Student Persistence in Adult ESL: The Continuing Challenge

By Cathy Sunshine

Where did all my students go?

I’ve often asked myself that, wondering why a class that had 18 or 20 students at its highest point has dwindled, by late in the term, to 12 people coming regularly . . . or 8 . . . or 6. Is it me, I wonder? The class? The school?

Short answer: none of the above. I did a little research and quickly found that student persistence (also called student retention or student attrition) is an issue for adult education programs everywhere. It’s not us; in fact, our numbers are good, based on the proportion of students who progress through the levels and return to LETC term after term.

Our students are adults. They have jobs, families, responsibilities. Many are in service jobs, in restaurants or landscaping or housekeeping, where they work long hours and have little control over their schedules. Often, when a student stops coming, we find out later that his work schedule changed. Quite a few live in Maryland or Virginia, adding an hour or so of commute time to their class commitment. When you think about doing that four evenings a week, or both weekend days, it’s amazing that students sustain it as long as they do.

Many of our students arrive at school exhausted from a hard day’s work — then have to tackle one of the most demanding intellectual tasks, learning a foreign language.

But the problem’s not just logistical, I’m convinced. It’s psychological too. Learning a second language is hard. It’s a long, slow process, and one almost never sees the dramatic progress one would like. (I say this from personal experience, having tried to learn some six languages and never achieving anything like native fluency in any of them.) So there’s an element of frustration, and for some students, embarrassment and perhaps discomfort at not feeling in control. My class last fall had a young woman who was so chagrined at the prospect of making mistakes in front of others that she was extremely reluctant to say anything at all.

However understandable, student attrition is still a concern. A study by the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) found that many adult students don’t stay in a program long enough to reach the goals they set for themselves. Irregular student attendance makes it difficult for teachers to plan lessons. Classes are sometimes disrupted by students entering and exiting at different times. It’s difficult to measure the progress of students who stop out or drop out.

So this is an issue that we, like all adult ed programs, need to be aware of and try to address. From what I’ve read, it’s clear we’re already doing many key things right at Language ETC. But perhaps we could do more.

In addition to the NCSALL study, I looked at resources by Pearson Education and CALPRO (California Adult Literacy Professional Development Project). All stressed that adult students need supports to persist, and that teachers and schools can help. Many of the strategies they suggest are things we’re already doing at LETC — for example, giving certificates for completion. But there are also ideas worth thinking about. The strategies tend to fall into four main areas, noted below. In each area I’ve tried to come up with one or two ideas that we, as teachers, could try.

We have a good classroom atmosphere at Language ETC.

1. Create a welcoming climate. It’s important to build friendly, supportive relationships in the classroom, between teachers and students and also between students as peers. I think we do this quite well at LETC. The fact that all the teachers are volunteers means that we’re teaching because we enjoy it and we like the students. By showing sincere interest in our students as individuals, we help them stick with the program.

Idea: How about creating a hall display with pictures of the most recent graduation? The display could also welcome new and returning students by name, congratulate students who had perfect attendance the preceding week, and recognize students with birthdays in the month (if they choose to add their name when their birthday month comes up). And maybe a world map with flags that show our students’ home countries? The point is to make the students feel like this is their school.

Idea: Our students relate not just to one teacher but to teams of teachers, up to eight for weeknight classes. Is there any way we could add an individualized dimension to this, perhaps by assigning each student one teacher from the team as an adviser/mentor? How could that relationship be put into practice?

Students indicate their goals when they register for classes, but teachers need to follow up.

2. Help students set goals and develop self-efficacy. Students need to set clear and attainable goals that are divided into specific tasks. Students interviewed by NCSALL said that their own determination and belief that they can achieve their goals is important to persistence.

Idea: At LETC, student select personal goals on a checklist when they register for class. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it would be good to reinforce it in the classroom. For example, maybe we could add a 5-minute student-teacher conference at the end of the first week, during which students could further clarify their goals. That would also allow us to ask whether the student feels that the class is the right level for her, and explore moving to another level if it is not.

3. Recognize and reward persistence and progress, however slight. It’s important to celebrate student successes, even small ones. We do this through our festive graduation ceremonies and certificates at the end of each term. This rewards those who make it all the way, but it doesn’t provide ongoing reinforcement for attendance during the term. Could we find some way to recognize regular attendance more frequently?

Graduating students with their certificates.

Idea: Some LETC teachers have students sign themselves in to class on a special sheet (teachers must also keep attendance records in the binder). Having students sign themselves in can focus their attention on attendance, especially if the sheet shows the days they’ve been present. We could go further and make a big sign-in chart on newsprint or poster board, so that all students in the class can see everyone’s attendance during the week or month — hopefully sparking a friendly competition.

4. Help students find ways to stay in the program. If they have to leave, make sure they know they can come back.

Students who attend regularly tend to have the support of their family, friends, co-workers, supervisors, church, etc. But some lack that support, or face other barriers, and there’s not a great deal we can do about that. We have to acknowledge that students’ lives are complicated and that some students may need to stop attending for a while — even as we continue trying to convince them to stay in class.

Idea: If we have mini-conferences at the end of the first week, as suggested above, this would allow teachers to ask each student about her schedule and about possible barriers to attendance. We can then help the student think about ways to address these barriers.

Idea: When teachers identify a student who has missed several classes, the front office will phone the student to find out why. If it’s a scheduling problem, the student is encouraged to switch to another class schedule. But it’s up to us, the teachers, to identify students whose attendance has dropped off and notify the LETC staff. We could be doing this more systematically than we are right now. This may be something that team leaders could take in hand.

Interestingly, the NCSALL interviews revealed that many students believed that once they stopped attending, they could not return. We should make clear to our students that if they need to stop coming or skip a term, we’ll welcome them back as soon as they can return.

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This entry was posted in Classroom Community, Teaching Tips & Resources, Washington English Center. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Student Persistence in Adult ESL: The Continuing Challenge

  1. There are some great ideas here! Just having the office call to check in with a student who has been absent for several classes can really produce results — I’ve seen a couple of students who I thought were gone for good come back to class after the office called to let them know they could do that. Perhaps it would be a good idea for teachers to make an announcement at the beginning of the term to the effect that while we hope you’ll come to every class, we understand that sometimes that’s not possible, and you can always come back even after you’ve missed a few classes. But I also think a phone call lets them know they’ve been missed and that we’re hoping they’ll return.

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