A Teacher’s Perspective on ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages)

By Tasha Darbes
Imagine you are in a different country, speaking and attending classes in a language that is foreign, and you have a term paper due. The subject: comparing the development of political economy during two different historical epochs. The only thing you knew before you arrived in this country about its history was the name of its first president. Sound terrifying? Such is the reality facing many international students and immigrants studying in the United States. As a college-prep ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher, it is my job to prepare my students for this reality.
Prior knowledge, or what is also termed “academic literacy,” is the unseen obstacle to college success. Passing the TOEFL or other standardized English tests may demonstrate proficiency in verb conjugation and finding synonyms, but it does not mean the student is prepared for the more demanding tasks of college. The student may lack the exposure to national histories and cultural references that are assumed by the professor and classmates, or they may be unfamiliar with the teaching styles and expectations of U.S. professors, which are typically less formal and more student-centered. In addition, students may not have received adequate preparation in basic skills such as study habits, test-taking strategies, and library research.
Fortunately, there is an answer to this conundrum: content-based ESOL. It’s an approach that integrates ‘traditional’ English-language teaching with content-based curriculum, which can be anything from elementary mathematics to the modern novel. It can be a challenging task for both teachers and students, but the results are worth it.
Before I began instructing at a community college, my experience teaching survival English – basic conversation, grammar, and real-life skills, such as filling out forms – to adult immigrants. So I was used to the idea of teaching around themes-going to the doctor, taking the bus. But content-based ESOL is much more than that. In my classroom, students not only learn a theme, its related vocabulary, and grammatical structures, they also learn to organize, analyze, and THINK. Instead of grammar drills, they read books and write summaries using the grammar they’re studying. In my classroom, students are required to ask questions, state opinions, and support their opinions with reasons. Beyond reading stale, isolated passages for the main idea, they use the ideas they read about to make presentations and write organized compositions.
Content-based ESOL inspires students to use the language they study, and gives them a reason to study it. Their writing improves, not only because of their progress in grammar and vocabulary, but also because they have more to say. Students enter college better prepared, with better skills and increased prior knowledge of history, literature, controversial issues, and the like.
Content-based ESOL has been present in discussions of higher-education ESOL for many years, and is now being applied to learning in elementary and high school. I would recommend such a program to any international student who is preparing to study in the US, and encourage those students to look for ESOL programs that offer more than plain, old grammar. There’s a whole world to learn about through English! Content-based ESOL takes some of the terror out of term papers.
Tasha Darbes is an ESOL teacher at Hostos Community College in Bronx, New York. A graduate of Brown University, Darbes received her master’s degree in writing and anthropology from New School University. Educating, researching and advising immigrants for more than 10 years, Darbes has taught literacy, citizenship, computer skills, and college prep to all levels of students from all over the world.