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Taking a Closer Look at Struggling ESOL Learners

by Robin L. Schwarz
Anna Maria, a quiet South American woman in her early 60s, had spent more than two years in the same low-intermediate English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) phonics class. At intake, Anna Maria had reported two years of schooling in her native country. According to her teachers, she did not always complete homework and was frequently absent. In addition to her age, the staff of the program saw her lack of education, absences, and failure to do homework as probable causes of Anna Maria’s failure to progress. Although other students with these issues generally make progress of some kind, Anna Maria did not. Yet she persisted. Her persistence and deep disappointment about staying in the same class caused Anna Maria’s teachers to ask that she be referred for testing for a learning disability.

The failure of ESOL learners like Anna Maria to progress in learning often leads teachers to conclude that these learners must have learning disabilities. A learning disability is suspected because learning has been so profoundly affected that it seems impossible that anything else could be the cause of the problem. In fact, my more than 20 years of study and research into ways that learning disabilities can be differentiated from other challenges in adult ESOL learners have taught me that many other factors may impede learning. Some may be related to the learner’s cultural and linguistic background; sometimes there are physiological or psychological factors involved. In this article I present examples illustrating some of these types of impediments and provide some ideas on how to find out more about what may be causing learners to fail to learn.

A Variety of Problems

As in the case of Anna Maria, teachers want learners to be evaluated to find out what is holding up their learning. However, my experience indicates that often nearly all we need to know can be obtained in an interview with the student. Anna Maria’s interview, for example, revealed multiple causes of her difficulties in learning. She had a significant hearing problem. Frequent ear infections had kept Anna Maria out of school in her beginning years. Eventually she had to be hospitalized and never returned to school. As a teen, she was sent to Boston to have her entire left ear canal removed. Hearing in the other ear was much reduced as well so that Anna Maria was about 75 percent hearing-impaired.   

Anna Maria had never told anyone about her hearing loss and, instead, struggled with it daily in class. Because she was often exhausted from trying to concentrate on the class proceedings, she sometimes chose not to come to class. When she was there, she missed hearing much of what the homework was, because  assignments were often given orally.

The hearing loss was only part of the story. Her teachers thought Anna Maria’s problems stemmed mostly from low literacy. Another “Tell me more” question about dropping out of school prompted her to say that she could read Spanish- language books and magazines and often wrote letters in Spanish to people at home: she was fully literate. Moreover, her self-evaluation of her English was high. She liked learning new words and, having been in this country a long time, knew many words that more recently arrived classmates did not know. In fact, Anna Maria felt frustrated at seeing new students come into class and then move past her when she knew so much more English than they did. A writing sample of about seven sentences showed that not only did she have a good vocabulary but also her long, interesting sentences were perfectly coherent, with few spelling mistakes, which seemed to contradict the phonics problems she was reported to have.

Anna Maria also experienced stress and depression. She became very emotional when asked about her absences and missing homework. As the sole caretaker of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, she could not easily find someone to stay with her mother to attend class. Worse, if she took books or papers home, her mother would hide them and then, of course, not remember doing so. Anna Maria did not take work home anymore. She confessed that the strain of this situation had caused clinical depression, for which she was taking medication, but sometimes the medication did not prevent her from feeling overwhelmed and sad. And just as she had not shared other information, she had never offered these real reasons for her struggles in participating in and attending class.

In the workshops I facilitate, participants from other cultures nod vigorously in agreement when I note the reticence of older ESOL learners in talking about the disabilities or other difficulties that Anna Maria experienced. This means we cannot expect that these learners will be forthcoming about such problems. At the same time, American teachers often tell me that they do not ask their learners too many questions because they believe that inquiring about such issues as physical disabilities, mental health, or low literacy will seem intrusive or insensitive. Yet the consequences of teachers’ not knowing are clear in Anna Maria’s case. Not only was Anna Maria’s difficulty incorrectly thought to be a learning disability, but she was also not accommodated as a person with physical impairment. In addition, because her problems were not recognized for what they were, she was placed far lower in her program than her actual skills warranted and she was believed to be lacking motivation and commitment to learning. Once her teachers learned the true nature of her difficulties, her teacher and the director re-evaluated her and put into place accommodations such as making sure all assignments were written and helping Anna Maria find a solution to the homework dilemma.

Ask Privately and Gently

Having conducted hundreds of interviews with adult ESOL learners experiencing problems in learning, I have found that learners rarely withhold critical information — as long as the questioning is done privately and gently. Sometimes they are eager to have someone listen, as in the case of Henri, an older Haitian man who had sat for nearly a month in his beginning ESOL literacy class without responding or doing anything. Once the door was closed for our interview and I told him his teacher was concerned, Henri poured out a touching story about prostate problems that totally preoccupied him. His daughter wanted him to learn English, he said, and he came to class only to make her happy. Knowing why Henri was making slow progress helped his teacher to feel less frustrated and more positive about him. His teacher started to provide careful encouragement, congratulating him for being in class at all and for any effort he made to participate, rather than focusing on Henri’s comparative lack of progress. Tiny successes — completing an activity in class with another student; participating in an oral activity successfully — helped Henri to be more engaged while he wrestled with his health problem.

Impact Underestimated

Sometimes a factor that is understood to have an impact on learning is completely obvious, but that impact is underestimated. Then the learner may be judged deficient, when in fact she or he is being asked to learn things or perform tasks beyond his or her skills or knowledge. Surer, a native of Somalia in her 50s, illustrates this problem. When I met her, Surer had spent two years in the same beginning ESOL class and, according to her teacher, had barely made any progress. Surer was completely nonliterate when she joined the class whereas most of her classmates had beginning literacy skills in their first languages. With Surer’s limited oral English precluding much of an interview, her teacher helped to explain the situation. The teacher told me she was frustrated and completely puzzled about Surer’s inability to grasp the grammar the class was reading and writing: activities and tests of negation in sentences and conjugation of verbs, for example.

Unlike her classmates, Surer lacked basic concepts of literacy when she started. Her teacher confirmed that Surer had not even had such fundamental skills as being able to hold a pencil or discriminate visual information on her arrival in class. Surer needed a full range of preliteracy skills that her class was not designed to cover and that her teacher was not prepared to provide. Experience with adult learners such as these three tells me that their reluctance to inform their teachers about their problems very likely was influenced by culturally based reluctance to stand out as someone needing special consideration of some kind. This kind of fear is certainly not limited to ESOL learners.

Culturally Appropriate Questions

Sometimes, cultural attitudes are even stronger and more direct and become barriers to learning, as in the case of seven Sudanese young men from the Dinka culture. After three years in an adult ESOL program, their speaking and listening skills were relatively good. But these young men were not progressing in reading and writing and thus towards their goal of a certificate of General Educational Development (GED).

They were described as only mildly interested and putting out little effort despite regular attendance. Although some of the Sudanese refugees in adult education programs have little or no literacy, these young men reported that they had basic literacy in Arabic, but not in their native Dinka, which is an unwritten language. The fundamental literacy issues affecting Surer did not seem to apply, nor did these young men seem to have the physical or psychological problems that affected Henri and Anna Maria.

The Dinka language is quite different phonologically and syntactically from English. Believing that these differences might have been part of the young men’s difficulties, the director of their program brought in a consulting teacher to help the Sudanese with their pronunciation and other language skills. This teacher was not met with enthusiasm but rather by increased indifference. When he tried to find out what the young men thought of their classes and teachers, he elicited only the most basic responses, both orally and in writing. Of the seven, only two completed the written response. Knowing that I had spent some time investigating problems of Sudanese learners, this teacher asked me what I thought was going on.

I have learned from Sudanese informants that Dinka generally do not voice opinions directly. Nor do they usually ask or answer direct questions requiring that they give such opinions; rather, they may answer evasively and politely to avoid offending, as they did to this teacher when he asked their opinion of their program and teachers. Furthermore, Dinka may prefer not to answer what they consider to be useless questions because they believe, say informants, that the person asking already knows the answer. I suspect that the young men did not see any point to answering a question about why they wanted to learn English: to them it was all too obvious that they needed English to succeed in the United States.

At my suggestion, the consulting teacher changed his tack. Instead of asking direct questions, he created an informal conversational situation to discuss how education could help someone and what one needed to go on to higher education. This permitted the men to express opinions indirectly without implicating any teacher or their program directly. To his surprise, the young men eagerly participated in this conversation and vehemently expressed their desire to read and write about topics they believed would help them achieve their goals. They were adamant about not wanting to study more ESOL grammar or vocabulary of the type they had had for more than two years. These opinions were new to the program staff.

The teacher also changed the writing assignment, giving them a choice of topics such as their preference for jobs or their favorite sports team. Again he was surprised to find that all seven wrote at least a full page about their chosen topics. When their cultural responses to activities were taken into account, their performance changed significantly.

Extensive Intake;
Staff Development

What do these cases teach us about finding out what is holding up learning?  First, we see that it is essential to learn as much about our learners as possible through a more extensive intake process. Second, these cases illustrate that staff need more education about the variety of noneducational issues that can impede learning.

Time is often an issue at intake, when a roomful of adults is waiting to be processed and program requirements mandate only a certain number of hours for intake in relation to instruction. However, these case studies show that critical information about physical problems, health, living situations, the amount and nature of students’ literacy, and the nature of their first language can be key to ensuring that learners’ true needs are not missed and that educational time and effort are not wasted. Programs should strive to strike a balance between the need to process new learners efficiently and the value of having this information.

When such information is gained at intake, staff need to know how to respond to it. Staff development about visual and hearing impairment, mental and general health issues can alert teachers to problems such as those of Anna Maria and Henri. Support in gaining awareness of cultural beliefs and differences and their impact on their learners is needed for all ESOL teachers, so that learners like the Sudanese men do not sink into unexpressed frustration. Finally, an understanding of the issues of preliteracy is important for all teachers working with learners from countries or cultures with very low literacy rates. Staff development that covers these issues can only contribute to the effectiveness of teachers and programs in serving learners who would otherwise struggle as the learners in these cases did.

Read more about intake interviews...

About the Author

Robin Schwarz is an ESOL tutor and LD specialist and consultant in ESOL/LD issues. She is a partner in the TLP Group in Columbus, Ohio.


LDA Minnesota (2003). Taking Action: A Resource Guide for Instructors Serving ESL Adults with Learning Difficulties or Learning Disabilities. Minneapolis: LDA Minnesota, 2003.
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Visit, the web site of the Center for Applied Linguistics’ Cultural Orientation Resource Center, for information on the cultures of the major refugee groups to the United States over the past 20 years.