Transitioning Adult ESL Students to College

Lijun Shen demonstrates strategies to address the different needs of college-bound adult English learners

Many adult learners who study English as a Second Language (ESL) stay in adult literacy programs for years without moving on to college programs. Transitioning these ESL learners from the non-credit ESL program to the credit-bearing college academic and vocational/technical programs is a challenge that many instructors and administrators of adult literacy programs face. This article introduces some of the effective strategies, both programmatic and instructional, that Highline Community College in Washington State has adopted to successfully transition ESL students into credit-bearing college programs.

Our Students
Highline Community College is in Des Moines, Washington, which has one of the highest immigration rates in the county, state, and nation. According to census data, over 100 languages are spoken among limited English proficiency (LEP) students in local schools and 90.2 percent (56,810) of the LEP population are between 18 and 65 years of age. Over a quarter of the LEP households are below the poverty level: 12.3 percent are on public assistance and 26.7 percent are below the poverty level. Most of them are unemployed and are at the low literacy level. Those who manage to come to school oftentimes drop out of school because of some common barriers such as lack of financial aid support, childcare support, and language and study skills.

Between 2003 and 2006, Highline Community College served about 6,000 adult ESL students. Out of these ESL students who attended ESL classes, only 100 (1.7 percent) students moved on to credit-bearing college courses. Among the 100 students, only four of them earned associate degrees (1 AAS, 1AS, 2AA) and only one earned a one-year certificate.

Barriers
There are many barriers faced by ESL students in accessing and transitioning to college. Among the most commonly stated barriers are: (1) lack of goals, motivations and belief in self-worth; (2) lack of financial support and childcare support; (3) failure to provide transportation; (4) inability of working students to attend due to schedule conflicts and fatigue resulting from long work days; (5) cultural differences and expectations; and (6) lack of knowledge of the U.S. college system including application and registration process. Due to the nature of the ESL program at Highline and in order to serve more students in our community, many of our ESL classes are offered at various off-campus community sties. This has led to an extreme disconnection between the ESL population and the rest of the college. Hence, most student support services are unavailable to the ESL students.

Response
Data on the educational requirements needed for the fastest-growing jobs in our economy provides a convincing argument for enhancing adult basic education services to include transition to postsecondary education. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (2002)1, the majority of jobs require postsecondary education. It is clear that men and women over age 25 can have high income benefits from further education—any education beyond a high school diploma. In order to help our ESL students, an ESL-to-Credit task force made up of administrators, instructors, college support services, and community partners was formed with the vision to create a sustainable, innovative, and effective set of services to help ESL learners succeed in pursuing the educational and training options of their choice. The ESL-to-Credit task force took up the following initiatives:

• Research: Determine who our populations are, where they live, what they need, and the degree to which they are successful in our current programs; use this information to inform program planning and decision making.
• Recruiting materials: Develop culturally appropriate outreach materials and activities that reach ESL audiences and respond to their needs, interests, and questions.
• Student services: Create a flexible menu of support services that can reach out to ESL populations, assisting them with
• Admissions
• Advising
• College cost information and financial aid
• Transcript evaluation and credit transfer
• Financial aid support: Search for financial aid options, develop seamless referral mechanisms that match students with those sources, and develop new funding sources.
• Professional development: Provide ongoing training and updating to ESL faculty about Highline’s educational opportunities so that they can be effective in informing their students and answering student inquiries.
• Curriculum and instruction: Offer transition courses that integrate career development, college preparation, and basic skills.

Transition Program
Course Development

Based on the initiatives conducted by the ESL-to-Credit task force, as a member and the only ESL instructor from the task force, I developed Highline’s first transitional course: Transition to College. The course was designed for the advanced ESL students before entering a vocational or academic program. Students received an orientation to the college as well as academic skills and English language skills needed for successful transition and participation in higher education. Upon successful completion of the class, students would be able to:
• Believe in self-worth to face the challenges of academic demands and administrative systems;
• Understand the norms of the academic community;
• Develop conceptual/critical thinking skills such as synthesis, analysis, and evaluation;
• Apply different reading strategies depending on purpose;
• Develop basic academic writing skills and technology skills;
• Communicate effectively both in oral and in written forms based on purpose and needs;
• Develop effective learning strategies and study skills.

The class covered the following topics and contents:
1. Surviving college: Things you need to know
• Understanding the quarterly and class schedule;
• Identifying campus resources;
• Interviewing faculty and students from the honor program.

2. Planning your education
• Applying for admission;
• Assessing skills (through placement test);
• Meeting with an advisor;
• Registering for classes.

3. Getting help financially for college expenses
• Understanding types of financial aid;
• Applying for financial aid;
• Tips for streamlining financial aid.

4. Getting help from career and employment services
• Job search and career exploration;
• Self-assessment;
• Developing skills in cover letter writing, resume writing and job interview techniques.

5. Setting goals and priorities
• What does it take to make you happy?
• Why should you have goals?
• What are the elements of a useful goal?
• What are your goals?

6. Developing time management strategies
• Keeping a schedule;
• Prioritizing tasks;
• Combining tasks;
• Keeping and maintaining good health.

7. Determining learning styles and identifying learning strategies
• What are learning styles?
• What kind of learner are you?
• Will understanding your learning style help you become a better student?
• What are the learning strategies for different types of learners?

8. Developing important academic study skills
• Highlighting and annotating;
• Outlining, mapping and summarizing;
• Note-taking and test-taking strategies.

9. Developing reading skills
• Guessing vocabulary from context;
• Previewing, scanning and skimming;
• Reading for main ideas and details;
• Recognizing basic patterns of organization;
• Reading critically and applying what has been read.

10. Building basic writing skills
• Paragraph writing;
• Summarizing;
• Knowledge of grammar.

11. Using a computer as an aid to becoming a better student
• Obtaining an e-mail account;
• Learning the basics of working on computers;
• Learning how to do research on the Internet and checking the quality of online resources;
• Learning how to use online learning system.

Implementation
Recruitment for the Transition to College class was done through the distribution of the class flyer, in-class promotion, student’s current instructor recommendations and interviewing with the transition instructor.
Students were encouraged to talk to their current ESL instructors about their interest in the transition class. I also talked to the students’ instructors about their potential students. Then, with the recommendation of the ESL instructors, students who were interested in signing up for the transition class scheduled an interview to determine whether they were qualified for the class. Students were required to bring in an in-class writing sample for the interview. After the interview, qualified students were instructed to sign up for the transition class.

Outcomes
In spring 2006, the first Transition to College class was offered to advanced ESL students. Twenty students were enrolled in the class and all of them had the goal of attending credit-bearing college academic and vocational/technical programs. Students attended classes for two and a half hours every day, Monday through Thursday. They went through the transition course curriculum and the outcome was outstanding.
To keep track of student work, each student was required to build a Student Learning Portfolio. The portfolio was used as an alternative form of assessment which was an evaluation of a collected, organized, annotated body of work, produced throughout the quarter by the learner. It provided evidence of growth in many dimensions of the student’s learning.
At the end of spring quarter 2006, students were also required to take the COMPASS test—a computer-adaptive college entrance exam. The result of the COMPASS test showed that all 20 students (100 percent) were qualified to be admitted into credit-bearing college courses. Among the 20 students, 13 (65 percent) students enrolled in the credit-bearing college programs immediately after the transition class.

Best Practices
The end-of-quarter student evaluation indicated that students really loved the approach of the transition class. The curriculum, the instruction, and the extra support (both academically and emotionally) helped students get started with their pursuit of the educational and training options of their choice.

As the result of the successful transition class in spring 2006, many ESL students expressed their interest in transitioning to college credit programs. A recent focus-group survey indicated that 95 percent of Highline’s High Intermediate-Advanced ESL students want to enroll in degree or certificate programs.
Since the first transition class in spring 2006, Highline community College has been developing strategies to address different needs of the ESL student population. So far, the ESL Department has developed three categories of elective courses: transition, pathways, and target skills. These courses are designed for current high-intermediate and advanced level ESL students. The Transition to College class helps prepare advanced ESL students to transition into academic programs. Pathways courses are designed to prepare students for a specific career pathway. We currently offer healthcare, business, and early childhood education pathways courses. Targeted Skills courses focus on specific skills identified by student need. According to the data given by the Instructional Research Office at Highline Community College, 30 percent (versus 1.7 percent) of the ESL students have transitioned to the credit-bearing college programs since spring 2006.
While establishing and maintaining successful transitions for ESL students to enter college academic programs requires tremendous effort and hard work from the instructors, administrators, and college support services, the rewards are incredible. It is gratifying to know that our ESL students are better prepared to handle the social and academic challenges upon entering college.

Notes
1 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2002). Tomorrow’s Jobs. Bulletin 2540-1.

Dr. Lijun Shen ([email protected]), professor of TESOL and Read­­ing at Highline Community College and adjunct faculty member of the TESOL program at Seattle University, has over 20 years of experience teaching adult ESL and EFL students and training teachers.

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