Deciding Who and What Counts

By Emily Suh

Emily Suh photo SuhLet me begin with a confession: I have not taken an “English” class since my junior year of high school.  It was a literature class; we read Cold Mountain and The Things They Carried.  I think that I qualified for my current position on a technicality: I have a Master’s in English—as a Second Language.  Perhaps the Higher Learning Commission overlooked the full name of my degree.  I have been teaching developmental English for five years (first in three-course sequences of stand-alone reading and writing, later as a two-course accelerated, integrated model), but I wonder sometimes if my lack of an English degree makes me something of an outsider in my department and in my field.

I transitioned into my position as a developmental English faculty from my previous role as an adult ESL instructor because I thought it would allow me to better serve my students: adult immigrant, emergent multilingual students in beginning and intermediate levels of ESL with college aspirations.  Some had previous college experiences and degrees in countries no longer safe for my students or their families.  Others had limited formal educational experiences in the U.S. and abroad.  All of them recognized the lengthy and at times arduous academic task ahead of them.  Our multilingual, multi-level English as a Second Language class was grant funded through the Toyota Family Literacy Program, which emphasizes parents’ English language acquisition as an important factor in facilitating their children’s academic success.  As a result, the program focused on basic English language instruction, and parents who progressed beyond the partnering community college’s ESL level 4 were encouraged to enroll in non-grant funded classes at the college.

In the community college, my students joined the masses of adult immigrants throughout the U.S. who enroll in adult ESL classes.  Unlike the K-12 ELL support (if such programming can be generalized) a child receives through public schooling, adults who want to learn English and pursue their education almost universally must do so at their own expense through lengthy course sequences which have also been criticized for their sometimes equally lengthy waitlists, lack of academic focus, and disengagement from the rest of the community college (Crandall & Sheppard, 2004; Harklau, 2000; Tucker, 2006).  While frustrating, the adult ESL sequence is often lengthy out of necessity.  An adult learner who has native language literacy but no prior English instruction may require 500-1,000 hours of quality English instruction to reach a basic level of satisfying needs, surviving on the job and participating in limited English language interactions (Mainstream English Language Teaching Project, 1985), yet such a learner is still considered functionally illiterate (Tucker, 2006).  Furthermore, students presumably need much more than 1,000 hours to reach the proficiency necessary to enroll in college.

In spite these well-documented obstacles, some students do manage to successfully transition into college-level coursework, often times at the community college.  Community colleges attract a larger number of immigrant students than four-year institutions (Teranishi, Suarez-Orozco, & Suarez-Orozco, 2011), and first generation immigrants are more likely than Generation 1.5 or second generation immigrants to attend the community college (Hagy & Staniec, 2002).  My current college is seeing a growing number of these immigrant students who came to the U.S. as adults and are now entering the developmental English sequence.

In the world of adult ESL teaching and research, this population is simply referred to as the students.  But that label does not suffice when they enter developmental education.  The few researchers who have studied this group lack consensus on how to distinguish them from other multilingual students.  This group of adult immigrant multilingual learners has been referred to as “late-entry” and “less-skilled nontraditional” immigrant students (Casner-Lotto, 2011, p. 224), “foreign high schooled immigrant students” (Conway, 2010), “Adult Basic Education English learners” (Csepelyi, 2012), “adult ESL students” (ibid), and “mature English Language Learner (ELL) Student[s]” (Almon, 2015).  The lack of common terminology for this student group suggests their peripheral place within both the literature and institutions of higher learning, and I find these labels ranging from lacking to offensive.

These learners are no longer in language acquisition courses (whether an institution labels said courses English as a Second Language, English Language Learner or English Language Acquisition is beside the point).  Neither are they international students (a label which calls to mind highly educated and otherwise highly privileged individuals who have come to the U.S. for the sole purpose of receiving an education and with the intention to return to their country of origin).  The fields of TESOL and Comp/Rhet have become highly familiar with Generation 1.5 students (Rumbaut & Ima, 1988), but this group of students to which I refer is not Generation 1.5: they are Generation 1.  Further, they are not just students but “learners,” as in Knowles’ (1968) theory of andragogy describing adult learners who draw from a variety of previous experiences in learning which extends beyond the academic institution.  I, therefore, refer to this subset of the developmental population as “Generation 1 learners” (Suh, 2016), and I argue that their experiences as adult learners (i.e., non-traditional students) and multilinguals (i.e., English language learners with previous language learning experience) shape their preparation for and experiences in college classes in ways unique from Generation 1.5 students who were educated at least partially in the U.S. K-12 system and who subsequently have access to academic, cultural and social capital which is not necessarily available to their Generation 1 learner counterparts.

At the same time that Generation 1 learners may require additional instruction in the expectations for a U.S. (college) classroom or the cultural context knowledge which is often assumed in the readings, videos and discussions of the developmental English classroom, Generation 1 learners often bring valuable metalanguage for discussing learning—particularly language learning—processes, and because of their previous life and educational experiences, these learners also often can contribute greatly to student-led discussions of perseverance and other affective skills necessary for college success.

For the past five years, I have pushed for a co-requisite model pairing an adult ESL course and developmental English course.  Based loosely off of the CCBC’s Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), I envisioned the paired ESL course as providing structured support in the areas of reading, writing and U.S. academic expectations (i.e., citation conventions, participation norms, computer literacy, etc.) for the multilingual students enrolled in a section of the developmental English course with native English speaking peers.  For the past five years, my administration has told me that I need “data” to prove the college’s multiple current support programs are insufficient.

But deciding who and what counts as data is not a clear-cut task, and it is made more difficult by the fact that the college, like many other institutions, does not track students’ first language background.  Instructors’ anecdotal evidence of struggling multilingual students who are underprepared for the language demands of the developmental English classroom abound, but these can be (and have been) dismissed, often in ways which make the instructor hesitant to voice similar concerns for fear of being labelled “lazy” or “unwilling to work with diverse students.”  Through my practicum with the Kellogg Institute, I tracked the number of students who self-identified as “Non-First Language English” on the Compass test for the 2014 calendar year.  It was a labor-intensive task which involved individually searching for each student’s record to note whether the student had registered and passed/failed/withdrew from the classes.  But my findings were not specific to Generation 1 learners since the Compass data did not include age or high school information.  Certainly, I could have cross-checked the age of each of these students with their files to determine their age, but even this would not have told me whether the students were truly Generation 1 learners—they might have been U.S. high school graduates who took a break before coming to college.  Moreover, the task seemed pointless: an exercise in futile “data collection” by which the administration actually meant quantitative data of unspecified quality and quantity.

How many struggling students does it take to merit institutional change?

Recognizing the shortcomings of my meager quantitative efforts, I supplemented my numbers with interviews of 14 students preparing to enroll in developmental English classes and who had increased their test scores through our college’s Transitions Lab (an advising/testing/welcome center of sorts for students who wish to improve their test scores before beginning course work).  I had hoped that the qualitative data of my mixed methods study, delivered to the administration in March of 2015) would speak in ways my own voice could not.  As I have not yet heard back from anyone about my Kellogg Practicum (a brief summary of which was later published in the Journal of Developmental Education), I suspect that neither it nor the 340+ pages of my dissertation on the transition experience of six of these learners were the type of data that counts.

How then to serve a group of students whose existence the administration refuses to acknowledge because they will not collect their own data nor accept available data?

Our college’s move to a Chabot-inspired accelerated and Integrated Reading/Writing model leaves even less time for language acquisition, as we, like Chabot, have embraced the notion that “an active reading style is … more effective in helping students grasp ideas and meaning than ‘word by word reading’” (Chabot College).  While I do not doubt the veracity of this statement in principle, I do question its underlying assumption that all of our students are at a level in which “word by word reading” is no longer necessary for processing the basic meaning of the text.  For emergent multilingual students whose previous academic English reading experiences consisted largely of short passages (often accompanied by reading comprehension questions), reading an entire book-length text which assumes the reader possesses the vocabulary to understand the words and shares enough of the writer’s cultural background to understand the meaning is a daunting task.

It is not my position that such students should return to adult ESL.  However, I believe that it is negligent for developmental educators to not provide linguistically and culturally accessible material, or at the very least, the necessary scaffolding to assist learners as they transition to college and such reading and writing experiences through developmental education.

One of my students, a young Iraqi woman who has been in the U.S. less than six months asked me a few weeks ago why we do not have vocabulary tests and more grammar quizzes in class.  I began giving her the party line, listing the Student Learning Outcomes and Course Outcomes, and then I stopped.  The class is a minority majority class.  The class’ sole monolingual student has her own challenges with processing language and received an Individualized Education Plan throughout her K-12 experience.  That day, the students and I decided that additional work on vocabulary and intensive practice on verb tense agreement within our own writing fit the course objectives of “Improv[ing] reading skills” and “Practice developing effective sentences.”

Hear me out; I am not advocating that we turn beginning level developmental English courses into drill-and-kill remediation, but I am suggesting that attention to issues of language acquisition (and cultural academic expectations) have a rightful place in the developmental English classroom, and that developmental English teaching methods could be improved for many, if not all students, by attention to language acquisition theory and methods for teaching multilingual students.  For example, teaching grammar within the context of students’ own writing is the standard practice in many ESL programs today (Nassaji & Fotos, 2011), and it is a concept similarly embraced by Chabot and other developmental English programs.

Perhaps resulting from my own questionable English pedigree, I often feel a sense of pressure to forego conversations about grammar or verb conjugations in order to focus on the critical thinking, reading and writing skills which I believe are emphasized above work focused on form, yet in spite of my reservations, I keep returning to the basics of reading and writing.  While I am not certain that our attention to what many would consider to be lower order concerns will prepare my students for the daily activities in their next English class, I believe that our work will prepare them for success there.

Behind my closed classroom door, we talk about grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  Behind my closed classroom door, we spend entire class periods unpacking an academic abstract’s new vocabulary words.  Behind my closed classroom door, we decode and attend to the lower order concerns that my students claim the greatest interest in.  I hope that my work and my students’ comments in course evaluations will eventually allow us to open the door and bridge the well-documented silos of adult ESL and developmental education at institutions beyond my own (Baynham & Simpson, 2010; Crandall & Sheppard, 2004).  Today I received the first sign that the administration is beginning to agree with my students’ decisions about who and what counts.  I was told that I will be allowed to teach a pilot of the co-requisite class I have proposed.  I am hopeful for the collaborations and open doors of the future.

Emily Suh is the co-chair of the Cultural Diversity Committee and Special Interest Networks Coordinator for the National Association of Developmental Education (NADE).  When not engaged in thinking, writing and working towards social justice, Emily raises her children and chickens; she used to have four of each.


Almon, C. (2015). College persistence and engagement in light of a mature English language learner (ELL) student’s voice. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 39(5), 461-472.

Baynham, M., & Simpson, J. (2010). Onwards and upwards: Space, placement, and liminality in adult ESOL classes. TESOL Quarterly, 44(3), 420-440.

Casner-Lotto, J. (2011). Increasing opportunities for immigrant students: Community college strategies for success. Valhalla, NY: Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education.

Conway, K. M. (2010). Educational aspirations in an urban community college: Differences between immigrants and native student groups. Community College Review, 37(3), 209-242.

Crandall, J., & Sheppard, K. (2004). Adult ESL and the Community College. CAAL Community College Series Working Paper 7.  New York, NY: Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy.

Csepelyi, T. (2012). Transition to community college: The journey of adult basic education English language learners from non-credit to credit programs.  (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest.

Hagy, A., & Staniec, J. F. O. (2002). Immigrant status, race, and institutional choice in higher education. Economics of Education Review, 21, 381-392.

Harklau, L. (2000). From the ‘good kids’ to the ‘worst’: Representations of English language learners across educational settings. TESOL Quarterly, 34(1), 35-67.

Mainstream English Language Training Project. (1985). Competency-based mainstream English language training resource package. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Nassaji, H., & Fotos, S. (2011). Teaching grammar in second language classrooms: Integrating form-focused instruction in communicative context. New York, NY: Routledge.

Rumbaut, R. G., & Ima, K. (1988). The adaptation of Southeast Asian refugee youth: A comparative study. San Diego, CA: San Diego State University Press.

Suh, E. (2016). Language minority student transitions. Journal of Developmental Education, 40(1), 26-28.

Teranishi, R., Suarez-Orozco, C., & Suarez-Orozco, M. (2011). “Immigrants in community colleges.” The Future of Children 21(1). 153-169.

Tucker, J. T. (2006). The ESL logjam: Waiting times for adult ESL classes and the impact on English learners. Los Angeles, CA: National Association for Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.





Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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