Tackling the English language can be daunting for ESL students

Chin Lam teaches the ESL intermediate multi-skills class at Saddleback College. (Lam Tran)

Chin Lam teaches the ESL intermediate multi-skills class at Saddleback College. (Lam Tran)

Ly Hoang cringed when she got her history test back and saw the grade of C. Disappointed because she’d done the best she could, she discretely put the test in her backpack and left the classroom. With a low grade on the test, she found it even harder to go to her classmates to ask for help, which she had not been able to do because of her limited English.

“I was not able to speak English so well,” said Hoang, a 21-year-old Vietnamese student who has been in the United States for two years. “I wanted to make friends with my classmates and study with them, but I was so afraid that I could not communicate with them, I was so uncomfortable with speaking English.”

English can be challenging for students who first come to the U.S. because they are not able to understand their teachers or communicate and make friends with native English speaking students.

Saddleback College has an effective English as a Second Language program specifically to help students whose native tongue is another language to improve their English skills and ultimately get a better education.

Saddleback’s ESL program has 25 courses divided into five levels including beginning, intermediate, advanced 1, advanced 2 and pre-college level. Each level offers classes including multi-skills, conversation, pronunciation, and reading and writing classes to improve and strengthen students’ English.

In two advanced levels, students learn about idioms and expressions, advanced writing for work, American literature and listening and note-taking skills for college. Pre-college level has the essential academic skills class, which is the last course in the ESL program to prepare students who are ready to take English 200, fundamentals of composition, a remedial course to further prepare students for transfer-level English composition.

Saddleback’s ESL program was started in 1977 with only one course with the objective to teach English to immigrants. By the second year, the program was expanded to six levels with multi-skills courses. Over the years, with more full-time faculty coming on board, the program has developed to a variation of levels and offers different skills for English learners to meet their goals.

According to Saddleback’s website, its ESL department is different than almost every college in the state because it gives students the option to take classes for either credit or non-credit. If students opt to take the class as non-credit, the class will be free except for a small health fee required by the college and required books.

“At Saddleback College, a lot of funding money comes from local property taxes and some from the California state budget to help the ESL program out,” said Chin Lam, the chairwoman of the ESL department.

Chin Lam said most students are taking ESL classes for noncredit. A lot of students who reside around Irvine Valley College choose to take ESL classes at Saddleback because of its good ESL program and students can take classes for free.

“I have had a lot of students who finished ESL 300, which is the highest level, come back and say that English 200 was easier than ESL 300 because they were very well prepared after taking ESL classes,” Lam said. “If students take all the ESL classes in our program, they will feel very comfortable taking any classes at Saddleback College.”

Saddleback’s ESL instructor Carol Bander has been teaching at the college since 1977. In her article “Getting a Grip on Grammar,” she points out some specific common errors in English made by non-native students such as confusing “he” and “she” or omitting a pronoun entirely, underuse of advanced adverbs, lack of conjunctions, lack of punctuation, preposition errors (confusing at, on, in or using an incorrect, extra, or no preposition at all) and fragments.

ESL instructors have to understand the common errors made by ESL students so that they can make sure that the input is rich with numerous examples of the grammar points. To assure that students understand, when a student asks a question, ESL instructors will let the students absorb a question by first making the student repeat the question, then answer it. This is very helpful in testing students’ listening comprehension.

“Talking loud and slow is not how we make students understand the language,” Lam said. “We have to speak clearly and make sure that our students understand the grammar and the structure of basic sentences.”

In a recent survey given to 60 current Saddleback ESL students, about 70 percent of respondents rated Saddleback’s ESL program as very helpful. The average age group of ESL students is 35.

The data showed all ESL students are immigrants from different countries with different goals for learning English such as communicating with native speakers, getting a job and reading books. Some learn English strictly to get an education and to prepare to take the test to apply for U.S. citizenship. The two main goals of most ESL students are to gain employment and to be able to reside in the U.S. Some older students want to learn English to communicate with their children who are the first-generation Americans.

“It was extremely helpful,” said Nehal Idris, a chemistry student from Sudan who has been in the U.S. for five years. “I came here with zero English and I had a terrible time at school. Now I can speak fluently and feel confident to communicate with people as well as studying at school.”

In the survey, four immigrant students from a beginning-level ESL class said their ESL instructors really care about the student and understand what skills each student lacks and needs to improve in English.

“My parents are German and they speak English as a second language as well,” Bander said. “I learned the experience from communicating with my parents to find the way to develop our ESL program with the other faculty at Saddleback and I love working with ESL students.”

As a result of learning English through the college’s ESL department, Hoang is now finding it easier to understand the lectures in class, feeling more comfortable to communicate with her classmates and making new friends.

“Looking back to the first day, I can see a big change in my English,” Hoang said. “I’m still trying to complete my weakness in English writing skills but I believe I will get there one day. Thanks to the ESL department!”