SAYING 'YES SIR, BOSS,' ISN'T SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE: Reflections on defining adult ESOL instruction for career and employment purposes

by Sally Gabb, working with Beth Pastore, at The Genesis Center

The inquiry question addressed by Beth Pastore and myself, with help from the other ESOL teachers at The Genesis Center, grew out of the increasing pressure by funding sources, including state and local government, to create 'employment targeted' ESOL programs and curriculum. As director of adult programs , I was well aware that while our instructors knew the importance for some learners of developing English for use in gaining employment or functioning better on the job, most were not oriented to planning lessons with a narrow focus. The emphasis at Genesis has been on building community, emphasizing strengths of learners, and developing a personal, learner centered lesson planning process.


Nevertheless, as primary adult programs grant writer, I had written successful grant proposals for several ESOL programs requiring development of curriculum and instructional strategies which will enable limited English proficient adults to obtain employment, and function more efficiently on the job, as evaluated by the employer. The challenge for me this year, and in coming years, is to keep the learner centered, community building character alive at Genesis while meeting more focused 'workforce investment' purposes of the funding which supports us.


Inquiry Question: 'How can English for speakers of Other Languages programs pursue process and outcome objectives which meet the employment oriented expectations of funders/employers while maintaining a curriculum process that is both learner centered and based on communications/ whole language approach to language instruction?


Two of us were primarily involved in examining this question at Genesis this year. Beth Pastore functioned as our coordinator for work related programs at Genesis, developing specific curriculum for so-called work related ESOL. I was involved as Adult Education Director,. planning staff development opportunities with out teaching team, recognizing that the parameters of several grants required this employment focused ESOL instruction.


In developing our ideas for this inquiry project, Beth and I projected some ambitious action steps and outcome expectations. Beth was able to integrate this project with both her teaching and her program development/management functions at Genesis. Beth fully embraced her job description at The Genesis Center - to create and implement ESOL curriculum and program with a strong employment focus.



My portion of the project has been to broaden the dialogue with other staff - to encourage them to fully embrace and critically evaluate this employment targeted focus. This has been a challenging task - one that forced me to look at the impact on lesson planning of both personal style and philosophy. It also forced me to confront some harsh realities about the kind of free public adult education this country is willing to support, and the 'acceptable' outcomes expected for the dollars spent.

Action Steps: A more informal process of information gathering:


1. Survey of lesson planning process for integrating work related themes into ESOL instruction:

& 2: Establish a dialogue journal among instructors around issues of integrating employment themes into instruction:


Actual Process: Five of the staff of eight teachers failed to respond to the 'work related curriculum development' survey in the initial attempt. there was little enthusiasm about keeping a dialogue journal - most felt that through the weekly teacher dialogue meetings, a lot of reflecting takes place. I have paraphrased and summarized my notes from the teacher dialogue meetings and individual conferences about the planning process and integration of work related material for various teachers as follows:


a. Beginning level ESOL : lesson planning is very concrete: I use personal identification, basic functional vocabulary, and question/answer patterns for very basic usage. People in my classes seldom ask work related questions, or bring in work related reading. They are learning the nuts and bolts of the English language. It's not especially targeted for employment, but a beginning English learner needs to start with very concrete, familiar content. I try to create the foundation for English usage in any situation - at home, at work, in the community. Getting people to be willing to use their English at all is preparation for working. People have to be able to ask questions.

b. Advanced Beginning ESOL : I have learned to create my lessons from the learners. Every morning, we sit together and talk about what is on their minds. Sometimes it's about the family. Sometimes it's about something in the news. Once in a while it's about getting a job. This is a daytime class, so most people aren't working right now. Only a few at night. Sometimes we talk about jobs people have had. My primary goal is to support people's courage, to help them see how much they know.


We use English to talk a lot about stress in our lives. This is an issues for work, too. Some people are worried about going to work when they don't know enough English. Others go right out there and work without English. But they know that better English is a ticket to a better job.


c. Low Intermediate Transition to Work: I like to have my lessons well planned. After the beginning of a semester, when a group of new learners come in, I carry out some basic personal information sharing, so people can get to know each other, and also, I can begin to get to know them.

In my daytime classes, some people have worked, and some haven't. When people haven't worked, their attitude is very different. In my classes for people who are working, I find people very focused. Most of the time, this isn't true with learners who haven't worked. I have found a text that presents vocabulary and information about getting and keeping a job in a clear down to earth way. But when learners aren't working, or actively looking for work, it's hard to keep the focus. My most dynamic and exciting classes have been the ones where learners share their own knowledge and experience. Most of the time, this isn't about working.


D. High Intermediate Transition to Work: The focus in my class this year has been getting the right training and education for work. We have worked on oral skills,, listening and speaking, so use of English for employment has been central, but certainly not the only focus. These are mothers with children. I developed many lessons around topics that concern decision making, making good choices. At this level, I am balancing more intensive language skills development with work content. I have been challenged about instruction that addresses speaking and listening: being understood and understanding. This year we often talked about that - if you can't say what you want, in a way that people can understand, or if you can't understand what people are saying, these are the barriers.

I planned a lot of writing and editing practice. We worked on the computers, and talked about they ways those skills are essential for going to work. But some of them have different goals and values.


ESOL Support for Employment Training: I want my learners to think while they are in my class. I want them to be able learn and use language in ways that will get them where they want to go. I want them to find out for themselves where they want to go. I plan my curriculum to touch all the hot topics for employment: choosing a job to apply for, getting ready for an interview, dealing with authority on the job, knowing your rights.

Learning to learn in a second language is a tough thing. This is true in training or on the job. The Equipped for the Future skills for the worker describe a lot of what I try to do, but the community action role is there, too. Work is a part of the community, too.


Learner Response: Several classrooms held in-class focus groups looking at the employment focus of the curriculum. Some of the responses were as follows:

1. I need it - I know I need to get ready for work

2. I'm not going to work right now - I want to learn English

3. I like the video best - you can see what really happens at work (Crossroads Cafe)

4. I need more grammar - not to talk about work or safety.

5. It's good for me to practice for interview and write letters


Employer Views:

Genesis has worked with four employers this year, providing ESOL on site. This has been a huge challenge in providing English instruction on a very short term basis, under difficult conditions, and creating curriculum which pleases the employer. A brief survey of these employers resulted in these insights:


Question 1: Why do you want English instruction at your workplace?


Answers: Two clearly stated - to improve production and reduce error on the floor. A big concern has been - listening skills - production managers are sure that workers are saying they understand when they don't. Two also mentioned both English and literacy problems as possible cause of shipping errors. One wanted the workers to understand the company slogans. Two also wanted to be able to promote certain workers if they showed better English usage skills.


Question 2: What are your expectations of the results in a 12 week period?


Answers: Workers will be able to understand commands better. Workers will be able to ask appropriate questions. Workers will be able to read specific instructions. We will be able to promote some workers to other positions.


Question 3: (at end of classes) What has been the benefit of having these classes?


Answers: They can see we want them to learn English. Now when I go on the floor, I speak in English, and some of them understand me. The shift managers think they are doing better. Some of them know they have to study more on their own - We gave them this, now they have to go on with it.


What have we learned, what new questions or conclusions have developed among Genesis staff as a result of this ongoing dialogue about work related ESOL instruction?

1. As Adult Ed. Director, this project has directed me to listen to the varying strength, beliefs and teaching styles of the ESOL teachers at Genesis, and to recognize the impact of these differences on the lesson planning process.

2. The dialogue has emphasized the impact of differing language level needs on the extent and quality of the work related content which can be integrated.

3. We have learned together through dialogue about our different strengths, and have drawn ideas from each other in the process. The process has confirmed the importance of teacher sharing, and our team support approach at Genesis. The ongoing discussion has led to several co-teaching efforts between classrooms.

4. The process of ongoing dialogue has confirmed the commitment of this staff to maintaining the learner centered focus, and to creatively address the funders' focus on work and work related topics.

5. Employers want very defined content and outcomes in short periods of time, which may not be consistent with quality ESOL instruction.

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