One error in working with ESL students

I specialize in teaching essay structure and style. When I began tutoring, I had a vague idea that I'd work with college students like the friends for whom I'd proofread during university: young Americans who've grown up in a public school system which emphasized group work over individual learning, and who therefore never got a chance to develop their writing skills.

I've certainly worked with students from a background very much like this. However, I've also had the pleasure of building a strong ESL clientele. At this point, I've spent enough time with ESL students to have made some observations about the nature of ESL learning and the way it is discussed. I'm certainly no expert, but by now I am a reliable dilettante. I speak with the authority of firsthand experience. From that vantage, I'd like to address one mistake which is frequently made in conversations about ESL learning. It is a very serious mistake and I have to believe that it muddles teachers' thinking considerably.

I have heard instructors say of their adult ESL students, "He writes at a fourth-grade level," and I've had students report similar language from their own college professors. I want to encourage my fellow tutors to eliminate this kind of talk. Aside from being insulting and infantilizing, it simply isn't accurate. The errors in the schoolchild's essay are due to the fact that her brain is still developing, and that her relationship with Language as a method of acting in the world is still fluid. The errors in the ESL adult's essay are due to the fact that she is acquainted with one system of conducting language, and she is naturally trying to make her new language conform to her old system. These are two extremely different cases and need extremely different solutions.

Unless you deal with very unusual cases - space aliens; humans raised by wolves; mermaids - you will probably never encounter an adult person to whom word-language of some sort is a new concept (if you are, incidentally, asked to tutor a mermaid, you might be a pal and invite me along.) And yet this is precisely the experience of childhood; whether you believe that language is social or inherent, you've got to recognize that, for the child, the experience of using language is novel. The child's challenge is one of first-acquaintance, where the adult's is of adaptation.

I understand the reasons for choosing to phrase the issue this way: the instructor means that, by numbers, their ESL student has an English vocabulary of comparable size to an English-speaking fourth-grader; or that the ESL student would not pass a test given to 4th-graders; or that she makes as many errors with English punctuation as would an American child in 4th grade.

I understand that the instructor has chosen handy parameters with which to describe her student's English proficiency. All the same, I think they are damaging parameters to use. As I've said, I'm no expert; I couldn't say whether or not more accurate terminology exists. All I can say is that this terminology is useless at best.


Thank you Elizabeth.  I agree with you wholeheartedly.  Not only is the statement "reads at a 4th grade level" inaccurate and misleading, it is inherently a very negative statement.  When I first read the statement, I felt smacked by this negativity.  Even if it were a phrase that could be used to measure reading ability, it should never, ever be used.  It is demeaning and non-supportive.
I completely agree with you! Having taught ESL in high school, I have heard this sort of narrow classification and conversation. This is why the school created a new position, ELD advisor. It gave me the opportunity to work with staff regarding not just teaching methodology but also teach a new communication skill. The point is to teach effectively without labels and narrow boxing of these students. 
Great post!

Fortunately, the reading texts for my adult learners (mostly refugees) don't mention reading levels, except to say "high-beginning" etc., and although this kind of description is better than "reads at a 4th-grade level," it still tells us very little.

An adult ESL student who is "weak" in language skills does not follow the same progression that a native-speaker follows, of course. Adult language-learners have skills that a native-speaker may not need or even recognize.   I believe strongly that teachers need to acknowledge the cognitive awareness of their students--and actually point out to them that they are already strong in these "higher-order thinking skills" (another cliche that should be avoided!).  I have an example from my own experience in Mexico. In a restaurant one day, I had ordered a hamburger, and I wanted mustard on it. Mustard bottles were on almost all the tables around me--but not mine. I thought to myself that if I ate the hamburger without mustard then I was a weak person--afraid to act. So I hit upon a way out: when the server came by, I pointed at a nearby table and said "Yo quiero esa cosa amarilla." The server turned, picked up the bottle of mustard, and put it on my table. No laughing or comment. In that moment, I felt great; I believed I had hit upon the best definition of "fluency" for me--keep talking; use other words to communicate.
In learning a language, individual strategies are essential. Our students have lots of shortcuts and idiosyncratic methods for getting through the problems of English that they face every day, especially at work and in carrying out usual daily activities. So, yes, I agree completely with Elizabeth that using artificial parameters (such as grade-levels) is not an effective way to express the true proficiency of the individual.  
And it is time to toss the term "English as a Second Language" program/department, and replace it with "English for New Americans."  Much better!
Wow, these are such exciting responses. I love hearing from genuine specialists; I am so happy to learn that experts are tackling the issue from diverse directions. Janice, I read your answer with interest - what a great move on the part of the school to bring you in as advisor. I feel genuine relief thinking that people like you are addressing misconceptions where they have the potential to be most threatening.
Marc, I started writing this reply with my thumb on my phone at Starbucks (no easy task!) just because I was so interested by your note. What a fantastic point about the unique strengths of adult learners, and I loved your mustard anecdote. "Keep talking" - if I ever got a tattoo, that'd be it.
Thanks to everyone. I would love to hear more insights. 
I agree with all of these, but would like to improve (I think) just a tad on Marc's suggestion as many of my students are only in the U.S. for a limited time:  "English as a New Language" or "English as an Additional Language". As for communicating language ability, most of my students have a Common European Framework designation, but it still doesn't tell me what they need work on until I meet them. I have to make my own laundry list of vocab, sentence structure, tense use, essay organization, etc. A person with otherwise high function may still often revert to fossilized grammar or pronunciation that is usually taught at a beginning level.


Elizabeth A.

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