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Where Attendance is Not a Problem

Where Attendance is Not a Problem

Some thoughts on why ESOL students often persist despite considerable obstacles

by Moira Lucey
According to a U.S. Department of Education national evaluation of federally-supported adult education programs completed in 1994, enrollment numbers and class sizes tend to be larger in English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) programs than in adult basic education (ABE) and adult secondary education (ASE) (Fitzgerald, 1995). In addition, students enrolled in ESOL classes receive an average of 113 hours of instruction before leaving a program, which is three to four times more hours of instruction than students leaving ABE or ASE get. As a result of the high level of participation in ESOL classes, the study found improved basic skills, literacy skill, and employability in learners.

Why are participation and retention rates higher in ESOL than in ABE or ASE classes? What motivates an adult to attend ESOL classes? I can only respond to these questions by first reflecting on our ESOL program at the International Institute of Boston and on my experience with ESOL learners.

As is typical in many adult education programs, at the International Institute of Boston we end each term with a ceremony. It is always the same. Students, teachers, and other staff fill a room. Brief speeches are made. Those students finishing our highest level class are handed diplomas. Those who got full time jobs but still come to class every day are applauded. Attendance certificates are handed out. As names are read, those who had perfect attendance rise. Then those who missed only one day stand. Those who will be returning next term sit in the audience looking pleased that they are able to come back. They come from many countries and backgrounds. They are all ages and sizes.

Each semester, year after year, I continue to be amazed as I address the group. I see students busily snapping pictures of the graduates, groups of friends, and teachers. I hear those students who are completing our highest level class approach their teachers, begging for permission to enroll class for just one more term. I look into the eyes of those who have full-time jobs but still manage to attend class 15 hours a week. I observe the groups of newly formed friends sitting together, laughing and sharing stories and food. I think of what it really takes for adults to embark on the process of learning a new language and literacy and what is at stake if they do not learn to function in English at some level. I marvel at the fact that the vast majority of these students have studied well beyond the national average of 113 hours of instruction before leaving our program. The main reason why students from our ESOL classes do not complete a term is most often job related; it's rarely related to motivation.

For ESOL students, improved English language and literacy skills are not the only reason for participating in a program. ESOL classes provide the key to understanding more about how to operate in American culture. They give students the opportunity not only to practice language but to learn why something is said or how language changes in a given cultural context. Students learn what to say or not say on a job interview or how to make a doctor's appointment for a sick child. Students share experiences with each other. As they gain language skills and a better understanding of America, their ability to function more effectively in their communities, workplaces, and neighborhoods increases.

Having the freedom to attend school is a privilege for some learners, one that may not have been offered them in their native countries. Whether it is a young man denied entrance to college because of the political affiliations of his family or a woman who was never permitted to go to school because women in her country did not attend school, these students are determined to learn. This is their opportunity.

ESOL programs provide learners with a chance to interact with other adults who may have similar life experiences, come from the same country, or are facing the same challenges. Students, especially those who have recently come to the U.S., are often separated from friends and family. Class is a place to make new friends. The social isolation many ESOL learners feel because of their inability to communicate with neighbors or co-workers in English lessens as friendships form and networks develop.

Of the ESOL students surveyed in the U.S. Department of Education's national evaluation, 92 percent said that they read well or very well in their native languages. Half of the ESOL students had completed at least high school Unlike many of the students enrolled in ABE or General Educational Development (GED) classes, ESOL students have not necessarily had failure experiences prior to enrolling in a program. They may be well educated and speak more than one language. They enter programs with excitement. That, in turn, contributes to their ability to learn English. For most, studying ESOL carries no stigma: it is not looked at as remedial education. Even if ESOL students have little or no formal education in their native countries, we often see a high level of motivation to learn English and basic English literacy. In fact, these learners often stay in our ESOL classes for a year or more, attending regularly.

External factors can also influence students' participation in a program. Whether it is an employer who is recommending class attendance or a worker from the welfare department, expectations and requirements may, if met, result in a reward. For students on public assistance, it is cash and food stamps, medical assistance and child care. For students whose bosses have requested that they enroll in ESOL classes, it can be better positions or maintaining current jobs. Many students acknowledge the need to improve their English language and literacy skills for their jobs. That is why they come to class.

Certainly the quality of a program influences attendance and retention rates. Support services, especially bilingual support, allow programs to more effectively and comprehensively reach out to adult populations with needs that may go beyond education. Flexibility and options in scheduling allow students unable to continue in a daytime class, for example, to attend an evening class. The quality of the teaching staff is also critical. Massachusetts now has a number of masters-level ESOL teacher training programs producing well-trained teachers. This, combined with resources from the state allocated to training and professional development, helps us recruit and support talented teachers.

While many of our students show impressive attendance and retention rates, I do not want to ignore the fact that some students do not complete a semester. As with all adult learners, our students have other roles and responsibilities. Some situations necessitate dropping out: lack of child care, health problems, a move to another area, and employer demands are the most common. Factors that relate to the program also cause learners to disappear. If the class schedule is inconvenient or the goal of the learner and the program differ, students may leave. But even if a learner drops out, the motivation to learn often remains in the form of an intent to continue studying when the time is right. It is this motivation and determination to learn that characterizes the adult ESOL learner, and it is also what keeps so many of us working in the field from "dropping out."


Fitzgerald. N.B. (1995) ESL Instruction in Adult Education: Findings from a National Evaluation. ERIC Digest. Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education. (EDRS No EDO --LE -- 95-03).

About the Author

Currently working as Director of Programs at the International Institute of Boston, Moira Lucey has extensive experience in adult education. She has taught, planned, and administered both ESOL and literacy programs in the U.S. and abroad. She was one of the authors of the teacher handbook Preventive Mental Health in the ESL Classroom, and is currently involved in the development of a citizenship education program at the International Institute.