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Who Are Adult ESL Students?

by Ellen Guettler, Bozeman

After reading the assigned professional development articles, “Needs Assessment for Adult ESL Learners” and “Beginning to Work with Adult English Language Learners: Some Considerations,” I now realize that ongoing assessment and student surveys provide vital information for ESOL program development, instructional planning, and act as a critical piece in generating “flexible and responsive”  curriculum to  meet the diverse  needs of the ESOL adults. Although the articles and the CAELA Guide for Adult ESL Trainers offered a myriad of assessment tools and strategies, I chose to survey the nine students in the Intermediate  Monday/Wednesday  class using two assessment  tools provided in the trainer guide: Sample  Questionnaires  Tables 1 and 3.  The first survey provided a check list of literacy materials where students could mark “Already know how to read” or “Want to learn how to read.” The second questionnaire asked student s to list specific examples of situations where they experience difficulties in English and list goals for specific areas of improvement. It also had students rank skill priorities from 1-6.  The data collected from the two surveys provided a wealth of information for individual and group instruction and relevant curriculum topics which can be integrated into program development and instruction to more fully meet  the diverse needs of the ESOL  students served at the Bozeman Adult Learning Center.

The surveyed intermediate  group consisted of nine students between the ages of 25 and 56. Five are Asian, three  are Latin American, and one  is from Egypt. There is one male in the group. The group represents a typical ESL grouping: varied and diverse- in skill levels , social roles, and language goals. The first questionnaire on literacy skills was very illuminating because I was able to tally important literacy  goals of the students, and I can now organize instruction to incorporate the shared objectives.  It also provided me with a clearer picture of what students feel they have already mastered and where they want to go next in their learning. The TABLE 3 questionnaire was very helpful on two fronts. It provided information on the social roles and contexts in which these students  find  themselves in need of  more language skills, as well as their individual goals for improvement. When I tallied their ratings (1-6) for the skills they most wanted to learn, most of them prioritized the list in the following manner: speaking , pronunciation, vocabulary, listening, writing, reading. This is a highly literate group so I was not surprised to see reading prioritized last of the six skills they wanted to learn. However, I was surprised that the students had placed speaking and pronunciation at the top of the list. The two surveys will inform future instruction  in very positive ways because the data from these questionnaires  will provide instructional goals that will steer our program away from canned linear instruction into more authentic learning opportunities that are truly relevant to the lives of our ESL students. This valuable data will inform curriculum for program development, instructional staff,  and tutors  with whom ESOL students are paired as conversation partners. The following is a summary of the information gleaned by the two needs assessments of the intermediate day time class:

1.   All of the students want more time for speaking practice and vocabulary development. Implications for instruction: Less canned curriculum out of the Side By Side Series, more thematic instruction based on the social contexts students prioritized in their surveys-- using  dyads or small discussion groups. Eight of the nine are mothers and want to work on school related dialogues  and vocabulary. All surveyed identified  a desire to also work on job related vocabulary, medical vocabulary, and practice social interaction vocabulary. It is evident that thematic dialogues , generative vocabulary lists, and role playing curriculum needs to be implemented  more earnestly in our program.

2.   All of  the students prioritized pronunciation as  second or third most important on their lists.  Implication for instruction: More formal work on pronunciation both in the whole group setting and 1-1 tutor pairings.

3.   Listening was also a high priority for 70% of the students who said that they had trouble understanding 'spoken English'  in informal settings. Implications for instruction: More formal listening activities and follow up discussion, formal  instruction of idiomatic phrases and slang integrated into the social context and vocabulary being explored within the lesson.

4.   Intermediate students were happy with the present class time allotment  for writing. Teachers assign a follow up writing task related to the day's lesson and correct student work with individual explanation between class lessons. Tutors also correct and discuss work from student journals during the 1-1 tutoring time.

5. Individual students have  individual language and literacy  goals which tutors can reinforce and support in tutoring sessions. The first questionnaire identified various contexts where students want to learn more literacy skills. The ones that were not common to all in the group can be covered with their tutor  one-on-one. For example, those who are employed want to learn to read and understand  their pay stubs and tax forms while others want to learn how to read and respond to progress reports for their children. Insurance forms, medicine labels, food ingredient labels and notes home from school  were all very individualized goals represented within the group that can be met by well informed tutors. I will share their assessment results with their tutors.

The needs assessments of the intermediate ESL group represents a small but meaningful first step towards more relevant and authentic instruction for the ESL students at the Bozeman Learning  Center. I am inspired and excited to take bigger steps in implementing  more types of surveys in each class on a regular basis so that our site is steered by student data driven curriculum.  I know it will improve the quality of instruction, increase student persistence, create employment opportunities,  and most importantly, improve the quality of life and access to authentic  learning for the ESOL students we serve.