Full Discussion - Factors Affecting ESL Student Performance -Strategies for Innovation in Community College ESL, February 4 - 8, 2008

Factors Affecting ESL Student Performance
Discussion items include: intensity of instruction; teachers' skill level; personal barriers to success; students' past educational backgrounds; how to best manage and serve students with more previous educational experience.

Dear Colleagues,

Today begins our discussion with Dr. Crandall and Dr. Chisman on their work examining issues with ESL student achievement at the community college level.

Below are a series of questions for your response:

  • To what extent does your program perceive the following 3 factors to be issues in ESL student achievement?
  1. Intensity of instruction
  2. Structures and/or policies to facilitate student transition
  3. Professional development for staff working with this population
  • Are these and the other findings of their research typical at your community college ESL program? If not, what is the experience like at your program?
  • How typical are their findings in non-community college settings? (CBOs, LEAs, Faith-Based, Workplace, etc)
  • How does your program offer instruction? (in terms of rigor and intensity)
  • How does your program facilitate transitioning students to workforce/career preparation or higher education and other programs?
  • What type of professional development is offered at your program to help you better work with this population of ESL students?
  • About what portion of your students initially enroll at lower (beginning) levels of ESL and how many levels do most of them progress? (Surprisingly, there is no national data on this).
  • How do you deal with the issues described above in the research, if you experience them?

Please post your answers to any of these questions, as well as any questions you have for our guests now.

For full information on this discussion, go to: http://lincs.ed.gov/lincs/discussions/assessment/08passingthetorch.html

Thanks and looking forward to this week's discussion!

Marie Cora
Assessment Discussion List Moderator

In our small adult education program, my experience (just about three years) is that students with solid educational backgrounds advance, particularly if they're not working too many hours. Those who advance the slowest, if at all, are immigrants who are barely literate in their first language. I would say that lack of education is a bigger factor than lack of time; a student who works full-time and is exhausted often will still succeed because he/she is familiar with academic work, and is goal-oriented. What we do is try to get our low-level students to come up with goals, but that's a hard concept in a second language.

This does not mean that the factors mentioned in the research don't play a part, though. I'm one of those barely-trained teachers (transitioned from another career, got trained mainly through workshops rather than classes). My skill level very well may contribute to students' slow advancement. It's hard for small adult education programs to get highly skilled ESL teachers. The pay is low and there are no benefits. But my program is encouraging me to get extra training and has me on a plan of improvement. I think we're making some progress.

Gail Burnett

Hi Gail, thanks for your post.

I think you raise some interesting issues to add to the list of items in question. You've noted that a student's educational experience often seems to help, that perhaps the teacher's skill level could be at play, and that small program's face many challenges that could exacerbate the entire situation.

It's great to know that your program does its best to help you improve your skills Gail. At least you have that piece of the puzzle to an extent.

How about other factors that could cause problems? Does anyone have other things to add - and what you or your program tries to do to address the issues?


Marie Cora

Hi list members,

My experience teaching ELAA students in the GED class is similar to that of Gail. If the student has a solid educational background in the country they came from in their native language, they tend to advance rather quickly and get their GED. Those coming with 6th grade educations from their country or lower tend to stay in the GED class for years and do not make much advancement.

This experience relates well to research done among Native American tribes teaching them English. Those Native Americans who were first taught literacy skills in their own tongue learned English much quicker than those who tried to learn literacy skills in English without that background in their own tongue. I also found similar problems when I was learning Spanish. The concepts I could mentally translate from English to Spanish were much easier to grasp and learn than those I didn't know in English. Perhaps this is something deserving more research.

Tina Luffman

Hi Tina,

This has been researched already and is the basis for the argument in favor of bilingual education, a good idea that was not implemented in the best way. For many years people have known that a good foundation in literacy in the first language will facilitate learning in a second or third language.

Another interesting twist is the existence of languages that are not written.

Jackie Coelho

Hi Jackie,

Thank you for this information. I believe this research must be what my former Spanish teacher was basing her argument on for bilingual education in the K-12 school system.

Tina Luffman

To all of you who commented on level of prior education as a factor in student performance:

Everyone with whom Jodi Crandall and I talked believes that more highly educated students do better in terms of persistence, learning gains, and transitions. And learning theory would lead us to expect this. Regrettably we found very little hard data about how much difference prior education makes, because too few programs track the level of prior education of their students and correlate it with outcomes. DO any of you do this? That is, do you have any data on HOW MUCH difference level of prior education makes? Or any strong impressions? And are there "cut points" in prior education that seem to make a difference -- e.g. students who are completely illiterate, students who at least reached high school, high school graduates, college graduates, etc. -- or is level of prior education pretty much of a continuum?

More importantly, what can programs DO to narrow the gap between highly educated students and those with less prior education? Presumably students with very low levels of education are more likely end up in the lower level ESL courses (Literacy or Low-Beginning levels) why are (almost by definition) in the business of teaching basic literacy and sometimes math. Why isn't this enough? In your experience, does the "gap" exist at these levels too, or mainly at higher levels? At any levels, would it be desirable to place less highly educated students in separate classes from those with more education and adjust the curriculum/support systems for them accordingly? Some programs have tried "native language literacy" or the Spanish GED. What has been the experience of any of you with these approaches? Any other ideas? IS there an adult ESL equivalent of "bi-lingual education" that should be tried?

It seems to me that we need to come up with better ideas. Because the people who study immigration tell us that the level of education of immigrants has been falling. And if Immigration Reform mandates large numbers of undocumented people to "learn English" (whatever that means), ESL programs may be swamped with students who have very little education in their native countries and too little money to serve them. So anyone who has any ideas about how to bridge this "education gap" could help us a lot by posting ideas about how to close it on this discussion list.

Forrest Chisman


I like the idea of separate classes for those with a literacy background and those without. These two groups have such different needs. Having both in the class make it difficult for a teacher to meet the needs of either group well and I find that often the stronger students dominate the class, and their drive push the teacher forward. If the instructor does not keep up with the students who are learning at a faster rate, they often become frustrated and leave or mentally check out. However, if the instructor keeps up with those students, the others are unable to keep up and they get frustrated.

I think that literacy could perhaps be separated out. And regardless of how you do it, well-trained instructors are essential.

Jackie Coelho


Thanks. It's just a "top of the head" idea. I wonder why it isn't tried more often. Or maybe it is? Is anybody on this list trying this approach? We certainly heard from some ESL staff that they believe the more able/motivated students feel frustrated by being held by in classes with others. In fact, if you read our CCSF study, this may be a major flaw in that college's program design. In fact, most of the students enrolled in the "two level" programs at CCSF -- which Jodi mentioned in a previous post - were low level students. And they out-performed all other categories of students by all measures. Regrettably there weren't very many of them, but that may have to do with marketing (or not).

And yes, the more demanding/sophisticated the curriculum, the greater the need for highly skilled teachers. That may be the most important variable of all, and I don't know how we get this to the attention of senior management/policy makers. The few successes I've seen have been in programs where both part time and full time teachers are unionized. There is often pressure for greater pay equity, benefits, etc. in those situations. Any other ideas????????

Forrest Chisman

Jackie and Forrest,

I think most large programs separate literacy level students from others who are at a beginning level. I know that back in the 1980s when there were large refugee ESL programs, several community colleges created parallel ESL classes for the beginning levels and even into intermediate levels, with one set of classes for students with limited literacy or prior schooling and another for more educated students. The reason was that the students with less education made slower progress. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the way in which we teach English (requiring literacy), but it is also because students need to become accustomed to attending classes, learning to hold and use a pen or pencil, and a wide range of basic skills that come with being a student in a class.

Those of you who have separate classes for those who need literacy: Can you tell us what kind of classes or program you provide?

Those who teach both literacy and more educated learners in the same class: Can you let us know how you manage? What are some ways in which you accommodate both sets of needs?

Jodi Crandall


I think you misunderstood me (as usual) :-). My question wasn't about separating out literacy level students. I agree most programs do that. My question was about the other practice from the 1980's you mention -- separate classes for students with higher levels of prior education ABOVE the literacy level.

Forrest Chisman


I'm not sure yet that I know the question, but here goes...

I don't know of community college programs now that continue to separate out literacy level students after the actual literacy class. Does anyone else?

When I mentioned higher levels of prior education, in this context, I didn't mean college-educated students, but those with closer to a high school education n their own countries. These are the students that we used to believe were the main students that we served, not the literacy level students who are increasingly being enrolled in our classes.

For highly educated individuals, those with college degrees in their own countries, most of the programs that I know seek to transition these students into more academic ESL programs at the intermediate levels. In fact, some community colleges, like the English for Academic Purposes College of Lake County, that we studied, created a seamless transition from noncredit to credit academic ESL courses by working backwards from the credit expectations and then aligning the intermediate level noncredit ESL to them.

City College, as you know, provides accelerated ESL classes (two terms in one) for more educated students, since they are likely to be able to make faster progress.

Jodi Crandall


Just so other people can see how we get misunderstand each other and still work together…..

Really, my question was whether, given the importance of prior education, do any programs provide separate classes for students with higher prior education (by any definition)?

Overall, in the research we conducted together, I was struck by how much the colleges we visited talked about the importance of prior education, and how little they did about it in designing their programs. For example, most of them did not include level of prior education in their student records. Thus teachers may or may not have known what the prior education of particular students was. Likewise, I'm quite sure that CCSF has no idea what the prior education of students in their two-level courses are. Anyone can take these courses, and the college says students are sometimes encouraged to do so if they have an interest in credit studies or in advancing rapidly for some other reason - which may or may not indicate level of prior education. Likewise, the Lake County intensive transition program is open to any intermediate level student who wants to enroll - although when we studied it there weren't enough slots for everyone who wanted to enter it.

So, I guess my question stands. Recognizing the importance of prior education, do any of you do anything (other than Spanish literacy/GED) to compensate for it by making progress easier for both more highly educated and less highly educated students?

Forrest Chisman

As discussed, often times there are factors beyond educational levels that impede the success of a native English speaker or ELL when trying to achieve their higher education aspirations. There has to be a multistoried approach to working with the adult student who, although motivated, has those added pressures of family responsibility, work (non-working or underemployed), money, lack of social and family support, etc to contend with. Finding the time, energy and dedication necessary to stay the course can be daunting especially if they've achieved limited educational success in their native language. Now the expectations are, if they want to have the "American Dream", they must (on some level) master a new language (both oral and written). Add to the mix low paid teachers and/or instructors or organizations with limited or no access to workforce resources such as job readiness training etc and the water become even muddier.

D'Andra Van Heusen-Thomas


Thanks for this. The "personal barriers to success" often fall through the stools in discussions of adult education -- I suppose because they aren't amenable to "educational" solutions, in the narrow sense of the term. Yet they may well be the greatest barriers of all. Many teachers report spending a lot of time doing "social work." But at the program level, we found too few approaches to systematically addressing these problems. Have any of you found ways to come to grips with them? Do you have any ideas about how to do it?

Forrest Chisman

Years ago, the Montgomery County Refugee Training Program (Montgomery College, Silver Spring, MD) had highly educated people with no English, in class with literacy level students. It was certainly difficult meeting the needs of all students, but in this intensive 20-hours/week program, a tremendous mutual respect was fostered between the groups. Typically, the highly educated students raced ahead with reading and writing, while the literacy students sped ahead with oral language. The Somali mother of nine would say to the Russian engineer, "I wish I could read and write like you!", while the Russian woman would reply, "I wish I could speak like you."

All this ended with a slightly different solution. The Refugee Center, then under the direction of Donna Kinerney, divided that school day into separate Listening, Reading and "Homeroom" classes. Homerooom took in all skills, plus the introduction to the American workplace. This model was in place when we began to get World English speakers who were not literate. It provided a solution in which they could study in a literacy-level reading/writing class, and interact in a higher level Listening and Homeroom class.

Noa Sadan


Thanks for sharing this. How wonderful to have had 20 hours per week for these students. Besides mutual respect (which is very important), were there ways in which students could use their complementary skills to help each other. If you could describe some of the activities that you or others used that were helpful, that would be great.

If others of you could share your experiences with mixed classes, and how you coped with them, I think a lot of us would be interested.

The change to separate Listening, Reading and "Homeroom" classes is also a very interesting way of meeting the needs of this diverse population. I know that many community colleges separate their instruction in adult ESL to oral language skills (Listening/Speaking) and written language (Reading/Writing) skills. Are there others out there who could share your experiences in this regard?

The presence of World English speakers and Generation 1.5 speakers in adult ESL has further complicated the situation. I'd be interested in knowing how others have dealt with such diverse students in adult ESL/ESOL.

Jodi Crandall


The classroom mix of the highly educated literate students who didn't know English with the literacy level beginning English students was often a challenge. The first (unstated) task was to help the educated students realize that they might learn a great deal from those who picked up oral language faster than they did.

Techniques for dealing with the mixed levels:
The Key: fostering a sense of community within the class
Main technique: Group work - teacher as enabler, moving around the groups

  • extra reading help in reading given while class was working on either written assignments or group projects
  • groups were mixed
  • always by language
  • occasionally by gender
  • rarely by ability (only when reading lessons specifically for the literacy group were held)

School Job: The Refugee Center has a working Snack Bar, and Boutique (donated clothing - everything sells for fifty cents/item).

  • students polish their ability to work together
  • students learn chain of command (literacy level students are supervisors just as often as the highly educated, since they often have a verbal advantage)
  • literacy-level students could make coffee, serve as a cashier, and give excellent customer service
  • a highly educated accountant who cannot get out an English sentence orally, could create a cost-accounting spreadsheet see if it was less expensive to buy bulk sugar or packets for coffee.

Other projects are used as well - making recipe books, making student profile books. Today, with the use of the computer, the possibilities are endless for activities for mixed classes.

Noa Sadan


These are fabulous ideas. I especially like the emphasis on how literacy level students can help those who are more educated and also cooperate and compete with them in the snack bar and boutique.

You have provided clear guidance on how to maximize both groups' strengths and also encourage them to learn from each other.

By the way, "boutique" is so much more positive a name than the usual "closet" or another name that sounds like it's charity.

Do others have suggestions of ways of accommodating literacy level and more educated students in the same class?

Jodi Crandall

Noa and others,

I like the idea of the snack bar very much, but I'm curious about how the concept of buying and wearing second hand clothing from strangers, if you will, is received by the students. My experience is that the idea purchasing and wearing someone else's second-hand clothes and items is actually one that doesn't always translate across all cultures. True, the idea is highly positive among middle class here in the U.S. where it is seen as a way of saving money, being "green," and not wasting resources -- and this is demonstrated by the proliferation of trendy 2nd hand boutiques in cities and ads on Craig's list to sell gently used baby clothes (even diapers! ) and toys. However, some cultural groups may find the idea of buying and wearing someone else's clothing as "charity" (as Jodi says) or something somewhat distasteful. Perhaps the fact that all items are 50 cents takes that edge off? Has anyone else had this experience with the concept of 2nd hand items and other cultures?

Miriam Burt


I love this! I would never have thought of it. And I love stuff I would never have thought of!

Forrest Chisman

I totally agree. Second-hand clothes are often seen as "dead people's clothes". Also, it can be offensive to students if they believe this is all teachers think they can afford. We had a white elephant sale at our school once and it bombed. The students did not like the idea of old gifts. They considered in unbelievably tacky. These were Mexican students. The "dead people's clothes" came from a woman from Nepal.

Mary Lynn Simons

It probably depends upon the developing culture of the program, relative to several factors.

In my experience, part of this is in the packaging as mentioned below. I have had successful auctions with students from Viet Nam, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Ghana, Haiti, Bosnia. The items are in good as new condition, useful and mostly not clothes. Everyone gets an equal amount of money in different forms each time: paper dollars, bills and change, a ledger to be verified by student bankers. At very least they've enjoy it as a game in English.

The students are in the US now. Exposing them to various views of secondhand items as part of shopping is a fair enough part of our job as ESL instructors or programs, besides the workplace skills. I've asked about how or if they share children's clothes in their families. This has been a safe starting point so far and allows for a discussion of differences. A field trip to a nearby secondhand store is how we began our process. We had also visited a nearby grocery store. It does provide a lot of opportunities to discuss pricing, discounts, percents, etc.

The students should not be forced or expected to buy or accept anything. They do not embarrass someone by refusing something. What they think or do is their business. Being able to discuss this is a good way to practice important conversation skills.

Mary Jane Jerde

Miriam, Mary Lynn and others,

The boutique at the Refugee Center has a history. People used to come and donate clothing. Some students would take a huge amount and others wouldn't touch the pile, citing that they did not want to "take charity".

In the mid 1990's I came up with the idea of a project for my class: arrange the clothing, bring in other items, and set up a boutique in which everything cost ten cents. The fact that students were paying for their boutique items erased the one impediment that had been there before - the idea of "taking charity".

We have never run into any opposition to the idea. Quite the opposite - it grew, often with student input in terms of ideas, and later clothing, toys and household items. Students worked with a flow chart - Can the item go on the floor? Does it need sewing or ironing?

If there were any students who had reservations about wearing used clothing, it was not apparent. Even teachers would shop in the Boutique, and that lent another level of comfort and legitimacy. Now, former students come in with their donations to the boutique, and gleefully talk to us about yard sales. Our current students often go on field trips to neighborhood thrift shops, sometimes comparing their offerings to ours.

If we receive large items, such as computers, musical instruments, play stations, televisions, dinnerware, and such, we handle it by lottery, having all those interested in the item participate in a drawing.

The concept has also expanded to a video rental library run by yet another class, in which donated VHS and DVD videos are borrowed (at no charge). The students have itemized the offerings in a spreadsheet, and are currently using the internet to write synopses about each movie. We have also invited one of the College's Business Institute directors to talk to the class about micro-enterprise, and how they can open their own businesses.

Sometimes, a tiny idea used to solve a problem can spiral into something entirely new!

Noa Sadan

Sounds as if this really works, congratulations!

Mary Lynn Simons


I was going to write a very similar message based on my experience working under Barbara Denman at the erstwhile refugee program in Prince George's County, Maryland.

Now that I work in a community college with ESL classes that span the lowest level ESL and academic experience to the higher levels of college credit classes, my experience has grown. The principles of both cooperation and teamwork in learning and separation by level still hold true. Students benefit from knowing that they need to help each other. It's part of our culture, surprise, surprise. The institution where I work has six levels of class for the various language skills, so there's lots of separation by level.

What I have found myself doing with high beginning students and intermediates with less education in their home countries is preparing them for the grammatical terms that will come their way if they continue to take ESL classes. I also work diligently with them to have a firm grasp of basic English grammar, especially verbs. This will help them at work or if they decide to begin ABE classes, where the grammar focus is not normally on their kind of grammar issues.

Mary Jane Jerde

Mary Jane,

Thanks for this input. I gather that all of your classes mix students with different levels of higher education. Is that right? If so, how do you manage to find the time (or manage the class) so that you can provide this extra help to students with low levels of prior education? About how many hours/week do your classes meet? Also, I think we'd all like to hear some examples of the cooperation and teamwork you mention, and its results. This seems to be an important, but too little documented theme.

Forrest Chisman

As for higher education, you can see the note toward the bottom. My experience has been mostly in grant funded classes with a civics orientation, but even in the medical terminology class for medical professionals, I still found myself relying on them. In fact, it seemed even more important for some of the highly educated immigrants to learn the team ethic.

First, this was much easier when I was teaching in an Even Start program with sixteen contact hours weekly. (There were students with three to nine years of school, with an occasional misplaced college graduate. I have taught college educated students in the refugee program and at the community college.) Ideally the beginning ESL students took leveled classes at the community college one or two mornings a week, which gave everyone a break. This did not always happen due to the need for students to be in long enough to get placed in classes for the next term, but for those who committed themselves, it was an important asset. Bless the contact folks at the college who put up with my requests for class space.

Second, my implicit expectations of student free production were (a la Barb Denman) for the lower levels to produce words (identify same/different and labels), the higher beginners to produce phrases, the intermediates were held to the higher standard of actual grammatical production. So in a given whole group activity the students learned that they were held to different standards as they progressed. They really valued the progression as a form of promotion.

The two explicit rules I had was to help each other and to work in English. After a week to adjust, I held them responsible to hold to these rules. Of course, having some students buy into them was really critical. In thirteen years, I have only had two students completely abdicate the rules, one a highly educated man and the other was a woman with minimal education from different areas of the world.

With four hours a day, it was easy to divide up time into segments for various skills and to have realistic whole group activities. I frequently made worksheets to cover an area of confusion as a group follow-up, though it could go from lower to higher levels.

The basic conversational tool is for one student to ask another a question or give a cue. The second gives a response and asks someone else, "Do you agree?" The third party agrees or disagrees and can explain why. There ensues a discussion until there's agreement or they call me in. (I don't like to answer questions until the student has asked another student first, no matter how the students' skill levels are perceived.) They must take turns in this routine and everyone must participate in turn. This is a powerful principle used in cooperative learning. If a student is stuck, he or she doesn't have to guess an answer; it's always all right to ask another student at the beginning of an exercise. This can be used going over homework, a reading, practicing grammar or pronunciation or whatever in class. It also teaching the students to be independent of the instructor and allows them to function as adults.

What this also does is show the students that no matter their educational background or other skills they can truly work and learn from each other. I have had it work with those with up to some high school experience in their country and more if they have little English. Students with a good bit of academic English in their own country tend to require more proof that they benefit from the experience, but once they're caught in the wrong or a less educated student who is working comes up with the right answer, they usually can understand the benefits.

I hope that this is clear.

Mary Jane Jerde

Mary Jane,

It's very clear. Thank you SO much for sharing it.

Forrest Chisman

Mary Jane,

If you want your students to get a better grasp on grammatical terminology I strongly recommend "Gramática Española para Estudiantes de Inglés" by Anna I Levenson. It not only gives the terminology in both English and Spanish, it gives examples from both languages. It is published by Olivia and Hill Press www.oliviahill.com Most Spanish-speaking students that I have had, including some university graduates, have never studied the grammar of their own language. They also have a book, "English Grammar for Students of Spanish," which is quite useful for ESL teachers who need a comparison of the two languages, particularly for problem analysis. They have similar materials for other languages that all look good. They are also quite readable. One doesn't need a doctorate in linguistics to read them!

By the way. I teach all of the major verb tenses at one time and find that a holistic view is better than one or two tenses at a time. This even works for me at lower levels. My wife, who loves grammar, thinks I'm crazy. That's O.K.

Ted Klein

Interesting, especially on the last point. I'm currently attempting something like that with the English Verb Wall.

The books you mention would be great reference books for staff and students.

Mary Jane Jerde

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