Two ESL instructional settings in the U.S.A.

Ever since I arrived in the U.S. as a student, I have also taught in the two major educational settings that receive English language learners in the country, and the two of them have some particular characteristics that I would like to describe here.

School-aged children and adolescents who are speakers of other languages in the U.S. receive ESL (English as a second language) services in the schools. From kindergarten to 12th grade (K-12), there are certified bilingual or ESOL teachers who address those students’ linguistic and academic needs. There are various models of instruction depending on policies made at the State level, district level, and local school level. Not all administrators are familiar with the nuances of second language teaching and learning, which may impact their policies and the instructional design in certain schools.

Young adults and adult language learners frequently study English in Intensive English Programs (IEP). Some IEPs are located within universities and others are independent language centers. This is the ESL instructional setting most commonly advertised abroad. Therefore, if you are in any country looking into coming to America to study English for a short period, this is the kind of course you will find.

There are also some community programs, which offer ESL classes geared to the local community for a low or no cost. These courses can be offered in community colleges, churches, public libraries, or other institutions. I will not discuss the characteristics of this setting in this post.

IEPs and public high-schools receive students that are close in age. Nevertheless, my review found that their approach to language learners has distinct characteristics. The infographic below compares these two major settings. Note that the U.S.A. is a vast country, and it is not possible to generalize the quality of education in all the educational institutions around the country. This comparison chart does not mean to demonstrate that one setting is better or more effective than the other. My goal is just to provide my diverse audience (mostly English language instructors working outside the U.S.) with a general description of IEPs and High-school ESL instruction in America. For more detailed information, read the full literature review (link coming soon) that led to this blog post.

From my experience in North Carolina and, recently, in South Carolina, from personal discussions, and from the literature review, I have concluded that IEPs and K-12 ESL services look at language learners from different perspectives. The different angle is crucial in the decision making, in the way programs position their students and instructors, and in how they see second language teaching and learning.

Years ago, I witnessed a quick exchange between the directors of two programs. One had a background in linguistics and had been working with intensive English programs for several years, and the other had a background in Education and was a renowned scholar in the field of K-12 ESL. The IEP person pulled a book from the self and told the Education scholar that the TESL program should teach more English grammar to their future K-12 teachers. The scholar was somewhat offended because there is much more at stakes in K-12 education and the details of English grammar seemed irrelevant.

Look at the infographic below. IEPs and K-12 schools look at the same picture – the student – from different angles, and professionals in the two fields often disagree on their perspectives because the image they see looks different. IEPs focus on language acquisition. Administrators, language instructors, and other stakeholders expect students to master the language as fast and accurately as possible. In the representation below, it is as if they looked at the student from above and saw a square, where the sides represent the language domains with the language elements at the center. K-12 schools focus on academic achievement. Policy makers and stakeholders look at that same object from a different angle and, instead of the square, they see what is represented here as a triangle. Students are expected to grow academically in all the content areas preferably at the same pace as their native-speaker counterparts, and their graduation rate is an important measure for the schools. However, the experienced ESL teacher knows that that image is, in fact, tridimensional. It is not a square or a triangle, but a piramid with all those aspects combined. Linguistic and academic demands are combined and, with adequate instruction, language learners can and should become successful in both areas.

The language learner in either setting is a multifaceted student with complex needs. Both language acquisition and academic achievement must be overtly addressed so that the student can be successful in his/her personal endeavors. Professionals in both settings have tools to collaborate to create more effective learning environments, where English language learners meet their linguistic and academic goals in a timely manner.


Special thanks to my friend and fellow teacher, Carrie Berkman, who gave me her feedback and collaborated with some valuable thoughts while I was writing this post.  

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