February 16, 2018

ESL At the APL | Backtalk

“Close the door,” said the director, as the assistant director escorted me into the office. Well, that got my attention. You know the thought process: “Have I done something I shouldn’t have? Well, at least something they found out about? Did a patron complain about one of the books in the collection? What in the heck is this about?” The next thing I heard was that we were starting an English as a Second Language (ESL) program, and they wanted me to coordinate it.

The Need

Amarillo is a town of about 200,000 in the panhandle of Texas. Our population is fairly diverse; Hispanics, of course (we’re in the Southwestern U.S. after all) but also lots of Burmese, Somali, Sudanese, Iranian, and Iraqi families, as well as fewer numbers of other Africans, Southeast Asians, and people from the Middle East. There are Eastern Europeans, Chinese, and Japanese. The local community college has ESL classes, as do many of the churches and the regional Education Support Center. Yet each program has more applicants than they can serve. There was an obvious need for additional ESL services, and the Amarillo Public Library (APL) saw the chance to meet the need and keep itself relevant in a changing environment.

Who teaches?

My completely subjective and un-scientific survey revealed that libraries fall into one of three categories in regards to ESL services.

  1. They don’t have any.
  2. They provide meeting rooms but instructors from local colleges do the teaching.
  3. They have a program with volunteers doing the teaching.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each, but it is not my purpose to discuss those here. APL decided to take a different approach: I am the instructor. There may be other library ESL programs where librarians are the instructors, but I haven’t found any.

So what makes us think I’m qualified to teach English to adults who do not speak it, when I’ve been a children’s librarian for the past 29 years? The question I heard from most people who wondered about my qualifications was “Oh, do you speak Spanish?” I do, actually, but that doesn’t qualify me to teach English. Just ask my Arabic-speaking students. I also speak English, but that doesn’t qualify me, either.

Part of what does qualify me is that I learned another language via classes rather than at home—my B.A. is in Spanish, so I understand something of the underlying structure of language. Part of what qualifies me to teach English is that I’ve taught another language: I taught Spanish to new Mormon missionaries for two years, and in the local community college’s continuing education program for 15 years, so I understand something of language acquisition. And part of what qualifies me is that I’ve taught ESL in another local program part-time for the past three years.

We teach standard English

I believe we must teach standard English. I was visiting with a friend and mentioned a TV commercial that really bugs me. A big statewide bakery had added tortillas to their product line. To promote them they had a TV ad with a duded-up cowboy doing rope tricks (with CGI assistance) who spelled out “tortilas” with his rope. Seeing his mistake he says “Oops, there’s two “l’s” in tortillas,” and re-twirls his rope to correct the spelling. After relating this to my friend I said “I don’t know why they would trade a spelling error for a grammar error.” To which my friend said “That’s the way we say it,” and looked a little baffled as to why I would be concerned. Even grammar check on the computer doesn’t like “there’s two l’s in tortillas!”

If we allow (or teach) “there’s two “l’s” in tortillas” then do we allow “he don’t?” That’s the way a lot of people say it. We don’t (and must not) teach or accept “ain’t” or worse, “Them was good apples” as my mother-in-law says. Don’t get me wrong. My friend and my mother-in-law are good people. They just aren’t people we want teaching ESL classes. And herein lies the issue with who is qualified to teach ESL. Most people speak English the way they’ve heard it spoken, without an underlying grasp of the structure of language. Sometimes what we say is wrong, like “he don’t” or “there’s two l’s in tortillas.” Sometimes we misunderstand what we hear because of pronunciation. I know of one certified teacher who changed a student’s paper to read “I should of gone to school.” The student had written (correctly) “I should have gone to school.” Yes, that’s the way we say it, but her failure to understand (or be taught—don’t even get me started on why we don’t teach grammar in school) the structure of language prevented her from having a correct understanding despite our pronouncing “have” to sound like “of.”

It would be hard to screen volunteers to insure that they understand (and know how to teach, which are two separate skills) the structure of English. Linguists understand language, but would not necessarily be able to teach non-English speakers.

ESL teachers need not be linguists, but a failure to understand the basic structure of English seriously undermines an ability to teach language, resulting in “he don’t” and “there’s two l’s,” and similar kinds of errors.

Learning the Library

In our case, the director wanted a teacher who understood the culture of the library, what the library is trying to accomplish, as well as the means available to (and the constraints of) the library. Bringing in a teacher who didn’t already know that meant all of the challenges involved in starting a new program, plus learning the ins and outs of the library.

We wanted someone who had lots of enthusiasm. Well, as a children’s librarian I’ve put on a pink and white striped dress with a blue pinafore and a helmet with deer antlers bolted to it covered by a fetching brunette wig, and played Imogene in our skit of Imogene’s Antlers by David Small. Did I mention that my full name is Patrick? So in February I started teaching ESL.

Getting started

The first couple of weeks I spent a lot of time jumping from crisis to crisis, at least mentally. I had to have a room, so I needed to reserve our meeting room, which meant I had to figure out when I was going to offer classes. I had to select a text. Before I could select a text I had to see copies of texts. To see copies of texts I needed to ask publishers for desk copies. Before I could ask for desk copies, I had to find out who published ESL texts, and so on and on and on.

After deciding how many classes to offer (four), class size (twenty-five), and class schedule (two morning, two afternoon, and two evening classes), it was time to figure out how we were going to register and screen potential students. I admit, I stole, er, borrowed a screening test idea from a local church’s program. It’s a simple and fairly quick assessment of a student’s ability to identify (in English) what a particular picture represents, hear a word in English and identify the correct picture, tell a simple story from pictures, read the alphabet (the letters are NOT in correct order in case they have the alphabet memorized), and so on. We identified staff who could help screen, went over the procedure with them, and answered questions about how we were going to score the test, etc. Not everyone has a knack for understanding accented English and scoring that English, and we wanted consistency. We also determined the level of student we were looking for and decided that all classes would be the same level. We take mostly low-level students. I say “mostly” because it’s great to have some higher level students in class who can correctly demonstrate language principles or pronunciation and help other students. Those higher level students, however, are not so high that they’re bored with the level of the material being taught.

We decided against continually adding students throughout the term. Too much rapport is established, too many linguistic principles already covered and practiced to have new students coming in all the time who have neither built nor covered those. Well, except… Since we teach beginning students, there is often (if not always) some level of confusion. So everyone had heard that students had to have come to registration to be in class, but not everyone understood that. So students would show up with a friend or relative in tow who wanted to come to class. Putting students ahead of program, I took some, and one in particular has turned out to be a great asset to the program.

For classroom equipment, I wanted a document camera, a projector, a laptop, and a media cart to put them on. A SMART Board has some advantages, but they’re costly and have some format limitations. I’m old school anyway (remember the 29 years?) and am happy with a large, double-sided whiteboard. We are very fortunate that the Friends of the Library voted to reimburse the city for the cost of the above materials, plus various BINGO games (food, occupations, ABCs, etc.), and some other kinds of games.

A note about funding here. I am a city employee. This is a library program, hence a city program. I get paid whether I’m in class or sitting at my computer doing something like writing an article for a library journal. There is no grant money involved. Which means there are no grant hoops to jump through. Yes, I still have to perform, yes we still count statistics, yes, I’m still accountable for having a quality program that meets the students’ needs. But I don’t have to pre-test, then re-test after X number of hours and have a certain percentage of students move from one level to another. I don’t have any additional paperwork or audits, none of the issues that typically come with grants. I also don’t have to worry about losing my funding (or my job.) That is not to say that we may not decide to pursue grant funding in the future, but for now, it makes for much less paperwork.

What I didn’t expect to see

The other program I’m involved in has about 30 percent Hispanic enrollment. There are more Burmese than any other ethnic group, with Iranian and Iraqi running a close second. The program here in the library is 83 percent Hispanic, but even that figure is a little misleading. The morning class is 66 percent Hispanic, the afternoon class is 100 percent, and the evening class is 93 percent. Boe and Vissam (not their real names) sit together in the evening, even though one speaks Burmese and the other Oromo. I think they feel less isolated that way, since they’re the only ones in the room who do not speak Spanish. They have, however, integrated themselves well. In fact, Boe is the class cut-up.

I didn’t expect there to be enough people interested in the afternoon classes to warrant teaching them, and I was at least partly right: the interest was low enough that I only taught one, not both, and the afternoon class has the lowest attendance of all the classes, averaging 13 per meeting. We’ll have classes in the summer (not having to worry about running out of grant funding), offering only a morning and an evening class, and bring back the afternoon option in the fall term.

We won’t do that again!

After screening 140 potential students for what ended up being 75 slots, I called (or tried to call) each person to let them know whether or not they were in a class. You’d be surprised how many phones were disconnected in the three days since the students had registered! And these are people who don’t speak English, once I do manage to reach them, who are trying to understand me (and vice versa) on the phone. I don’t know if I left messages for some of them (heck, I don’t even know if they had answering machines—I just heard lots of funny beeps and clicks and no voices.) The people I did talk to weren’t the people who came to registration (or maybe they were, I couldn’t always tell.) I left messages with people who probably had no idea what I was talking about.

Fast forward to the first couple of classes. It was mayhem! People I’d told were accepted in the class were not there. People I’d told were not in the class were there. People who’d not come to registration were there.

Next time I will give the students a piece of paper with my phone number and ask them to call me, giving myself a week between registration and the first day of class. I cannot make the decision as to who will be accepted at registration because there are two days of registration and I have to go over all the other screeners’ results and identify each applicant’s language level. And next time I will accept 30 students, rather than 25. That way the normal attrition (job changes, children’s schedules, moving, etc.) will not reduce the classes as much.

That was the worst of the issues. Others included having permanent markers in the classroom. You know, where the whiteboard is. Yeah. Fortunately that cleaner stuff they sell really works. Another was the crossword puzzle I created for past tense verbs which did not include a list of the infinitives from which the answers would be formed, in addition to the clues. I knew what the words were, and crossword puzzles don’t give you the root words, just the clues, so I didn’t give my students the infinitives. Oops. Lower-level students, remember?

Next time I will get comfortable shoes. I went from sitting at a public service desk and helping people find things in the carpeted stacks to standing for 12 hours on tile every week. Enough said.

ESL students at Amarillo Public Library

ESL class at Amarillo Public Library

Why It Works

So here is yours truly, with some teaching experience, some understanding of the structure and acquisition of language and a lot of enthusiasm and experience working with children. These ESL students are not children, but the enthusiasm and techniques that are successful in engaging and interesting kids are also successful in engaging and interesting adult ESL students. We have fun. We play games and have class presentations. (Those are usually fun for everyone except the one making the presentation.) We have potlucks and talk about the food from their countries. That actually resulted in the most spirited discussion we’ve had so far. We learn to respect each other’s cultures by identifying any food that has pork in it. We learn to greet each other in everyone’s native language. We watch children’s films (Harry the Dirty Dog, Let’s Give Kitty a Bath, A Boy, A Dog and a Frog to name just three) and discuss the films, practicing asking yes/no questions, practicing past tense verbs, learning how to describe things, etc. We watch YouTube videos. We sing songs – one man requested that we sing “BINGO”, several weeks after we first sang it to help learn to pronounce letters of the alphabet. He just liked the song and wanted to sing it again. We have fun, and the students want to keep coming to class and want to invite their friends and family members to come to future classes. And we learn a little English along the way.

I don’t know that our program is unique. I do know that it’s unlikely that every library will have the personnel to do what we have done, but the Amarillo Public Library has started an ESL program that is meeting a definite need. And I know that all of us –the students, the library, the community and I –benefit by it. That’s a successful library program.


Pat Mullin is ESL services coordinator of the Amarillo Public Library.

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  1. Interesting post pat about life in the trenches. Sounds like you guys are having some serious fun there. THAT is the key! Enjoy and they will want to come back….I have some posts on my site that maybe some more advanced learners might be interested in. So they get a sense of what it is like to learn English using some fun and interesting tools as well as understandings that would support their continued learning.
    all the best!!