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ESL Programs and the American Dream

Linda Campbell's essay examines the effectiveness of ESL programs in enabling immigrants to obtain the education necessary to secure and advance in good jobs.

Linda Campbell

D enia immigrated to
the United States when she was sixteen years of age. She was placed in
an ESL program that focused mainly on Spanish classes with a little
basic English grammar. As time progressed, the amount of English
classes increased and the Spanish classes decreased. She says that it
was difficult for her at the beginning, but her self-determination and
desire to be fully integrated into the new society that she is now a
part of made her endure the challenges that came her way. Today she has
a job in which she can use the English she learned along with her
native Spanish. Denia’s story is one of many. However, not all of these
stories have a happy ending.

Many immigrants come to this
country in the pursuit of the American Dream: freedom, a better life,
and financial stability. The educational system of the United States of
America is faced with a challenge when it comes to supplying enough
programs to cover the needs of English Language Learners (ELL) like
Denia. While English as a Second Language (ESL) programs help provide
students with proficiency skills in the English language to help them
with the transitional process of integration into the American society,
these programs are not customized to each individual’s needs. Denia
says that while she was in the ESL program in high school, she had a
classmate originally from Nigeria. Why was this student placed in a
program that was basically for Spanish instruction? The reason was that
more than half of the ESL students were of Hispanic background and only
about three to four percent of the class was of Nigerian background.
This imbalance is not favorable for the students who do not have a
Spanish background. However, the limited funding for these programs
focused on supplying the need of the majority, in this case, the

During the process of researching material for
the ESL topic, I encountered many different opinions on what is the
best way of helping the ELL achieve success in the acquisition of the
second language. I am an English major with a minor in Education. I
hope to specialize in ESL instruction after I have graduated. In
addition, I would like to raise awareness in the officials who create
these programs, so they can design them to serve the different groups
as individuals and not just as another group of immigrants who need to
be incorporated in the mainstream of society. My first intention for
this research was to focus on ESL programs for college students.
However, the material on that particular area was too limited. As a
consequence, I was forced to broaden my research to include other
levels of ESL programs. I faced several provocative questions: What is
an ESL program and who is it designed for? What negative or positive
influences can slow or speed up the process of learning the new
language? What part do the teachers play in the success of the ESL
student? Would these programs be more successful if they were
customized to each ethnic group?

What Is the ESL Program and Who Is It Designed For?

immigration rate in the United States has increased so much in the last
ten years. People from all over the world continue to make this country
their new home. This brings along the fact that more than half of them
have no knowledge of the country’s native language, English. The ages
of the immigrants fluctuate from infancy to full adulthood. In order
for these new, and existing, immigrants to be fully integrated into
their new society, English proficiency is very important. Here is where
ESL programs become effective. The purpose of the ESL programs is to
help people that are not native English speakers gain the necessary
skills and proficiency to achieve success in their new environment.
However, according to the Immigration Policy Report, funding for these
types of programs has decreased greatly during the last few years (1).
In addition, the report says that the need for adult ESL programs is
greater than the need for programs for ESL schoolchildren. This makes
sense, because the urgency of integration is greater for adults than it
is for schoolchildren: adults’ needs are first financial and second
social, and for schoolchildren it is social first and later on
financial. In many ways, the immigrants are eager to learn the new
language. But they may encounter many obstacles during the process.

What Influences Can Have a Negative or Positive Effect on the Learning Process?

are many causes for someone to emigrate from his/her native country:
political, economical, educational, and others. However, emigration
equals a complete change of environment along with social and
economical status which can cause enormous stress; all these factors
may affect the process of assimilation and acculturation of the
immigrant. There are several external influences that can have a
negative effect on the learning process. According to an article
written by Howard H. Kleinmann, “External Influences and Their
Neutralization in Second Language Acquisition: A Look at Adult
Indochinese Refugees,” some negative factors can be job opportunities,
personal skills to maintain these new jobs, and family economic status,
among others (240). Kleinmann says that these and other factors are
overlooked by the instructors when a student is not assimilating the
new language the right way. Although this article is based on the study
of a group of Indochinese refugees, it clearly reflects the situation
of immigrants of other ethnicities. In the Indochinese refugees’ case,
the immigration was forced upon them for political reasons. This makes
the learning process even more difficult, especially for the adults,
for many of them did not want to immigrate in the first place. They
constantly remind themselves of their homeland and make comparisons
with their new home. This can cause much stress which brings along
mental health-related problems (241). This can also be a constant
variable in the life of the voluntary immigrant, and it can cause the
same mental effect while slowing the learning process.

the other hand, some positive effects may come from the immigrant
having a positive attitude toward his/her new living arrangements. In
their book Kids Come in All Languages: Reading Instructions for ESL
Students, Karen Spangenberg-Urbschat and Robert Pritchard say that
there are three steps in learning the basic skill of communicating in a
second language: social process, linguistic process, and cognitive
process (49). Spangenberg-Urbschat and Pritchard say that during the
social process ESL students are encouraged to practice the target
language in a social setting where they interact with native English
speakers. Furthermore, the social atmosphere makes the learning process
more relaxed than if it occurred in a classroom; there is not much
pressure to be good at the target language (49).

addition, the authors explain that during the linguistic process some
negative effects can be confused for positive effects. At this level
the native English speaker and the ESL learners interpret linguistic
data to promote communication. However, ESL learners may make educated
guesses of syntax and structure of the target language when comparing
these to their native language. This can have a negative effect on the
way that ESL learners can be misguided by false assumptions which will
lead them to believe that the structure of their native language and
target language is the same (50). The last part in the learning process
is the cognitive. According to Spangenberg-Urbschat and Pritchard, this
level is the most difficult for students, for they need to utilize
their analytical abilities to deconstruct all the information acquired
in order to learn the target language. It involves the use of memory,
categorization, and generalization to learn the rules of use of the new
language (50-1). Students must maintain a positive attitude in order to
make each process as smooth as possible.

Along with learning
to speak the target language and learning its rules through use, the
ESL learners must distinguish which part of their communicative
proficiency should be used in a social setting and which in an academic
environment. In her book, Book Bridges for ESL Students, Suzanne Reid
says that although the interaction with the target language is
essential, it does not guarantee communicative efficiency. The process
of hearing and seeing the new language used in an everyday environment
is just the first step. Reid adds that it will be easier for the ESL
learners to achieve success if they focus first on hearing the specific
sounds in English before making an attempt at speaking (12).
Spangenberg-Urbschat and Pritchard agree on the same point made by Reid
in that it is not just enough that the target language learners expose
themselves to it. The authors say that there are other components
integrated in the gain of communicative competency: the nature of the
language input and the attributes of each individual’s ability and
inclination to make sense of the input (45). If the student is open and
positive about learning the new language, the information he/she
receives will be absorbed better and faster. Here is where the attitude
of the teacher can improve the learning process.

What Part Does the Teacher Play in the Success of the ESL Student?

teachers must abide by the regulations imposed by the US Department of
Education. To do the contrary may cost them their jobs. However, one
can not ignore that teachers have a great influence on how the student
assimilates the information provided by them. Teachers’ attitudes
toward the ESL students was the focus of a study done by Judy Sharkey
and Carolyn Layzer called “Whose Definition of Success? Identifying
Factors That Affect English Language Learners’ Access to Academic
Success and Resources.” Although they recognize that the students
themselves have a great responsibility in the learning process, they
believe that in a learning community, the teacher holds most of the
responsibility. Sharkey and Layzer say that a social engagement must
occur in order for the learning process to be successful. During this
time, teachers should provide enough practice, encourage participation,
and create a proper environment for the student (355-56). Moreover,
teachers must be able to recognize behavior patterns in their students
because self-esteem plays an important part in the learning process. A
high self-esteem will motivate the student to perform in an active way
while a low self-esteem will do the complete opposite.
Spangenberg-Urbschat and Pritchard also acknowledge the relationship
between a student’s high and low self-esteem and how it affects the
student’s success or failure in acquiring communicative competency in
the target language (65).

The educational structures of
most ESL programs are outdated. That is why there are many teachers
with little or no ESL training who have ESL students in their
mainstream classes. Candace Harper and Ester de Jong addressed this
point when they wrote about the many misconceptions that surround the
teaching of ESL learners in their article “Misconceptions About
Teaching English-Language Learners.” The authors say that one common
misconception is that the same teaching procedures used for native
language speakers can be used for ESL students (155). This is not
possible because the English language speakers have already mastered
the language, not just in the school environment but also in their home
life and social life. The ESL students are not only dealing with the
stress of learning a new language; they also have to preserve their
native language at home. There is a clear need for teachers trained in
the necessary skills of ESL instruction, and this need creates a deeper
problem for the educational system. One solution could be to gain
access to federal funding to retrain teachers, who already have ESL
students in their regular classes, with ESL skills in order for them to
provide the best learning techniques to these students. Also, another
solution could be the customization of classes to serve each ethnic

Would These Programs Be More Successful if They Were Customized?

ESL students are not created equal. Each one has a different need and
different ethnic background. Although it is not possible to satisfy
each individual’s need, programs can be customized in a way to cover
most of the students’ needs. I am sure that each time new teachers
graduate and start to work in their new fields, there are so many hopes
of making the educational system better. Yet, when they are faced with
all the rules and regulations that surround the system, many are
discouraged. This is a point addressed by Kip Tellez in his article
“Preparing Teachers for Latino Children and Youth: Policies and
Practice.” Tellez says that new educators bring fresh hope to “erase
the academic achievement gaps among ethnic groups in the US. We believe
that better prepared teachers will work harder to liquefy the culture’s
rigid social hierarchy by injecting new methods, materials, and
motivation into the nation’s most underperforming students who are
largely of color, many of whom are Latino” (43). Although his research
is focused on the Latino community, Tellez voiced some challenging
proposals, one of which is to actively recruit teachers from colleges
with a vast Hispanic population. It is a very strong point, because
there would be no need to instruct a teacher in Latino culture. This
will already be embedded. The same thing can be done in other ethnic
groups. Currently, the majority of the teachers in the educational
system are of European descent. That would not be a problem if the
majority of immigrants were from Europe, yet that is not the case.
Tellez states that teacher educators can prepare teachers who will be
successful instructors to every ethnic group. That is the reason why
instead of training them for “diversity” they should have teachers
focused on a specific linguistic group.

ESL programs are a
great asset in the process of integration and acculturation of the
immigrant population. However, the limited funding and the need for
updates have a negative effect on the learning process. If more federal
funding was provided, the U.S. Department of Education would be able to
customize the programs toward each ethnic group by targeting each
individual’s needs. Denia’s ESL experience has given her enough
proficiency to gain access to a good job. However, now that she is
starting to experience college, she finds that she does not have the
academic level in English to deal with the heavy demands of college.
She is finding it difficult to follow the lectures and assimilate what
the professors are talking about. Furthermore she needs extra support
to fully understand the different terminologies used in her math class.
This leads me to ask: What can be done to ensure the academic success
of the ESL student? The customization of the programs can be a good
start. Students with equal needs should be grouped together to ensure
that their individual needs are being taken care of. ESL is a topic of
interest for everyone because we live in a multicultural world which
has a constantly changing dynamic. Interaction among the different
cultures that exist in this country is necessary. Mastering a common
language is the key in achieving that interaction. This is a time for
election in our country. Although one of the topics of the politicians’
campaigns is education, none of them are addressing the ESL topic head
on. They are constantly mentioning the problem of immigration. ESL is a
big factor in the immigration situation, and it needs as much attention
as any social topic. If the ESL programs are updated, that will give
all immigrants a better chance of achieving the American Dream.

Works Cited

Candace, and Ester de Jong. “Misconceptions About Teaching
English-Language Learners.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy
(2004): 152-58. JSTOR. York Coll. Lib. 8 Nov. 2007.

Immigration Policy Report. Washington: American Immigration Law Foundation, 2004-2007.

Howard H. “External Influences and Their Neutralization in Second
Language Acquisition: A Look at Adult Indochinese Refugees.” TESOL
Quarterly, 16.2 (1982): 239-44. JSTOR. York Coll. Lib. 13 Nov. 2007.

Suzanne. Book Bridges for ESL Students: Using Young Adult and
Children’s Literature to Teach ESL. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow
Press, Inc., 2002.

Judy and Carolyn Layzer. “Whose Definition of Success? Identifying
Factors That Affect English Language Learners’ Access to Academic
Success and Resources.” TESOL Quarterly 34.2 (2000). JSTOR.York Coll.
Lib.12 Nov. 2007.

Karen, and Robert Pritchard. Kids Come in All Languages: Reading
Instruction for ESL Students. Newark, Delaware: International Reading
Association, Inc. (1994).

Kip. “Preparing Teachers for Latino Children and Youth: Policies and
Practice.” High School Journal 88.2 (2004-05): 43-54. Muse. York Coll.
Lib. 8 Nov. 2007.