Friday, September 28, 2012

Writing these blogs is a good opportunity to re-evaluate my writing style as well as to reflect. In a previous blog, I mentioned that I teach at the Intensive American Language Center (IALC) here on campus. The students, who come from all over the world, range in age 18 - 35. They work extremely hard as the program is truly intense for both students and  teachers alike.

I barely get to know their names, which are for the most part very difficult to pronounce, before they move on to the next level. Their efforts are rewarded when they pass level six which means they can enroll as WSU students. That is their goal -- their summit. Well, actually, their goals probably extend to receiving their bachelor and master degrees if not their PhDs. Realistically, most of their summits would probably be attained when they find a good-paying job.

There are real challenges in teaching an English Language Learner (ELL). One of the first obstacles I met was that Asian students rarely open their mouths in class. They expect to learn everything by listening solely to their teachers. Group activities and direct questions scare them which makes it difficult to get any response from them or to have any fun. Several teachers here have found games that are good ice-breakers (ways to loosen them up a bit).  When students relax, there is a window -- a teachable moment.

We only share a classroom for two months which is much too short a time really to gain their trust: respect, confidence, or friendship. During that time, from when we first open the books to when they take the final exam, they learn an amazing amount of grammar, write several paragraphs and an essay, and read a high school level novel such as Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm, or The Magician's Elephant. They also take a listening and speaking class which I believe is the most important because without it, they wouldn't be able to function in the other classes.

There are also electives available to them: a computer class, a movie or music class, a pronunciation class, and a class whose  title is, "I Write Better Now." Most of my students do choose an elective even though they are only pass/fail courses. These ELL students are really motivated and really work hard. They participate in class, they do their homework, they worry that they're not doing enough. I really respect them and feel for them if they have to repeat a level (session).

All in all, this is a very rewarding profession because I am able to watch them improve mightily from level one (where they barely speak English at all) to level six where they can think, write, speak and dream in nearly perfect English. We all applaud them after they get through our program, and we track their progress when they become students at WSU. Most of them thrive, and when we ask them how they are doing, they always reply, "Oh, it's so hard at WSU, so very very hard." I studied at an Italian university when I was a young student, and those were my exact sentiments about that university. I'll save all that for another blog -- my year abroad. It's my opinion that everyone should take a year abroad.


  1. I am really glad to read your experiences as a teacher because in the near future I will also teach ESL/ELL students. One of the most difficult things during my first practices was to get answers and participation from my students. I used to wonder about the right methods and tasks to engage them throughout the process of learning a new language--English, but it always turned a tough challenge. However, I manage to engage them through different activities. What kind of ice-breakers did you use? I would like to know that to apply them in my future classrooms.
    I kind of feel connected to the students that you mentioned. I feel rather scared than secure about my skills studying here at WSU. Maybe that happens because this is my first time in the USA and away from home-- the first time I am immersed in a completely new culture. I am here not only to improve my English language, but also to grow as a person. As you said, I also think everyone should take a year abroad (or a semester as I am doing now)--it is a good chance to grow personally and intellectually.
    I really liked your use of the patterns of the week. The part in which you use the appositive "a teachable moment" after the dash sounds really harmonious.

    1. Thank you for your comments. Your English is quite beautiful. I would be glad to share some of the games I have played with my students. Perhaps you could visit me in my office here in McAllister, or I could bring some photocopies of them to class where we will be able to discuss them afterwards, unless you have to go to a class right away.

  2. thank you, Linda, for telling us about your classes--and in such a lovely prose style. I do hope you can share your activities with Macarena because she's writing a unit plan in my other class on teaching ELL, and I'm not much help in that regard, although I did teach ELL in Greece back in 1976. Just a note about punctuation: all your WHICH clauses (I think all of them) need to be set off with commas... unless you can substitute THAT for the WHICH, in which case, I'd just use THAT instead. I think I saw a couple of other dependent clauses at the end of sentences (e.g., EVEN THOUGH) that also needed a comma set-off.

    Let me know if you want to talk more about punctuating these babies in class. I bet if you need and want it, others will too.

    1. Thanks, Barbara, for catching all those restrictive clauses that I can never decide whether to punctuate or not. It always seems to me that the information is necessary for the reader to really understand what it is I am trying to say. I suppose I think that all the information is needed and cannot be dropped out because it is so important for meaning. As I said in class, I think it really is a judgment call, and I remember your saying that it is sometimes a bad call. . .:)