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Motivation of Adult ESOL Students

Allegra’s ESL students

The following post was written by Allegra Lambert who recently began working at Catholic Charities as the Immigrant Services Program Coordinator.  Part of her tasks include teaching an evening ESL class through the ONA grant, as well as providing job development for immigrants/refugees with limited English proficiency.  Allegra is already well-known in Ithaca’s immigrant community as a result of her previous employment as a job developer so we are fortunate to have her on board with us at Catholic Charities.

Not long ago, I improved my career experience by taking on English Language Instruction. My first overseas teaching experience, in Korea, was with students who had been in public school all day and came to our academy after school. Some students had three or four additional classes of English immersion after their regular school day. I learned from this experience that English immersion works, but only if a student feels rested and willing to learn from their own intrinsic motivation. Students that were successful, were often older, and had interest in a career using English.

My next teaching job was with young adult men in the U.A.E. who were preparing for college in the United States. These young men all had the intrinsic motivation necessary to learn English. Almost the entire group of 60 men passed their exams and got into college overseas. When the students went to the US, they reported feeling shy to speak to the public. When they went out to socialize they reported feeling too embarrassed to speak and instead often pretended that they did not know how to speak English. For the next group of students, our teachers adapted what was reported to try and give an authentic conversation environment for our students. The results were reports of more confidence and willingness to try the language out with new listeners.

These two experiences gave me the interest in creating meaningful classes for students I teach. I am currently teaching a class Tuesday and Thursday evenings at BOCES ESL in downtown Ithaca. Catholic Charities, Tompkins Learning Partners and BOCES collaborated efforts to meet the needs of the students who were not able to attend day-time classes due to their work schedules. Recently, I had worked on a grant program targeted towards job development for new American farm-workers. I set up work-based on-site English classes at different locations in Ithaca. In doing so, I provided an opportunity for students to learn useful vocabulary and phrases in their work-site context. Studies have shown that learning a new language in context increases a student’s ability to recall that information.

Adult ESL students learning computer skills

Communicating with native speakers is perhaps the hardest thing about learning a new language. I have had this experience several times in my own life from teaching and learning abroad. Not being able to express yourself in a way where you know you will be understood can make you feel isolated, alone and scared. Getting over the fear of communicating is one of the teaching methods I incorporate in the classroom. When a student reports feeling afraid to try to speak with another person in English, I show them how hard it is for any adult learner to speak a foreign language with confidence, by trying to speak their language. Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they encourage me. Showing them that we are in a safe place to make mistakes in a classroom and encouraging them to keep trying is the best way for them to gain confidence.

Here are just a few things my current students say about talking to English speakers in Ithaca, “I can’t talk at people at work. They don’t understand me.” “I am shy to talk at work. I make a mistake too often.” “I’m really interested in learning new words (in class) because I like to be friendly but sometimes I feel stupid when I do not understand the other people.”  The goal of my evening ESL class is to prepare learners with the tools necessary  to overcome these fears and communicate effectively. One benefit of working as a Job Developer at Catholic Charities as well, is that I can address any work goals these students have at my day-job.

Allegra