ESL and English: Different Paths, Common Goals

Mar 13th, 2015 | By | Category: Community College, Levels
Print Friendly
new photo of lane igoudin

Lane Igoudin


—Many community colleges today question whether a non–terminal-degree program such as ESL deserves a piece of the budget pie, while they would rather spend that piece on the programs that lead directly to higher graduation and transfer rates. In the meantime, we know that without our ESL programs, nonnative students would be denied access to higher education. Teaching these courses day in and day out, we are quite clear about the benchmarks we want our students to achieve. But what is the ultimate academic goal for ESL students, a goal that is realistic and takes into consideration the needs of the campus at large?

I’d like to make a case that in today’s educational context, when individual student success is largely tracked by the passing of basic skills courses, college graduation, and transfer rates, the ultimate goal of an ESL program is its students’ completion of Freshman Comp, that is, the transfer-level English composition course required for graduation. In other words, the success of our ESL programs is measured by not only by how well our students do in our programs, but, more important, how successful they are in their future English classes (and, by extension, other subject courses).

Our students’ success in English courses may be our concern, but what can we do to increase it?

Refocusing ESL program vision on the completion of a course most commonly taught outside the program will require extensive collaboration with the English program. This article reviews a variety of collaborative methods. Some of these are familiar to the writer, who teaches in a department where English and ESL are under one roof, share singular curriculum representation, and often cross-pollinate ideas. Others came from other ESL community college faculty in response to his solicitation on the CC discussion board. (Many thanks for those!)

I. Start With Curriculum

What do you know about the English program’s specific expectations in terms of writing skills, grammar skills, literary analysis?

  • Align closely ESL exit/English entry writing and reading skills in course outlines.
    • Los Angeles Community College District: The districtwide ESL Curriculum Redesign Project (2010-2013) produced a six-level writing/grammar course sequence leading up to Freshman Comp.
  • Align closely ESL exit/English entry writing and reading skills in class activities.
    • Learn about the types of papers, essays, research paper teaching, writing prompts, and word count used by the English program.
  • Familiarize yourself with course content and textbooks of developmental English courses that run in parallel with ESL courses. You’ll be surprised! Consider adopting them where possible.
    • Long Beach City College: Both programs use John Langan’s College Writing Skills textbook.
    • Los Angeles Community College (LACC): Adopted, in all sections of advanced ESL, Diane Hacker’s citation/reference bundle (manual and workbook) used in all English courses, including those below Freshman Comp.
    • LACC: Daniel Keyes’s novel Flowers for Algernon is used in some sections of English and ESL two levels below Freshman Comp.

II. Get Together Regularly With English Faculty

  • Conduct joint meetings on English/ESL issues.
    • East Los Angeles College: It holds “ESL Summits” twice every semester, open to any ESL, English, Speech, Reading, or other faculty, and to counseling, disabled student, international student, library, and lab staff.
  • Collaborate on placement procedures.
    • Cypress College: ESL faculty work with matriculation counselors and English/Reading faculty to determine the most appropriate English sequence for a student’s educational background, using multiple measures such as the assessment test, writing samples, high school transcripts, and interviews that include educational history.
  • Conduct joint exams/SLO (student learning outcomes) assessments.
    • Golden West College (Huntington Beach): English and ESL collaborate on a joint Mastery Test (MT) given around week 12 in both ESL and English courses two levels below Freshman Comp. The test consists of writing a summary and a response to a given short text. English and ESL instructors norm themselves first, read together, and grade student tests as “Ready” or “Not Ready” for the next English level. Course SLOs are also based on this test. MT results are not the final exam. It is possible for a student to pass the MT and still fail the final and the class, or the other way around. Usually, however, passing the MT predicts a student’s passing of the course.
  • Conduct joint creative writing contests.
    • LACC includes an ESL Writer section in its annual student writing contest. The winners of both English and ESL awards are honored at a single ceremony where they get to read parts of their submissions. It is all English, after all, and a few prominent English writers have been second language learners.

III. Expand ESL Students’ Cultural Literacy

What do your students know about the following concepts and events: The Great Recession of the 2000s, Roe v. Wade, affirmative action, political correctness, “downsizing,” “outsourcing,” Occupy Wall Street, Social Security/401K debate, religious diversity in the United States? How well are they prepared to write about these topics in English courses?

Cultural literacy becomes extremely important in English courses as many, if not most, writing assignments relate to current American issues, events, politics, and so on, the background knowledge of which is taken for granted by the instructors whose classes are primarily filled by native speakers. What can we do?

  • Adopt American culture/history–focused textbooks and novels. For example:
    • I use American Ways: An Introduction to American Culture, an advanced ESL reading textbook, in the ESL writing course I teach two levels below Freshman Comp. See some sample questions from my reading test:
      • Define any three of the six basic American cultural values presented in Ch. 2.
      • Explain the current polarization and conflict in the U.S. between religious conservatives and secular liberals (Ch. 3).
      • Explain the differences between Democrats and Republicans in their views on government control over business (Ch. 6).
    • I use E. L. Doctorow’s recent novel The March as the course reading in the ESL writing course one level below Freshman Comp. Besides providing excellent material for exploring characterization, plot development, symbolism, figurative language, and other elements of literary analysis, The March deals with the following culturally important events and themes: U.S. Civil War; historical differences between the North and the South; race relations, slavery, and racism; as well as President Lincoln’s views, character, and assassination.

These strategies might not all work for every program and on every campus. I hope that considering a variety of these and other ideas will promote or enhance collaboration between ESL and English programs. After all, our students’ success in their programs is our concern.
This article continues the theme started in “Academic Preparedness of ESL Students—A Factor in Student Success and Program Survival” (CATESOL News, Spring 2014) (

Lane Igoudin is associate professor of English/ESL at Los Angeles City College and chair of the LACCD ESL Discipline Committee: and



More in Community College

More in Levels

Comments are closed.