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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

Denia 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 Hispanics.

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?

The 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?

There 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.

On 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).

In 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?

All 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 group.

Would These Programs Be More Successful if They Were Customized?

All 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

Harper, 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.

Kleinmann, 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.

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

Sharkey, 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.

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

Tellez, 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.