Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Smooth Transition: A model for serving ESL students

By Kamilah Cummings

The linguistic diversity of our classrooms continues to increase. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans who speak a language other than English at home has increased 140 percent over the last three decades (Shinand and Kominski). While this linguistic diversity can bring with it a host of cross-cultural benefits, it is not without its challenges for ESL students and faculty. Because of the varied levels of language proficiency that English Language Learners (ELLs) bring with them to mainstream classrooms, schools must develop practices that best meet the needs of the growing ELL student population. One school that has attempted to address the specific needs of ELLs is Miami Dade College (MDC). Although MDC focused on ESL students at a two-year community college, their research can be used to help faculty across disciplines better serve ELLs at all levels. It revealed that there are things that faculty can immediately implement in our own classrooms to improve the learning experience for ESL students. 

From 2008 to 2012, MDC developed an accelerated content-based English for Academic Purposes Program (EAP) called ACE to better prepare its ESL students for a successful transition to mainstream general education courses at the college. The faculty-lead development team at MDC took a content-based and corpus-informed approach to develop the curriculum for the program, which is intended for intermediate- and advanced-level ESL students. Through analysis of faculty surveys and spoken and written language corpora, the team conducted research (Hernandez, Thomas and Schuemann 44). The development team used its research findings to design a curriculum that drew from the most commonly used academic tasks in general education courses at MDC. 

One essential academic task that the team identified was listening (Hernandez, Thomas and Schuemann 47). As simple a task as listening might appear, their research found that complex listening situations like participating in a quick-paced group discussion can be difficult for ELLs, especially if the subject matter is controversial or culturally bound (Hernandez, Thomas and Schuemann 47-48). Hernandez, Thomas, and Schuemann state that listening and reading are the “most required” language abilities for acquiring new information, and students demonstrate this acquisition through speaking and writing (48). However, this too can be difficult for ELLs in mainstream classes because academic language proficiency develops slower than social language proficiency (de Jong and Harper 104). Knowing this can help faculty design group discussions that take into account possible challenges that ELLs might face when participating. 

The corpus research offered more helpful information. The development team consulted two corpus linguistic experts from Georgia State University to analyze class lectures and written course materials, including assigned textbook readings. The written language corpus revealed that students who were enrolled in four courses were expected to read more than 700,000 words in a semester, which included the recycling of nearly 30,000 different words (Hernandez, Thomas and Schuemann 46). When one considers that research has shown that most advanced ESL students have vocabularies of 5,000 words or less (Hernandez, Thomas and Schuemann 46), it is easy to see how frustration can set in for these students. Limited vocabulary presents challenges for ELLs in understanding content and expressing ideas. 

The oral language corpus research found that during lectures faculty often employed rhetorical questioning by asking and answering their own questions. This practice can present challenges for ELLs because it does not align with the teaching model of ESL classes. Additionally, the conversational style used in many general education courses did not align with the academic style used in ESL classrooms. This research also revealed that faculty did not vary their conversational speed or vocabulary to increase accessibility for ELLs. Finally, the findings showed that faculty tended to make cultural references that were confusing for ELLs (Hernandez, Thomas and Schuemann 47). Teachers in linguistically diverse classrooms are often unaware of the impact that their conversational style, cultural allusions, and vocal modulations (or lack thereof) might have on ELLs. Adjustments in these areas can make class discussions more beneficial for ELLs.

The team also used the research to identify some implications for teaching English for Academic Purposes.  One noteworthy implication for faculty was that ELLs do not tend to self-advocate. Therefore, they need to be taught to seek assistance when they need it. This includes seeking help from a tutor or even asking assignment-related questions. A second important implication was that ELLs need to participate in small and large group discussions. Hernandez, Thomas and Schuemann state that because listening and reading are integral to content-based learning, ELLs need practice developing their oral language skills, which will, in turn, translate into improved reading and writing skills (Hernandez, Thomas and Schuemann 48). In addition to improving listening and oral language skills, participating in group discussions can assist ELLs in developing vital critical thinking skills. 

Another implication worth noting is that ESL students have varied perceptions of plagiarism. The development team suggested that faculty incorporate activities such as analysis of real-life examples of plagiarism or role plays that mimic plagiarism disputes to help ESL students better understand plagiarism. The final noteworthy implication was that ESL students are largely unfamiliar with the reflective paper. Yet, the research found that the reflective paper was the most common writing assignment across all the disciplines studied at MDC. The reflection paper is considered a new type of writing assignment for ELLs because they are usually taught to write based on rhetorical modes in ESL writing classes (Hernandez, Thomas and Schuemann 49-50). Therefore, if faculty assign this type of paper, they cannot take for granted that ELLs will understand the assignment.

The takeaways from MDC’s research findings and subsequent curriculum design for the ACE program are significant. If anything, they challenge faculty across disciplines to consider in what ways their teaching styles might help or hinder the ELLs in their classes. MDC’s ACE Program demonstrates that the more we know about the needs of ELLs, the better we can serve these students in our own classrooms. Unlike many schools, ESL students at SNL are not segregated into ESL classes. Therefore, by increasing our awareness of the challenges that these students face and implementing changes where we can, we will better position ourselves to assist them in achieving their academic goals.

Works Cited

de Jong , Ester J. and Candace A Harper. "Preparing Mainstream Teachers for English-Language Learners: Is Being a Good Teacher Good Enough?" Teacher Education Quarterly 32.2 (2005): 101-124.

Hernandez, Kelly, Michelle Thomas and Cynthia Schuemann. "Navigating Uncharted Waters: An Accelerated Content-Based English for Academic Purposes Program." Teaching English in the Two-Year College 40.1 (2012): 44-56.

Shinand, Hyon B and Robert A Kominski. "Language Use in the United States: 2007." 2010.

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