The United States has been a land of immigrants since its inception--but for years, the way newcomers learned English was simply through trial and error. Today, teaching English to speakers of other languages (known in education circles as TESOL) embraces not just language education, but many of the social and cultural issues associated with working with speakers of other languages. Research topics in TESOL encompass an array of issues as diverse as the populations it is trying to reach. For researchers in this field, TESOL is as much a sociological endeavor as it is an educational one.
With federal education law like "No Child Left Behind" putting emphasis on learning standards and tests to assess achievement, it’s still unclear how ESL students fit into this model. Although some assessments are provided in students’ native languages, not all tests are. Is a talented math student who speaks another language really not meeting math standards if she cannot understand written-word problems? Is a student not a good reader because he reads in Mandarin instead of English? State education departments are trying to address these issues in different ways, but ESL students are counted along with all other students when it comes to the federal and state funding tied to these exams.
Like any subject matters, one has to know English to teach it. Does it matter if the teacher spoke another language first? Most high school graduates had foreign language teachers who spent a great deal of time studying Spanish or French but relatively few who grew up speaking it at home. Yet there is controversy around non-native speakers teaching new English language learners (ELLs). Are they at a disadvantage to not have English as their native tongue, or do they bring a different expertise, having gone through the ELL process themselves?
Impact of Age on Learning
ESL students are not just in the public school system; there are plenty of adults coming into the United States who need English instruction. This poses challenges for educators. Cognitive development theory shows that children have the greatest capacity for learning a new language; but educators are struggling to reach the parents and grandparents of those children. They’re not in school; they may not have the know-how to reach a community organization that offers ESL instruction. Their needs are also different; adults need language skills that help them on the job or conduct daily business. This is very different from the language of academics that children get from TESOL.
Adult ESL Cross-Cultural Issues
Once you can get adults into the ESL classroom, keeping them there may be a challenge. Not only are students being pulled in several directions – parenting, job, and so on – but there may be cultural issues that potentially interfere with instruction. Customs and norms may be harder to translate than words. Cultural norms about gender can also play into this dynamic; male students from a strictly patriarchal culture may have difficulty answering to a female teacher, while female students may be uncomfortable learning from a male teacher.
Andrea Kearns is an award-winning broadcast journalist whose work has aired across New York State. After nearly a decade of covering the events and people who make history, she is now sharing her knowledge and experience in the classroom as a high school history and government teacher.