Wednesday, March 21, 2007

My mind is still racing. More thoughts about ESOL vs. content courses . . .

First, I want to thank anonymous, Liz Flynn, and Dave Williams for responding to my last post. I found your insights and anecdotes enlightening. Let me just quote each briefly. Anonymous wrote, "ESL classes should foster language skills, not delay attainment of goals and dreams." Flynn wrote that she advises students who are transitioning differently depending on "his/her skills and the major being considered." Williams wrote about LVN students who are non-native speakers, "Would all of these students benefit from a higher mastery of the English language? Almost certainly, but the fact is they still achieve success without it." Check out their full comments.

I've had some interesting experiences this semester relating to this issue. First, at a pre-semester workshop on learner persistence, I had the opporunity to work with faculty from different disciplines. In one discussion, talk turned to the issue of ESOL students. A professor from Radio/TV shared that he had had a Japanese student in his scriptwriting class the previous semester. She showed wonderful imagination and creativity in her writing; however, her language skills interfered with her ability to communicate effectively. His dilemma -- and it clearly worried him -- was what grade to give her. If he gave her a "C," no film school would accept her. With a "D," she would be able to repeat the course, but again, no film school would accept her. In the end (to his great relief), she pulled out a "B." But, he was still concerned about whether she really had the language skills to be successful. And, he was concerned about this issue coming up again with other ESOL students. It made me think about all the brilliant, hardworking ESOL students in content classes. Their instructors clearly root for them. They want them to succeed, and yet, they don't want to pass them on with insufficient skills -- perhaps setting them up for failure. At what point, if any, should language fluency and accuracy become the primary goal?

Other stories . . . I have two ESOL students this semester who are coming back to ESOL after having taken content courses. One is in my intermediate writing class. She took all content courses last semester after graduating from high school in June. She told me that a Chicano Studies course overwhelmed her because of the writing involved. She said she thought she passed because the professor could see how hard she was working. Her plan is to finish ESOL before going on to more content courses that require substantial writing.

The other student presents an interesting case. She has completed all her requirements for the AA degree in Child Development, except for English. (She stopped ESOL after one semester.) She is working as a pre-school teacher right now and has been for some time. During the course of her child development program, however, she came to realize that she was struggling excessively due to her limited English. She is now taking ESOL 20 (low intermediate writing/grammar), and she says that she is just beginning to understand how to write an essay. She advises other students to finish ESOL first.

Perhaps what these stories tell us is that the answer is individual. At the same time, I do believe that students should have the opportunity to hear about other ESOL students' experiences, and that faculty and counselors should be honest about each student's strengths and weaknesses as well as the demands of courses or majors.


Blogger Marian Thacher said...

I was just having a conversation about this with someone who suggested that struggling writers (not just non-native speakers) should take ONLY English or ESOL until they get to the 101 level, because otherwise they are doomed to failure in the content courses. I'm watching this happen to my son, a native speaker with some learning disabilities. He participates well in discussion and sounds very articulate, so it comes as a shock to the instructor that he can't write. I wish he had started with English and learned to write an essay before he took the other courses.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Marian Thacher said...

I wanted to make one other comment too. I'm at the national adult ed conference right now, COABE, and transition of adult ed students to post-secondary is a big theme this year, with its own strand, so you (we) are not alone in thinking about these issues. I guess I posted that before from another conference, but just reiterating that it's true here as well, and was mentioned in Cheryl Keenan's keynote. She is the director of adult education at the federal level.

9:16 PM  
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