A community dialogue exploring issues of concern to ESL educators and students from diverse immigrant communities.
KQED Education offers a wealth of ESL Resources for educators - visit www.kqed.org/esl
The video footage below was taken at Campbell Adult and Community Education (CUHSD) in Campbell, California and highlights the experience of adult English as a Second Language learners. The video was made possible by the ALLIES initiative. This initiative in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties is engaged in forming a multi-sector alliance that brings adult education schools, community colleges, non-profit agencies, businesses, Workforce Investment Boards etc. to support better integration of immigrants and enhance their contribution to the economy through education and training.
The pedagogy of noncredit is quite different from credit. Because students' attendance may be intermittent, teaching requires lot of repetition and "spiraling up," which can be described as repetition with a slight refocus or increase in difficulty each time a teaching point is covered. In ESL, repetition is not a problem - in fact it's a benefit. Language acquisition must involve repetition, and lots of it. All learning, to be clear, involves repetition, but noncredit builds the concept in. Students are not expected to acquire knowledge after one presentation and then reproduce it on a test. How many times would it take you to learn the correct endings of a Spanish verb? Voy, vas, va, vamos, vais, van. Got that? Or would you need to practice it many times in order to add it to your store of knowledge and experience?
Noncredit instruction fits in nicely with what Diane Larsen-Freeman calls Language as a Dynamic System. The adult human brain is not a vessel to be filled with knowledge; it is a living, changing organism which constantly adjusts and readjusts to new experiences and information (well, maybe not in current American politics, but certainly in language acquisition). Another way of describing it is that language learning is not linear. We are trapped into thinking of learning as linear by the time-focused framing of our traditional educational format, which we know as credit in community colleges and elsewhere. But in fact learning happens fitfully, in leaps and bounds, with fallow periods and moments of revelation (Oh, that's how to conjugate that verb!).
Noncredit lends itself to this non-linear reality in learning by allowing students to sip at the cup of knowledge at their own rate. And now that I've used that metaphor, I hasten to add that they are also acquiring experience and "tools" if you will, which they then incorporate into their own dynamic system. Measurements of this type of complex, highly personal and individual progress baffle folks charged with making education "accountable." How do you measure the student who leaves at Literacy and comes back at Level 3? Credit the school for giving him those tools. But not so fast.
Digital technology may well be the darling of the 21st Century, but is it good for your brain? When I ask college students if the onslaught of information affects their brains, or how they learn, there is a digital divide in responses. The 20 year-olds and under grew up connected, yet will admit that focusing on one thing for any length of time is problematic. Wedded to their phones, they glance at them numerous times in class, jump when it jiggles and bolt out of the class to answer it; and as for critical thinking...humm, is it necessary?
Half of my students sleep with their phones, and have separation anxiety at the thought of being disconnected from them. In contrast, students in their late 20s and upward tend not to be connected all the time. They are certainly not connected 24/7, tend to ask questions and generally are more engaged in class. This age group reads both online and printed text. About 80% of the 20 under group didn’t read on or offline. Everyone used social networking.
No one could tell me if being wired all the time takes a toll on the brain or if multitasking hampers attention or interferes with information assimilation. But, I could tell them that research bears out that the brain is, indeed, affected by the constant barrage of technology, and that the brain needs a break; after all, it’s a muscle for thinking, not a machine.
Is there too much technology? There’s no question that technology has yielded stupendous results in our lives, our jobs and communication. But studies continue to show that over-dependence on technology, multitasking and constant connectivity is creating a distracted generation with a short attention span. Studies out of Stanford, MIT and UCSD find growing evidence that multitasking frazzles the brain making it less productive. Heavy multitaskers have trouble paying attention and filtering out irrelevant information. The failure to filter suggests that they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information, according to a 2009 study from Stanford, or in other words their cognitive ability is impaired. While multitaskers think they are accomplishing more, studies show the opposite to be true. Their performance suffers, greatly. The brain is not wired to multitask efficiently and effectively.
Monica came to the US in 2006 from Columbia with a Masters degree in Child Abuse Prevention and years of experience in public health. Originally an ESL student, she spent 5 years working minimum wage jobs until she learned about Upwardly Global and how to rebuild her career.
“El que persevera alcanza”
My father told me this when I was a child: “el que persevera alcanza.” In Colombia, my home, this phrase means that if one has the courage to do something and believes they can do it, they will. From when I was young, I always wanted to help people especially children. I studied dentistry because I wanted to work with children and, in Bogota dentists have the advantage of seeing patients more often than physicians. So, I spent seven years studying at Pontifical Javeriana University to earn my Doctor of Dentistry and Masters in Child Abuse Prevention.
“Helping families was always the goal. I wanted to help people and it didn’t matter the angle. With my education, I designed a program to teach dentists how to diagnose and prevent child abuse.”
I came to the US with years of experience in public health, health education, and clinical practice. I moved here to study English, then met my future husband and decided to stay in the US to be with him. I had no idea getting back into my field would be so hard. When I settled here, back in 2006, my first thought was to go to dental school. But, then you start finding out about all the obstacles – the cost, the years of study, the fact that you have go to University all over again.
If you are an ESL/EFL educator, you must remember the Affective Filter Hypothesis … right? It is one of the five hypotheses about second language acquisition proposed by Stephen Krashen. It refers to a psychological barrier that can hinder or promote progress in learning a second language. The Affective Filter can be raised or lowered as a result of the quality of the learning environment - and low anxiety facilitates success in practicing and learning a second language.
College ESL students experience these barriers all the time even if they cannot exactly identify the causes. At De Anza College’s Listening and Speaking Center (LSC), we try to ensure that ESL students can practice English in a safe environment, where they don’t feel judged based on their “nonstandard” English. Every quarter, about 500 students use the LSC, many coming because their ESL instructors require them to participate in activities outside the classroom. After joining a few workshops and tutoring sessions, they discover that here they can freely express their opinions without being afraid of making mistakes – they feel at home.
Our most popular program is the Conversation and Specialty Workshop program. The workshops cover a variety of topics from idioms and vocabulary to pronunciation and presentation. Whatever the topic, our main goal is to have students speak as much as possible.
Governor Brown's recent proposal to move adult education into the community college sphere was unanimously rejected on March 19th by the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance but the discussion generated is bound to continue. The committee did not disagree with the goal but rather the details of implementation. The Legislative Analysts Office has weighed in on the subject, and practitioners in both arenas - adult education and community college noncredit - are concerned. (See What’s Happening to Adult Education? on ESL Insights)
What is known as adult education in the K-12 system is generally known as noncredit in Community Colleges. In the ESL realm, there have been two separate entities delivering instruction: some districts have adult ESL classes under their local K-12 district, while credit instruction is provided by the community college; in other areas, the community college district provides both credit and noncredit ESL, though not always under the same roof. With recent state budget cuts of education, both delivery systems have suffered, but I would venture to say that adult education under K-12 has suffered more statewide. When faced with budget cuts, K-12 systems logically prioritize adult education lower than elementary or secondary classes.
But what is noncredit?
The first thing to consider about noncredit instruction is that it is fundamentally different from credit. Most of us recognize the credit model of instruction because that's how we were educated. You register for a course, attend classes for a specified time (a semester, a quarter, a trimester), and are assessed at the end on the acquisition of course content. The key framing element is time. You do not get credit if you miss classes, do not submit homework, or do not pass the test. Our K-12 experience was similar. You moved to the next grade (or not) at the end of the school year, not at the point at which you acquired the content and/or skills.
If you grew up in California, the chances are you went to school with someone who would be categorized as Generation 1.5, and the chances are that you wouldn’t be able to pick them out from students who spent their whole lives in the US speaking English. In fact you have probably never heard the term.
Who is Generation 1.5? The term is used to describe students who are neither first nor second generation immigrants - hence, 1.5. They live somewhere between those two traditional terms and have a broad range of characteristics.
Generation 1.5 students could have been born here, but do not speak English at home with their parents. They might have moved to the US some time during the K-12 system from a non-English speaking country, or may have moved here from US territories where they grew up speaking a different first language. Depending on when they moved to the US, Generation 1.5ers may have limited literacy in their first language and also have limited English, especially for academic purposes. Again it depends on their education and cultural background, not to mention their home life.
In the video below, a student talks about how Generation 1.5 students feel lost between two cultures, not really belonging to either of them. (This is a conversation I’ve had in the past with so many Generation 1.5 students and clearly his classmates agree with him, judging by the finger snapping in the background.)
Business and labor leaders are showing support for an immigration reform bill proposed by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators which would affect approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants who already live in the U.S. The reform being discussed includes the “Dream Act” which would create an expedited path to citizenship for young people who were brought to the U.S. as children, if they attend college or serve in the military. It is believed that fixing the immigration system will, among other things, boost the economy by documenting these young people and allowing and encouraging them to attend college and possibly work in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Major companies and organizations like Microsoft, Intel and the National Science Teachers Association, support the plan since there are more jobs than qualified applicants in these areas.
All the talk of educating undocumented immigrants seems to focus on the 65, 000 who graduate from American high schools each year. But what about the adults? Supporters of this immigration reform plan hope it will also offer adults a comprehensive path to citizenship, as well as educational and employment opportunities. The last immigration reform bill, IRCA (The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986), offered legal residency to undocumented immigrants with an option to pursue full citizenship after five years. It also provided billions of dollars for English and citizenship education so that applicants could learn about basic U.S.history and government, and be able to speak, read, and write simple English—all requirements for citizenship.
Imagine yourself in Beijing, or Cairo. You did not finish high school in your home country. You know nothing of the language, and you don't even know the script. You are working full-time, perhaps at two or more jobs. You have a partner and several children, and maybe an elderly relative to care for. You have concerns about health care, childcare, and education for your kids. You go to school at night with 30 to 50 other students to learn the local language, but you miss class frequently because of all these other concerns. How long does it take you to attain college level written and spoken proficiency in the target language?
When people are having a hard time understanding why it takes ESL students some time to acquire the language, I often resort to this guided visualization. Monolingual English speakers usually have the same answer to the question: How long would it take you? Their answer is: Never. I could never do that.
There are number of misunderstandings about ESL and ESL students, but this is probably the most unfair. Immigrants are frequently expected to do things that native speakers would have trouble doing.
There are a couple of other common misunderstandings.
When I tell folks that I teach English as a Second Language, one of the most common responses I get is: "Oh, you must speak a lot of languages to be able to do that." As a matter of fact, many ESL instructors do speak one or more languages besides English, and this has its advantages, but it is tangential to ESL teaching methodology. While bilingual classes at the beginning level exist and are effective, large public ESL programs with diverse student populations usually start at the very beginning - in English. "My first name is... and "My last name is..." have a surprising amount of shelf life, but again, imagine yourself in Beijing. How long would it take you to figure out that Chinese does not put it together quite the same as English? 您貴姓？is not the same as 你叫什麼名字?