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Learning Language with Context and Purpose: Principles of Good Practice


Marina Falasca has been teaching English as a foreign/second language for over 16 years and is currently engaged in teacher training. She has taught learners from complete beginners up to Masters level students, and has extensive experience teaching Business English. Ms. Falasca is a certified EFL teacher and holds an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from South Dakota State University, where she developed a number of service-learning projects while serving as Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant of Spanish (2005-06) and full-time instructor (2009-10). She also has a Masters in History. Area Studies from Virginia Tech (2009). Presently, Marina resides in Argentina, her home country. She is a full-time instructor at a major university (UTN), where she lectures in TEFL Methods, Multimedia, and Discourse Analysis. She also teaches a Methods course on English for Specific Purposes (ESP) at I.E.S. en Lenguas Vivas “Juan Ramón Fernandez”, a renowned teacher training college in Buenos Aires.

Although service-learning is considered to be a widespread educational movement, it is seldom applied in U.S. English as a Second Language (ESL) college programs, where instruction is far from authentic and is largely confined to the classroom. This article aims at helping faculty and/or administrators in the U.S. realize the potential of incorporating such an approach into their ESL college classes. Specifically, the article presents and illustrates two sets of principles of good practice, subscription to which will hopefully enable faculty and/or administrators to integrate service-learning and ESL effectively.

English as a second language (ESL) students are the fastest growing subgroup of the schoolage population in the United States (Wolf, Herman, Bachman, Bailey, & Griffin, 2008). Today, close to 13% of the undergraduate students in the United States are nonnative speakers of English (U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, 2000). These students represent 1/3 of the countries in the world. Some of their most common countries of origin are Mexico, Peru, Russia, Korea, El Salvador, and Nepal (U.S. Census, 2000).

Studying at a campus far away from their home countries and cultures, ESL learners must not only struggle to keep up with the high-level assignments, quizzes, mid-terms and finals that every student faces, but they must also overcome homesickness and culture shock. According to Buttaro (2004), Adult ESL learners face problems of controlling linguistic rules and of applications in various situations while attempting to deal with the shock of living in a new cultural environment.

Embarrassment is a second problem students face. They often find it difficult or awkward to seek out opportunities for practicing English. Norrid-Lacey and Spencer (2000) expose the obstacle that embarrassment of speaking English in public poses. According to Seliger (1977), not all students seek out opportunities to practice English outside of the classroom, but those who do actively seek such interactions perform better in the classroom.

A third problem is the multi-level nature of ESL classrooms. In many ESL college classes, students are at levels ranging from high beginning to advanced. According to Bell (2002), so many factors affect the learning rate of ESL adults that even classes initially grouped by ability tend to demonstrate a wide spread as time goes on, which can lead to group conflict. Lower-level students may fear to speak or advanced students may feel they are being held back by the group.

To help ESL students overcome these problems, most universities offer campus resources for international students, including counseling and writing help. Many also offer ESL remedial programs to help them enhance their English skills. However, these programs tend to focus on worksheet and short meaningless, scripted conversations between people who are struggling to learn a new language. What is worse, they hardly ever address meaningful environmental, economic, and social problems. Consequently, ESL college graduates often fail to meet the rigors of academia while they are also denied the possibility of fostering their civic responsibility.

This article promotes a more innovative approach that encourages universities in the U.S. to give ESL students the opportunity to work or interact with nearby communities as a means of strengthening their sense of social responsibility while improving their English, what is normally referred to as service-learning and ESL (Minor, 2001; Elwell & Bean, 2001). It is the author’s contention that carefully designed service-learning can help students develop independence and confidence as learners, which can in turn increase their academic motivation as they become more successful in school and “accomplished” in their “real-life” practice.

In order to help faculty and/or administrators working in or wishing to explore service-learning and ESL, the article examines the theoretical and practical considerations behind the development of service-learning programs in general and ESL programs in particular. Specifically, the first section attempts to define the concept of service-learning and discusses some of the opportunities it has to offer within the current system of higher education in the U.S. The next two sections present two sets of principles of good practice, and describe two concrete projects, the last of which was developed in 2007. The final section identifies two main limitations in reviewing the literature on service-learning and ESL and provides a summary of some of the key points discussed in previous sections; future implications, issues, and challenges are all addressed and discussed toward the end of the article.


Service-Learning within Higher Education: Positive Aspects and Influences
In reviewing the literature, several advantages to implementing service-learning projects clearly emerge. Perhaps the most widely cited has to do with its “tremendous potential as a vehicle through which colleges and universities can meet their goals for student learning and development while making unique contributions to addressing unmet community, national, and global needs” (Jacoby & Associates, 1996, p. xvii).

Among frequently cited benefits to student participants in service-learning are developing the habit of critical reflection; deepening their comprehension of course content; integrating theory with practice; increasing their understanding of the issues underlying social problems; strengthening their sense of social responsibility; enhancing their cognitive, personal, and spiritual development; heightening their understanding of human difference and commonality; and sharpening their abilities to solve problems creatively and to work collaboratively (Jacoby & Associates, 1996).

Other advantages for students include having the opportunity to examine social structures and their effects on people as well as encountering and addressing problems in a real-world context, which “allows students to learn under conditions that are personally relevant to their own lives and interests” (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999, in Diaz-Rico, 2004, p. 405).

Significant and authentic work in the community also extends “students’ learning beyond the curriculum… and helps to foster the development of a sense of caring for others” (Silcox, 1995, p. 25, in O’Grady, 2000, p. 8). Moreover, service-learning has the added benefit of providing meaningful contexts for language teaching/learning.

According to Minor (2001), service-learning is “ideal for second language teaching because it… creates meaningful contexts for the language learner, and it draws out and cultivates humane values” (Service-learning and ESL Programs, ¶ 1). What is more, combining service-learning and ESL can prove to be particularly useful for Hispanic ESL learners, as evidenced by the findings of Grassi, Hanley, and Liston (2004), who found out that “the Colorado second language learners who were involved in service-learning programs tended to increase their participation in class and earn better grades; they became more… involved… and also experienced increased self-confidence” (p. 87).

Integrating Service-Learning and ESL
There are several types of service-learning opportunities. At one end of the spectrum are co-curricular community service projects of short duration and class-related observational assignments. At the other end of the spectrum are advanced service-learning courses and in-depth internship experiences (Harry, 1998, in Elwell & Bean, 2001). Normally, the service internship model is more intensive than typical service-learning courses, with students working as many as 10 to 20 hours a week in a community setting. As in traditional internships, students are generally charged with producing a body of work that is of value to the community or site. However, unlike traditional internships, service internships have ongoing, faculty-guided reflection to challenge the students to analyze their new experiences using discipline-based theories.

Apart from the opportunities cited above, many colleges and universities introduce their students to service-learning through participation in one-time or short-term experiences. Although in terms of depth and intensity, one-time or short-term service-learning experiences may be limited, “they can nevertheless result in perceptual and attitudinal changes among participants and inspire them to participate in further community service experiences that are more long term” (McCarthy, 1996, in Jacoby & Associates, 2006, p.113). In this model, students are expected to have a daily or weekly presence in the community and reflect on their experiences on a regular basis, using course content as a basis for their analysis and understanding. The link between course content and community experience must be made very clear to students.

No matter what type of opportunity faculty and/or administrators may select, they need to take several things into consideration, particularly when intending to integrate service-learning and ESL. Minor (2001) offered a number of practical tips to introduce service-learning into an ESL program. The most important ones are listed below, followed by concrete examples and observations from the author’s own teaching experience.

a) Establish and develop a good working relationship with some kind of nearby community service agency. Early in program development the lead instructor and/or members of the planning team need to visit key agencies or projects like United Way, Homeless and Hunger Coalitions, and other human service providers to become familiar with existing community service opportunities. A good method of developing important contacts in the community is for the instructor and university staff to participate with local groups involved in service, such as volunteer centers and professional associations. It can take some time to find opportunities that work for a particular ESL program, but representatives from neighborhood groups, the Chamber of Commerce, religious leaders and elected officials, can offer important perspectives on service to the community. Once initial contact is established, relationship building is a key priority to the project’s eventual success. Key characteristics of successful campus/community collaborations include: the project produces mutual benefit to partners—risks, resources and rewards are jointly shared; the process for developing the project infrastructure and problem solving is collaborative; and responsibility, authority, and accountability are mutual, with clearly defined expectations and roles.

b) Spend at least 3-4 consecutive weeks at the same worksite. This helps develop rapport between students and the people they are working with, and it gives students a chance to become more comfortable. Often, students claim to feel more at ease when they are allowed to choose the service-learning site themselves. If they are interested in finding out more about a certain topic, you can contact your local Chamber of Commerce and check out their “Lunch and Learn Series”. Students can be asked to volunteer at the events, exchange ideas with the attendees, and reflect upon the experience by writing a reflective essay on how their views on the various topics have changed.

c) Make sure that the activities the students are engaged in involve personal interaction with others in a meaningful language context. This is indeed essential for ESL/Service-Learning courses. English learners can make significant gains in vocabulary and syntax because of the meaningful personal interactions resulting from their participation in authentic situations at the service-learning site. However, this does not always occur naturally; often, instructors have to orchestrate it by planning for a variety of reflection activities throughout the project that address all the learning modalities represented in the classroom. Consider reading, speaking, listening, writing, multimedia, and other activities that may help students process and reflect upon their personal experiences. ESL Students must also be given opportunities to discover for themselves the connection that exists between their course learning (grammar, vocabulary, interviewing skills, expository writing, etc.) and larger issues in society (poverty, discrimination, health care, politics, etc.) through context-rich assignments, oral presentations, journal reflections, and debates interwoven throughout the course—to help emerging ESL learners find their voice not only as language students, but as active members of society.

d) Model the kind of involvement that is expected from the students. Participate in the service, setting an example for the students to follow. Not all instructors participate in the service students are asked to do, but it is a good idea to model the involvement expected from the students by offering your own help and support. ESL students need to learn how to develop independence and confidence as learners, and most importantly, gain a strong sense of their own thinking and learning processes. By becoming personally involved in the service-learning setting, you can serve as a concrete role model and help boost the students’ autonomy and openness to new ideas. ESL students can be nurtured and encouraged anew—in this direction.

e) Challenge students to take initiatives and profit from whatever opportunities they may have to engage in meaningful language interaction. This involves a significant amount of risk-taking on the part of the English learner. Instructors can encourage ESL students to take initiatives by supporting them as they travel out of their comfort zone (i.e., the predictable language classroom) through daily practice in the skills of inquiry, reflection, discovery, and risk-taking. After all, this is part of helping them become critical thinkers.

f) Pair quiet students with more outgoing ones. This will help increase the comfort level for quiet students, while encouraging them to speak up. Some students may have no strong opinions, may not want to express disagreement, or may lack the confidence to lose face by talking in less than perfect English. They may not want to talk much. In a pair, it may be harder for one of them to keep quiet, but if both students feel like this, neither will have much to say. Students need to be taught techniques to bring out others and encourage them to say more or expand on their ideas – for example, with follow-up questions such as Why do you think that? Can you give me an example? or encouraging phrases such as Tell me some more. Go on. That’s interesting.

g) Have students keep a journal for taking notes on their experiences and reflections. This will provide a basis for later classroom activities and language tasks. Ideally, the students should write notes when they are at the service-learning site so they can refer to them when writing their journal entries. Reflective journals can be written in English or the students’ native language, depending on the aims of the course. Another option might be to ask students to use their native language only when they do not know the English terminology. Specific journal entries may be used for oral discussion on such topics as “appreciation of diverse cultures and communities” or turned into language tasks where the students examine the benefits of giving and receiving help.

Principles of Good Practice
Apart from the considerations noted above, all types of service-learning projects should combine service and learning effectively. The following principles outlined by Porter Honnet and Poulsen (1989) will hopefully allow ESL instructors to balance service and learning successfully. This became clear to the author through several discussions with fellow colleagues. Professors who managed to use this pedagogy while maintaining the rigor of their courses have contributed some of the insights and suggestions below.

a) Engage people in responsible and challenging actions for the common good. This sounds simple enough, but carrying it out is likely complicated. If you are thinking about having your English learners engage in service-learning tasks, I recommend limiting specific service activities and contexts to those with the potential to meet course-relevant academic and civic learning objectives (e.g., filing papers in a warehouse, while of service to a school district, will offer little to stimulate either academic or civic learning in an ESL course).

b) Provide structured opportunities for people to reflect critically on their service experience. Reflection is central. The consistent use of reflection throughout

the course is a way of encouraging students to critically examine the impact of their service-learning experiences on themselves as well as on the individuals and communities or agencies they work with. Depending on the aims of the course and the students’ level of English, ESL learners may be allowed to use their native language when reflecting upon the service component of the course.

c) Articulate clear service and learning goals for everyone involved. This principle is foundational to service learning. To sort out those of greatest priority, as well as to leverage the bounty of learning opportunities offered by community service experiences, deliberate planning of course academic and civic learning objectives is required. What does the group want to accomplish through this service activity? What will be better in the community as a result of this effort? Project goals should be tied to learning objectives. Post the goals with learning objectives in the classroom for students to reflect on throughout the process. Also, consider your teaching and learning goals and the potential expectations of your students. What is your students’ level of knowledge, skills, and preparation for community work? What new skills do you want them to gain? Reflecting upon language learning goals is of paramount importance in an ESL/service-learning course. Is there specific subject matter, knowledge, or skills that students will need training or orientation in? (For example: training in effective reading strategies; practice interviewing and note-taking)

d) Allow for those with needs to define those needs. A sensitive way for an instructor to accomplish this is to carry out a sound needs analysis. A needs assessment survey is often a good way of asking ESL students and/or community members what they see as the most important needs of that group or community. The results of the survey then guide future action. Generally, the needs that are rated most important are the ones that get addressed.

e) Clarify the responsibilities of each person and organization involved. Usually, an instructor provides the list of responsibilities for the students on the syllabus, but a letter is more appropriate for the organization.

f) Include training, supervision, monitoring, support, recognition, and evaluation to meet service and learning goals. This principle might overwhelm someone just starting the process of incorporating service-learning into their ESL course, but ESL teachers can begin by meeting with an interested content-area instructor and brainstorm possible group activities. The project will run more smoothly if it is highly organized from the beginning. Additionally, student assistants make the project much more manageable if instructors have the resources to hire them.

g) Insure that the time commitment for service and learning is flexible, appropriate, and in the best interests of all involved. This seems like an idealistic statement. Often, instructors have to prepare their students for difficult and perhaps even depressing situations, at the community service agency. During the semester, students will likely share with you the challenges they are experiencing with their service-learning. These could include delays in hearing back from their organization and getting started with their work, difficulty getting in their required hours, dissatisfaction with the work they are being asked to do, or a lack of clarity about their role in the organization. It is imperative that any issues be resolved promptly – and, of course, this will also help students maintain a positive attitude about their service-learning assignment and the course in general.

Two Examples of Good Practice
Most documented instances where ESL has been paired with service-learning describe
situations where the English learners are the beneficiaries of the service (Skahan, 2002; Hagan, 2004). Courses in which the ESL learners are the service providers have been documented but are less common.

Elwell and Bean (2001) described two programs that not only allowed ESL students to provide the service, but which managed to combine service-learning and ESL successfully. In one such program, 28 college students (18 females and 10 males) taking an ESL intermediate level reading class were asked to read John Steinbeck's 1937 novel, Of Mice and Men, with the assistance of structured, reflective activities such as having in-class group discussions, writing out-of-class journal entries, screening the film based on the book, listening to the book on audiotape, and completing homework from a skills book developed specifically for ESL students. In addition, … the students were required to complete group research projects on topics such as the Great Depression in the U.S., the life of John Steinbeck, the history and geography of the Salinas Valley in Monterey County, California, and conditions of California itinerant and migrant workers. Once the research was complete, each student had to turn in an individual paper, participate in writing a designated portion of the group paper, and participate in delivering a group oral presentation (with relevant visual aids) in front of the class. (Elwell & Bean, 2001, ESL Incorporates Service-Learning, ¶ 3)

After reading and discussing the novel in depth, the students were encouraged to take part in a short-term service-learning project that helped them connect more closely to their Steinbeck assignments. They were encouraged to collect supplies such as food, infant care necessities, and school items for children and migrant farm workers living in Porterville, California, as part of a wider project that was developed in response to the devastating freeze of 1998, which had destroyed much of the citrus crops in many areas of California, including Porterville, and devastated the economic resources of thousands of migrant workers and their families.

Apart from collecting supplies for the migrant workers, the students were taken to the site and encouraged to talk to the workers. They were also asked to keep a journal and talk about their individual experiences at the site during in-class discussions. Thus, they acquired “more English language skills than would normally be anticipated, developed some understanding of the longstanding service ethic that exists in the U.S., and learned how to interact with the larger community” (Elwell & Bean, 2001, Conducting Action Research, ¶ 2).

A similar project was developed by the author, who had her advanced ESL students at a small college volunteer at a local Chamber of Commerce event. After having given the students the option of choosing the service-learning site themselves, a group of ESL learners suggested volunteering at the monthly “Brown Bag Lunch and Learn Series” event offered by the closest Chamber of Commerce. The Lunch & Learn Series addressed topics of interest to business owners and professionals including (but not limited to) technology, human resources, accounting and finance, advertising and marketing.

Before volunteering at the first event, the students were asked to read and conduct research on the month’s topic, i.e., “Safeguarding Data in the Cloud”. They presented their findings in class orally and prepared questions to be asked at the event. The day the event was held, they staffed booths and sold tickets. They also had the chance to attend the actual presentation, took notes, and successfully interacted with local businessmen and professional people. Moreover, they put together leaflets and handouts to be distributed after the presentation.

The same procedure was repeated over the next two weeks, when the ESL students got to discuss such topics as “Health Insurance Reform” and “Thinking Beyond Conventional Wisdom”. After each of the events, the students were asked to write a reflective essay using their notes and discussing how their views on the topic had changed (or not). In their views, the most positive aspect of the experience was being able to apply what they had learned in class in a real world setting.

The literature in the field of service-learning and ESL is still limited. O’Grady noted in 2000 that “Much of it was based on anecdotal evidence and has primarily focused on the experiences of secondary education students” (p. 8). What is more, the concept and practice of service-learning are still relatively new to higher education in general and ESL teaching/learning in particular. However, the possibilities for personal and language growth that a good service-learning component provides cannot be ignored.

As exemplified by the projects described, service-learning programs can have many positive impacts on students in general and second language learners in particular. However, if service-learning programs are to be effective, they must combine service and learning successfully (Karasik, 2006). The two sets of principles outlined in the previous section may provide a dynamic framework that ESL practitioners can use to create principles and practices specific to their own teaching/learning contexts.

Apart from adapting or creating their own principles of good practice, faculty and/or administrators must bear in mind that finding the right opportunities for their own ESL programs might take considerable time, particularly for beginning and pre-intermediate ESL students. However, with continual evaluation and student feedback, service-learning can have a great impact on their students' learning experiences. Specifically, it is important for faculty to prepare the students for the project and monitor their progress, maintain positive relationships with the community, and conduct a final assessment of the project by all partners. It is most beneficial to assess and evaluate the learners throughout the project, including an initial needs assessment. Students can be involved along the process through student portfolios and self-reflective journaling. Such data as the number of participants, hours of service, end products, as well as the community response to the project, are typical in final program evaluations.

As emphasized throughout the paper, faculty and/or administrators must also make sure that the students are directly involved in providing the service, and not mere beneficiaries of the service-learning project. At the same time, meaningful language interaction is paramount if the experience is to be significant (Hellebrandt & Varona, 1999).

In addition to the considerations previously noted, more specific principles and foundations ought to be developed. Other practical considerations include how to accommodate service-learning and ESL given current scheduling practices, and how to establish strong, long-lasting collaborative relationships between institutions of higher learning and community agencies. Finally, and fundamentally, “if service learning is indeed a powerful resource both in higher education and ESL teaching/learning, why not make it a requirement in every college/university?” (Schine, 1997, pp. 190-8)

Hopefully, the question above will inspire future discussions among practitioners and prospective faculty and/or administrators wishing to explore service-learning and ESL. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be to demonstrate that, rather than being one more burden, service-learning can contribute substantially to making higher education more appealing and rewarding for ESL learners.


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