Long-Term English Learner


Long-term English learner (or LTEL) is a formal educational classification given to students who have been enrolled in American schools for more than six years, who are not progressing toward English proficiency, and who are struggling academically due to their limited English skills. States, districts, and schools determine the criteria and student characteristics used to identify long-term English learners, but definitions and classification criteria may vary widely from place to place. Given that these students are typically identified after six or more years of enrollment in formal education, long-term English learners are most commonly enrolled in middle schools and high schools. While some long-term English learners come from immigrant families, the majority are American citizens who have lived most or all of their lives in the United States.

Generally speaking, long-term English learners struggle with reading, writing, and academic language—the oral, written, auditory, and visual language proficiency and understanding required to learn effectively in academic programs—and consequently they have fallen behind their English-speaking peers academically and have accumulated significant learning gaps over the course of their education. While many long-term English learners are bilingual and articulate in English, and many sound like native English speakers, they typically have limited writing and reading skills in both their native language and in English, and their academic-literacy skills in English are not as well developed as their social-language abilities.

The defining characteristic of long-term English learners is that their English-language deficits have grown more severe and consequential over time, which has negatively affected their ability to achieve their full academic potential. Many long-term English learners have also developed habits of social detachment, academic disengagement, or learned passivity, and while many aspire to attend college or pursue professional careers, the students may be unaware that their academic experiences are not adequately preparing them for these aspirations. Long-term English learners are also more likely to be held back or drop out of school.

English-language learners—students who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, who often come from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds, and who typically require specialized or modified instruction in both the English language and in their academic courses—may become long-term English learners for a number of reasons, including the following representative examples:

  • The students may have gone without adequate English-language instruction for an extended period of time due to a family relocation or disruption in their formal schooling. For example, their family may have moved to another country or to a school system that was not equipped to adequately teach and support English-language learners, or the students may have come from a country experiencing political, social, or economic upheavals, which prevented them from attending school for long periods of time.
  • The students may have been enrolled in weak, poorly designed, or ineffective language-development programs that did not improve or accelerate their English proficiency. For example, many schools with small populations of English-language learners do not have the experience, expertise, or resources need to create effective English-language instructional programs.
  • The elementary schools the students attended were not equipped to teach and support English-language learners, which delayed their acquisition of English proficiency, academic language, and the foundational knowledge and skills acquired by their English-speaking peers. For example, many teachers have not received training in the specialized instructional strategies required to teach English-language learners effectively, and some districts and schools do not have the resources needed to hire teachers with expertise in teaching English-language learners.
  • The students may have been misidentified by poorly designed diagnostic assessments or biased tests that led to their enrollment in inappropriate courses and programs. For example, the students may have been enrolled in special-education programs for native English speakers that did not help them develop their English proficiency, or they may have been identified as “struggling readers” rather than English-language learners who require specialized English-language instruction. For a related discussion, see test accommodations.
  • The families of long-term English learners may have been unable to advocate for their children due to cultural or linguistic barriers. For example, some immigrant parents may be unaccustomed to American schools and cultural expectations, and consequently they may not have the confidence or language ability needed to navigate school policies and request specialized services for their children.
  • The students may have experienced social, cultural, and linguistic isolation in school, or some may have experienced overt neglect, bias, or racism. For example, the “outsider status,” cultural exclusion, or sense of alienation that some long-term English learners feel could lead to a disinterest in school or in improving their English-language skills, while school programs and policies may intentionally or unintentionally limit or deny students access to specialized English-language instruction.

For more detailed discussions, including relevant reforms and debates, see academic languagedual-language education, English-language learner, and multicultural education.

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