades 6 through 12 in the United States since the year 2000 has more than doubled, to more than 3 million. There is an urgent need to pay attention to these older students as their dropout and retention rates are disproportionately high ( Gándara & Contreras, 2009). Despite recent attention to the needs of these students, the achievement gap between language minority students and native English speakers has not narrowed. Among secondary ELs, educators are especially concerned with the largest group, the long-term English learners (LTELs). This group, consisting of almost 60% of the secondary ELs overall, is often not recognized and is probably the least understood of all ELs (Olson, 2010).

LTELs are those students who have been in U.S. schools for 6 years or more. Findings from a study by Menken, Kleyn and Chae (2012) show “that these students are orally bilingual for social purposes, yet have limited academic literacy skills in English and their native languages” (p. 1). Their oral skills often give educators the false perception that they are more proficient than they really are. LTELs tend to be below grade level in reading and writing and have difficulty in passing standardized tests and exit exams ( Freeman & Freeman, 2009).

Types of Long-term ELs

Menken et al. (2012) identify three main groups of LTELs. These include (1) the vaivén students, (2) those with inconsistent schooling, and (3) the transitioning ELs. Table 1 summarizes these types.

Table 1. Types of Long-Term English Learners


Inconsistent Schooling


Students move back and forth between the United States and their country of origin.


1. School hoppers

2. Programming differences from school to school

3. Inconsistent programs within the same school

4. The absence of EL support altogether

Students have developed native language literacy in their country of origin and are in the process of learning English.

Note: From Menken, Kleyn, & Chase, 2012.


These LTELs move back and forth between the United States and their country of origin. Translated from Spanish, they va (go) and ven (come). In fact, the majority of U.S.-born LTELs have moved back and forth to their family’s country of origin for sustained periods of time throughout their educational careers. The frequent moving makes academic success difficult for these students because they do not experience any consistency in their schooling.

Inconsistent Schooling

This group has experienced inconsistent schooling in the United States and includes four subcategories:

  • School hoppers. School hoppers are students who have attended multiple schools over time. Because these students have attended different schools, they experience inconsistent programming.
  • Programming differences from school to school. These students experience programming differences in the elementary, middle, and high schools they attend. Because schools have different language policies, many LTELs begin with one type of program in elementary school and then switch to another when they move to middle school. For example, an EL might be in a bilingual education program in early grades and then move to a school where ELs are pulled out of regular instruction for support.
  • Inconsistent programs within the same school.This can be due to shifts in their school’s language policy, changes in administration, or uneven implementation of policies and practices in classrooms. For example, a school might have a transitional program one year and then a bilingual program another. Teachers in a one bilingual program might use the first language to support content learning and in another rarely use the first language at all.
  • The absence of EL support altogether. Most of these students receive English-only programming in mainstream classrooms with no support for their language development.

Transitioning Students.

These students are usually the most successful of the LTELs. Transitional LTELs have developed language literacy in their native language and are in the process of learning English. As a group, transitioning students are higher performing than other LTELs because they come with prior schooling. These students can build on their prior education and transfer the knowledge they have. These students do need additional time to develop sufficient English proficiency to pass state requirements and exit EL status, but they generally succeed in school in the long run.

A Teacher’s Study of LTELs

As a high school teacher with many ELs in my classrooms, I noticed that my newcomers with adequate formal schooling were able to succeed with time, but other ELs who had been in U.S. schools for years were failing, and many were dropping out. I found that the LTELs I was working with often fit into several of the categories described by Menken and her colleagues. Their past schooling was inconsistent and they had often moved back and forth between their native Mexico and the United States. In class, these students were disengaged and discouraged. I wanted to find ways to help these students engage in reading and writing and develop academic language. My goal was to help them feel successful in school.

I read the literature that suggested key strategies for working for ELs. I chose five pedagogical structures often discussed, including teacher modeling, guided discussion, group work, and partner work. The fifth pedagogical structure I looked at was independent work, because that approach is often used in secondary classrooms. I enlisted the support of a coteacher who became my collaborator in the research. We planned lessons together, she taught the lessons, and I observed the lessons in her 10th grade language arts classroom (Soto, 2011).

For our unit of inquiry, we chose as a major theme “The Individual.” We wanted to have the opportunity to expose the students to the idea that they as individuals have the power to make a positive difference in the world. We chose a novel, The Hunger Games (Collins, 2008), which tells the story of a teenage girl who fights against a corrupt government. We created activities that related to the different chapters of the book. We worked together teaching literature units using teacher modeling, guided discussion, group work, partner work, and independent work. I then looked in depth at six LTELs in my colleague’s class, interviewing them, reviewing their work, and observing them as they participated in different activities. I wanted to find out how the students perceived the different pedagogical structures, how their work reflected the support of the pedagogical structures, and how helpful to the LTELs in my study each of these structures was.

As I interviewed students, I collected statements such as the following:

“I didn’t understand what to do. I was confused and my partner was not even paying attention so I just put whatever.”

“My partner didn’t know how to do it and I didn’t really understand the tone words we had to pick from.”

“The group work didn’t really help because a lot of people in the group were not really trying.”

I collected and analyzed a great deal of data during my observations of the six students for 21 lessons. The data included the students’ essays, essay outlines, reviews, responses to short stories and novels, and projects. I also categorized their responses to interviews from each lesson and made observational notes. From all of this data, I was able to draw certain conclusions:

  1. Teacher modeling is effective when teachers involve students and when students understand both what to do and how to do it.
  2. Guided discussions help students get ideas from classmates and review key concepts.
  3. Group work is only effective when there is positive group interdependence.
  4. Partner work is only effective when both students understand a task.
  5. Independent work should only be assigned when students are well prepared.

What was perhaps the most important overall conclusion from the study was that LTELs can benefit from use of different pedagogical structures, but only when teachers provide extra support and give them enough time. The students were able to demonstrate that they have learned academic concepts and vocabulary when teacher modeling was followed by teacher monitoring of students working in groups, pairs, or independently. Group and partner work was only productive when the teacher’s instructions were clear and students in the groups were prepared. Although students were often able to explain concepts and academic vocabulary orally, they were often not able to complete written assignments. Therefore, alternative assessments to traditional essays and tests should be included, such as having students create illustrated posters or illustrated dictionaries.

In literacy, educators are often encouraged to implement a gradual release model of teaching in which teachers gradually move students from pedagogical structures that include considerable teacher support to student independence. For LTELs, teachers should make the gradual release model as gradual as necessary to meet their needs (Soto, 2011).


Collins, Suzanne. (2008). The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press.

Freeman, D., & Freeman, Y. (2009). Academic language for English language learners and struggling readers: How to help students succeed across content areas. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gándara, P., & Contreras, F. (2009). The Latino education crisis: The consequences of failed social policies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Menken, K., Kleyn, T., & Chae, N. (2012). Spotlight on “long-term English language learners”: Characteristics and prior schooling experiences of an invisible population. International Multilingual Research Journal, 6, 121–142.

Olson, L. (2010). Reparable harm: Fulfilling the unkept promise of educational opportunity for long-term English learners. Long Beach, CA: Californians Together.

Soto, Mary. (2011). The Effects of Teaching the Academic Language of Language Arts to Secondary Long-Term English Learners. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation), The University of Texas at Brownsville, Brownsville, TX.

Mary Soto is a lecturer for the center of bilingual, multicultural studies at California State University Chico. She has taught English to high school English learners in California, Guadalajara, Mexico, and Texas for the past 17 years. Her research interests center on effective practices for English learners.

« Previous Newsletter Home Print Article Next »
In This Issue
Search Back Issues
Forward to a Friend
Print Issue
RSS Feed
What is the biggest challenge in implementing the CCSS (Common Core State Standards)?
Teacher Preparation/ Professional Development
STEM and/ or Academic Language
Administrative Support

Submit to Secondary Accents!
Submissions for our next newsletter are due by June 1st. For submission guidelines, please see “Secondary Accents Seeks Submissions.”
Join TESOL in Portland!
Join TESOL in Portland March 26th through March 29th for its annual International Convention & English Language Expo. This year explores “ELT for the Next Generation.” Early registration ends February 3rd.
Peacebuilding for Language Learners
Join an experiential, engaging community and discover how you can be a peacebuilder and involve your students in the peacebuilding process. This TESOL EVO session will take place online January 13th- February 16th. Interested participants can peruse the session's syllabus and goals, as well as sign-up for free at:
2014 Peacebuilding for Language Learners.