Long-term English language learners

When I first started teaching in Australia, I had a Korean-Australian student in one of my undergraduate classes who sounded like most of the other students in my class, like a native speaker of Australian-English. The daughter of Korean immigrants, she had been born in Australia but had grown up leading a transnational life with frequent moves back and forth between Australia and Korea. At home she spoke Korean with her family and at school she spoke English. In Australia she had attended mainstream schools in English and when they had been in Korea she didn’t go to school at all or attended international schools with English as the medium of instruction. The perfect way to raise a bilingual child, you might think. I thought so until I saw her first written assignment. Her academic literacy was oddly different from that of all the other students: in comparison to the native speakers (with whom I’d mentally categorized her on the basis of her spoken English), her grammar was shaky, and in comparison to the overseas ESL students her register vacillated between extreme formality and informality, and all shades of style in between. She also had trouble formulating a coherent argument, which is not that uncommon, but which was surprising on the basis of her oral performance.

I’ve since come to recognize bilingual students with high levels of oracy but low levels of (academic) literacy as a distinct subgroup among my students as I encounter one or two of them in almost every class I teach. I was reminded of that bilingual student and all my other students with a similar linguistic profile, when I read Kate Menken and Tatyana Kleyn’s paper about long-term English language learners (LTELLs). According to the authors, LTELLs comprise one-third of the ELL population in high schools in New York City. LTELLs are defined as having attended school in the USA for seven or more years and still requiring language support.

Although […] LTELLs are orally proficient for social purposes in English and their native language, their skills in these languages are several grade levels below in reading and writing, resulting in poor overall academic performance. (p. 403)

Despite the fact that the numbers of LTELLs in NYC schools are substantial, they do not receive any specialized services, and the services they receive are mismatched. For ESL support they are usually placed in the same class as new arrivals with limited or no oral proficiency in English. As a consequence, their ESL support is way below their level, they get bored and they disengage. For Spanish on the other hand (most of the LTELLs Menken & Kleyn interviewed were English-Spanish bilinguals), they are either placed in Spanish-as-a-Foreign-Language classes (too easy again) or in Spanish enrichment classes with new arrivals who have received prior education in Spanish and whose Spanish is much more proficient. In this scenario, too, the LTELLs disengage, this time because the class is far too difficult for them.

Because of their high levels of oral proficiency, these students are often misjudged and their need for reading and writing support is overlooked. However, their low literacy in English results in poor academic performance overall. The high school average of the LTELLs in Menken & Kleyn’s study was a D+, and almost 20% had an F average. Failure breeds failure and many LTELLs drop out of school altogether.

LTELLs develop in a context of subtractive schooling where there is a lack of support for writing development in their home language and a sink-or-swim attitude to English learning. In such a scenario one language “subtracts” from the other and neither develops sufficiently.

As Kimie and I are finalizing the special issue devoted to “Language and Social Inclusion” which we are guest-editing for the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, we’ve been thinking about the many ways in which institutions, including educational institutions, conspire to exclude linguistically diverse populations rather than promoting their inclusion. LTELLs are a case in point: schools fail these students by failing to address their specialized language learning needs. Surely bilingual children deserve better then receiving an education that turns them first into LTELLs, and then poor students, and then drop-outs, and ultimately excludes them permanently from the mainstream.

ResearchBlogging.org Menken, K., & Kleyn, T. (2010). The long-term impact of subtractive schooling in the educational experiences of secondary English language learners International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 13 (4), 399-417 DOI: 10.1080/13670050903370143

About Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Over the course of her international career, she has also held appointments at universities in Germany, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and USA. Ingrid’s research expertise is in Intercultural Communication, the Sociolinguistics of Language Learning and Multilingualism, and Bilingual Education. She is particularly interested in the ways in which linguistic diversity as it arises in the contexts of globalization and migration intersects with social inclusion and global justice.
This entry was posted in: Language learning, gender & identity, Language, migration & social justice and tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11,059 views

10 Responses to Long-term English language learners

  1. Dariush Izadi says:

    Dear Ingrid
    Thanks for pointing that out and introducing the reference in regard to Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.
    I’ve always wanted to know why these types of students lack the necessary technical vocabulary and that they lack the grammatical resources required to express themselves and to discuss the relations such as cause and effect or to develop a basic or sound argument as you’ve mentioned!

  2. Sheila Pham says:

    It’s interesting to think about this sub-set of students, though I think this problem can occur even if children don’t have a transnational life. I grew up with kids like this, who sounded like Australians because they were born and raised in Australia full-time, but somehow their grasp of written English wasn’t what it could be; maybe because they socialised so much with their cultural group and maybe because they didn’t get the right academic support. These students didn’t do well at school so they wouldn’t even get to university. It’s probably true that it’s their spoken fluency that has inadvertently caused them to fall through the cracks. I guess if they sound like everyone else, then teachers would just think that these students weren’t good at writing, rather than recognising that there was a more fundamental problem present.

    • Thanks, Sheila. All the literature out there suggests that the best way to support these students are strong bilingual programs where they can learn how to read and write in both their languages, rather than curtailing development in the home language as main-streaming them too early tends to do. Once they have become LTELLs, many educators now call for setting language and literacy goals in all instructional planning in all content areas (something that seems to benefit not only LTELLs but learners with a wide range of abilities), and, of course, explicit academic literacy support. Menken & Kleyn also suggest adding “Native Language Arts” so that they can develop foundational academic literacy in the other language.

  3. khan says:

    Dear Ingrid

    Very apt post, I must say. I taught English in three private English Medium Schools in Karachi for about ten years. These schools charged exorbitant fee and in return give children an artificial culture where English-only was practiced. This English-only was interested in improving the speaking skills in English and little thought would go to academic writing practices becuase schools leadership knew very well how to please their customers! The result was that though we had many students who were relatively fluent in their spoken English but woud write as they would speak without realising the differences in the medium, register,. organisation of thoughts so on and so forth. Apart from that, I also discovered the fallacy of the ‘native speaker fallacy’ when I began my doctoral studies where I happened to see the academic pieces of my friends ‘ native seakers of English’. Prior to that I would think they would have certain privlidges which I did not have. Great.

  4. Saeed says:

    Hi and Thanks for the good post.

  5. Born and raised in Australia, my nephews, age 12 and 15, sound very Australian, speak Japanese fluently and consider themselves first and foremost as Australian. But they’ve never really developed competence or confidence in academic writing in English. After moving to Thailand last year, one of them started to attend a Japanese cram school for the first time in his life; he wants to attend a university in Japan in the future, for which he needs to improve his writing in Japanese. Though he has only one class per week, I can see that, after only nine months, his academic writing in Japanese is already, definitely superior to that in English! His logical thinking seems to have improved, and so has his confidence in Japanese. He is even more determined to move to Japan in a few years – the power of literacy, indeed.

  6. Pingback: Learning Solution – Online Education » Blog Archive » How Schools Fail Long-Term English-Language Learners

  7. Pingback: College Campus » How Schools Fail Long-Term English-Language Learners

  8. Jean Cho says:

    Something that the HDRO should consider – they waiver English tests for PhD candidates who completed bachelors or postgraduate studies in an English-speaking country. Thanks for your thought-provoking posting (as always)!

  9. Jose says:

    Dear IngridVery apt post, I must say. I taught English in three pravite English Medium Schools in Karachi for about ten years. These schools charged exorbitant fee and in return give children an artificial culture where English-only was practiced. This English-only was interested in improving the speaking skills in English and little thought would go to academic writing practices becuase schools leadership knew very well how to please their customers! The result was that though we had many students who were relatively fluent in their spoken English but woud write as they would speak without realising the differences in the medium, register,. organisation of thoughts so on and so forth. Apart from that, I also discovered the fallacy of the native speaker fallacy’ when I began my doctoral studies where I happened to see the academic pieces of my friends native seakers of English’. Prior to that I would think they would have certain privlidges which I did not have. Great.

Add Comment Register



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current day month ye@r *