If you live in California at the moment, one of the buzzwords across the community college system is acceleration. Over the past few years, a movement centered around the redesign of remedial coursework has been gaining traction thanks to the hard work of Katie Hern, Myra Snell, and others. The initial question of “Why do so many capable students never finish and simply disappear” has led to subsequent research and a rethinking of how we view remedial English, ESL, and math courses and the students in them. Although this movement is centered on California Community Colleges, the ideas put forward are relevant to anyone in education to help you reflect on and improve the following three areas.
Overview of Acceleration
Placement Procedures and Policies
Students entering college take placement tests that determine where they stand in terms of college readiness. Historically, a student who places low in English, for example, may be required to take 2 or more semesters of remedial English courses before ever reaching a college-level course. How accurate are placement tests? Are they good predictors of student success? As you can see in the video embedded at the bottom of this page, Katie Hern and Myra Snell, the founders of the acceleration project, argue that standardized tests don’t accurately predict our students’ abilities. Unfortunately, these tests often under place many capable students, leaving them to wade through multiple semesters of remedial coursework, which means a lot of money and a lot of opportunities to drop out. Hern and Snell argue that a shift in placement policies that open access to college courses and use multiple measures instead of only standardized tests can work to drastically change the outcomes for our students.
How does this apply to ESL?
One form of multiple measures that colleges across the state are adapting is high school GPA. However, as those of us who teach ESL know, many of our students didn’t go to high school in the US. Therefore, different ESL programs across the state are working on ways to improve ESL placement and include multiple measures. Some ideas I’ve heard of are:
Writing samples can be a great way to get a more accurate idea of a student’s ability. This option can be hard to organize on a large scale though.
Survey of English use
There are a number of schools piloting a survey of English use that will gather information about a variety of factors relating use and confidence using English. The pilots will then look to see if there are any correlations between particular elements on the survey and placement. Eventually, the survey may be used to guide placement.
You can see an example here. If your school is interested in using something like this, I would recommend contacting the RP group and CATESOL because they have created a very similar one as a pilot. They have it translated into a number of different languages.
Another interesting placement alternative is using a guided self-placement to help a student in making an informed decision about the best class to take. The idea is that a student knows more about his/her specific abilities, motivation, time, etc. to make a choice as to where to place.
Research is showing that the further below college-level students are placed, the less likely they are to ever complete a college-level course and get a degree. In fact, a lot of research has shown many students traditionally labeled as “underprepared” are actually successful in the college-level course when given access to it, and many others can be successful at college-level with support.
As a result, leaders in acceleration argue that more students in math and English should be given access to college-level courses and those who are determined to be highly unlikely to succeed be offered support at the college level. In terms of program design, English programs with multiple levels of remedial courses are removing levels and support students in at most one level below transfer. Some colleges have even removed all levels below transfer and support students with corequisites at the college level.
How does this apply to ESL?
Of course, for ESL students, things are a bit different. Language does require more time and practice to acquire. But the questions to ask are, do all students need to go through 7 or more levels of separate skills courses before they are ready to take a course in the English department? Are we underestimating the maturity and capability of our adult language learners by giving them less demanding, incrementally more difficult courses for multiple semesters? Do they need to master every possible grammar topic before they can attempt challenging tasks? Are there better ways to design our programs?
There are several models of ESL programs that have redesigned their sequences and curriculum with very promising outcomes. The key to these accelerated programs is the ability for students to move faster if they are ready while still allowing the students who do need more time to go at a slower pace. They also provide students with challenging, engaging, and interactive coursework. Check out the example programs highlighted on the previous page for more details.
If you needed to learn how to bake the perfect loaf of bread, do you think practicing how to grind wheat for a whole semester would help you become any more of an expert baker? After a semester of grinding wheat, would you even still want to try and bake bread?
Acceleration pedagogy follows a similar train of thought. If you want someone to learn how to bake a loaf of bread, teach them how to bake. If you want someone to learn how to write an academic essay, then help them read articles on engaging topics, wrestle with complex ideas, and practice writing essays. Sure, they won’t be amazing at first, but the only way to get better is to try.
Just like grinding wheat doesn’t help someone become a better baker, neither does practicing decontextualized sentence skills help someone become a better essay writer. Acceleration embraces the idea of high challenge high support. Engage students with interesting, meaningful tasks that will help them practice what’s needed at higher levels, and give them the support they need to be successful.
I think this idea is particularly insightful for those of us who teach nonnative speakers. Our students will only rise as high as the expectations we set for them. If we don’t believe they are capable of complex and challenging tasks, then they won’t get the chance to do them, which puts them at a disadvantage as they progress to content courses. To learn more about the pedagogical pillars of acceleration, I would highly recommend reading this article. To see what a theme-based unit for academic ESL might look like, check out this one surrounding language and identity.
The following lecture given by the two founders of this movement will give you a solid understanding of accelerated pedagogy and rationale behind it. You can also view the California Acceleration Project’s homepage for more information and publications.