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Program sharpens ASU employees’ English skills

December 12, 2007

When Alberta Carrasco came to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1980, she learned to speak English by ear – that is, by listening to other people speak.

Reading and writing English didn’t come so easily for Carrasco. But now, Carrasco, who works as a custodian in Dixie Gammage Hall, is getting a big boost in her reading and writing skills.

Carrasco is one of more than two dozen ASU staff members enrolled in ASU’s first English class for non-native speakers, taught by two students in the Master of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MTESOL) program.

The class, which has attracted mostly Facilities Management employees, takes place from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays in a Life Sciences classroom, and the students come either after or before their shifts.

Most of the students are from Mexico, while others hail from Argentina and the Philippines.

It’s a lively group. Since there are no exams or grades, there’s no pressure, and the students can simply enjoy the learning experience.

Wendy Finlayson, who teaches the class with Mario Mattel, said she enjoys getting to know the students and learning from them.

“They all have stories to tell,” she says. “They are motivated to learn, and they work really hard, which makes it an enjoyable environment to teach in.”

One of the challenges for Finlayson and Mattel was creating a curriculum for students with varying levels of English competency.

Timotea Rochford, for example, earned a secretarial science degree in her native Philippines, but she wants to take English classes at ASU and become a writer.

Carrasco, on the other hand, says she “barely went to the seventh grade” and wants to learn the difference between good and poor English.

“Some students are quite advanced in their speaking and writing skills, while other students haven’t had much of an opportunity for formal education in their native countries, so they are at very beginning levels,” Finlayson says.

The teachers employ a variety of exercises, discussions, and small-group activities to help the learning process.

In one class, Finlayson distributed a sheet titled “Reading Tips,” which she discusses with the class.

“What does the word ‘tip’ mean?” she asks.

One of the tips is to read aloud to children, and to “make a story come alive.”

“What does it mean to ‘make a story come alive’?” she asks.

Then, she distributed children’s books to the students, which she asked them to read aloud in teams of two.

“This is a good time to practice,” she told the class. “Nobody is going to judge you.”

There is homework, with sentences to correct and other grammar exercises.

In a pre-class survey, students indicated that they wanted to boost their English skills to improve their comprehension of labels on products such as cleaning chemicals, store advertisements and Internet shopping sites, and to write e-mails, memos and technical reports for work, as well as résumés and cover letters for job advancement.

The students also wanted to be able to communicate with doctors, teachers, school principals, financial institutions and their supervisors at work.

English grammar is one of the biggest challenges for the students.

“I think most of my students have learned to speak English to survive in a new country, so it isn’t always grammatically correct,” Finlayson said. “Many of them struggle with their writing skills more than their speaking skills.”

While the class benefits the students, it also is a learning experience for Finlayson and Mattel.

“I also feel that I am gaining some valuable experience as a teacher as Mario and I build the curriculum for the course,” Finlayson says.

The idea for the staff English class came from Ruby Macksoud, coordinator of the MTESOL internship course.

“I had read about the workers education ESL classes offered by Henry Ford at his Ford School in Michigan in the early 1900s, and other companies, such as Cadbury Chocolate Co. in Birmingham, U.K., where similar workers education programs were in use in the late 1890s,” Macksoud says. “In addition, I read about John Dewey’s laboratory school-model at the University of Chicago, which again affected me in a positive way.”

Macksoud had taught ESL classes to engineers and business professionals for multinational companies in Japan – and when she came to ASU, she realized there was a need here, too.

“Plus, I wanted the MTESOL internship to give ASU graduate students the experience of student teaching in a real-world ESL context,” she says. “So it didn’t take long for me to start talking to the custodial and grounds keeping staff at ASU, and to ask about their second language education needs.”

This semester, because of limited classroom space, the course has mixed all English-language learners, but next semester, Macksoud hopes to offer several classes at different levels.

Macksoud believes ASU is the only university offering such a class to staff members.

“I’ve done research on workers education classes in the United States, but I haven’t found other universities in the United States doing this kind of language support for their workers,” she says.

And it is paying off, Macksoud says.

“The positive influence of the class is clearly visible on the faces and in the voices of the staff,” she says.