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Helping ESL Students Achieve Success in Language and Life

Sally Behrenwald

Post submitted by Sally Behrenwald, who has taught English as a second/foreign language to students ranging from 2 years old through adulthood. From 2005 to 2007, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching in a public school in eastern Ukraine. Currently, she is an intern at the Ohio Program of Intensive English at Ohio University.

"The homework wasn't late—I was late. The homework was done two days ago."

"My friends do not understand. They are jealous that I am here, but I wish I was back with them."

"You mean if I use someone else's ideas but put them in my own words, I must use a citation?"

"I want to meet American students, but I don't know what to say."

"Thank you for talking to me. When I talk to my academic advisor, I think he does not want to listen to me except about classes. I think you are more my advisor than he is."

As a university English as a second language (ESL) instructor, these are the type of conversations I have every week—students trying to figure out college life, perplexed by new cultural norms, and rejoicing in small victories. They have come from all over—a majority are Chinese, but I've had students from South Korea, Taiwan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and the United Arab Emirates in my classes over the last two years. Many of them are what are referred to as "provisionally admitted students": Once they finish their English classes, they'll start working on their bachelor degrees, and it's difficult for them to see my class as anything but an unnecessary evil between them and academic classes, whether or not they have the skills needed to succeed there. I teach them those skills, but more than that, my job goes beyond teaching grammar and vocabulary to teaching my students what it means to be a successful student at an American university.

Like American college students, my students are confronted with what, for some of them, is their first taste of freedom. They stay up too late partying or playing video games (and I'll never forget the student who flunked my class due to spending all his free time, including when he should have been in my class, playing an MMORPG). They form romantic relationships, both with students from their culture and with American students. They get sick. They get homesick. They hate the cafeteria food and dream of the day they can move off campus. They get a car and then have to figure out a) where to park it legally, b) how to avoid getting speeding tickets, and c) how not to freak out their teacher when they confess to driving in front of an oncoming train (I only wish I was making this part up!). They do their homework, but sometimes they don't. They take their exams and hope for the best.

But there are many successes, both in and out of the classroom. Lengthy conversations with American students where neither party runs out of things to say. That placement test score that jumps you up a level to full-time academic. Hosting dinners or performances to educate others about your culture. A shy girl giving a five-minute speech to her classmates. Friendships between students from different countries who find themselves in the same class.

In my career, these successes are what keep me going when I don't think I can stand to look at another run-on sentence. This fall, "Steve," one of my ESL students—one who struggled with writing and grammar—applied to be a cafeteria supervisor. He had me look at his resume and help him think of possible answers to interview questions. The day of the interview, he showed up to class in a suit and tie. "You know, Steve, even if you don't get the job, I'm proud of you," I said, trying to soften the possible blow.

"I think I'm going to get the job," he told me.

And he got it.

Do you know any international college students? Were you one yourself? How does the influx of international students change academic classroom dynamics once the students get out of ESL classes? What are some suggestions for helping them integrate into the university culture?

Comments (1)

Helping ESL Students Achieve Success in Language a

November 21, 2010

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