ESL program overcoming communication barrier - new curriculum is adopted

By MARY GALES ASKREN, courtesy of the http://www.madisondailyleader.com

The temperatures didn't get above freezing last week after the winter storm blew into the Madison area late Monday afternoon. On Thursday, temperatures dropped to zero with an average of 13 degrees, making it the coldest day all week.

Still, on Thursday evening, a small group of women entered Anne Elisa Brown's classroom at Madison High School around 6 p.m. and were joined shortly thereafter by a couple of young men. They had braved the cold in order to attend the English as a Second Language (ESL) class Brown was teaching that evening.

"They're pretty dedicated," she said.

The program was started in September 2015 in response to a need that had been identified by the Lake Area Improvement Corporation (LAIC). Hispanic workers had been hired by local employers to fill company positions, but a communication barrier existed both in the workplace and in the community.

During the first year, organizers faced a number of unknown variables. They didn't know how many people would attend or what their language skills would be coming into the class. As a result, the program design evolved by trial and error.

"We put together our own units and wrote some of the curriculum," Brown said.

While this had the benefit of adaptability, it had the disadvantage of gaps in student learning, she explained. Some areas would be covered several times while others were not addressed.

This year, a six-level, standards-based ESL curriculum developed by National Geographic has been adopted for the program. "Stand Out" is a cohesive program that offers a textbook, worksheets and videos, according to Brown.

"It's a program that has everything you need," she said.

Initially, the classes were taught by community members. However, they are now taught by Dakota State University students who use a team approach. One individual leads the class while the other helps individuals. This allows greater personalization.

"We have students from a variety of countries with a variety of language skills," Brown said.

They come from Argentina, Mexico and Central America. Some can speak English but wish to improve their reading and writing skills. Others are just beginning to learn English.

To accommodate this difference, which was identified in the first year, a beginner and an advanced class is held each time the classes meet. The number of students attending on any given night will vary based on work schedules and other demands.

"We don't want people to feel pressured," Brown said, explaining that if attendance is mandatory, students won't come back if they have a conflict.

Recognizing the challenges students face, the program is student-centered in a second way. Free childcare is provided for students during class.

Because the program is welcoming and student-focused, some participants return after learning the basics so they can continue to develop their language skills.

"We've had some students who have been here for all three years," Brown said.

The ESL students aren't the only ones who benefit from the classes.

Fourth-year Spanish students at Madison High School also benefit through volunteering.

Each student volunteers for one night. When several students volunteer on the same night, they are paired with beginning students and provide one-to-one practice opportunities.

"I thought it would be good for them to see the other side of language acquisition," Brown said.

At the present time, a new advertising campaign for the ESL program is being launched. The goal is to increase class size. Currently, around 10 people attend on a regular basis, though classes have been as small as five and as large as 25.

The classes meet on Tuesday and Thursday from 6-7:30 p.m. at MHS. The new session begins on Jan. 9. However, registrations are being taken at the present time. The fee is $25 for the entire program.

"A lot of the employers pay the registration fee for their employees to come and take the class," Brown said.

For more information, contact Kari at LAIC by emailing kari@madisonworks.com or by calling 256-0797.

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