Community colleges serve a vital function in higher education. As discussed in a previous article, 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.

Community colleges also provide a vital service for those needing ESL instruction, including both international students and residents who do not have English as L1.

The first community college opened in 1901 as a convenient way for people to get an education close to home, and today there are more than 1,500 community colleges across the U.S. They provide a wide variety of services for both vocation-bound and college-bound students, including international students.

"For English instructors, courses range from basic reading and writing and ESL courses to university-parallel composition and literature courses, honors courses, creative writing, technical and professional writing, and genre and survey courses in literature," according to the Modern Language Association.

Programs providing vocational or content ESL require that students understand a specific subject and perform specific tasks related to the subject, be it academic, literature for example or job-related, such as business ESL.

"Although ESL instruction has changed greatly in a short period of time, one thing that has remained the same is the need for effective lessons that help students develop skills they can use outside the classroom," according to "Teaching Adults: An ESL Resource Book."

Community colleges have traditionally offered vocational training along with two-year academic studies. Vocational training and ESL can be combined:

"We should also use federal spending to encourage the spread of programs for adults who've mastered survival English — one approach is classes that combine language instruction with, say, vocational training," Tamar Jacoby writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"Community colleges across the country are picking up on an idea piloted in Washington State: classes with two teachers and double-barreled lesson plans where students improve their English while they earn a nurse's license or a welding certificate. These and other programs like them are drawing millions of adults back into the classroom — yet more could be done."

ESL can also be combined with academic content-area instruction. Students planning to continue their university studies can successfully finish a two-year course of study at their local community college and then transfer to a 4-year college to finish their degrees. Here is one student's account:

"I had initially moved to the U.S. to advance my career in ballet," Giovana Rodrigues Manfrin wrote. "I decided to enroll at Miami Dade College, a community college, in order to extricate myself from my nonacademic background and live the life of books, caffeine and countless research papers. Miami Dade offered the flexibility I needed for a smooth and enjoyable transition from the world of ballet to the world of politics."

Community colleges are serving a more diverse student body, which includes those who have English as their second language: "As community colleges provide students of diverse backgrounds with access to courses, instruction, and training venues, schools are now implementing increased support for students whose primary and native language is not English."


There is a wide spectrum of students attending community colleges: "Students' ages may run from 16 to 80. Some are still in high school, some are ready to transfer to a university, and some hold advanced degrees. While this diversity is exciting, it also makes community college teaching more challenging. Instructors must be flexible and creative to meet these students' needs."

Students transitioning to a community college after passing the TOEFL, the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) or similar test often need additional instruction to prepare them for academic work. After being in classes with other ESL learners on the same level, they are now facing academic classes with instructors who are not used to dealing with second-language (L2) learners.

Also, most of the students' peers are no longer ESL learners but native speakers with whom they will need to interact and even work with on projects. The ESL students may have difficulty understanding language that is ironic, sarcastic and contains idioms or puns.They may not be adequately prepared when they enter a community college.

"The increasing number of students attending community colleges reflects a broader reach into the general population, which has resulted in high percentages of underprepared students coming through the doors of U.S. community colleges," Clint McElroy writes.

In some community colleges, non-ESL professionals make the major decisions and may even be teaching classes. One instructor writes the following: "In this case, we the ESL faculty, are left with a burning unanswered question: Why weren't we invited to participate in any discussions concerning major changes to the ESL program from the beginning."

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. Students should contact the university they wish to attend and make sure that your courses are accepted.

Community colleges may provide support for ESL students who have finished their intensive program.

Some colleges offer a series of ESL writing classes to assist L2 students who are making the transition from SL to regular classes. Students enroll in a series of courses similar to the "college prep" or "fundamentals" courses offered to the native speakers who are weak in their reading and writing skills. These courses are taught by ESL instructors and use texts designed for ESL students or college prep texts supplemented by teacher-made handouts.

Testing and placement

Intensive university-based programs often use national standardized tests like the TEOFL for placement, while community colleges may use their own tests, adult basic education tests or tests designed to identify those who need remedial English. Sometimes a test can take precedence over language learning, as David Gerhold points out.

"However, the mandatory nature of the test leads to an unhealthy obsession among international students with TOEFL," Gerhold writes. "TOEFL is of limited ability. It tests how fast you can read, some grammar or some vocabulary, but it doesn't help you with the real problems you have to face once you've passed it."

Many students who have passed the TOEFL still have trouble with academic language and have difficulty following lectures or interacting with instructors. Students may take test preparation courses along with intensive ESL and pass the admission tests, but they may still lack needed skills.

Students coming out of these intensive ESL programs have been focused on the TOEFL, and depending on the program, may be lacking in other skills that are necessary for academic success such as using a word processing program, doing a research paper and developing good college success skills.

Most programs have students give a timed writing sample and a speaking test in addition to any standardized tests. The writing samples are judged by at least two readers according to an established rubric.

For teachers, ESL instruction is more than just lessons and tests for their students. A teacher relates her experiences when she began teaching:

"It should be about empowering them to navigate through the English language world in U.S. communities, having to converse with both native and nonnative English speakers," Gloria Park writes. "It was about transferring the ideas and knowledge of the English language to different areas of their lives, especially at home with their children and in the workplace with both NESs and NNESs."

Challenges for teachers

Teachers may find that the expectations and outcomes are different than what they have experienced in university IEP programs. Teacher training does not cover everything. Some aspects of TESL require on-the-job training.

"An equally important realization was that the theoretical and practical knowledge gleaned from my MA TESOL program was simply not enough to enable me to journey effortlessly through day-to-day ESL teaching," Park writes. "Students come into ESL programs with different cultural needs and linguistic backgrounds. English language can empower students, but it can also marginalize them if they do not gain proficiency."

ESL goes beyond mere language. It includes preparing students to get ahead, socially academically and economically.