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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue C ::: September 2003

One Classroom, Two Languages: Adult Bilingual Curriculum Development

How should ESOL programs use learners' first language to build their acquisition of the second?

by Kay Taggart and Sara Martinez
Over the past 10 years, in programs involving more than a dozen companies in El Paso, Texas, workplace literacy classes have focused on rudimentary English language skills that employers perceived that workers needed while working in their current jobs. However, in homogeneous bilingual communities, individuals in entry-level jobs often do not need much English to do a job well. We found that employees attended instruction either because their employer asked them to attend and they felt obligated or because they hoped to acquire English skills they could use at home with their children who were learning English in school. When curricula and instruction focused on workplace themes (which workers had said they did not feel they needed), students consistently dropped out. It was not uncommon to lose more than half of the class enrollment before the end of the course. How could we change this? 

In 2001, Johns Hopkins University conducted observations, interviews, and surveys of instructors working in retraining programs for dislocated workers in El Paso. These programs serve mostly women who have been dislocated from the garment industry, and others who work but need to increase their skills to advance within their places of employment. Typical students are Mexican immigrants who attended three to eight years of schooling in Mexico as children. They possess high-beginning to high-intermediate levels of literacy in Spanish and beginning to low-intermediate levels of literacy in English. Dislocated workers receive federal retraining dollars and attend school 20 to 30 hours per week for periods up to 18 months. Those involved in workplace instruction at their places of employment attend instruction four to 12 hours weekly. Instruction for both groups includes job-specific skill training, computer technology training, and related English skills development.

We observed instructors using Spanish for a variety of purposes: orally translating job-specific material written above the eighth grade level; providing oral explanations when students "appeared" confused; giving directions and instructions; and encouraging students. We also observed some instructors expecting students to engage in activities that required high-level, work-specific critical and creative thinking tasks using English only. When students struggled to report on small group work using English, one instructor remarked, "They can't even think!" 

Native Language Use

Using the adult learners' native language in the workforce-training classroom is not a new concept in our community or around the nation. Beginning in the latter half of the 1970s and continuing through the mid-1990s, the US Department of Education funded a number of Bilingual Vocational Training (BVT) projects under the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act. Some of these projects developed native-language instructional materials and used Spanish, Chinese, or another language to teach job-specific skills; related vocational English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) helped students learn English related to the work area. Other programs simply used bilingual assistants to provide supportive one-on-one tutorials as needed when students did not understand content provided in English (Gillespie, 1996). 

Formal and informal bilingual programs continue to operate in various venues. Adult ESOL/literacy and workforce/workplace skill instructors who are themselves bilingual and work within homogenous bilingual communities have used informal bilingual strategies in the classroom for many years. Many instructors move between the two languages with little thought as to why and when to use the native rather than the targeted language.

Written surveys indicated that instructors had difficulty determining what type of activities might best be implemented bilingually, and what type might best be implemented in English only. Students' comments reflected this confusion. It was common to hear "The instructor speaks too much English" and "The instructor doesn't speak enough English" uttered by students in the same classroom. 

We hypothesized that by using Spanish and English for specific and different purposes within areas of curriculum and instruction, students could develop both English and job skills simultaneously. As we worked to design and implement effective workforce and workplace training programs for dislocated as well as incumbent workers, we sought to answer the following questions: 

Curriculum Examples

Bilingual Strategies for Contextual Curricula
Bilingual curricula and instruction do not mean direct translation of all course content. They mean using students' native language to build conceptual understanding and to process knowledge and skills, while developing interpersonal communicative competence in English. Instructors must be clear about when and how to use Spanish and English in the classroom (Baker, 1997). Our observations indicated that instructors who use too much Spanish can slow student language acquisition to a crawl; instructors who use too much English can quash the development of higher-order thinking skills. For bilingual instruction to be effective, we have found it critical that course developers, teachers, and students agree on what components should implemented in English and what components should be implemented in Spanish for the maximum benefit of the student. Instructors and students may move between the two languages at some points. For instance, students work with their teachers to analyze the similarities and differences between the two languages. This process helps to demystify the second language.

Following the research described above, we spent six months working with a group of 12 bilingual instructors. We met weekly for three months for training and collaboration, focusing on bilingual teaching strategies for reading, writing, listening, speaking, and cooperative learning. 

The curriculum developers and teachers we work with begin developing a program by pinpointing a work-relevant theme. To do so, they first collect information from company personnel or from more general information gathered about the target job. They ask the following questions and reach the following conclusions about use of first and second language in instruction (Taggart & Martinez, 2002):

Input from business and industry is important during this phase of curriculum development and instructional planning. Individuals who perform related tasks in the workplace are invaluable in helping us determine which components to teach in English and which to teach in Spanish. Interviews, focus groups, and observations help us answer the questions posed above.

Bilingual instructional curricula and strategies are integral to our instructional programs for retraining dislocated workers, and to programs providing on-site instruction for incumbent workers seeking to move up within their work environment. The programs have multiple components; students participate in work-specific training, related vocational ESOL instruction, and computer technology training. Some also attend preparation classes to take the tests of General Educational Development (GED) in Spanish. See pages 19 and 21 for examples of curriculum from projects underway. 

Our initial inquiry revealed that instructors did not make choices about language of instruction based on any explicit criteria. Even when they are trained in concepts of bilingual education, and practical strategies for using two languages in the classroom, teachers have a tendency to fall back on prior practice. Even when teachers understand the advantages of strategic language use, it is only with continuing professional development and support have they been able to implement it effectively.

As the Hispanic population grows in the United States (Guzman, 2001), and as the need for "thinking" workers increases, adult bilingual workforce training holds great potential for helping individuals advance on multiple levels simultaneously.

About the Authors
Kay Taggart has worked in education, including community, family and workforce literacy, for nearly 20 years. She teaches, develops curricula, trains teachers, and writes grants in El Paso, Texas.

Sara Martinez manages Workplace Literacy at El Paso Community College. In partnership with Fortune 500 companies, she has been implementing instruction for incumbent workers for the past 13 years. In partnership with Motivation, Education, and Training (MET), Ms. Martinez also oversees integrated bilingual programs for the advancement of migrant and seasonal farm workers in the area. 

Baker, C. (1997). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Bristol, PA: Multilingual Matters.

Gillespie, M. (1996). Learning to Work in a New Land: A Review and Sourcebook for Vocational and Workplace ESL. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Guzm·n, B. (2001). The Hispanic Population: Census 2000 Brief. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. (C2KBR/01-3).

Stein, S. (2000). Equipped for the Future Content Standards. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy

Taboada, L. & Taggart, K. (1994). Workplace Communications. El Paso, TX: El Paso Community College.

Taggart, K., & Martinez, S. (2002). Adult Bilingual Curriculum Institute: Core Instructor Training. El Paso, TX: Johns Hopkins University. 

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL