English learners in regular English classes

“Why can’t we just put the English learners in regular English classes? They’ll learn English faster!”

I cannot tell you the number of times well-meaning people have said this to me – usually parents regarding their own children. Clearly, these parents want the best for their children, and they (along with the rest of us) want their children to learn English quickly and to succeed in their academic work. But putting a lower-level English learner (students who score below a B2 on the CEFR scale, below 60% on the PAL English test, or below about 50 on the TOEFL) in a mainstream content course that is very language-heavy – an English or history course, for example – is not only setting that student up for failure, but also impeding the student’s long-term acquisition of English. Here’s why:

Imagine trying to learn a task – any task. If you’re completely new to the task, you’re going to start with a book on the basics, or you’re going to take a class on Task 101. You’re not going to start with a graduate-level course or a book that assumes you’ve been doing the task for years. Learning a language is the same thing, and it takes time. Any lower-level student who is tossed into a literature course where they’re expected to read The Odyssey (a book I read in English class in 9th grade) is going to be in over their head. Yes, they’ll be exposed to a lot of English, but it will be an overwhelming amount, and almost none of it will be processed in a way that will benefit the student. Over time, the demands of learning both language and content will be detrimental to students’ long-term acquisition of English, impeding both their academic and psychological well-being.

On the other hand, an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) course that is designed for learners at the lower levels can benefit students in many ways. First and foremost, an ESOL course will provide students with instruction in language that they understand, with a little bit of difficult language on top. In second language acquisition, we call this “i+1,” where “i” is comprehensible input, and “1” signifies that extra bit of language that is just beyond a student’s comprehension but that the student should be able to figure out – and then incorporate into their own language use – based on context. Over time, students’ exposure to comprehensible input and new, more complex language is increased, and students build a solid foundation upon which they can later construct their understanding of U.S. History or Shakespeare.

A second way that ESOL instruction can benefit students at this level is through presentation of American classroom expectations in a place where no one is expected to already adhere to them. PAL’s orientation materials will help with the initial presentation of American classroom norms before students arrive on campus, so they’ll have an idea of what is expected of them. However, theoretical knowledge and actual practice often differ, so students should also get a chance to practice these ideas where they feel safe doing so. Class participation, in particular, can look very different in the cultures our students come from, and American norms can be intimidating for students who have been told all of their lives never to ask a question in class. An ESOL course, where perhaps no one was taught to raise their hand and contribute to a discussion, can be a safe place to practice those skills and develop the confidence to use them in classrooms with native speakers.

Parents, students, and sometimes teachers and administrators balk at the idea of providing ESOL instruction to students, thinking that ESOL courses are remedial or don’t provide the “academic rigor” that parents and students are looking for. However, the realities of second language acquisition and, particularly, acquisition of academic language (which takes 5-7 years to acquire proficiently) mean that well-designed ESOL instruction can be tremendously beneficial to students who are still developing their English language proficiency.

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