The bottom line in ESL education

Dr. Trung-Phap Dam

Associate Professor of Linguistics

Texas Woman’s University


Distinguished colleagues:

My remarks today have been inspired by a recent paper titled “What Teachers Need to Know about Language” by Dr. Lily Wong Fillmore of the University of California at Berkeley and Dr. Catherine Snow of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

I have been impressed by this 41-page paper, which was published in August 2000 with funding from the United States Department of Education through the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D. C. After reading it, I felt as if the authors were speaking for me and undoubtedly for many others across the country as well. It serves as a wake-up call for ESL educators and makes important recommendations for our profession.

Let me share with you some worrisome findings presented in the paper:

  • It appears non-English-speaking students may be having a harder time learning English.
  • There are students who begin school in Kindergarten classified as LEP and who leave it as LEP students 13 years later.
  • Even highly motivated students can have considerable difficulty mastering English.
  • Problems exist irrespective of the type of program the students are enrolled in.
  • In the year 2000, California had 1.4 million LEP students. It is often assumed that students who do not learn English rapidly or well are mostly Spanish speakers. There are, however, as many non-Spanish speakers among the group that does not learn English well as there are Spanish speakers. Many are Asians who have been in English-only classes since the time they entered school.
  • According to the ESL program at the University of California at Irvine, in 1997, 60% of the freshmen who took a competency test of English composition failed it. Some 90% of these ESL students were Asian Americans who had attended American schools for more than 8 years. These students had earned honors in high school, ranking among the top 12% of their graduating class. Some 65% of them had taken AP English courses! Nevertheless, their English writing indicated that they did not have a sure sense of how English works.

What was the problem? It appears these students have not been receiving the instruction they require to master English language structures and patterns of use. And to prove the point that a growing number of ESL students do not have a sure sense of how English works, let me share with you an invitation I received through an email message. Its sender wanted me to attend a conference on cultural differences in Houston: “Do you always wanted to know what is the different between the Vietnamese and American culture? Do you always wondering why our parents thinking are so differences than we are? Than come to the Living Two Cultures conference.”

Needless to say, I concur with the authors of the paper that teachers need to understand thoroughly how language figures in education. To be more specific, we must receive systematic and intensive preparation in what Drs. Fillmore and Snow call educational linguistics. A good grounding in this subject would support our teaching literacy skills and working with English language learners. I have been an ESL educator since 1965. Thinking back, the two textbooks that were most useful to me as a college student in America were Patterns of English by Paul Roberts (1956) and The Structure of American English by W. Nelson Francis (1958). The knowledge I gained from these books turned me into a much better writer of English and enabled me to point out and explain the errors that my students make in English. I recall how thrilled I was when I learned from the Francis book that a clause beginning with the conjunction “that” (like “That he passed the test”) can be the subject of a sentence (like “That he passed the test surprises everyone”). I was even more thrilled to find out that an adjective can be a subject, as in the sentence “Easy does it”!

English grammar and at least one foreign language used to be part of the core curriculum of middle school and high school. Unfortunately, that has changed over the last few decades. Such subjects are no longer required. By now, several generations of teachers have gone through the public schools having had little opportunity to study the structure of English or to learn another language, and as a result, they do not feel very confident talking about language! Indeed, observations in high school English classes verify that many students do not receive the critique and help they need to become skillful writers.

Drs. Fillmore and Snow contend that in order for us to be able to provide the kind of feedback that students need for polishing their writing, we need to understand English structure, discuss structural features of written language with our students, and explicitly teach them how to write effectively.

Another reason for the lack of accuracy in English produced by ESL students is the popular belief that there is no need to teach English directly. Teachers attending in-service workshops have been told that they should speak to children in ways that help them understand, using pictures, demonstrations to allow children to acquire English naturally and automatically. That they should avoid mentioning their students’ English language errors so that they will not be self-conscious and immobilized in using the language. And that language development is determined by internal language-acquisition mechanisms that allow learners to “sort” things out eventually.

While I appreciate the communication-based and humanistic aspect of the popular Natural Approach that promotes fluency, I concur with Drs. Fillmore and Snow that certain conditions must be met if children are to be successful: They must interact directly and frequently with people who know the language well enough to reveal how it works and how it can be used. The acquisition process can go wrong when the conditions for language learning are not met, especially when learners greatly outnumber people who know the language well enough to support acquisition, as in classrooms with high populations of English language learners.

What happens when there is no direct instruction in such situations? Well, children can either make little progress in learning English, or they can learn it from one another. The outcome, sadly, is an “interlanguage pidgin” that can deviate considerably from standard English. Speakers and writers of this pidgin have settled into a variety of English that is fairly stable and that many of them speak fluently and confidently. These “ESL lifers” simply stop working out the details of English.

In light of the serious problems discussed above, the paper’s authors recommend that teachers be well grounded in “educational linguistics.” By this they mean intensive training in (1) language and linguistics, (2) language and cultural diversity, (3) sociolinguistics for educators in a linguistically diverse society, (4) language development, (5) second-language learning and teaching, (6) the language of academic discourse, and (7) text analysis and language understanding in educational settings.

While the recommendation by Drs. Fillmore and Snow sounds like a tremendous challenge, I trust that as teachers we are life-long learners and we are eager to meet that challenge. We are ready to learn new things through university coursework or in-service training. In the meantime, in light of the urgency of the situation, let’s brush up on our conscious knowledge of the rules of the English language: the sound system, the grammatical system, the lexical system, and the discourse structure. All this is necessary, so that when students make an error, we should be able to detect it, diagnose it, and follow up with an effective correction strategy through a to-the-point mini-lesson. Indeed, each time an error is detected and diagnosed is a good “teachable moment”! Below is an example of how this is done.

  • Student’s sentence: I am here since yesterday.
  • Teacher’s detection of error: Something doesn’t sound right. It’s the verb tense!
  • Teacher’s diagnosis of error: Student either “extended” the use of the simple present tense to cover the present perfect tense, or “transferred” the use of Spanish syntax to English, causing an error of the “negative-transfer” type: Estoy aqui desde ayer I am here since yesterday.
  • Teacher’s follow-up with a correction strategy: Teacher will present a mini-lesson (or review lesson) on the use of the present perfect tense (I have been here since yesterday) to express an action that took place in the past but continues into the moment of speaking. The explanation is to be reinforced with a few more examples and followed by practice until mastery.

Let’s keep in mind that fluency is good only when it goes hand in hand with accuracy. For that reason, I would like to end my presentation with this thought: The bottom line in ESL education is our assurance that our students will master standard English in their academic environment.

Thank you for your attention.

*Keynote speech at the Oklahoma State Department of Education Conference on “Academic Success for All Limited-English-Proficient Students” held at The University of Central Oklahoma on February 22, 2002.