Why ESL students aren't exactly what you think they are

I was out of commission part of Friday as well as Monday, so I didn’t finish my posting of the conference at St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis on how to better handle students who speak English as a second language (ESL). I’ll continue that coverage today and tomorrow.

Here’s an interesting term for the students I mentioned above: “L2 writers.” So keep that one in mind.

On a related note, ESL teaching expert Dana Ferris told the conference Friday:

“When I first went into the field back in the 80s, by “ESL” we meant newcomers—international students and recently arrived immigrants.  The discussion has become much more complex since then.”

L2 is a broad term that describes various groups of students from many different demographics — and varying circumstances under which they came to the United States.

They still come from homes in which English is not the primary language, but now include:

  • International students educated in their home countries
  • Late-arriving resident immigrants with partial education in the U.S.
  • Early-arriving resident immigrants with all/most of their education in the U.S.
  • Children of first-generation immigrants born and entirely educated in the U.S.

Ferris says a lot of faculty and administrators don’t understand why many of those students who’ve lived most or all of their lives here are still challenged by the English.

She told the audience that although many people believe students who learn English here early on are set by the time they hit college, that’s not necessarily the case:

“Children may have been mainstreamed since Day One — or later — but not have gotten everything they needed for their reading and writing experiences. And they may or may not be ready for college. Despite years of education in English, they may have gaps in knowledge that have a negative impact. And those differences are often overlooked.”

They may be better than functional, she said, but depending on their experiences at home, they might not be “fully immersed” in English just because they attend school. And college-level English, she said, is at much higher level than the English they may have encountered in school:

“By time they get to college, should they be (automatically considered () at the same level as (native English speakers)?  No — and it’s not the fault or problem of institutions of higher education.”