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.

There are many reasons for students to drop out of ESL programs, both intensive or support programs that are combined with content courses. Most are looking for a better price or a different academic program, or they may have friends in a different program.

What can individual teachers as well as programs do to encourage students to stay with the program until they are ready to move on to academics? The following issues will be addressed: programs and models, advising, relevant content, and cultural concerns and activities.

Administrative problems

Students need to be aware of transfer credits from the community college to their university of choice. Not everything will transfer.

Also, classes at a community college may not have equivalents at the university where the students plan to attend, especially if it is in a different state or a private university. Students should contact the university they wish to attend and make sure their courses are accepted.

So how can colleges encourage students to stay and be successful in their academic programs?

Program models

The length of terms is an important factor in student success. ESL students need at least 100 or more hours of instruction to make significant progress in learning English. What are ways that programs can improve student retention?

Jack Bailey suggests adoption of 10-week terms as a "duration that students can commit to," along with a schedule that "more closely parallels K-12 calendar/holidays."

A 10-week term gives students time to adapt to the texts and the teachers and to see real progress. Shorter terms go by too fast, and longer terms can cause fatigue. During the 10-week term, the students have the opportunity to bond with each other and form a cohort.

Another suggestion by Bailey is the use of a core text series for all levels. Students are used to the format and presentation and do not have to constantly adjust to new authors and styles.

With core texts, there is usually a seamless transition between books in the same series. The core books are often supported by handouts, test banks, audio files or computerized learning programs produced by the authors to fill in any gaps and provide variety.

Also, following the K-12 schedule is particularly important for adult ESOL as well as community college programs where many students have families. Otherwise the ESL/ESOL students may be in class when their children are out of school or the parents may have a vacation when their children are in school.


International students may feel disconnected, especially if they are in high school. Here are some student comments in The Buffalo News:

  • "Everybody spoke English, and I didn't know that much. It's hard because everyone looks at you like, 'What are you saying?' You feel rejected."
  • "People used to think I was deaf."
  • "I looked at all the words [in 'MacBeth'], and they were all, 'Thy, king.' I don't understand."

Another possibility is to involve students in jobs helping others.

Project Access is a structured program that provides a clear pathway for intermediate-level ESL students to earn an Early Childhood Education certification, and subsequently a job at local childcare/educational institutions. This project involves collaboration with local community-based organizations and community colleges, as well as the contextualized instruction.

Student success class

A student success class, geared to ESL students, also helps with retention and encourages students. This class can consist of a set of workshops containing study skills, learning strategies and time management. It should address potential barriers to attendance and provide success stories and role models.

Students would be introduced to the campus writing center that allows peer review of writing assignments and help with research. Students should be encouraged to use other tutoring services, labs and ESL websites.

The program should introduce students to community resources as well. Language learning does not stop when students leave the classroom. Note the uses of L2 listed in the ACTFL National Standards: "Learners access and evaluate information and diverse perspectives that are available through the language and its cultures."

Students come from a variety of educational systems that vary both from each other and from those used in the English-speaking countries. Many traditional education systems rely more on memorization and recitation than on critical thinking and investigation.

A college success class should provide an outline of the education model used in the host country, along with some sample activities to help the students adjust. For example, they may be good speakers but will be unable to transfer conversations into writing and have difficulty transferring their own and others' ideas into a written assignment.

In addition, they need to be taught how to use meta-cognitive strategies such as planning, outlining, considering the audience, brainstorming or mapping.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of English is style and rhetoric. The transfer of cultural thought patterns from one linguistic base to another results in comments on student papers such as "loose ends," "vague" or "wordy."

The accepted patterns of English rhetoric must be taught through a systematic approach that gives the writers plenty of opportunity for revision and extensive outside reading. The college success class can provide needed assistance and practice and help in making the transition to regular classes.