In 2014-15, my colleague Jane Berger and I made substantial revisions to our ESL course sequence at Solano Community College. The three main drivers behind the changes we made to our program were:
A desire to ensure that all students would practice a full complement of reading and writing skills at each level of our program. (The prior program design allowed students to advance from one level to the next by passing the reading or grammar class, not both; in addition, we had no writing class until the top level of our program.
A desire to reduce the many “exit points” inherent in our discrete skills program (We previously had 3 courses in each level. Students didn’t have to take them all but if they did, that meant 9 exit points per level: enroll; complete; pass. If they didn’t, they weren’t practicing all skills– see the top bullet).
A belief that integrating reading, writing, and grammar skills would producing a more cohesive learning experience and better prepare students for the demands of English classes they would take upon completing the ESL program.
At the time we created our integrated skills courses, I had been involved with the CA Acceleration Project (CAP) for three years as English faculty, and CAP principals played a big role both in our program re-design and in our pedagogy once we implemented the new courses. (Jane Berger retired before we rolled out the new courses, but her successor, Jose Cortes, attended CAP Community of Practice following his first year as faculty, and was selected for the CAP Leadership cohort following his second year).
Essentially, I follow the practice of “backward design” in developing assignments for these courses. As much as possible, I use authentic materials rather than materials created specifically for the ESL market, though we sometimes use ESL textbooks at our lowest level. In the intermediate and advanced levels, I develop instructional units around thematically-linked text sets and typically use one book-length work as well. Reading activities focus on building the schemata, vocabulary, and grammatical awareness relevant to comprehending each text. These texts then become source material for writing assignments, which range from summary and response paragraphs in our introductory level to thesis-driven, text-supported arguments by the end of the advanced level.
Perhaps the biggest pedagogical change resulting from a discrete-skills model to our integrated-skills courses has been in how (and how much) we introduce and practice grammar. Our discrete skills program had an entire, 3-unit grammar course at each level: basic sentence structure and parts of speech at the introductory level; the full system of verb tenses at the intermediate level, and sentence combining (phrases and clauses) at the advanced level. As a grammar geek I found these classes easy and fun to teach, but I was frustrated to see that when I had the same students from the grammar class in my writing class, their writing showed all the errors the grammar class was supposed to help them avoid or correct. Now, I only teach grammar in the context of real reading and writing tasks. Instead of front-loading grammar for grammar’s sake, I take my cues from the students’ work and prepare grammar lessons accordingly. Occasionally I introduce a structure to support successful reading; for instance, I introduced the unreal conditional when we read an article positing hypothetical scenarios. Mostly, however, I introduce grammar structures at the time students need these structures to complete their writing. We do just a little sentence-level practice up front, and then a lot more practice after they write, using their own sentences from the writing task as our examples for “editing workshops.” This way, students can see the relevance of each structure to their own communication goals, and they become deeply engaged in this painstaking work. When grading papers, I selectively mark around 3 patterns of error in any individual assignment. Only errors in structures we have practiced together as a class may count against a student’s score on any assignment.
Students completing our advanced level ESL integrated skills course are now doing assignments comparable to those in our one-level-below English Reading and Composition Course. Many move directly from advanced ESL to transfer-level Composition, while some, either by instructor referral or by personal preference, spend an additional semester in developmental Reading and Comp before moving to transfer-level. This is a big change from our previous system, which assumed all ESL students would spend an additional 1-3 semesters in developmental Reading and Comp before moving to transfer-level English. As a result of these changes, we’ve seen the number of students who ever move from ESL through transfer-level English increase from below 10% in our old system to over 25% in our current program. We continue to work on improving this number by building better support for students making the transition; for instance, I had great results teaching a pilot section of transfer-level Comp that was labeled in the schedule of classes as “sensitive to the language development needs of ESL and multilingual students.”