An education program must offer more than just grammar and spelling if it wants to retain its ESL (English as a Second Language) students until they test out of ESL and begin their college studies.

“Students need to make connections that will help them adjust to this new life. International students especially may feel isolated as they are far away from home, and the initial excitement may wear off quickly. Extracurricular activities will help them make friends outside of the ESL program and give them additional chances to practice English in a non-classroom environment.”

As ESL teachers, we need to do more than prepare students to pass the TOEFL or other tests. We need to prepare them to contribute to society.

"The goal of a successful language program is to foment and foster the development of linguistic and cultural proficiency, and thus awareness, that will facilitate dialogue and contribution to a global society." (Falce-Robinson, J.September 25, 2018)

Language is an important part of that preparation, for helping individual students reach their full potential in life. Through language, they learn a new culture and skills that go beyond just English.

"Language instructors recognize that excellent communication skills as well as cultural literacy are essential for students as they strive for success in the future. In addition, the study of language and culture is central to the development of the individual, whose familiarity with many forms of art, creativity, and self-expression will add balance and contribute not only to the overall success of the student but also to the personal achievement and happiness of a well-rounded individual." (Cultivating a Personal Style)

Learning languages enables people to develop their identities and allows them to be involved in multiple cultures. Speaking several languages has made people feel empowered and given them choices and perspectives.

Instructors need to be aware of different learning styles. For example, some students are good with book work, while others need the interaction of group activities. Some may respond to music while others may do well with activities involving movement.

Student involvement in the learning process is another way to encourage retention. By asking questions that require deep thought rather than a rote answer, you can encourage your students to participate on a deeper level.

Another way to increase retention is to encourage group work. As students work tighter in groups, they use English to achieve a common goal. They cooperate and share knowledge with each other. A variation on this activity would be for each group to appoint a leader who reports to the class on the group’s discussions and their outcome. Then the class can engage in further discussion and extend the learning process.

Reasons Students Drop Out of ESL Programs

There are many reasons for students to drop out of ESL programs.

  • Finances

    Many students drop out of these programs looking for a better price, or more access to jobs, internships or scholarships.

  • Disconnection
    Students often do not see the connections between the subjects they are studying in ESL versus other programs since the courses are isolated from each other.
  • Ineffective Program Models
    The length of terms is an important factor in student success. Ideally, students need at least 100 or more hours of instruction to make significant progress in learning English.
    "Adoption of Ten-week terms duration that students can commit to. Schedule more closely parallels K-12 calendar/holidays (TESOL-2010)."

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

    Another suggestion is the use of a core text series for all levels (TESOL-2010). 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 tests 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.

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

Learning Strategies To Combat Dropout

Students may be used to a learning by rote in their home countries. Show them what good learners do.

Here are some examples:

  1. Successful learners review former lessons to reinforce vocabulary, structures, and semantic/cultural topics; at the same time, they preview coming lessons both in the book and on audio files, if available, so the new material will be somewhat familiar by the time the class begins to study it.
  2. They practice skimming and scanning looking for meaning clues in context, and they are not afraid to guess if necessary.
  3. They learn new words in semantic groups and try to form associations between words and use memory hooks.
  4. Successful learners take notes writing down key words; they also are willing to record classes for later playback or do extra listening in the lab.

They gain further "comprehensible input" by engaging the teacher in additional conversation whenever possible, and by trying to read books and magazines outside of class or attending events where they must use English.

YouTube can also be used to provide authentic language. For example, in one ESL class taught by the author, Japanese students watched a video in English about making traditional Japanese food; the students then proceeded to teach English native speakers how to prepare the dish using the newly acquired vocabulary and structures and they learned how to explain a process.

Flash cards with new words and phrases are also used by successful students as a way of self-testing. An extension of this idea is for the learners to post sayings, poems or proverbs around the house to constantly keep the language in mind.

Teaching Hint No. 1

Music is a good way to maintain students’ interest. Teaching assistant Rhiannon Moore says that music keeps the students interested in the English language and opens the way for cross-cultural understanding.

Most colleges have student music groups or bands. There are also volunteer community bands and choruses as well. Many are free, and others have a small charge just to cover expenses. Community college music groups are considered a one-credit elective course and usually include a concert band, jazz band and a vocal ensemble or choir. These groups include students and people from the community who are taking the courses for personal enrichment.

Teaching Hint No. 2

Sports activities are available at most colleges. Students learn teamwork as well as make connections to regular students. Community service groups allow students to volunteer to help others and become more connected to their host communities.


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