Chapter 6: Who Are ESL Students?

by Nancy Robinson, Barbara Keogh & Ochan Kusuma-Powell

We often think of ESL children as the easiest to recognize among our special populations, picturing students who characteristically enter our classrooms without a word of English. These 'pure type' ESL students are, in fact, easily distinguishable: recent newcomers to the country and to the international school community, for a while they may remain silent in class as they adjust to a new school, environment and culture, unless there is a native language comrade to interact with.

This so-called "silent period" may last anywhere from just a few days to several months or even close to a year and is often a time of great discomfort for the ESL student as well as the teacher. The student is concerned about decoding verbal and non-verbal communication as well as understanding the socio-cultural framework of the school ("What are the expectations for behavior? For academic success? For making friends?"), whereas the teacher may be concerned that not enough is being done for the student when the student's verbal responses are so few and far between.

Factors Affecting Second Language Acquisition
Exactly how a second language is acquired is still uncertain, although individual students show varying patterns, rates and styles of acquisition. For example, some students seem to "take off" and become quickly conversant in English, while others continue to struggle even after lengthy periods of exposure to the target language. Factors that affect second language acquisition have been divided into three basic categories. Their roles in second language acquisition are not fully understood at this time, although it is certain that they do influence student learning outcomes and success in school.

• Learner characteristics or personal traits (Izzo, 1981; Kusuma-Powell, 1992;
  Ramirez, 1995; Sears, 1998);

• Situational or environmental factors (Ramirez, 1995; Sears, 1998); and

• Prior language development and competence (Cummins, 1979; Adamson, 1993).

Learner characteristics are those that are specific to the individual, including learning styles and strategies, attitude, motivation and personality. Frequently, self-confident children with extrovert personalities will attempt verbal interactions in another language more quickly than their timid counterparts, speeding up social adjustment in the new environment. Learner characteristics also influence the way a child responds to an instructional style and setting, i.e. the teacher's instructional style and the formal/informal nature of the classroom or activities.

Situational or environmental factors have to do with issues external to the child, including the particular teaching style, the class and school setting, and the quality and extent of exposure to English. Within the academic setting, are ESL students getting enough exposure to native English speakers as they work in class, or are they working only with other non-native speakers? Krashen (1982, 1985) discusses the students' need for adequate exposure to the target language, and comprehensible input, or language that is slightly beyond the level which students can themselves produce. One of the observations made by many international school teachers is that second language students are only exposed to English during school hours, unless English is also spoken in the community environment. And for students in a pull-out program or ESL reception class, exposure to the speech of native language models is limited to the class teacher.

Prior language development and competence in it also seem to be key in determining how well a student acquires English as a second language. It is generally accepted that adequate linguistic and cognitive development in a home language contributes positively to second language learning (Cummins, 1986). Thus, there is a recognition of the importance of the quality of language with which children come to international schools, i.e. the language within the home, and the length of time children have had to establish competence in their native tongue. However, despite native language competence, it is unlikely that students will achieve native-like pronunciation in a second language after the age of 14.

Potential Problems in Second Language Acquisition
As much as we might wish it, not all ESL children come to us as 'pure types,' ready and confident to accept the challenges of a new environment and take appropriate risks in speaking English. Not all students come with the necessary competence already established in one language that will allow an easy bridge into second language learning. Many children in international schools come from multiple language backgrounds, where one or both parents mother tongue may be different from the practiced language of the family. In other cases, young internationalschool children may have moved numerous times to a variety of countries and continents and been in the care of nannies or other household help, each with a different mother tongue. In still other cases, second and third generation children of immigrants living in closed communities might have lost direct links with their country of origin and yet remain largely un-assimilated in their new host countries. For example, in the Chinese communities in Indonesia or the Indian communities in East Africa, second and third generation children may not have the resources to establish competence in either their so-called "mother tongue" or their new host country language. Each of these preceding scenarios offers the potential for poor language models and poor language development.

Children with such complex linguistic histories, who have not established adequate competence in a primary language, may continue to have difficulty with developing fully a second (or third, or fourth) language, despite sustained exposure to the target language. Difficulties in vocabulary development and syntax, impoverished or immature writing, and difficulty keeping up and participating in class may all be symptoms of an earlier lack of competence in a first language. Such children often resemble language learning disabled children and it can be difficult to assess whether it is poor exposure to language or a neuropsychological difficulty that is preventing adequate language development (see Ch. 8 on Assessment).

Areas of Language Use
There are several areas of importance that students must gain competence in when learning English as a second language in an international school. The first two areas of language use were labeled by Cummins (1979) as Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), or the language of social interaction, and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), or the language required for success in academic disciplines. BICS is the language of the playground, of talking with one's friends, of shopping, and will usually be acquired in informal settings, e.g. in the playground, school corridors, or with friends.

CALP, on the other hand, needs specific and direct teaching. According to Adamson (1993), students can gain a basic understanding of academic material by accessing three kinds of knowledge: universal pragmatic knowledge (basic-level concepts, image schemas), language proficiency (including the features of academic English, reading and listening comprehension) and background knowledge (knowledge of a specific content area as well as scripts for school). Academic competence is necessary for students to achieve at higher levels of cognition, and in order for students to think critically, a large degree of subject-specific background knowledge is necessary.

ESL students also have to learn the socio-cultural parameters of using English in an international school, e.g. when specific vocabulary and tone or other non-verbal gestures may be used, and what the expectations are for success within the environment. Adamson (1993) suggests that a high degree of acculturation into Western academic society is necessary for ESL students to express critical thinking in the classroom. Students from authoritarian societies who are unused to the practice of challenging ideas openly may feel that academic freedom, expressed by student generated questions, challenge the teacher rather than the idea.

These three areas of language competence were recently identified as goals by the U.S. Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL Association) in their 1996 draft ESL Standards for Pre-K - 12 students. Broad goals were outlined for ESL students in the United States to use English to communicate in social settings, to achieve academically in all content areas, and to use English in socially and culturally appropriate ways. According to TESOL, meeting of the goals is necessary to ensure the achievement of English language competence needed for academic success and for life in a literate culture (TESOL, 1999).

Common Myths About ESL and Second Language Acquisition
There are several myths about ESL and ESL students that have made the rounds of international schools. Some are also shared Stateside:

Myth #1: Students can learn English quickly by being exposed to and surrounded by native
language speakers.

Fact: Mere exposure to the target language is insufficient to ensure native language proficiency, particularly academic language proficiency. Collier's (1989) research on ESL students in the United States found that whereas grammatical proficiency may be established in two years, academic competence comparable to that of native language peers takes much longer, between five and 10 years. There is some evidence that this period may be shorter in international schools (Sears, 1998), but again, not simply by being surrounded by native language speakers.

Myth #2: The ability to converse comfortably in English signals proficiency and means the child
should be achieving academically.

Fact: It is easy to confuse conversational competence with academic competence in a language (Baker, 1995). Proficiency in social language interaction in English is not the most important factor in school success (Collier, 1989). Spoken practice in English may not be necessary for development of English proficiency and may retard it in some instances. Emphasis on interpersonal communication may even inhibit academic achievement (Saville-Troike, 1984), as noted in Myth #3.

Myth #3: Students should learn English before attempting to study an academic subject in that language.

Fact: While pull-out or beginning ESL classes may offer a measure of comfort to ESL students, much of the "survival English" taught in these classes focuses on the language of social interaction. This, in fact, does little to assist the student in learning an academic discipline. Academic disciplines have their own vocabularies and their own expectations for satisfactory performance and these are rarely taught outside the subject area, other than perhaps in sheltered content courses. Academic strategies (e.g. for completing assignments, even with incomplete comprehension) need to be learned in connection with studying the discipline itself so that the student develops concepts rather than simply coping mechanisms.

Myth #4: ESL students should stop speaking their native language and concentrate on speaking

Fact: Full proficiency in the native language facilitates second language development and academic achievement is significantly enhanced when ESL students are able to use their native languages to learn in school (TESOL, 1999). Collier (1989) found that second language students who achieved the greatest academic success were enrolled in bilingual programs that provided solid cognitive academic instruction in both the first and second language. Baker (1995) also notes that to deny the native language of an individual is to deny that person's existence.

Implications for International Schools: Effective ESL Education
According to TESOL, effective education for ESL students comprises five dimensions, which we endorse for inclusive, international schools:

  • Effective education includes native-like levels of proficiency in English.
  • Effective education includes the maintenance and promotion of ESL students' native languages in school and community contexts.
  • All educational personnel assume responsibility for the education of ESL students.
  • Effective education also calls for comprehensive provision of first-rate services and full access to those services by all students.
  • Knowledge of more than one language and culture is advantageous for all students.