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IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Space, Scheduling, and Staffing: Three Challenges of ESL Programs Worldwide
By Bonnie Billak 03-Jan-18
Three of the most common challenges among ESL programs worldwide are space, scheduling, and staffing. Let’s take a closer look at the characteristics of each challenge and explore some possible ways to approach its resolution. Finding rooms to house ESL classes seems to be a never-ending problem at many schools. Part of the difficulty lies with the administration’s willingness to accept large numbers of ESL students without allocating space in which to receive them. While students with high English proficiency levels can often benefit from push-in classes, those at lower levels require pull-out classes, located in areas that are quiet and appropriate for teaching—which is to say, not in hallways, in the corner of a noisy classroom, etc. Forward-thinking administrators will often hire extra staff to teach the growing numbers of ESL students. Anticipating the need for additional teaching space doesn’t always occur to them, and can cause a bottleneck issue, since building capacity is not something that can be expanded overnight. Many just figure ESL teachers will work something out. But if the number of ESL students continues to grow, the school will eventually max out. Scheduling is the second challenge that causes major headaches for schools. Classroom teachers want students to attend ESL classes but not to miss the content material they are presenting. Pulling students out of their classes disrupts their day and makes it difficult for them to catch up their work. In dilemmas such as this, one successful solution is to take ESL students for pull-out classes during their language arts period. In this way, their ESL work effectively replaces the language arts material they are missing in the classroom, thereby eliminating the need to make it up. Some schools ask ESL teachers to pull students during reading time. This practice should be avoided at all costs, since reading is the skill that takes the longest to develop (five to seven years). Students benefit tremendously from receiving reading assistance in the ESL class in addition to what is offered in the classroom. This double exposure accelerates their acquisition of reading skills, such that pulling kids out during regularly scheduled reading sessions is actually detrimental to their learning. To further complicate matters, other schools feel that no pull-out classes should be allowed, whatsoever. While understandable from a classroom teacher’s standpoint, this option should be off the table. Students just starting to learn English need the protective environment offered by an ESL classroom in order to develop the self-confidence necessary to spreading their wings and testing the English they’. Staffing is the third most common challenge in building an effective ESL program. Many administrators feel that any English speaker can teach ESL. This couldn’t be further from the truth. ESL is a complex field whose successful implementation requires educators with specialized training. Too often, a school’s ESL staff consists of spouses of international school teachers for whom no other position is available or other untrained teachers. Schools should commit to actively recruiting teachers with degrees in ESL teaching, not those who obtained a certificate by attending a two-hour ESL seminar. With adequate attention and careful planning, the challenges involved in offering effective ESL instruction can be overcome, resulting in the creation of positive environments for the acquisition of English. Due to the large number of English language learners within the international school population, an institution’s ESL program should never be treated as an afterthought. Given the crucial role it plays in the overall functioning of the school, founding an exemplary ESL program should perhaps be given priority, with other programs being worked in around it. Bonnie Billak is an ESL Specialist at the International School Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile.
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