ESL Courses for a Global Workforce

Margaret Kirkland is one of two Montgomery College instructors who teach Cultural Identity in a Changing World for nonnative English speakers.
Margaret Kirkland is one of two Montgomery College instructors who teach Cultural Identity in a Changing World for nonnative English speakers. (Photos By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2007

One in an occasional series on innovation in the classroom

In a typical language course, a teacher might limit a discussion on the meaning of "chameleon" to its two well-known definitions: a lizard that changes colors or a person who, figuratively, does the same thing in different situations.

But at Montgomery College, it's only the beginning for students whose first language is not English.

In the Cultural Identity in a Changing World course, 16 students sitting in a four-hour class last week learned about chameleons in apartheid South Africa, people whose official racial designation was changed by the government through the stroke of a pen. Indians became colored. Chinese became white.

The course is designed to teach the nitty-gritty of language acquisition -- reading, writing and oral communication -- through the context of content rather than through drilling of basic skills, something common in traditional classes for nonnative English speakers.

It is giving Tereza Belohlavkova and 15 other students from nearly as many countries a chance to examine cultural identity while improving their English language skills.

"Learning about culture helps us learn more about the language," said Belohlavkova, 23, who came to the United States two years ago from the Czech Republic.

She said the open atmosphere and teaching approach are more conducive to learning. "In my country, it is more about memorizing stuff," she said. "It's not as open-minded and relaxed. This class helps me. I feel like I am learning how to express myself, and I don't feel stupid to ask questions."

The class, a combination of the courses American English Language II and Reading for Non-Native Speakers 102, is part of Montgomery College's expanded focus on English as a Second Language. The school is experimenting with new ways to teach its share of the growing population of immigrants enrolling at many of the country's nearly 1,200 community colleges.

At least one in four students in community colleges is an immigrant, according to a study by JoAnn Crandall, an education professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Ken Sheppard of the National Foreign Language Center.

ESL courses are the fastest-growing programs at many community colleges and the largest at some schools in Florida and California. But the demand for the classes is outstripping the ability of colleges to provide them.

At Montgomery College, which educates 23,800 students on three campuses, the number of immigrant students has grown so much -- 31 percent from 2001 to 2007 -- that officials recently tripled the size of the Takoma-Silver Spring campus in part to accommodate them, spokeswoman Elizabeth Homan said.

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