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English Learner Profile: The Persistent English Learner

According to Fisher, Frey, & Rothenberg, there are four types of English learners:

  1. newcomers who are literate in their first language

  2. newcomers who are not yet literate in any language

  3. students who have been in US schools for several years and are developing English proficiency as expected

  4. long-term English learners with conversational English who have not developed academic language and literacy in any language.

In this series of posts, we go into depth about what these learner profiles mean for planning effective instruction. We unpack each learner profile and offer suggestions for designing effective instruction that builds on multilingual students' strengths and supports their English language and literacy development.

In this post, we discuss our last English Learner profile, the Persistent English Learner!

PROFILE 4: The Persistent English Learner

Developing proficiency in a new language takes time. But when multilingual learners have not tested out of the English language development program within six years, they are considered long-term English learners. Within that time frame, we would expect that a student who has been provided with consistent high-quality language instruction would have developed proficiency in English.

Long-term MLs are the largest subgroup of MLs in secondary schools in the US. This means that those of us who teach at the elementary level have to do more to help our students gain English skills within the expected time frame.

This group of students often have strong conversational English. They may sound fully proficient when talking casually with their friends or teachers. However, they usually have not acquired the academic language and literacy skills that are needed to perform well in school. This can show up in poor reading comprehension, ineffective writing, and limited vocabulary.

Research has shown that multilingual learners who are able to test out of their English language development program have very strong academic outcomes. In fact, former English language learners outperform students who have only ever spoken English. The multilingual brain is truly amazing!

Because our students have such potential, it is critical that we provide the highest-quality instruction early in their education. We want to do everything we can to ensure they develop English proficiency at a reasonable rate and do not become long-term MLs.

Long-term MLs may be Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE). This means they have not had the opportunity to learn in a consistent school setting. SLIFE students may have had their education interrupted for any number of reasons, and some of those reasons may be traumatic. As teachers, we need to be sensitive to the ways a student’s history may affect their attitudes toward learning, comfort level in the classroom, and ability to engage with a curriculum that may feel unrelated to their life outside of school.

SLIFE students may also have significant gaps in the background knowledge that we often assume of students in US schools. However, it’s important to recognize that ALL students possess prior life experiences and assets that they bring to the classroom.

It is critical to acknowledge and tap into this background knowledge as the foundation of new learning. What’s more, when we value students’ prior understandings, we demonstrate that we honor who they are and what they have learned outside of a traditional school setting. Teachers of SLIFE students should be diligent about assessing prior understandings and building knowledge as needed.

Long-term MLs may also have additional learning needs. It can be challenging to determine whether a multilingual student is not performing as expected because they are still learning to speak English, or because they have an undiagnosed learning difficulty. It is important to carefully consider a student’s educational history, compare them with true peers, and examine assessment and progress monitoring data before moving forward with further evaluation.

Tips for supporting the Persistent English Learner:

  • ensure students feel supported, valued, and safe in school

  • offer intervention in language and literacy to accelerate growth

  • provide a language- and literacy-rich classroom with multiple opportunities to engage with content in speaking, listening, reading, and writing

  • engage students in collaboration and discussion with peers

  • draw explicit connections between what is learned in the classroom and what is relevant to students’ own lives

  • affirm and encourage students in continuing to develop their first language

  • be diligent about introducing and reinforcing new vocabulary

  • provide sentence frames to encourage academic language use

  • build background knowledge using content-based teaching and text sets

  • highlight connections within and across the curriculum to build schema


We hope this series has been helpful to you in getting to know your multilingual learners! Remember that these learner profiles can help you anticipate your students' challenges and build on the strengths they bring to your classroom. They can also form a useful frame of reference to figure out if your multilingual students are developing English language and literacy skills at the same pace as others who share the same English Learner profile.

If you missed any of our previous posts in this series, catch up on them here:

The Four Profiles of English Language Learners (and How to Teach Them)

Profile 1: The Literate Newcomer

Profile 2: The Language and Literacy Novice

Profile 3: The Progressing English Learner

What have been your experiences working with Persistent English Learners? What challenges have you encountered, and what successes have you had? Share in the comments below!


Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Rothenberg, C. (2010). Implementing RtI with English learners. Solution Tree. [Amazon]

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