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Pre-service teachers' attitudes regarding ESL students.


What attitudes do preservice teachers have regarding ESL (English as a Second Language) students, and do these attitudes change by taking an introductory ESL course? A survey was conducted with university students enrolled in an introductory ESL course to answer this question. The survey was administered as a pre- and post-course questionnaire to a total of 164 students. The post-course survey contained an additional section that asked the participants to rate how much they felt their perceptions had changed and what they felt had contributed to that change. The results indicate that an ESL introductory course, and particularly the field experience connected to it, can contribute to preservice teachers' confidence in being able to help ESL students, and help overcome the fear of having them as students in their mainstream classrooms.


Present demographic trends in the United States indicate that by the year 2026, one in every four children in our public schools will be an English language learner (Garcia, 1999). This increases the demand for mainstream teachers to be skilled in educating ESL students in their mainstream classes. The purpose of this study is to examine the effect of an introductory ESL methods course on the attitudes of preservice teachers regarding ESL students. The following questions are addressed: (1) What impact does an initial ESL education class have on preservice teachers' attitudes regarding ESL students? (2) What attitudes change the most? and (3) What factors contribute to preservice teachers' attitudes regarding ESL students?

Review of Literature

Teachers' attitudes play an important part in the over-all learning process (Bloom, 1976; Diaz-Rico & Weed, 2002; Garcia, 1999; and Krashen, 1981). Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theory informs us of the importance of providing a good learning environment for all ESL students. The teacher's attitudes have a direct effect on the students' motivation, self-esteem, and anxiety level (Krashen, 1981; and Garcia, 1999). Studies have been conducted regarding preservice teachers' expectations for ESL students (Terrill & Mark, 2000), attitudes toward diversity (Agnello & Mittag, 1999), attitudes toward urban schools (Mason, 1999), and zone of concern and comfort with multiculturalism (Montecinos et al., 1999). Several studies and articles have been written about teachers' attitudes toward ESL students (Byrnes et al., 1996; Clair, 1995; Layzer, 2000; Markham et al., 1996; Terrill & Mark, 2000; and Youngs & Youngs, 2001), but no studies known to the investigator have examined the effect that ESL courses have on preservice teachers' attitudes toward ESL students. The importance of teachers' attitudes is emphasized in the Professional Standards for the Accreditation of Schools, Colleges, and Departments of Education by NCATE (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education). This document not only recognizes that knowledge and skills is valued in teachers, but dispositions as well (Standard 1: Candidate's knowledge, skills, and dispositions). This inclusion reflects the growing awareness nationally of the importance of attitudes and beliefs for beginning teachers (NCATE, 2001).


This study was conducted with university students enrolled in an introductory ESL course. For many of these preservice teachers, this course is the first time they worked with, or even thought about ESL students. This course gives participants an over-view of ESL policies and practices, cultural awareness, SLA (second language acquisition) theory, methods of teaching ESL, and ESL student assessment. This is a required course for Elementary, Early Childhood, Secondary English, Foreign Language, and Special Education majors. The development of the survey instrument was a multi-step process that began with a compilation of actual statements made by preservice teachers. The following extra credit question was put on a final exam: "How have your perceptions regarding ESL students changed this semester, and what has contributed to that change?" The responses to that question (n=221), were grouped into categories, and 25 typical statements were chosen to become a part of the survey instrument. The 25 statements elicited a response on a five-point Likert-type scale. The responses ranged from (1) strongly disagree, to (5) strongly agree, with the middle response (3) being neutral. See issue's website < > On the first day of class all the students were asked to fill out a 25-item questionnaire on a voluntary basis. One hundred and fifty-three of the 172 present in two sections of the introductory ESL course participated (n=153). At the end of the semester, the same students were asked to fill out the survey once again. One hundred, sixty-one out of the 172 enrolled participated (n=161). One hundred and six of the participants filled out an additional section rating the effect of various classroom activities and assignments (n=106). The survey also contained a section labeled "comments" where participants were free to write any additional information they wished to give. Of the 106 participants who filled out the second part to the post-course survey, thirty-three wrote additional comments (n=33).

Pre-course Survey Results

What attitudes did the preservice teachers have prior to taking the introductory ESL course? Comments written on the margin of one particular student's pre-course survey form were very revealing. On the statement: "I really understand the difficulties that an ESL student faces" This student marked "5-strongly agree," and wrote in the margin, "And that is why they should have their own class." On the statement: "Mainstreaming ESL students is the best way to educate them" the student marked 1-strongly disagree and wrote: "It slows the whole class down." Finally, on the statement: "If these people chose to come to the United States, it is their responsibility to learn the language" this same student marked 5-strongly agree, underlined "chose" in the statement and added, "They wouldn't accommodate their classrooms for us." These comments from one student show a resistance to mainstreaming ESL students, and a lack of confidence in knowing what to do with any ESL students that might be put into their classrooms. The responses provided on the pre-course survey served as a comparison to better understand the results of the post-course survey. In the following section, an average mean difference is provided between the responses on the pre- and post-course surveys.

Post-Course Survey Results

Concerning general perceptions about ESL students prior to taking the course, the preservice teachers reported that their perceptions had changed a great deal. One preservice teacher declared, "My perceptions haven't necessarily changed, because there were no perceptions! I had never even thought about teaching students who speak another language." Another wrote, "My perceptions of ESL students were very harsh. I felt like I should not have to deal with them ... I believe now everyone deserves a fair education." The 25 statements can be divided into seven response factors: (1) understanding of ESL students, (2) knowledge and confidence in their ability to help them, (3) experience with ESL students, (4) awareness of their presence in the schools, (5) attitudes regarding inclusion of ESL students in regular classrooms, (6) stereotypes regarding ESL students, and (7) awareness of best teaching practices for ESL students. There was a large difference in the means from the pre- to post-course surveys on "Knowledge and confidence in their ability to help ESL students" (statements 2, 9, 11 & 25), one participant wrote, "This class has given me many different techniques for teaching ESL. I am already using them in other classes!" Another participant commented, "I am a foreign language major and I picked up many strategies to help my English students learning Spanish. I completely understand the needs of an ESL student." These comments show evidence of knowledge that is put into practice. (average mean difference: 46%)

The preservice teachers' understanding of the ESL students also registered large differences from pre- to post-course responses (statements 1 & 10). One participant commented, "This has opened my eyes and forced me to become aware of the language barrier and ways to overcome it." Another participant wrote about a film that was shown, "I felt like l knew what it was like to be that little boy (Victor, an ESL STUDENT portrayed in a video)." One participant commented on the relationship between knowledge and understanding, "I have more knowledge about ESL students, but cannot truly understand what they go through." An understanding of one's limited knowledge demonstrates a mature understanding of the situation. (average mean difference: 26.8%) Experience with ESL students (statement 24) is another area where there was a large difference between the pre- and post-course surveys. There was a high number of participants who responded that they had previous experience with ESL students in the pre-course survey. A few had been ESL students themselves. One participant wrote, "Having been an ESL student myself, I understand what non-native English speakers go through. Sometimes it is not pleasant. My goal is to become a good ESL teacher." There was also a certain amount of resistance to the field experience, as one participant wrote, "I don't think students should be required to locate strangers outside class for dialogue. Bring us more real classroom video for application/ analysis." (Difference in mean: 47%)

A Pearson correlation coefficient was calculated for the relationship between the item "previous experience with ESL students" and the other items on the post-course survey. Seven items showed a significant correlation. A strong positive relation (p<.01) was found for "higher awareness of ESL student." A significant negative relation was found between "previous experience with ESL students" and "fear of having them in his/her class." This shows a relation between experience with ESL students and confidence in being able to help them, and a reduction in fear of having them as students in their mainstream classrooms. Awareness of the ESL students was another item that showed a difference from the pre- to post-course survey. The pretest showed that participants were already fairly aware of the number of ESL students in our public schools, but the post-course survey showed that their awareness was heightened. ESL students appeared to be invisible fixtures to many of the participants prior to working with them. Participants wrote, "I've never considered ESL students or ESL teaching prior to this course. My eyes have been opened in many positive ways!" and "I have never considered the ESL student before this class and now I have." Another similar reaction was, "I have done observation hours before and l never noticed them (ESL students). Now that I am aware of their needs, l can be better able to help them" (average mean difference: 25.5%).

In statements that reflect participants' attitudes about the inclusion of ESL students in mainstream classes, one participant commented, "I am not afraid of having an ESL student, but I do think it is unfair to place them in a regular classroom before they have received background knowledge, so I think ESL classes are beneficial to the learner." Another wrote, "I feel strongly that all teachers should receive ESL training!" The statement that asks if they think that mainstreaming ESL students is the best way to educate them was low on the pre-course survey (disagree to unsure) and on the post-course survey, it was even lower (-1.6%). There was more disagreement among the respondents (pre-test SD = 0.90; post-test SD = 1.13). (average mean difference: 8.6%) The statements that follow reveal the participants' stereotypes, feelings about bilingualism as a benefit rather than a liability, and their confidence in the ability of the ESL children to excel. One participant wrote, "I feel more confident with other races and ethnicities!" Another participant wrote, "It is important to have classes like this to promote tolerance." (average mean difference: 15%) Preservice teachers agreed more strongly with the following statement on the pre-course survey: "In order to be a good ESL teacher, it necessary to speak the primary language of the student you are trying to help." In the post-course survey they were more willing to say that all teachers can help the ESL student. The responses to the statement "It is the responsibility of the Language Arts teacher to teach English to the ESL student" went from uncertain-disagree to disagree. These responses reflect a stronger belief that all teachers are responsible for teaching content and language to the ESL students. One participant said, "I feel that it will be challenging to teach ESL students, but nothing in life is easy. I feel that the more contact I have with ESL students the better I will be at teaching students with any type of special needs." (average mean difference: 9.8%)

Over-all awareness survey

On the post-course survey, participants reported their over-all awareness as a result of the ESL course. In response to the statement, "My perceptions about ESL students have really changed during this course", the mean was 4.28 (agree to strongly agree). The participants reported that the field experience contributed most significantly to their changes in perceptions (M-4.26). Other significant contributions were "classroom discussions and activities" (M=4.18) and "activities using other languages" (M=4.06). This seems to indicate that the participants perceive a change in attitudes, and attribute their field experience and classroom simulations to being the most important contributing factors.


This study offers some insights into preservice teachers' attitudes toward ESL students prior to formal ESL education, and how they perceive their attitudes to have changed due to taking a course. The largest changes are in their belief that all teachers should receive ESL education, and their confidence in their ability to deal with having ESL students in their classroom. This study also indicates that field experience was perceived to have contributed most strongly toward changes in perceptions. This agrees with other studies that have found field experience to be an important influence on preservice teachers' beliefs (Linek et al., 1999 & Mason, 1999).


Agnello, M. F, & Mittag, K. C. (1999). Comparing pre-service teachers' attitudes toward diversity: Internship and student teaching experiences. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southwest Educational Research Association, San Antonio, TX. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED430970)

Bloom, B. S. (1976). Human characteristics and school learning. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Byrnes, D. A., Kiger, G., & Manning, L. (1996). Social psychological correlates of teachers' language attitudes. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 26(5), 455-467.

Clair, N. (1995). Mainstream classroom teachers and ESL students. TESL Quarterly, 29, 189-196.

Diaz-Rico, L.T. & Weed, K. Z. (2002). The crosscultural, language, and academic development handbook: A complete K-12 reference guide (2nd Edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Garcia, Eugene. (1999). Student Cultural Diversity: Understanding and Meeting the Challenge (2nd Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Krashen, S. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Layzer, C. (2000). Who's afraid of bilingual learners? The role of teachers' attitudes and beliefs. Paper presented at the Annual Spring Conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. New York. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED440386)

Linek, W. M., Nelson, O. C., & Sampson, M. B. (1999). Developing beliefs about literacy instruction: a cross-case analysis of preservice teachers in traditional and field based settings. Reading Research and Instruction, 30(4), 371-86.

Markham, P.L., Green, S. B., & Ross, M. E. (1996). Identification of stressors and coping strategies of ESL/bilingual, special education, and regular education teachers. The Modern Language Journal, 80, 141-50.

Mason, T. C. (1999). Prospective teachers' attitudes toward urban schools: can they be changed? Multicultural Education, 6(4), 9-13.

Montecinos, C. & Rios, F. A. (1999). Assessing preservice teachers' zones of concern and comfort with multicultural education. Teacher Education Quarterly, Summer, 7-22.

NCATE--National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, 2001. Professional standards for the accreditation of schools, colleges, and departments of education. Washington: NCATE.

Terrill, M. M., & Mark, D. L. H. (2000). Pre-service teachers' expectations for Schools with children of color and second-language learners. Journal of Teacher Education, 51(2), 149-155.

Youngs, C. S., & Youngs G. A., Jr. (2001). Predictors of mainstream teachers' attitudes toward ESL students. TESL Quarterly, 35(1), 97-120.

Phlip C. Smith, University of South Florida

Smith is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Second Language Acquisition and Instructional Technology program at USF.
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Author:Smith, Philip C.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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