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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue B ::: May 1997

The ESOL Adult and the Push Towards Meaning

by Judith Rance-Roney
Omar, a young immigrant from rural Venezuela, sat dejectedly in the tiny corner we called a lab, hands wrapped around his thin cheeks, head bowing over a reading passage assigned by his teacher. "I don't understand. I can't do the worksheet." He was attempting to read a passage about an Appalachian family living in an abandoned bus. "I don't understand these words; this story says that these people are living in a bus. I don't understand. People don't live in buses."

Our adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) readers come in all varieties: they are adolescent and elderly, educated and missing key years of education, motivated by survival and motivated by the need to get ahead. Yet they share characteristics as ESOL adult readers. ESOL readers approach the reading task in ways that are far different from those taken by native readers. We must attend to these differences if we are to be effective in our instruction.

Schema of cultural experience

According to Kenneth Goodman's Transactional Sociopsycholinguistic Model of Reading, effective readers employ the minimum number of written cues to comprehend the printed page. Thus, much of what we ‘understand' from the passage is unstated, but we understand it because of all we have learned as members of a culture, and because, as native users, we grasp the subtleties of our language. ESOL readers usually do not have the same network of experiences and learning -- the schema -- to make those leaps of faith, the leaps that occur in the unstated elements of the passage. In fact, ESOL readers may possess cultural concepts that contradict the truth of the reading passage.

Omar, reasonably, expected the passage to make sense. He had learned that bus, people, and ‘driving' should occur together. Being a recent immigrant in this land of opportunity, the thought of a family living in a broken down bus had no validity for Omar. The context of Appalachia meant nothing to him.

Unlike an ESOL child in the midst of reading a new language, adult readers are faced with not only the English in the textbooks, but also the English of the new workplace, the English of their children's worlds, the English of survival in the community. In effect, adult ESOL readers has several English domains to learn, each with a unique grammar, corpus of specialized vocabulary, and writing style or register. Each context of an adult's life holds an overwhelming challenge to language mastery.

Unique goals of the ESOL reader

Typically in my class, peering over shoulders, I see scribbled translations over nearly every word, grammar notes in margins. And I find this despite having taught the lesson wryly entitled "Using Context for Vocabulary Learning." "Guess at the words you don't know," I say, "and find the main idea." Yet the minute I finish the lesson, students busily pore over dictionaries or line up, waiting to ask the meaning of this idiom or that word.

It is natural to assume that readers attempt to decode written language for the purpose of comprehending the author's message. Yet this is not the only purpose for ESOL reading. Until these readers develop the fluency and confidence that is only realized through long exposure to English, these adults possess a second, and sometimes overriding purpose: to incorporate new linguistic data and expand their language base. The higher order of comprehension, main ideas, and inferential skills are sacrificed for mastery of a new language. Adults seem to forget to comprehend; they do not feel secure in their English knowledge to make the subjective judgments necessary to separate the essential from the extraneous. They have difficulty in interacting with the story in a joyful way; rather they are manipulated and controlled by it. Indeed, the discovery of the author's intent will have to wait. They have to survive in this world and they need more words and better grammar to do it.

As teachers, it is essential that we gently move ESOL readers towards meaning making and reading confidence. We can do this by teaching and using material in meaningful contexts -- self, family, work, community -- at first expanding learners' worlds in an ever widening circle. We can choose materials that are emotionally engaging and personally relevant, motivating readers to discover meaning. We can carefully select texts that embed cultural information, helping the ESOL learners to develop a cultural background sufficient to understand less explicit texts. We can ask adults to write in response to their reading, cementing learned words and meaningful grammar.

And we can flood our students with reading "stuff"-- magazines, news-papers, books, whatever. Much of learning to read doesn't happen in the classroom; rather it is learned by reading a lot, developing fluency, cultural schema, the essential language base, and the love of interacting with author and text meaningfully and emotionally.

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