Jane Breaux Retention Strategies for Adult Learners
Colorado Community Colleges Online


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I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) at the Aurora Language Center (ALC). The program at ALC is considered to be a community ESL program. Because we are located on the Lowry campus of the Community College of Aurora (CCA), our program is sometimes viewed as a stepping-stone for students to get their General Educational Development (GED) and, eventually, enter the programs at CCA. Our program is non-credit and is funded by the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA). The AEFLA grant funds most of the tuition for levels one through four, and we offer levels five and six at a higher cost.

Our students range in age from 18 to 75 years old. At least half of our students are native Spanish-speakers; the rest represent myriad cultures, ethnicities, and countries from every continent in the world.  The students’ reasons for wanting to improve their English skills are as varied as their languages. Even though the students are enrolled in the program at their own volition, we continue to experience problems with student retention.

I am not aware of any formal retention practices in our program other than awarding students certificates at the end of the class that show the number of classroom hours attended. The push seems to be for test improvement, and we try to pre- and post-test as many students as possible. Of course, there is an underlying assumption that we need to keep students coming to class so they will be available for post-testing.

 In her article, “How to Reduce Student Attrition,” Cynthia Fenwick lists her ideas for retaining students in adult education. While most of her suggestions seem more applicable to Adult Basic Education (ABE) or GED classes, many can be used in an ESL program, as well.  The balance of this paper will address Fenwick’s suggestions and how they can be implemented in a community ESL program.

1.   Use adult oriented coursework, geared toward real life situations.  The textbooks used in our program are geared to the life-skills needed by our students in the community.  The topics address such categories as transportation, jobs, health, directions, and housing.  Utilizing real life situations allows for role-playing that reinforces other types of instruction. Additionally, students can see how the instruction relates to their lives.

2.      Provide consistent one-on-one contact to assure students of your interest in them.  I think this is crucial in ESL instruction.  Not only does one-on-one contact assure the students that you recognize them as real people, it also gives ESL students a chance to practice their English skills.  Since most ESL students do not have an outlet to practice English outside of the classroom, conversing with the instructor helps them use their newly acquired skills

3.      Incorporate students’ interests into instructional material whenever possible. This is difficult in the beginning levels of ESL, since students lack the vocabulary to make their wishes known.  However, in the intermediate and advanced classes, students appreciate being able to select some of their curriculum. Sometimes students will bring in documents they need help understanding, such as traffic tickets and jury summons. Students also ask for assistance in preparing resumes and job applications

4.      Develop and utilize a student recognition and rewards program. As mentioned above, students in our program are awarded completion certificates. Instructors can also search out reading material in thrift stores to use as rewards.  In advanced classes, I’ve given English dictionaries to those students who have the best monthly attendance.  Often, advanced students can ascertain the meaning of words by the definitions listed even though they are in English. In beginning classes, I’ve used children’s books. The subject matter may not be aimed at adults, but most students are excited that they can read a book in English.  An added benefit is they can read it to their children.

5.      Establish a system for contacting students; call them after the first missed class.  During the first class, teachers can collect student information by having the students fill out index cards. When instructors follow a student’s absence with a phone call, students understand that the instructors care about them and their education. Another method for contacting missing students is to pair students in a kind of buddy system.  The buddy can make the phone call to the missing student.  Each of these systems encourages accountability, as well as attendance.

6.      Give frequent positive feedback and reinforcement.  Adult learners need to feel successful in their attempt to learn English. Often, adult learners give up family time to attend class, and they need to feel that their efforts are appreciated. By giving frequent positive feedback, adults see that their hard work is helping them to accomplish their goal.

Fenwick has several other suggestions, but the common thread in all of them is to instruct in a way that shows your students that you care about them and their education. Learning a second language is very difficult, and the process is long and arduous.  Adult learners are already burdened with job and family obligations, which sometimes necessitates being away from the classroom.  Our job as educators is to alleviate some of their stress by making their classroom experience as pleasant and rewarding as possible. If we can help students want to be in class, student retention will no longer be a problem.

Works Cited

 Fenwick, Cynthia. “How to Reduce Student Attrition.” Maryland Association for Publicly Supported Continuing Education Newsletter. 1977. 8 Aug. 2006.

http://abeflorida.org/pdf/Resource_Guides/Resource_Guide_recruitment retention.pdf

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