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Success from the Student Perspective

Aimee Davis and Brenda Gilio present a qualitative study of student perceptions of what really worked on their EL program

The many components of a successful English as a second language (ESL) program became apparent to me watching students thrive in a neighborhood public school with an ESL program teeming with diverse students—an English learner (EL) population of close to 60%, students from 16 different countries, speaking 13 different languages. In other schools, ELs may be marginalized, but in this school, they take center stage, literally and figuratively. The ESL teachers provide professional development for content teachers, EL needs are a focus of administrative meetings, and ELs lead activities that are showcased to the community. Students who exit the ESL program, and some in the program, are enrolled in advanced courses. Newer students find comfort in their language groups, but after a year or two they can be found speaking their first language or English to new friends. The students in this ESL program go to college and find employment at high rates.

Teacher–student collaboration is the unique characteristic of this neighborhood public school. Welcoming environments are commonplace, so students take risks and build trust with teachers. ESL teachers are advocates for the ELs and have heightened awareness of student needs. Teachers know something about each of their students’ families, languages, living conditions, problems, and accomplishments. They also have knowledge of language theories and cultural pedagogy practices and when to apply them. Successful education programs such as this involve complex systems with multiple moving parts. Which components of these programs did students themselves think were most effective? What was moving the students of this ESL program to succeed? Recent graduates share their perceptions of effective ESL program components in this qualitative study.

Student-Centered Pedagogy
Using student-centered and culturally responsive lessons has been found to advance ELs toward their goals. Instruction is influenced by social, cultural, and historical factors (Lavendez, 2011). Teaching students cannot be separated from context. The element of control that teachers possess cannot be denied when observing teaching through this sociopolitical context. Teachers are assisting students in making meaning in their own social and political environments, not the teachers’ (Lavendez, 2011). For this to be successful, teachers need to be aware not only of their own biases but of the history, cultures, and capabilities of their students. English language skills are improved upon when students speak about matters on which they are knowledgeable (Waxman and Tellez, 2002). Teachers must be aware of their students’ knowledge and needs in order to build curriculum and plans.

Gay (2010) advises that instruction should be focused on teaching “to and through students’ personal and cultural strengths, their intellectual abilities, and their prior accomplishments” (p. 220). Garcia et al. (2012) build on the concept by placing the emerging bilingual identities of the students at the center of the educating process.

A Web of Collaborations
ESL teachers developed relationships in school with the administration, content teachers, bilingual counselors, tutors, and support staff. Nieto (2002) explains that positive changes come about when individual teachers and administrators work toward sharing power to provide educational success for students.

Trust plays a prominent role in the relationships among students and their teachers. This trust allows for social capital to be accrued. Social capital is “the economic value of a person’s behavior, attitudes, knowledge, and cultural experiences” (Spring, 2012, p. 94). Roessingh (2006) states, “bonding and bridging social capital are critical in nurturing high levels of trust within and across the school and immigrant communities” (p. 566).

Theoretical Framework
Freire’s (1998) model acknowledges students learn most effectively when they are making their own meaning and have knowledge about their own needs. Student empowerment increases when teachers assist them in obtaining knowledge that can transform their circumstances (Nieto, 2002). Ladson-Billings (1995) provides structure to apply these theories. She defines culturally relevant teaching as using the student’s culture as a basis for helping the student to understand themselves and their social interactions and to conceptualize knowledge.

Research Methods
Student perceptions of effective ESL program components were examined through open-ended interviews. To analyze the data, the researcher synthesized, coded, and identified emerging themes. Themes were compared to theories and previous research.

A sample was selected of 14 graduates from an ESL program in 2019. Interviewees included students from eight countries, speaking six different languages. They had resided in the U.S. from one to seven years.

During the interviews, students were guided to think about their experience in their ESL program. The questions were derived from categories of academic instruction with a concentration in culturally responsive pedagogy, use of first language, collaborations among stakeholders, and relationships with teachers. These categories reflect the framework mentioned above (Cummins, 1990; Freire, 1998; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Krashen, 1984; Nieto, 2002).

This qualitative analysis took a grounded theory approach (Creswell and Poth, 2018). Each student response was analyzed to identify if students were proposing that the ESL program component was effective, ineffective, or in need of improvement. Their responses were coded.

Results of the Study
All 14 students were able to describe how their relationship with their EL teacher influenced their success. Student participants stated that teachers provided resources for academic and personal needs. They were given opportunities to share their cultures and use them as a bridge for learning new material. They avoided discipline problems and found help for family members. The EL teacher helped them move through this new education system. Often this help came in the form of connections with other stakeholders. This collaboration with other stakeholders was an influential component to success. The collaborations involved many stakeholders in the program, including ESL and content teachers, staff members, administrators, community partners, counselors, and parents. The students’ responses about collaborations strengthen the idea that interrelationships support ELs.

1. EL teachers provide support for navigating school norms.
Many students discussed how they avoided discipline problems with the help of EL teachers. A male from El Salvador recalled, “One day a guy pushed me. She helped me a lot. She said what I need to do. She go to the office with me.” In this case, the teacher was helping the student to understand how the school handles discipline issues. He smiled as he continued, saying she was a “good teacher” and he liked her because she helped him to “not do something wrong.” Students such as this one look for a trusted adult, preferably one who speaks their language, to guide them to make the right decision. There were many examples like this, where the student may not have understood the protocol to handle awkward or delicate situations. These situations have the potential to cause embarrassment, or worse, punitive actions. In cases such as these, the student seeks a credible adult to guide them through. In many cases, their EL teacher is this person.

A female participant originally from Honduras enthusiastically recalled numerous times her EL teachers helped with problems. “Two of the ESL teachers helped me. I didn’t want them to do something. I told them to only let them know what kind of problem I was having. I can trust them more than my other teachers. So, they are like my other moms. I know I can tell them my problems. It is good to have a person to tell your problems.”

These moments represent common situations that arise in high school but are new to ELs. Having a trusted person in their corner allows them to feel confident to continue with their learning while adjusting to social norms. This participant continued to describe occasions—academic, disciplinary, and personal—where she felt space was available for her to discuss issues without fear. The idea that she could trust her teachers was important for her to succeed.

2. EL teachers connect academics to student culture and community.
EL teachers were said to be skilled in using lessons as a bridge to understanding students’ cultures and communities. One student participant discussed using Vietnamese culture as a vehicle to guide instruction: “When I think about the past that I live in Vietnam, it helps me to learn and grow more than what I am doing today.” She shared discussion topics which focused on Vietnamese culture. Two other Vietnamese students mentioned “sharing” and “community” in response to inquiries about culturally responsive instruction. Another Vietnamese participant stated, “I share how I love it (culture). When I share, she shared back. I learn from her culture. I learn, too.”

A student from El Salvador exemplified this concept: “I feel more good when she (ESL teacher) talked about my country.” Another student participant, from China, echoed this sentiment. She related, “I know my country very much. I can talk about my country and other people are interested. I am very proud of my country. I learned many things in my country. I learned before I came here.” It takes a generous amount of time for these relationships to be cultivated because teachers must get to know students and their backgrounds well. Teachers are able to provide these connections because of time allowed through scheduling by the administration.

3. Administrators invest in teacher– student collaborations.
Interview data demonstrated EL teachers partnering with their students to give them support. The teachers grew to know their students’ histories and their goals for the future. In order for these understandings to develop, administrators must provide time for teacher and students to get to know each other. This often occurs when rostering students with the same teacher for extended semesters. This time allows teachers to gain understanding of students so that when they need encouragement, it is genuinely provided.

Students often stated that the EL teacher instilling confidence was instrumental in creating a successful experience. A student participant said, “I remember my ESL teacher told me one word, ‘confidence.’ I need to have more confidence to myself and speak English. That was important to me. I was shy all the time.” Similarly, a participant from the Congo gave more specific information about how his ESL teacher instilled confidence. He said, “First of all, in many ways, ESL (classes) changed me. They improved me how to read, how to speak English, improved me how to feel confident. When I came, I can’t take a book and read in front of many people. I thought with my pronunciation, they will laugh about me. Right now, I can read the book with confidence.” Administrators have an important role in this collaboration. They can schedule time for these relationships to be forged.

4. EL teachers collaborate with content teachers to advance student learning.
Participants were asked about a time when their EL teachers worked with other teachers to help them with a problem. Students explained that this happened when they encountered issues in their content classes. A participant provided details about how students perceive this action: “They (EL and content teachers) work with each other for helping the students to understand. To do the math if they don’t understand. They gonna connect them with a math and ESL teacher. Because ESL teacher understands ELL students more than other teacher. They can help us because they understand us.” Another participant summed up the need for collaboration: “You need motivation from everyone. Not only the (ESL) teacher. Everyone, to push me up. This is important.”

EL teachers do this by giving information to other teachers about how to scaffold instruction, provide accommodations, or conduct community outreach. This adaptability of the EL teacher is necessary when considering the rigidity of the school systems many inhabit.

5. EL teachers collaborate with other stakeholders.
Students were asked about how their EL teachers worked with parents, representatives of parents, or community partner members. Community leaders and bilingual assistants are often representatives of parents. Student responses referenced their parents’ connections with these stakeholders. One said, “When report cards are coming, they (bilingual counselors) talk with my parents.” Another mentioned grades as a topic for bilingual counselor and EL teacher collaborations. She said, “My ESL teacher talked with my counselor if I got a lower grade. They will talk with the counselor to move you up, make you motivation.” Bilingual counselors are often the liaison between teachers and parents who do not speak English.

Other students mentioned examples of community partners helping with classroom assignments to further student success. One referred to receiving help with her graduation project: “I always went to after-school program, Migrant Education. Lots of students go after school to get help. Migrant Education helped me to do my Nepali project. He heard of my history. The history of Mao. I researched and did a presentation.” Community partners provide an opportunity for ELs to get help from people who know their languages and cultures.

6. Students network for their future with EL teachers.
A participant from Vietnam described a time when his EL teacher helped him to make higher education plans with his parents: “My ESL teacher tell me about my future. We talked for an hour. She told me to tell my parents. They don’t want me to go to college. They want me working. I want to go to college. The problem was solved because she gave me advice. I talked to my parents. You can make money with your brain. You can think. You are smart.” Talking with parents about continuing education can be overwhelming for any student, especially one new to the country. The teacher supplied him with information about how college can help to attain wealth. These new ideas hold more weight when they originate from the teacher, especially since teachers are held in high regard in some cultures. Many parents of ELs require them to work because they may not understand or trust that college may lead to higher-paying jobs.

Student–teacher relationships are essential in allowing students to feel successful. EL teachers in particular help students to navigate cultural norms and systemic expectations. This leads to increased trust in the system and confidence to continue learning. Students cited feelings of confidence, pride, connection, and comfort directly related to relationships with EL teachers.

Practical Implications and Strategies
Participants’ perceptions of positive experiences included their EL teacher in an array of situations: academic, social, and goal setting. Students gained understanding of how to figure out new educational and social systems while building confidence in their abilities to use their language skills to plan for the future. Often collaborators were people who spoke the same languages or shared the same ethnic backgrounds as the students. EL teachers set up collaborations and made space for exchanges. These webs of collaboration between EL teachers, their students, and other stakeholders are the heart of successful ESL programs. The themes that emerged support critical pedagogy, which expresses the idea of student empowerment increasing when students obtain knowledge that can transform circumstances (Nieto, 2002). This idea confirms that a teacher’s position is not neutral, and student-centered and culturally appropriate activities empower students. Students learn more easily when there is an element of comfort, which allows them to receive learning messages more clearly (Krashen, 1984).

Students learn more effectively as teachers become aware of students’ strengths and accomplishments (Gay, 2010). Building relationships where teachers know students’ backgrounds and needs takes time. When teachers have the time to build rapport and create caring atmospheres that accommodate the cultures and languages of their students, then success is accelerated because confidence improves.

Culturally responsive teaching is a strong element when building positive relationships between teacher and student. Using culturally responsive learning throughout academic instruction results in students reporting positive feelings when sharing cultural identities. This sharing of culture is one of the bridges that helps to lower the affective filter and exemplifies how learning cannot be separated from the sociopolitical context (Lavendez, 2011; Nieto, 2002). EL programs should utilize community partners, bilingual counselors, and bilingual members of the school community as a wealth of resources for students. Community involvement results in power transfer in relationships (Lavendez, 2011). The ability to succeed in school is a power that is transferred to students with the help of community partners who may have navigated the educational systems themselves and share the students’ cultures. Students overcome academic barriers when they have access to multiple sources. EL programs need to involve community partners in decision making and in academic discussions. Programs need to create space and time for these partners to work with students and feel welcome as indispensable members of the school community.

Implications of this research include the need for EL teacher training courses that accentuate the importance of being advocates for students. ESL teachers need to be aware of organizations and connect students to them in the school and community. Training programs should make new teachers aware of the skills needed for advocacy so that they are prepared to involve themselves in the profession as more than teachers of academic skills.

References available at

Aimee Davis is an ESL and English teacher at Furness High School in South Philadelphia. She also teaches graduate courses in social foundations, ESL, education research, and communication. She received her EdD in school leadership from Widener University. Her research interests include ESL programs, student perceptions, effects of culturally responsive instruction, promoting student leadership, and first language use in the classroom.

Brenda Gilio, associate professor and director of the Center for Education at Widener University, served as the chairperson of the dissertation committee on which this article is based. Dr. Gilio is a faculty member in the K–12 Educational Leadership Programs. Her research agenda focuses on leadership for school improvement.

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