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Student Persistence in the

Adult ESOL Classroom
Great Teachers Inspire • Motivate • Change the World

Adult education ESOL instructors are all regularly. “Persistent” students, therefore,
too familiar with the ongoing ebb and flow of manage their language learning through self-
students who pass through their classrooms. directed study away from the ESL program
With attrition rates near 70% in many programs, when they must “stop out,” and return to class
an “examination of the process learners go when they are able.
through in deciding to stay or leave a program The challenge facing educators with
and the many factors that influence them” respect to this new perspective on student
(Garner, as quoted in Belzer 1998) are at the persistence is to find ways to:
core of much research and discussion on the
• h
 elp students identify the negative forces that
topic of student persistence. This article offers
make it difficult for them to attend class;
some strategies that instructors can implement
in their programs to address the persistence of • p
 rovide students with strategies to deal with
their students. But first, we will define student those negative forces so that they can stay in
persistence. school as long as possible;

What Is Student Persistence? • p
 rovide students with materials they can use
for self-study during a stopping out period; and
The definition of student persistence is not
• p
 rovide students with the impetus to return
a synonym for “retention.” Retention speaks
to the program as quickly as possible once
specifically to the time a student is attending
the negative forces have diminished.
class. Once that student is no longer attending
class, he or she is traditionally defined as
What Can Programs Do?
having “dropped out.”
Program Orientation
Student persistence, on the other hand,
suggests that students have many forces Programs that provide students with
working both for and against them. The same an orientation to the campus and to the
family, friends, job, childcare, and health issues educational offerings report higher levels of
that support students attending class can, in a student persistence. Many students are not
flash, become the very things that keep them aware of the opportunities that are available
from coming to school. These “positive” and to them as they progress up the ESL levels.
“negative” forces are defined as being outside Students should know what is expected of
the control of the students. them in order to advance successfully through
the different ESL levels, and they should know
When negative forces work against
how to matriculate into ABE, GED, high school
students, they may be forced to “stop out”
subjects, ROP and other certificate programs,
from classroom instruction while continuing
and, eventually, into the community college
with self-directed instruction at home. When
and beyond. Orientation can be provided: (1)
positive forces work in their favor, they are
at the time of registration; (2) at orientation
able to return to the program and attend class

Copyright ©2008 by Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.
meetings offered on a weekly or bi-monthly planning, classroom instruction, and the
basis; or (3) in the classroom (teachers should general ins and outs of the program, mentors
be trained on strategies to integrate orientation have the opportunity to reflect on their own
and matriculation information into their instruction and methodologies, leading to an
teaching, including lesson plans). improvement in their own teaching practices.

Certificates What Can Teachers Do?
Students are motivated by certificates Create a Safe Learning Environment
that acknowledge their accomplishments.
ESL students represent a wide range of
Attendance certificates can be awarded
ages, educational backgrounds, personalities,
weekly or monthly in the classroom, with a
goals, and levels of motivation. In his Affective
more “official” certificate at semester’s term.
Filter Hypothesis, Dr. Stephen Krashen suggests
Certificates that recognize completion of one
that a student’s ability to acquire a second
level of ESL and advancement into another
language is directly related to such variables
provide students with tangible evidence that
as positive or negative classroom experiences,
they are progressing.
nervousness, anxiety, and sense of self-esteem.
A “low” affective filter is associated with an
Professional Development
environment in which a student feels safe,
The importance of professional relaxed, and willing to take risks with language
development cannot be understated. learning.
Keeping teachers abreast of new research
There are a myriad of ways teachers can
and knowledge in the teaching of language
create a safe learning environment, thereby
acquisition, as well as providing training on the
lowering the affective filter of their students.
needs of students particular to the community
Memorizing the names of all of your students
the program serves, is a commitment toward
within the first week of instruction reduces
excellence. To ensure the professional
anxiety and increases self-esteem. Learning a
development needs of the teachers are being
few key phrases in the languages of the students
met, survey the teachers and then implement
is a fun way to model for students that it is
training that specifically addresses their
acceptable to struggle with pronunciation and
needs. Training topics can include multilevel
language learning. Students are eager to share
instruction, student persistence, classroom
their languages, and everyone has a good laugh
management, publisher training on using the
when teachers mispronounce the vocabulary
program’s core texts, retention, standardized
they are learning.
testing preparation, assessment, games,
cooperative learning, and basic phrases in the A powerful tool for lowering the affective
languages of the students. filter of the students is to set up a buddy system.
During the first week of class, have students
Identify Mentor Teachers buddy with someone who speaks their first
language and exchange phone numbers so
National Education Association research
that they can contact each other. The buddy
on the benefits of mentoring has shown that
system has several benefits. First, it immediately
pairing a seasoned instructor with a novice
connects students to at least one other person
instructor to provide support and guidance
in the classroom. This connection may help
during the first semesters of teaching benefits
motivate them to keep coming to class, even
both participants. While novice instructors
when negative forces are working against them.
receive valuable information on lesson
Second, buddies can keep each other apprised

Copyright ©2008 by Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.
of missed lessons. Third, buddies can keep in setting, even with the lowest-level learners, and
contact with each other during the “stopping provide the students with examples of short-
out” periods, which encourages absent students term and long-term goals that are specific,
to return when they can. measurable, and achievable.
In addition to setting goals, encourage
Build a Strong Classroom Community students to set their bars high. Many students
In addition to providing students with a think only of getting and keeping the
safe learning environment, teachers need to most menial entry-level positions. Instead,
facilitate the building of a strong classroom encourage them to think about working their
community. Using pair work, as well as small- way up to manager or even owner of their own
group and whole-class activities, beginning business.
with the first day of class, helps the students
get acquainted. Once the semester is in full Allow Students to Purchase Their
swing, however, students commonly find a Textbooks
comfortable niche that they seldom leave. Central to the mission statement of the
One activity you might find helpful is called majority of educational institutions is the
“Crazy Wednesday.” Every Wednesday, objective of preparing students for lifelong
instruct students to sit somewhere different learning. How can a student be successful
from their “regular” seats, with at least one in this endeavor if they cannot purchase
person who does not speak their first language. a textbook? Students who purchase their
Providing ongoing opportunities for students textbooks are empowered because:
to make new connections promotes and
strengthens academic excellence in the • They have made a monetary investment
classroom and reinforces the social and in their futures.
emotional connections, which improve student • They have learned to prioritize and value
persistence. learning and education.
Providing students with an opportunity to • They can serve as role models to their
share their cultures also helps build a strong children.
classroom community. Students are passionate • They can continue to use their textbooks
about their cultures and the countries they have for self-study should they be forced to
emigrated from, and it is moving and powerful “stop out” for a period of time.
to watch them share their passion with their
classmates. Tell students about the importance of being
able to complete the activities in their own text,
Have Students Identify and Establish and being able to review their work later at
Short-term and Long-term Educational home or on a break at work.
Goals A program in Southern California recently
The research gleaned on student switched from class sets to student-purchased
persistence from study circles around the books. Now retention rates in their levels 1 and
country shows clearly that students who have 2 classes are the best they have ever been.
set specific goals for their English learning are Once programs and teachers have an
more persistent than students who have a understanding of what improves student
general goal of “I want to learn English.” It is performance, they can see how implementing
important that teachers teach lessons on goal a few simple strategies can have far-reaching,
positive effects on their student population.

Copyright ©2008 by Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.
References

A summary of suggested techniques for improving learner persistence:
CALPRO’s study circles on learner persistence (October 2005). Retrieved July
31, 2006, from http://www.calpro-online.org/announce/Collected_Strategies.pdf.
Belzer, A. (1998, March). Stopping Out, Not Dropping Out. Focus on Basics,
2(A). Retrieved from http://www.ncsall.net/?id=771&pid=417.
Comings, J., Parrella, A., & Soricoce, L. (2000, March). Helping adults persist:
four supports. Focus on Basics, 4(A). Retrieved July 31, 2006, from http://www.
ncsall.net/?id=771&pid=332.
Holloway, J. (2001, May). The benefits of mentoring. Educational Leadership,
58(8). Retrieved September 7, 2006, from http://www.nea.org/mentoring/
resbene050603.html.
Page, B. (2002, August). Learning your students’ names: fun, fast, easy and
important. The Teachers.Net Gazette, 3(8). Retrieved September 14, 2006, from
http://www.teachers.net/gazette/AUG02/page2.html.
Russell, C. (n.d.). Krashen’s Hypotheses of Second Language Acquisition.
Retrieved September 18, 2006, from http://www.tcnj.edu/~russell2/Krashen.
htm.
Study circles on learner persistence CALPRO planning for follow-up (n.d.).
Retrieved July 31, 2006, from http://www.calpro-online.org/announce/
StudyCircles_PlanningFollowUp.pdf.
Suggestions for improving learner persistence: a list generated by Texas adult
education program directors, coordinators, and supervisors who participated
in the NCSALL/TCALL study circle meetings on learner persistence (n.d.).
Retrieved April 18, 2006, from http://www-tcall.tamu.edu/docs/lrnrpersist05.
htm.
Taking action to increase learner persistence (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2006,
from http://www.calpro-online.org/announce/ActionsProgramsTook.pdf.
The Adult Student Persistency Study (2005). Program administrators’
sourcebook: a resource on NCSALL’s research for adult education program
administrators, 36-45. Retrieved July 31, 2006, from http://www.ncsall.net/
fileadmin/resources/teach/pasourcebook_persistence.pdf.

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