This is article is a continuation of "Strategies for student success" from March.

As I wrote then, "…the concern among those serving international students is shifting from recruiting to retention. Student retention is especially critical at the college level, because there are many programs from which students can choose."

ESL programs should be more than just classes. Students need classes that are stimulating and relevant. Programs should include culture and sessions on adapting to life in the host country and interactions with regular students.

In addition to classes and activities, the overall learning environment is a factor in retention and student progress. Students need to feel like participants in the program rather than just observers. Each student needs to be more than just a number.

"…their performance will be affected by various layers of contextual influences such as the behavior of friends and classmates, the constraints of the classroom space, or the leadership functions exercised by the teacher," wrote Freerkien Waninge and co-authors in The Modern Language Journal in October 2014.

The main point is the provision of a positive learning and living experience for international students to encourage them to continue with their ESL studies. The intensive ESL program should seem like a second home. Obviously, small class size and attention to culture made a difference.

"We talk about ‘communicative competence’, but an L2 learner also needs to develop cultural competence, which includes the ability to establish relations, the ability to communicate clearly and the ability to achieve or attain a level of compliance among those involved," said Alvino E. Fantini in 1997’s "Language: Its cultural and intercultural dimensions."

Language and culture work together, as Fantini wrote:

"…language and culture are dimensions of each other, interrelated and inseparable. Language, in fact, both reflects and affects one’s world view, serving as a sort of road map to how one perceives, interprets and thinks about and expresses one’s view of the world."

We use language to classify and segment our notions about the world. Fantini continues, "As we learn our native tongue, we learn to generalize and specify about the things of the world as we encode concepts into the words of language just as the words of language in turn lead us to concepts."

Culture affects one’s worldview: "The language we acquire influences the way we construct our model of the world." Teachers should know something about the learners’ different cultures and help them adapt to the host nation’s culture and be able to warn them of possible pitfalls.

Culture shock

Instructors and administrators need to be aware of culture shock. Culture shock for learners studying in another country usually begins after the initial excitement wears off.

Paul Shoebottom writes, "Most people moving to a different country experience feelings that can range from excitement and interest to depression, frustration and irritation or even anger and aggression. The stress that is caused by these emotions has come to be known as culture shock."

Symptoms of culture shock may vary. Some students may become depressed and complain about minor problems and details. Others will withdraw from the host culture and stay exclusively within their own group.

Middle Eastern students are going through cultural turmoil in their home countries, and they may bring it with them. M. Zudhi Jasser, an American Muslim of Syrian descent, discusses the East-West conflict in terms of liberalism and Islamism:

"Liberalism in this context is the Western Post-Enlightenment political movement centered on reason, natural law individuality and unalienable rights 'under God'. Contrarily, Islamism is the political movement of Muslims wedded to the 'Islamic State' and its legal infrastructure, its clerics, scholars and their Shariah Law."

Here "Islamic State" means the overall Muslim community, not ISIS. Students who feel conflicted may decide to return home before finishing their course of ESL. Students may show a variety of reactions to their new environment ranging from rejection to total assimilation.

A variety of factors can cause culture shock. Note the following from Shoebottom:

"The student may have come from a country where the goal of education is to teach an agreed body of knowledge and students are expected to acquire a large number of facts by rote. They will therefore be unused to learning by discovery and the amount of analysis or critical thinking that is required… They may treat enjoyable class activities with suspicion, in the belief that one cannot have fun and learn at the same time. They may feel threatened by the degree of participation expected of them in class, preferring to remain silent for fear of ‘showing off' or, more likely, of losing face by giving the wrong answer. They may also perceive a wrong answer as causing the teacher to lose face, and they may be reluctant to ask questions for the same reason. Being praised in front of others causes some students embarrassment; others feel uncomfortable when asked to share opinions and beliefs, which they regard as private. Some ESL students may be unused to being taught by teachers of the opposite sex, or they may have come from schools where the expectations and treatment of boys and girls are different."

Classroom culture

Behavior, particularly with younger students, may be a problem. The classroom culture needs to focus on learning and mutual respect. ESL learners take risks; teachers should encourage students to go beyond the textbook lesson without fearing errors.

It is important to keep students engaged and occupied with hand on activities including pair work and board work. A bored class is more likely to be disruptive and one that is actively engaged in realistic and relevant activities.

Teachers need to gather basic information about their students such as home language level of education and future study plans. This knowledge can help instructors meet their students’ educational needs.

"Teachers collect information about their students’ linguistic and educational backgrounds to determine correct placement for students. They also seek to learn a new student’s cultural and geographic background as a resource for classroom learning," according to TESOL’s "The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners."

Teachers can use the learner’s prior knowledge, skills experience and talents, music for example, to enhance their teaching.

Research from the University of Southern California indicates that reading together helps students of different cultures to bond together.

Reading can go beyond the structured reading class. Some ESL programs have reading clubs as an extra activity where students borrow graded readers from the department and then meet together to discuss the stories. Since this is an extracurricular activity there and no grades and no stress.