Building Momentum With Long-Term English Learners

These students may appear to be bilingual but still have gaps in incomprehension, and there are ways to keep them moving forward.

Many of us have new-to-English learners who, well, aren’t so new anymore—long-term English learners (LTELs), students who have participated in dedicated English Language Development (ELD) programs for six or more years without exiting. More than a quarter of English language learners become LTELs.

Before unpacking this more carefully, let’s clarify an important shift in terminology: Students who meet the above criteria and who have historically been designated as LTELs are now considered long-term emergent multilingual (LTEMs). This tilts our attention away from a deficit of English-language production and toward the incredible socioeconomic asset that is multilingualism.


Long-term emergent multilingual—a majority of whom were born in the United States—are often overlooked in traditional classroom settings. Many present as socially bilingual—that is, they appear to move with cultural and linguistic fluidity throughout the school day. Yet many experience underlying gaps in language comprehension and application (especially in the domains of reading and writing).

Numerous LTEMs have highly developed basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), which capture essential surface-level communication abilities. Because these students may engage fluently in day-to-day interactions, it’s easy to assume that deeper and more expansive cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) skill sets are equally strong.

Often, though, this isn’t the case. In fact, a high percentage of LTEMs fall into the gray area between high BICS and emergent CALP, and it’s easy for them to go unnoticed. Too frequently, these students miss out on the critical services (or continuation of services) they need to become successful multilingual.


Many newer-to-English learners cruise through the starting and emerging periods of language development and then seem to plateau in the later stages of acquisition. They may even appear to become stuck in the expanding and bridging periods.

In the classroom, this may be apparent in students who do the following:

Struggle to employ language development strategies independently

Demonstrate gaps in one or more language domains (specifically, reading and writing proficiencies are likely to trail speaking and listening)

Experience and/or express frustration at their slowed progress

Moving LTEMs toward language mastery requires getting to know the learner beyond the surface of social bilingualism. This isn’t the time to reduce or eliminate supports—it’s time to adjust them so that they reflect students’ developing language skills and needs. In short, LTEMs must receive targeted language instruction akin to what early emergent multilingual receive—the dynamic just looks and sounds a little different.



What’s the biggest difference between long-term emergent multilingual and exited English-proficient students? LTEMs are dependent upon the teacher; masterful bilinguals and multilingual are dependent upon strategies.

The following three research-supported strategies can help move the needle for long-term emergent multilingual.

Practice speaking in complete sentences: Students will think the way they talk. When students engage with the target language using complete sentences, they’re training their brains to think complete thoughts in that language. This is important, as we see in the next strategy.

Asking students to speak in complete sentences is a seemingly small but super-dynamic move. Even better, it’s easy to implement and doesn’t require any curriculum shifts. Some students may benefit from the continued use of speaking frames. Repeating information back to students in complete sentences creates a natural feedback cycle and increases the number of words a learner is exposed to in a school day.

Example: “I love that idea, Dzimbe! Would you mind repeating that in a complete sentence?” Or: “Thanks, Zahra! Which sentence stem could we use to make your idea shine?” Looking for a resource? Check out 7 Steps to a Language-Rich Interactive Classroom, by John Seidlitz and Bill Perryman.

Facilitate domain transfer: Speaking in complete sentences and thinking in complete thoughts matters because complete-thought thinkers are more equipped to cross over speaking/listening thresholds to become complete-thought writers. This is especially important in the context of LTEMs, who tend to be strong speakers and listeners but also tend to lose steam in the areas of reading and (especially) writing.

Students with a developed command of speaking in complete sentences can carry this skill into other areas, like writing. This is where domain transfer occurs. Very often, domain transfer is the guided push that moves students toward language mastery and exit status. Students use their toolboxes to work through all four language domains (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) in more complex and context-specific ways.

Example: “You did a great job telling me your idea using complete sentences. Try to hold that in your brain as a complete thought. Which organizer or frame will you choose to help you save this idea as a clear piece of writing?”

Remember frequency and context: Students need to hear language multiple times and in multiple contexts. The learning day should include opportunities for students to hear examples of proficient target-language use from the teacher, themselves, their peers, and outside sources (like a television or podcast presenter).

Target-language exposure should also occur in a variety of contexts. Optimally, these experiences build onto and affirm a student’s first language or second and third languages outside of the target language. When LTEMs listen to and interact with the target language in a variety of authentic voices, they’re exposed to more nuanced aspects of language (like culturally influenced cues, historical context, or sarcasm). These subtle insights can be hugely impactful when it comes to growing long-term emergent multilingual.

Example: “Let’s listen to two passages together. In the first passage, a person is applying for a job using sentence fragments. In the second passage, an interviewee is applying for the same job but speaking in complete sentences. Then we’ll discuss in small groups: Which one would you hire? Why?”

Long-term emergent multilingual are often perceived as stuck. But with strategic and intentional moves, forward momentum is not only possible but probable. Wherever they are in the process, keep in mind the superpower that’s already in development. Emergent multilingual (long-term learners too) are already in possession of an incredible asset, cultural and linguistic mobility.

By Louise El Yaafouri