4 ways to get long-term English learners back on track

A guest post by Douglas Chrystall 

Districts around the country are struggling to teach English language learners (ELLs). An especially challenging subset of ELLs are long-term English learners (LTELs). According to ASCD, “a Long-Term English Learner is a student who has been enrolled in U.S. schools for more than six years, is no longer progressing towards English proficiency, and is struggling academically.” These students are often orally bilingual but don’t have the ability to read or write English for academic purposes. In school they try to fly under the radar, faking understanding whenever they can. This makes them the least engaged students in class—and because they perform below grade level in reading and writing, they struggle in all subjects.

In turn, their lack of academic English hurts their overall performance at school. LTELs are most at risk of dropping out. Students who drop out of school early are most likely to get into trouble with the law and find themselves in juvenile detention when they are younger than 18—and in prison when adults. Unless we help these students learn academic English, they are stuck in a vicious cycle that becomes more and more difficult to escape.

As an example of how limiting it is to not speak English in America, a 2005 census report found that 60% of people who don’t speak, understand, and write English at a fourth-grade level will not find full-time employment. And those who do find full-time work will earn, on average, half as much as their English-speaking counterparts.

As any doctor will tell you, prevention is better than cure. A dollar spent on a student today is $20 saved in ten years’ time. While learning English won’t solve all of the challenges facing today’s LTELs, it will certainly help them on their way. Here are a handful ways that educators can help these students improve their chances of learning English, staying in school, and eventually finding good jobs.

Start early. Students who gain a grasp of academic English in elementary school have a much better chance at succeeding in the classroom. Those who start later in life are much more likely to become classified as LTELs.

 Keep LTELs (and other ELL students) in mainstream classes. Rather than isolating these students—who, as I mentioned before, already have a tendency to be quiet and withdrawn—keep them in classes with their wider peer group in two ways.

First, teachers should make a point of engaging these students in class so they get as much experience as possible speaking academic English. Second, schools should provide them supports they can use outside of class time to accelerate their English learning. Lessons that use video and sound can help “jumpstart” a student who might be stuck at a certain level.

 Use students’ knowledge of their native languages to strengthen their English. Bilingual students can help teach their native language to others. For example, a teacher could explain a concept in English and then ask a bilingual student to teach the same concept to the class in his or her native language. Not only does the bilingual student get the experience of translating, but the other students get to hear from a native speaker.

The language-teaching platform Lingo Jingo also uses this “bilingual” approach to help LTELs practice their English. They can learn new topics in their native language and then learn the same content in English. This method improves students’ understanding of new concepts as well as the academic language they’ll need to continue through high school and beyond.

 Track performance and act on the information collected. For students who are at risk of “falling through the cracks,” a little bit of data can go a long way. For example, knowing which learning activities students have accessed; how much time they spent on an activity; how many times they repeated each activity; and what key words, phrases, or concepts students have mastered can help teachers see exactly where students are succeeding and where they might need more help.


Douglas Chrystall is the co-founder of Lingo Jingo, an award-winning language-teaching platform designed for language educators. Under his leadership, the company recently received a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the Institute of Education Sciences and the U.S. Department of Education. Douglas has worked in the software industry for more than 20 years, and is the author of several technology patents in use today. He is extremely passionate about how IT can improve educational outcomes, and works closely with local schools on the best use of technology.


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