5 Ways to Serve Your Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE)

Have you noticed any changes to your multilingual learner (ML) population in recent years? As educators of MLs, we are aware that world events often have an impact on our newly arrived MLs’ lived experiences. In this point in time in which immigrants and MLs are often the topic of conversation among policymakers, it is important to consider the strengths and challenges that a small but significant subgroup of MLs brings. Students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) are a group of MLs whose presence can have a profound impact on schools and educators. 

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This post will provide you with a definition of SLIFE, share some statistics on SLIFE, and highlight five ways to serve your SLIFE’s. It will briefly detail some considerations for SLIFE instruction, families, and programming. It will end with information on our online SLIFE course at SupportEd as well as some resources for further information on SLIFE.

SLIFE Definition and Challenges

SLIFE are students with limited or interrupted formal education. Certain states and districts have their own unique definition of SLIFE, but generally these students come from a home in which a language other than English is spoken, have gaps in their education from their home country, and are below grade level in reading and mathematics. They may have attended school in the U.S. but can still be behind in language and literacy due to ineffective instruction. They generally have little or no home language literacy, are at risk for dropping out of school, and need support beyond traditional English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs. In addition to academic needs, SLIFE may also have social-emotional challenges stemming from involuntary migration, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), family separation and/or reunification, poverty, and/or poor health.

A Look at the Numbers

Even though SLIFE represent a relatively small proportion of MLs, estimated to be between 10% and 20% of MLs (Advocates for Children of New York, 2010; de Velazco & Fix, 2000), their challenges can overwhelm districts, administrators, and teachers. Certain school districts that we have worked with have seen a dramatic increase in the number and percentage of SLIFE they are enrolling with few resources available. When a school or district experiences an unexpected rise in SLIFE students, they may not have policies and practices in place to address SLIFE’s unique social emotional and academic needs that often extend beyond the support MLs’ need to acquire English.

1. Frame Your Work Around SLIFE’s Strengths

Instead of focusing solely on the challenges that SLIFE bring, we always are intentional about framing our work with SLIFE and their educators around SLIFE’s many strengths. Some strengths that SLIFE tend to bring to their education include resiliency, problem solving skills, cultural pride, strong family ties, motivation, and sense of community. In addition, SLIFE’s “funds of knowledge,” or “the skills and knowledge that have been historically and culturally developed to enable an individual or household to function within a given culture” (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992), can be a helpful place to begin once teachers identify these funds.

2. Use the Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm (MALP)

The Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm (MALP) can provide a useful frame of reference for the instruction of SLIFE. Many SLIFE need immediate relevance and interconnectedness in order to learn. Over time, the MALP framework combines processes so that SLIFE can be successful in U.S. Schools. The framework starts with shared responsibility and introduces features of U.S. school culture such as individual accountability and written word as a means of transmitting information. The model progresses to focus on new activities with familiar language and content to develop skills to complete academic tasks (DeCapua & Marshall, 2023; DeCapua, Marshall & Tang, 2020). Some other considerations for instructing SLIFE include building upon students’ home languages and oracy as well as carefully choosing and adapting instructional materials.

3. Support SLIFE Families

We should also consider families of SLIFE, who would like to deeply support their children’s education but may need some extra assistance to do so. Schools and districts should discuss providing additional support services for SLIFE families, such as after-school tutoring, trauma support, language classes for adults, and cultural liaisons so that their children can be successful in school.

4. Utilize Effective Programming

There are many aspects of effective programming to consider. These include identification of SLIFE, enrollment process and materials, and program models. When identifying and enrolling SLIFE in districts, districts should have a clear identification process, consider providing an oral interview in the home language to determine students’ backgrounds, and provide literacy and math assessments in the home language (New York State Department of Education, 2011). In terms of effective programs, small classes should be provided for SLIFE with support for both academic as well as social emotional growth, an intensive skills focus, and appropriately scaffolded instructional strategies. Many models for SLIFE exist, including newcomer programs, stand-alone models, integrated ESOL models, and extended learning opportunities (Custodio & O’Loughlin, 2017).

5. Take Continued Learning Courses

Stay current with SLIFE strategies and take our SLIFE online course. Our interactive asynchronous SLIFE course was developed by a team of experts at SupportEd. In this course, you will be able to meet the following objectives: 

  • Apply understanding of the strengths and challenges of specific SLIFE populations to advocate for SLIFE in your context 
  • Use strategies for supporting and engaging SLIFE and their families 
  • Develop SLIFE-specific lessons and activities by applying a framework for the effective instruction of SLIFE 
  • Set goals for using best practices to facilitate an instructional program and school climate that incorporates the academic, social, emotional, and cultural needs of SLIFE in your context 

Participants will receive 12 hours of professional development upon completion. You can get started and save their seat for our online SLIFE course here. For more information, please email 

When we fully understand what experiences SLIFE bring to their schools, we are better equipped to provide appropriate resources for SLIFE and their families, improving their chances for academic and personal growth. We look forward to working with you to fill your toolbox with useful strategies for supporting SLIFE and to build a network of support.


SLIFE Resources

Custodio, B., & O’Loughin, J. (2017). Students with interrupted formal education: Bridging where they are and what they need. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. 

Custodio, B., & O’Loughin, J. (2020, Spring). Students with interrupted formal education: Understanding who they are. American Educator.

DeCapua A. & Marshall, H.W. (2023). Breaking new ground for SLIFE: The Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm, 2nd ed. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press ELT. 

DeCapua, A., Smathers,W., & Tang,L. (2020). Meeting the needs of students with limited or interrupted schooling (2nd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press ELT. 

Keppler, L., Morales, L., Cortada, J., Austin, M. (2015). WIDA Focus On SLIFE: Students with interrupted or limited formal education. Retrieved from

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, XXXI, 2, 132-141. 

Bridges to Academic Success (2019). SIFE Manual. New York State Education Department.

Robertson, K.  & Lafond, S. (2012). How to support ELL students with interrupted formal education (SIFEs) [blog post]. Retrieved from

About SupportEd

SupportEd, LLC is a woman-owned small business based in Fairfax, VA specializing in Multilingual Learners (MLs). Founded in 2011 by Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, best-selling author and ML expert, SupportEd meticulously crafts customized solutions to fit each client’s strengths, needs, and provides teachers and administrators the practical tools necessary to champion MLs’ success within and beyond the classroom. All SupportEd team members have prior experience in the classroom which enables the SupportEd team to provide realistic, actionable solutions. Services include online and in-person immersive professional development workshops, easy-to-implement tools and resources, and an array of supporting services. Visit or call (202) 660-1444 to learn more.