Many second-language students end up in community colleges either in IEP programs or college preparatory classes. Some community colleges also provide adult basic education, which prepares resident internationals to become citizens and enter the workforce.

As discussed in a previous article, adult education English language courses (ESOL) offer a unique set of challenges that are different from those presented by the typical intensive programs at state universities and private language schools.

Students, including internationals, may not be ready for college-level work. In addition to being "diverse" in the broadest sense, community college students are three to four times more likely than their four-year counterparts to need remediation.

The mission of a community college

The mission of a community college is to be readily accessible and to offer quality programs, state-of-the art facilities and first-class faculty to help students achieve their educational, career and life goals. Resources are provided, such as learning centers and peer tutors, that enable student success.

A community college serves a diverse group of students, including recent high school graduates, adult learners, those who have English as their second language and students preparing for vocational careers. In addition, community education and corporate education can be provided as the needs arise.

Community college instructors teach in an environment that enhances learning, excellence in teaching and community.

"The community college is a complex environment where diverse students, faculty, administrators and staff come together to share learning and cultural experiences," according to editors Jose A. Carmona and Craig Machado.

ESL students

Community colleges play a major role in ESL teaching.

"ESL is taught in many types of community college settings, and it varies based on the nature and purpose of a program-credit or non-credit, academic or vocational, and so on," Machado writes.

Students may be in intensive language institutes, where they spend at least 20 hours a week in intensive language study. A lab may also be included along with access to tutors.

These students are typically international students with visas allowing them to stay in country as long as they maintain their student status. There are different levels and separate classes for reading, writing, grammar and speaking/listening.

Another model puts the students in developmental ESL classes that are for credit. These classes are international sections of remedial English courses designed for native speakers. Usually the credits for these ESL college prep classes does not count toward any major but are counted as part of a student's course load.

Adult education

ABE/ESOL courses are designed for legal residents or refugees and are generally free or a reduced cost. These courses prepare learners to enter the workforce, to obtain citizenship or take the GED. They are not as intense as the I-20 programs, and students may attend sporadically depending on their home situations or work schedules.

Most ESOL programs run day and evening classes to accommodate adults who are planning to enter the workforce or who are already working and want to advance. Some programs may offer civics along with vocational ESOL as part of contest-based ESOL. Since most of the students will be applying for citizenship, they have a high interest level in civics.

Community college ABE/ESOL students often include prebeginning or preliterate learners who present a unique challenge to the ESL teacher accustomed to students who can write the Latin alphabet. Students may speak a language that uses a non-Latin alphabet such as Arabic, Chinese or Japanese. Some learners may speak a language with no written alphabet or they may not be literate in their own language.

In some cases (Russian for example), some of the reading skills may transfer even though the alphabet is different. In contrast, most IEP students know some English or another Western language going into the program.

"English as a second language (ESL) courses can be considered an approach to academic and occupational integration because they infuse career-related information into English-language reading and vocabulary," writes Grace Chen.

As an example, the Illinois Community College System uses a vocational model that puts career related material into the ESL courses.

"This model emerges largely as a response of community colleges to serve students who are entering higher education because of increased immigration since the 1960s and to high dropout rates among remedial non-English-speakers who considered remedial courses only marginally applicable to their career goals," according to Debra D. Bragg.

An ESL program should go beyond mere language. It should be about empowering learners to prepare to enter the academic world or the workforce. Lessons should be focused on both language and the subjects that the students will study after they finish ESL: computer programming or heating and air conditioning, for example.

Vocational and content ESL classes at the community college level provide ESL learners with comprehensible input while they study an interesting subject. These are real subject-matter classes with the focus and the tests on the content. They are not selections from subject matter introduced as part of a language class.

The material is specialized providing "narrow input" that soon becomes familiar to the students. With the readings, lectures and writing assignments all on a given topic or on a single literary author, the students have the advantage of a familiar extra-linguistic context and a vocabulary that repeats often enough that they do not have to spend as much time looking up new words than if they were working on a new topic or author each week. Also these topical ESL programs connect the learners to relevant real materials.

Here are some comments on the new type of "millennial" student entering college today who expects a lot more than the traditional students of the past:

"It is important to show students what they are learning is relevant to life today, to connect concepts learned in class to the 'real world' and to allow students to reflect on these matters. The goal is to encourage students to think about a particular topic and apply it to their life; thus making the information useful," writes Pardess Mitchell.

Also, topical ESL allows students to relate their language learning to the academic subjects they are studying or will be studying. Here is a quotation from Gloria Park, an ESL learner who first learned English in isolation from real applications:

"First, although learning in a one-pupil classroom gave me exposure to English language learning, English was not contextualized in that I never knew how to make connections between what I was learning in the ESL pullout program and what was happening in my mainstream content classes."

To conclude, community colleges are an important resource for a variety of students, including internationals:

"In terms of the sheer number of students they reach, two-year colleges have an enormous impact on American higher education," according to the Modern Language Association. "The California Community College System alone is composed of 109 colleges, serves more than 2.5 million students, and is the largest system of public higher education in the world, according to the system's Chancellor's Office web page.

"A recent United States Department of Education analysis conducted by Clifford Adelman shows that roughly two-fifths of traditional-age students (18-24) began their college education at the community college; three-fifths of students over the age of 24 entered college at the community college."

Sample content area lesson: Civics

Reading charts, graphs and maps is an excellent activity that allows students to do something useful without having to struggle with the language. For example, in a civics lesson on "The English Settle America" (Vivian Bernstein, 1990), the students can read a chart:

Students can then answer these questions:

  1. Who started the colony in Maryland?
  2. When did Roger Williams start his colony?
  3. Which colony was started to help the poor?
  4. Which colony was the first?

Visual aids, including charts, diagrams and pictures, will help the teacher reach those students who are lacking in language proficiency since the visual image makes an immediate impression and does not rely solely on written or oral language that may be beyond the learners' levels.

In the chart above, the information is presented in a simplified manner with plenty of repetition (note freedom of repeated three times). Visual aids are a way to make the language contextualized and more comprehensible. Clues that help the learners include the format, title, graphics, the caption and the dates.