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Elena's passion: ESL learning as TESOL method.


As colleges continue to serve linguistically diverse populations, one of their greatest needs is to identify effective methods for Teaching English to Speakers of other languages (TESOL). This teacher's narrative about how her language learning experiences influence her instructional approach with ESL learners provides useful data. More teacher stories can be informative, support professional development and deter teacher isolation.


By documenting some of the language learning experiences of teachers who work with non-native English speakers, and how these personal struggles have shaped their own teaching approaches, much can be learned. Those instructors who've studied English as a Second Language (ESL) themselves, also have valuable stories, because they can personally identify with some of their students' experiences. One critical key for educators working in linguistically diverse classrooms is understanding and respecting learners from a variety of backgrounds as they adapt to cultural differences (Barbier, 2003; Chen, Boyd, & Goh, 2003; Soliday & Gleason, 1997). Recording teachers' language learning narratives, and understanding how they affect teaching strategies and students' language performance, provides valuable data (Gudmundsdottir, 1997; Waxman & Padron, 1995). This can contribute to more effective methods for Teaching English to Speakers of other languages (TESOL). The case study presented here therefore, is the personal narrative of Elena, a professor with a passion for language learning and how it shapes her TESOL approach.

Elena was selected for this study for several reasons. First, she has thirty years of TESOL experience in the City University of New York (CUNY). She is highly respected by her colleagues, her student evaluations have been exemplary, and most of her learners receive passing grades. Elena, a native Spanish speaker, is also fluent in English, French and Italian.

Approach, Methods, and Data Collection

In order to learn about Elena's experiences, a qualitative approach was used. This consisted of open-ended interviews, observations of classroom teaching and notes collected during a 16-week semester. The interviews were tape recorded and transcribed to preserve her unique experiences. The researcher was mainly interested in finding out what could be learned by looking at Elena's language learning experiences. After coding the primary data, Elena's experiences were written as descriptive stories according to three categories: (1) Personal Background, (2) Language Learning, and (3) Language Teaching.

Elena's Personal Background

Elena, the youngest of three children, was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She spoke Spanish at home and learned English as a Foreign Language in school. Her mother was a first grade teacher and her father was an engineer:
 I always loved school and was an excellent student. When I was five
 years old, I was placed in the second grade because there were no
 seats left in the first grade. I was always the smallest child in
 my classes, but I worked very hard to keep up.

Elena's childhood role model was her maternal grandmother, who struggled as a widow to raise her own family in Puerto Rico. The legacy of working hard to achieve one's goals was firmly planted in Elena's mind:
 My grandmother was married to a man that worked for the government
 of the island, and she had four kids. Then, all of a sudden, her
 husband died of a heart attack. Women that time did not work
 outside because their major responsibility was to take care of the
 home ... but she was very artistic, did all kinds of needlework,
 and even lace she used to do by hand. With her talent she
 established a Montessori school called Escuela de Labores para
 Senoritas. There, young women came to do stitching, and she
 charged them a fee. With that money, she educated her daughters.

When she was fifteen, Elena graduated from high school, and was excited about attending college. However, the University of Puerto Rico was closed due to political strife. Her parents sent her to study at CUNY, where Elena struggled for many years to learn English. Eventually, she mastered Latin, French and Italian, and graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Romance Languages. Afterwards, Elena worked as a bilingual Spanish/English social worker, and when she was twenty-three years old, she received a scholarship to Columbia University. There, she acquired her Master's Degree in teaching Spanish as a vernacular language:
 I began teaching in various bilingual and ESL programs, while
 completing my Doctorate at Columbia in the pedagogy of teaching
 English and Spanish. Then I began teaching ESL and English
 Composition at various CUNY campuses for the past thirty years.

Elena identifies herself as a Puerto Rican and a Spaniard, because her grandparents came from Spain. She also feels American because:
 The United States gave me the chance. Anyplace that I go, I like
 and say that I'm a citizen of the world, if that's possible. I
 feel comfortable anyplace I go and I'm part of that society while
 I'm in that society.

Elena's Language Learning

Elena struggled to acquire competence in English, especially since she was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and Spanish was spoken at home. She also spoke Spanish in school and studied English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Elena's mother had a great impact on her literacy skills:
 I was very good at reading because I always wanted to please my
 mother. She was a first grade teacher. All the students who failed
 the first grade were assigned to her class. As soon as I walked,
 she would bring me to her classroom and I learned incidentally.

Though she barely used English in Puerto Rico, Elena's language learning challenges began when she came to study in the U.S.:
 I really struggled hard to learn English when I first came here in
 1947. There was no ESL then, but there was Speech Clinic. This was
 geared to help foreign students improve their accents. I repeated
 it five times because when I came in I had a thick, thick accent.
 Even though I knew a lot about English grammar, my speech was like
 a person who never used the language as a means of communication.
 It took me five years to complete my Bachelor's Degree.

Elena explained that she had a very good teacher in her Basic English Composition course, because he took the time to investigate her schooling background. This teacher's actions motivated her to study hard. He found out about the excellent school average she had in her native country and was very supportive of her language-learning struggle:
 He told me that I hadn't done well in my course, but he knew it was
 my first semester as a foreign student. He said that he didn't want
 to spoil my good record, so he was giving me a C. He reminded me
 that he was just being kind because I didn't earn it. He also told
 me to make sure I learned English because next time maybe I
 wouldn't find a teacher so nice.

In order to improve her English skills, Elena surrounded herself with English speaking friends and soon became fluent. Later, her writing improved:
 In the first writing course, I got a C, which was supposed to be a
 D or F. Then I got a C+. Later I earned a B, and then on the fourth
 grade I received an A.

When discussing her own language learning progress, Elena spoke about how she acquired a scholarship that allowed her to study at Columbia University:
 After graduating from CUNY, I became a social worker, and I was
 very unhappy. So I applied to the Board of Education for a
 scholarship because they were looking for bilingual teachers. I
 sat down in the office to take the qualifying exam and within a
 half-hour, I had completed four pages. Within five minutes the
 department head came out and asked who had written the paper. He
 told me excitedly that I had the scholarship and my paper was the
 best essay he received the whole year. I received a Master's
 Degree from Columbia and majored in the teaching of Spanish as a
 vernacular language.

Elena's Language Teaching

Elena works with beginning and intermediate level students who are taking regular ESL courses. She expressed feeling overwhelmed with teaching students who lack a basic foundation in English, and she referred to the university atmosphere as being very damaging to non-native English speakers:
 There are too many students placed in the same class. This inhibits
 my ability to provide more individualized instruction. When I was a
 CUNY student, my classes had only ten to fifteen students. We could
 verbally socialize well in English and we received a lot of
 individualized help from our teachers. Today's students need lots
 of immersion in English, and for the majority of them, the only
 opportunity they have to practice English is n our classrooms. But
 the class sizes are overwhelmingly large and this is a major

Elena describes her eclectic approach with native Spanish speakers as very simple:
 You learn to write by writing. You learn to read by reading, and
 you learn to speak by speaking. My students are always active
 participants and I teach them formal, grammatical rules.

Elena further explained that her approach has nothing to do with teaching a language. What she does is identify the aspect of an activity that could be made language oriented. She discussed how she begins her classes:
 First, I canvass my students to find out their strengths and
 weaknesses. I believe that proper assessment is primary. I have my
 students write a composition in English, and then they write a
 composition in Spanish. If they are bad in Spanish, they have
 nothing to transfer into English. If they are good in Spanish, then
 they have a lot to transfer.

During the first few weeks of class, Elena teaches her students how to plan an essay, how to plan the paragraph and she conducts grammar mini lessons based upon errors evident in students' papers. She believes that correct grammar according to Standard American English and Academic Writing are most important for college students. By the end of the first month, Elena's students must write at least a three-paragraph essay. After that, her students write one to two essays per week. Elena described her very strict technique:
 In many ways I act like a mother. Sometimes I'm very nasty because
 when they don't do what I ask, they know I'm mad. I make a lot of
 corrections on their work and they have to keep rewriting their
 papers until they're perfect.

For those students in class who "perform poorly" Elena gives them what she calls "special treatment". She conducts individual conferences and says:
 you are doing very poorly and I'm telling you in time so that you
 can expedite the process of learning academic English and product
 better compositions. If your work shows no progress then I will
 have to give you an F.

Elena tends to be very strict with her students because she wants them to take responsibility and to practice writing daily. She discussed her use of "an emotional lash" with her learners:
 My being strict forces students to succeed. They are scared stiff
 of not passing. I even mark their papers in red so they know it's
 no mistaking it. It looks like their paper is bleeding.

Another way Elena supports her students' writing improvement is by having them participate in peer study groups where they correct each other's essays. She insists that her students actively participate in class and encourages them to use the chalkboard to demonstrate and explain their understanding of certain grammatical rules. Her students are constantly immersed in English. They are assigned many different kinds of reading texts such as novels, poems and plays. Elena strives to use "really interesting topics" such as anthropology and biology. During different holiday celebrations, she focuses on particular themes. During October, for example, her students were assigned task that required them to research the origins of Halloween. Elena commented that her students "love this activity because they can go home and share it with their own kids." She also takes her classes on many field trips:
 I want to reinforce their skills, and hopefully they will learn as
 much as I want them to learn. I take them many places they have not
 been exposed to ... we go to operas, plays, see films, go to art
 galleries, museums, and libraries. This gives them opportunities to
 use the language in real life contexts. They also begin to feel
 more confident about their abilities to use the language in a
 public setting.

Elena shared that she knows that her teaching approach works because students in her classes have changed their street attitudes and take their writing more seriously:
 One day for example, I had to leave the classroom at the beginning
 of class to retrieve a book from my office, which was in another
 building. Since my students always do some writing in class, I told
 them to stop talking and keep writing. I was gone for about ten
 minutes. When I returned, everyone was writing and the classroom
 was silent. This was very different from the beginning of the
 semester, when they didn't write anything. All they did was talk,
 talk, talk.


Elena can strongly identify and empathize with her students, because like them, she has also experienced the trauma of language learning in both foreign and academic environments. During her adolescence, Elena was sent away from home to another country, into an urban setting with a new language and culture. She barely knew English when she first arrived in New York City. Her struggles to acquire a second language lasted for many years.

After becoming fluent in English, Elena continued studying other languages, and became fluent in French and Italian. Elena sees herself as a citizen of the world because she is able to communicate with many people. Her multilingual skills therefore, have empowered Elena with a secure sense of her own identity, as well as an ability to globally interact with others.

Elena establishes positive relationships with her students in many ways. Even though she is very strict with them during class, she is also supportive. In her classrooms, for example, Elena is very critical when correcting grammar mistakes, and she uses a lot of red pen. She does however, insist that her students stretch further than the confines of a mere classroom toward grasping the needed language skills. She gets them away from university buildings on field trips to operas, libraries, plays and museums. By exposing international learners to various American art forms, Elena also provides a kind of cultural orientation to students who are new to this country. According to Carrasquillo & Rodriguez (1996), Elena is an effective language teacher because she is sensitive to her students' cultural needs. Furthermore she is interested in how they perceive themselves both linguistically and academically. Thus, while immersing her adult learners and their families in practical uses of English, she also provides opportunities to interact socially and informally with them.

Having a commonality with students in experiencing culture shock, and feeling the tremendous internal and external pressures to become proficient in Basic and Academic English also creates a strong bond between Elena and the populations she teaches. As a role model, her success in being able to communicate in four languages also instills in her students a willingness to pursue and a determination to succeed. She equates language learning and language acquisition with empowerment and a strong sense of cultural identity. This is one of the prevailing attitudes existent within Elena's teaching approach, and it impacts greatly upon her students' language performance.


This case study's focus is on one language teacher. Her experiences however, give evidence to some of the complexities involved in working with non-native English speakers in academia. This investigation also explores what an experienced language teacher knows, thinks and feels. While providing insight into one teacher's approach, it also informs about the kinds of practices that are beneficial for English Language learners.

This report supports the author's assumption that what teachers bring with them from their personal backgrounds and educational experiences affects the ways they teach, and impacts favorably on learner achievement. This teacher's connection with students was enhanced by her cultural congruence with them. Thus, exploring ways of developing cross-cultural sensitivity with diverse populations is also an area of concern.

Works Cited

Barbier, S. (2003). "The Reflection of Students' Right to their Own Language in First Year Composition Course Objectives and Descriptions." Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 30(3), 256-267.

Carrasquillo, A. & Rodriguez, V. (1996). "Language minority students in the mainstream classroom." Philadelphia: Multimedia Matters

Chen, S., Boyd, E., & Goh, D. (2003). "Factors Affecting the Transition from High School to College of Disadvantaged and Unprepared Chinese ESL students." College ESL, 10(1&2), 22-36.

Gudundsdottir, S. (1997). Introduction to the theme issue of narrative perspectives on research on teaching and teacher education. Teaching and Teaching Education, 13(1), 1-3. Soliday, M. & Gleason, B. (1997). "From Remediation to Enrichment: Evaluating A Mainstreaming Project." Journal of Basic Writing, 16, 64-78.

Waxman, H. & Padron, Y. (1995). "Improving the quality of classroom instruction for student's at risk of failure in urban schools." Peabody Journal of Education, 7(2), 44-65.

Audre Garcia-Grice, Hostos Community College, CUNY

Audre Garcia-Grice, Ed.D, is an assistant professor in the Department of Language & Cognition at CUNY's Hostos Community College.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:teaching english to Speakers of other languages; english as a second language
Author:Garcia-Grice, Audre
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
Previous Article:Reflection and validity in qualitative research.
Next Article:More grammar gaps.

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