Monday, August 27, 2018

What Do ELLs Think About Their ESL Program? (Part 1)

This is the first in a series of guest blog posts by former English Language Learners.  I thought it'd be interesting to hear what they think of their time in an ESL program so I invited a few of my former students to answer some questions.  Here is the first interview.  (Click here and here to read the second and third interviews.)

Learn what former English Language Learners think about their ESL program in this series of guest blog posts. Read what a Japanese student has to say in her post | The ESL Nexus
Part 1 in a series; source: The ESL Nexus
Chihiro is a Japanese-American girl -- born in the U.S. to parents who immigrated from Japan -- who was placed in my ESL class in 3rd grade when her family moved into my school district.  As an elementary student, I saw her and her classmates only a few times a week but starting in 5th grade, she and the other 5th grade ELLs were in my ESL Social Studies class which met every day.  At the end of 6th grade, Chihiro exited out of the ESL program.

We kept in touch as the years passed and I was very proud when Chihiro was named the salutatorian of her high school graduating class.  In addition to receiving her American high school diploma, Chihiro also received a Japanese high school diploma because she simultaneously completed all those requirements as well.

Chihiro is currently an undergraduate student in the nursing program at the University of Pennsylvania.  Below, she reflects on her time as an ESL student in American schools.  Her responses to my questions have been very lightly edited for clarity.

Learn what a former English Language Learner thinks about her ESL program in this guest blog post | The ESL Nexus
Chihiro in Tarrytown, N.Y., Summer 2018; source: Selfie by Chihiro
* What grade were you in when you first started receiving ESL support? 
I received ESL support starting in preschool. There was no official ESL program in my first Massachusetts school district at the time because there were not many non-English speakers. However, my school started implementing an ESL program when I started elementary school. I am not sure how true the story is but, apparently, they had to start an ESL program because of my poor English ability. If this story is actually true, I am slightly proud that I made a difference by initiating an ESL program.

* How did you feel about being in the ESL program?
I felt like I was being noticed and cared for. My first ESL program was with an ESL teacher who provided me with one-on-one, individualized teaching of English. My ESL teacher supported me by helping me with homework and class-assigned projects.  After I moved to another school district in Massachusetts, the ESL program in my new school was a classroom setting where I felt as though I was not alone. Instead of feeling ashamed or embarrassed about my English ability, the ESL program created an environment for me to feel special and not feel afraid to practice English.

* How did being in the ESL program help you?
The ESL program helped boost my confidence in English. The ESL program was a special resource for me as a child. It was a place where I learned to voice my thoughts and questions. It was a safe environment where I could be confident that no one would judge me for making grammar mistakes. I also learned to write well through the ESL program because the class consisted of many writing assignments. Another major help was how the ESL program helped me retain my culture. There were a lot of discussions on identity and children losing touch with their family background by becoming “Americanized.”  In my case, because the ESL program did not shun but upheld my cultural identity, I felt I was able to keep both the Japanese and American culture.

* What was different about your ESL classes from your other classes?
At the time, my ESL classes were different from my other classes because they integrated a lot of different cultures. I learned about the cultures of my classmates because the ESL classes were more open to sharing where our heritage came from and how our families practiced their cultures. It was also a comfortable place. The ESL class size was small, and that allowed me to be more comfortable to participate in class. I also received more attention and guidance from my ESL teacher whereas in my other classes, I never stood out and had to stay quiet to not disrupt my classmates.

* What should teachers and school staff know about ESL students?

I think ESL students can be easily misunderstood. I think there are expectations from teachers and school staff that ESL students know enough English. Sometimes, however, that is not the case. We all have our own pace. Because ESL students are still learning English, the words used or the way in which things are expressed may be taken the wrong way or be unclear. I think it is important for teachers and school staff to not just assume things based on the words spoken by them but they should try to understand the meaning behind their words. I remember how I would try to express something in English, but the words would not come out because I did not know the words to express my thoughts. Due to this situation, my teachers thought I was shy or did not like them. I also remember feeling disappointed and embarrassed when my teachers had a confused look, and I worried about being treated differently from my classmates because I was not fluent enough in English.

* What is one piece of advice you have for teachers who have ESL students in their classes?
Great question! One piece of advice I can suggest is to let ESL students talk and express themselves as much as they can. That can be through casual discussions, creative writing, or even podcasts. I think that is the best way students can improve their ability and confidence in the English language. The class may get loud and difficult to manage at times, like I saw my ESL teacher struggle with during class, but I think that was how I managed to improve my English the most. Instead of an uptight classroom setting with stressful assignments, the creative and lively atmosphere can encourage active learning.

Learn what a former English Language Learner thinks about her ESL program in this guest blog post | The ESL Nexus
Japanese & American flags; source: The ESL Nexus
Thank you very much, Chihiro, for sharing your experience and for your helpful suggestions on working with English Language Learners. Best wishes as you complete your college education!

If you would like to read more about Chihiro’s thoughts on learning English in middle school, check out the book TESOL Voices: Secondary Education.  Chihiro was one of the students who helped me write Chapter 2, which is about teaching content-based ESL.  You can find out more about the book here.

Stay tuned for the next blog post in this series, coming soon!