Sunday, December 4, 2011

Distance learning and ESL

Can ESL be taught through distance learning?

Tara L. Narcross, Ph.D.

Language Institute Supervisor

Columbus State Community College

Copyright © 2011 - Tara L. Narcross


With the rapid growth of the Internet and the desire of many educational institutions to increase student options, cut costs and save space through the means of distance learning, it is no surprise to find some very unexpected programs offered on an online basis. I try very hard not to be a curmudgeon, but I would be a little dubious about a dental technician who had learned to make crowns only on a simulated basis, or a doctor whose instruction in surgery and bedside manner had come through lessons taken alone and in front of a computer. While there are a lot of advantages in the ability to impart and receive information through distance learning be imparted and received through distance learning, and to the great convenience of time and space options – I have taken distance courses myself and plan to take more – some subjects do not lend themselves easily to this approach. As a general rule, English as a Second Language (ESL) is one such subject, not just because of the subject itself, but because of the students who take it.


First, let’s look at the name of the subject: English as a Second Language. For teachers here in the U.S., ESL should not be thought of as English as much as a second language, which means there are many similarities to other second languages students here study – Spanish, French and so on. It involves comparing cultures, having discussions, learning day-to-day vocabulary along with grammar – and taking care of the occasional unexpected language need that suddenly arises. To do this effectively, interpersonal communication is key, and that is best done in person to have a more realistic environment. These students will be working with other people here in the U.S., and real practice with actual language is very important.


Further, many of today’s college ESL students are different from the traditional international students who are here on a student visa and will return home when they have completed their program. In many colleges and universities, the majority of the ESL population is made up of immigrants and refugees, who have a lot of very practical and immediate communication needs for their daily lives, as many of them have families and jobs. At Columbus State, for example, there are about 200 international students in any given quarter, compared to 1000 immigrant/refugee students. There are an additional 400 students each term in the College’s non-credit Basic English program, which teaches beginning through intermediate-level ESL; nearly all of the Basic English students are immigrants or refugees.


The ESL teacher imparts more than grammar and vocabulary; he or she becomes a trusted resource to help these students comprehend American life. The supportive environment and the personal touch are integral to the ESL world. In addition to working with reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, we have helped explain letters and forms written in tangled bureaucratese, advocated with a property manager for a student whose apartment was infested with bedbugs, guided students toward low-cost health resources for themselves and their children, and held their hands when they broke down in tears because a relative had just been killed in the turmoil-stricken country from which the students had fled. This sort of thing is not something easily done over the Internet.


Another difference is that many of these students have a low literacy level in their native language (L1). Research has clearly shown that students who have low literacy in L1 will have more difficulty in achieving literacy in the target language (L2). It is not just the lack of the grammar metalanguage for these students; the existence or non-existence of the L1 literacy itself appears to be a determining factor in the rate and success of acquisition of L2 literacy.


The low level of L1 literacy of many students corresponds to the fact that they did not have the opportunity to go to school much – or at all – during their early years. Some students grew up in refugee camps; others had to leave school early to work; still others came from countries where there were no free public schools. This yields a further complication for a distance-learning model of ESL: particularly at the lower skill levels, students may not know how to learn and study independently, and will need more hands-on guidance, oversight and support from the instructor until they learn study skills.


Finally, because these students are frequently low-income, there may well be no access to technology at home. According to a recent study by Connected Nation, “Only 37% of low-income minority households with children have broadband at home, and only 46% of all low-income households with children have broadband at home.” Further, “40% of low-income households do not own a computer (compared to only 9% of all others)”.1 This makes online learning more difficult, as many students must go to a library or other public access point to access their courses.


For these reasons, I strongly recommend against a fully distance-based ESL program. At the most advanced ESL level, for students who have achieved good literacy and strong independent learning skills, a hybrid course – a mix of online and in-person sessions – could be very successful, assuming the technology barrier described above is not an issue. At this level, students could improve their reading and composition skills in the E of “ESL” through online study, writing submitted electronically, Internet research, chat rooms and discussions. However, the SL component – the fact that this is a second language – needs in-person conversation, discussion, and support to facilitate truly successful learning of a language that most of the ESL students we see now will need to use in their daily lives as New Americans.

1 The Adoption Gap in Low-Income Households with Children: 2011 Residential Survey Preliminary Findings. Connected Nation, Washington, D.C., 2011.