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How to Help Long-Term English-Learners Progress (Opinion)

by Staff

Tan Huynh and Beth Skelton have agreed to answer a few questions about their new book, Long Term Success For Experienced Multilinguals.

Tan Huynh is an international educator who serves multilingual students and advocates for them through his blog, courses, podcast, and presentations.

Beth Skelton is a presenter, coach, and consultant who works with educators around the world to support multilingual learners.

LF: First off, can you explain who long-term English-language learners (LTELLs) are and why you use the term “experienced multilinguals” in your book?

People tend to associate the “10,000 hour” concept to people who have invested years of dedication and sacrifice to mastering a skill. Yet, when someone takes a long time to gain full fluency in a language, the association is more negative. Sadly, this is the way students who are labeled as long-term English-learners (LTEL) have been described.

The term has been used for the past couple of decades to describe multilingual learners who have been studying in English for six or more years but are still classified as “English-learners.” In order to be reclassified as “fully English proficient” , students have to meet several different criteria depending on which state they live in. They usually need to reach a specific score on an English-language-proficiency test, particular scores on a state academic-achievement test, and, in some states, they also have to earn certain grades in core-content classes.

Due to these additional requirements, students who are currently classified as LTEL have a huge, inequitable burden of proof to be reclassified as “fully English proficient.” With the need to meet so many requirements for reclassification as English proficient, it is no surprise that so many middle and high school students remain classified as English-learners. Unfortunately, these students are often viewed as struggling learners, but we know they are diverse and dynamic individuals.

Because the LTEL label itself indicates these students are taking longer than their peers to achieve English proficiency, a series of undeserving, deficit-based characteristics such as “unmotivated,” “struggling reader,” and “disengaged” often come attached to the label. When teachers perceive these students through this deficit lens, they may not have high expectations for them.

In order to focus on these students’ assets, we are choosing to refer to them as experienced multilinguals. This assets-based term highlights the fact that these middle and high school students have gained valuable life experiences and that they already speak at least one other language that can be used to help understand content and express their ideas. We hope to shift teachers’ perceptions and focus the attention on the assets these students bring to the classroom, rather than focusing on perceived deficits.

What are three specific needs of LTELLs/experienced multilinguals and how do you recommend educators respond to them?

There are certainly many needs schools need to address in order for experienced multilinguals to be successful. Some of these are a need for relevant curriculum connected to their lives, the need for explicit academic-language instruction, and the need to effectively use learning strategies independently.

Experienced multilinguals need to see a connection between the curriculum and their rich lives. Unfortunately, they may not always see themselves reflected in the curriculum and therefore believe that the courses are not meant for them. When educators understand the dynamic identities of experienced multilinguals, they can connect their curriculum to their students’ lives. Finding ways to get to know students personally is one way teachers can begin to make these connections.

We are inspired by secondary teachers who have nurtured relationships with their 100-plus students. They make time during lunch for informal chats, read and respond to journal entries, and give quick surveys to gain the necessary insights to connect the curriculum to their students’ background. When I (Beth) taught high school experienced multilinguals, I discovered during an interactive warm-up activity that one of my Japanese students was a passionate baseball player. After that, I intentionally made baseball analogies connecting to other class content and created a sports unit to give him the opportunity to research different aspects of the sport for a class presentation designed to develop his academic-English skills. Making these connections made my lessons more comprehensible, relevant, and engaging.

Experienced multilinguals also need support to bridge between their generally proficient use of social language and the expected use of discipline-specific, academic English in content classes. Because experienced multilinguals are often quite fluent when interacting socially with their peers and teachers, some educators may misinterpret their ability to succeed in content classes. These students still need explicit attention to academic language in every content class.

Jose, a middle school experienced multilingual, faced this challenge every day. He understood the content in his classes, but when he had to write a lab report or argue a position in social studies, he struggled to sound like a scientist or historian. In one lab report, he wrote each section as a personal narrative—“First, I put it in the bowl”—rather than using the discourse expected for each section of the report. When his science teacher noticed that Jose and many other students needed more support, she explicitly taught the language expected in each section of the report and provided support to help them meet the expectations.

Experienced multilinguals are capable of learning independently when they know how to use effective learning strategies, a necessity for long-term success. We encourage teachers to explicitly teach students learning strategies such as different forms of note-taking, summarizing, asking clarifying questions, and collaborating with peers.

When Marisol’s 9th grade English teacher required her to read a chapter in the novel as homework, she tried many strategies to comprehend the text. She read slowly, reread parts of the chapter, and even looked up some unknown words, but she still didn’t understand. She needed direct, explicit instruction in how to comprehend complex text. When her teacher modeled how to collaborate with a partner to make visual notes at the end of each passage in the text, Marisol gained a strategy she could use across all content areas. Explicitly teaching learning strategies creates the conditions for long-term success for experienced multilinguals.


In the book, you discuss “engineering exams” and “text engineering.” Can you explain what that looks like in practice and why teachers should do it?

Engineering exams and texts provides linguistic support so that the exams assess the content taught in class, not reading and writing ability. Engineering exams make instruction more equitable for multilingual learners. Take, for example, this exam sentence on a grade 9 science test: Summarize a factor other than A and B that can affect the rate of cellular respiration. Applying engineering techniques to this exam question, it would read as: Summarize a factor (a reason) that can affect (change) the rate (speed) of cellular respiration. This factor cannot be Factor A and B.

The intent and the challenge of the question remains the same. However, it now has synonyms behind potentially unfamiliar words to make the sentence more comprehensible. The sentence is also broken up into two to highlight that the answer cannot be Factor A or B. Doing this guides students’ thinking about the more appropriate response. When we engineer exams this way, experienced multilinguals are more likely to comprehend the instructions and are able to demonstrate their full mastery.

You emphasize the importance of “scaffolds.” Can you define what you mean by that term, what are the three easiest ones for teachers to implement, and why it’s important that they do?

A scaffold helps students complete a task that they would otherwise not be able to do independently. A scaffold is the embodiment of equitable learning as it keeps the rigor high while providing ways to reach the top level. Not all experienced multilinguals need the same scaffold, but when they don’t receive the scaffold they deserve, this leads to inequitable learning.

Scaffolds can fall into five groups: background, sensory, interactive, graphic, and linguistic. Each type of scaffold supports students in different ways and for different purposes. For example, in addition to providing a definition of a plateau, we provide an image of one. Better yet, the image of the plateau can be annotated to make visible the language we use to describe it.

If we were to have students compare the difference between a mountain and a plateau, we would use linguistic scaffolding to structure students’ writing. The linguistic scaffold might be a sentence frame to help students structure their response. It might be: A distinguishing feature of a mountain is … while a plateau has … Notice how the sentence frame does not provide the answers for students. It simply makes their answers more aligned to the task. In this way, linguistic scaffolds are examples of educational equity.


Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?

Minting a new term but acting in the same way does not produce equitable conditions. This new term is a reaffirmed commitment to guide learning through students’ assets. Experienced multilinguals are capable of excelling in grade-level courses and thriving outside of school. With intentional scaffolding and linguistic supports, these students can reach their full potential. Through the collective efforts of all teachers in the school, experienced multilinguals will have long-term success.

LF: Thanks, Tan and Beth!

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