Adult ESL Classes and Participatory Citizenship:
An Examination of a Rural Town’s ESL Programs
Submitted to Professor Tegtmeyer Pak
In partial fulfillment of the requirements for
Political Science 350
St. Olaf College
December 19, 2011
Learning the dominant language is an essential step for immigrants in their efforts to
become participatory citizens and achieve a sense of belonging in society. Language classes for
immigrants can play a critical role in helping immigrants with both language proficiency and
citizenship. However, many obstacles and problems exist that prevent immigrants from fully
benefitting from language classes. This paper begins with a literature review and then examines
the case of Faribault, a small rural town in Minnesota. I have researched the ESL programs using
observations, interviews, and an examination of the curriculums and materials. The programs are
compared to the findings from current research on immigrant language classes and participatory
citizenship. I find that despite good intentions and a variety of ESL programs, the classes
available to immigrants in Faribault generally do not serve to promote participatory citizenship
or a sense of belonging. They struggle to do so because of significant barriers and challenges,
and because they often fail to listen to and address immigrants’ needs. I conclude with some
While becoming active participants and integrating into a society is a complex and
multifaceted process, learning the dominant language is a key part of that process. Knowledge of
a country’s dominant or official language has been shown to correlate with several measures of
success (Drbohlav and Dzúrová 2007). Language programs for adults play an important role in
helping adult immigrants acquire language and integrate into their communities.
Although language acquisition is important for immigrants’ success, government-run
language programs have historically been inconsistent and underfunded. They are often affected
by political and ideological shifts, and as a result are fragmented in their funding, oversight and
provision (although Australia is a notable exception to this) (Burns and De Silva Joyce 2007a, 1).
Programs also vary widely in their curriculums, goals and methods. Research on the
effectiveness of programs for promoting integration is equally fragmented and inconsistent, and
there are many gaps in the literature (ibid.).
Despite these problems, much valuable research exists that examines the effectiveness of
language programs for adult immigrants. This paper reviews the current literature on the extent
to which language programs help immigrants to integrate and become active participants in their
communities. Although successful programs exist, many do not achieve this goal. Many barriers
to integration and participatory citizenship exist, including a lack of funding, inappropriate
curriculum and a narrow focus on preparing immigrants for low-wage entry-level jobs.
Immigrants can also be affected by a lack of contact with native speakers of the language.
However, some targeted interventions have been successful at improving immigrants’
Research on ESL classes in rural communities in the US is particularly lacking. A few
rural communities with large meatpacking plants or other sources of unskilled labor have
experienced recent dramatic increases in their non-European immigrant population (Fennelly
2006, 7). Research is needed in these communities to examine the effectiveness of current
programs, in order to evaluate the need for changes. This paper focuses on one such rural
community, Faribault. The leadership of some organizations that work with immigrants in
Faribault has been requesting more information on the provision and effectiveness of ESL
programs (Arbeiter, Ward, and Tegtmeyer Pak 2010, 35). This paper attempts to help fill these
gaps by examining in detail the ESL programs in Faribault. Better research in this area will allow
the programs to better evaluate the need for change and growth, and guide them in making
recommendations for improvements.
I examine the availability, goals and methods of the various ESL programs in Faribault,
both the state-funded program that operates within the Adult Basic Education branch of the
Faribault School District, and volunteer programs taught through various non-profit
organizations. I then compare these findings with the current research. I conclude that despite
good efforts, the ESL programs in Faribault face significant barriers to promoting participatory
citizenship for immigrants. They largely fail to do so because they struggle with significant
barriers and for the most part, they do not engage in meaningful discussion with immigrants.
Programs could be improved using research-supported interventions and changes.
Comparative Literature Review
This review examines the current research on the extent to which adult language classes
for immigrants help them integrate and become participatory or active citizens. Despite
complexities in language programs, valuable research has been done. While some research
examines the results of entire programs, other studies focus on a single aspect of or even
individual students in a program. Other researchers have examined the curriculum and materials
used by language programs. Finally, some research has evaluated the success of targeted
interventions that are designed to improve immigrants’ participatory citizenship.
The first challenge in researching language programs is the fact that the ways in which
language classes are provided and funded vary widely between countries and over time. The
countries under review in this paper, Canada, the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand and
Sweden, all have government-funded programs. However, in all of these countries except
Australia, the structure, oversight and funding of these programs have been unstable and subject
to changes in the political climate (Roberts, Cooke, Baynham and Simpson 2007, 20; Roach and
Roskvist 2007, 44). In addition, most countries have non-profit volunteer organizations that also
provide language instruction. These are largely independent and free from oversight and
accountability (although in the US these programs can receive funding and oversight from the
state) (ABE Minnesota). This has made researching and evaluating these programs difficult. In
many ways, Australia is looked to as an exemplary provider of ESL services because of its
consistency and strong federal leadership of the program. However, in all countries the language
programs have suffered from underfunding and a relative lack of research support. This is an
area where much research is needed.
The terms in use in this paper are not used consistently in the literature, so some
definitions are required. For this study, Immigrants are defined as foreign-born residents of a
country, regardless of legal status (Ramakrishnan and Bloemraad 2008, 4). ‘Adult language
classes for immigrants’ (also referred to simply as ‘language classes’ or ‘language programs’ are
any classes, whether run by the state, private companies, or non-profits, whose goals include
teaching immigrants the dominant or official language of the receiving country. Citizenship
includes so-called formal citizenship, which Howard (2009) defines as “membership in a
“national political community”” and which includes “the right to vote, to run for office and to
participate freely in public activities…[and] the obligation of paying taxes” (3). However,
Bloemraad, Korteweg and Yurdakul (2008) define citizenship as having four dimensions, “legal
status, rights, political and other forms of participation in society, and a sense of belonging”
(154). These last two dimensions of citizenship are the focus of this paper.
Citizens who achieve the third dimension are called ‘participatory’ or ‘active’ citizens.
Following Brettell and Reed-Danahay’s (2008) example, I conceptualize this participation using
the framework of communities of practice, or an “activity system in which participants share
understandings about what they are doing and what that means in their lives” (198).
Communities of practice exist at multiple, overlapping levels of society. Immigrants generally
begin with peripheral participation in communities of practice that involve or serve
predominantly other immigrants, like hometown organizations, churches and ethnic community
centers. Immigrants then gradually move to more central participation in mainstream
communities of practice, such as PTOs, city councils and non-ethnic organizations.
This process is referred to as ‘integration’ in many of the studies examined in this paper.
Drbohlav and Dzúrová (2007) define integration as “some maintenance of the cultural integrity
of the group as well as the movement to become an integral part of a larger societal framework”
(76). However, integration does not necessarily imply classical assimilation, whereby
immigrants carry the full responsibility of linearly adapting to all aspects of the dominant society
(Ramakrishan and Bloemraad 2008, 6). Rather, integration can be a flexible process, which can
occur more rapidly in some arenas (called segmented assimilation) and which can involve
changes and adaptations on the part of the dominant culture as well (leading to what some refer
to as multiculturalism). Participatory citizenship and integration are essential for achieving the
fourth dimension of citizenship, a sense of belonging. As immigrants become fully integrated
into different communities of practice, they are able to both participate and to feel a sense of
belonging to those communities.
The importance of language proficiency
A lack of proficiency in the dominant language is often a key barrier to immigrants
engaging and integrating into their communities of practice (Ramakrishan and Bloemraad 2008,
5). Thus classes that teach the majority language are an important element for immigrants in their
efforts to become participatory citizens. Yet there is and has been much disagreement over how,
in what ways and to what extent majority language classes can and should promote participatory
citizenship. While Anne Burns rightly asserts that more research is needed in this field (Burns
and De Silva Joyce 2007a, 1), there is both quantitative and qualitative research that sheds light
on different aspects of this debate in various immigrant-receiving countries. Both Prospect
Journal in Australia and the international journal Linguistics and Education have devoted full
issues to recent research.
Much research has been devoted to exploring the need for and benefits resulting from
acquiring the target language. These studies do not necessarily examine actual language teaching
programs, but they are important for understanding the extent to which classes that improve
immigrants’ language proficiency can actually improve outcomes for immigrants. These studies
often compare qualitative and quantitative data about language proficiency to measures of
success and integration. In light of the increased language requirements for immigration and
settlement in Germany, Doerschler and Jackson (2010) examined the extent to which immigrant
integration programs that focus on German language acquisition help immigrants to integrate
into German society. They found that, although knowledge of German was associated with
positive outcomes, other factors were equally or more important.
Drbohlav and Dzúrová (2007) approached the same issue from the opposite direction. They
researched the factors that are associated with satisfaction and integration among three groups of
immigrants to the Czech Republic. Although they found significant differences between the
groups, they also found that across all groups, immigrants who were most satisfied with their
quality of life had above-average knowledge of Czech. Although they assert that “good
knowledge of the Czech language seems to be a gateway to immigrants’ satisfaction,” the
multiple possible confounding variables and small sample size call that conclusion into question
(70). Despite problems with both studies, it is clear that knowledge of the language is necessary
but not sufficient for integration into the receiving country’s society.
Language classes as communities of practice
However, it is not enough to simply teach immigrants isolated language skills in the
classroom, because using a language to engage in a community of practice requires not just
grammatical knowledge, but an ability to use the language in a pragmatically and socially
accepted way (Warriner 2010, 24). Increasingly, language classrooms are being understood as
part of a “complex sociolinguistic environment,” connected and related to other aspects and
contexts of immigrants’ lives (Roberts, Cooke, Baynham and Simpson 2007, 24). In order to
study the effectiveness of language classrooms, they are beginning to be examined within their
Like Brettell and Reed-Danahay (2008), Warriner (2010) used the concept of
communities of practice to conceptualize the process by which the ‘learning opportunities’ in
language classes help immigrants to acquire “full participation and membership” in their
communities of practice (23). He found that the language classes he examined limited
immigrants’ ability to engage in communities of practice. These findings are explained in more
Indeed, although they do not necessarily use this term, many researchers are beginning to
conceive of language classrooms as ‘communities of practice.’ In Australia, stable government
funding and long-term research projects have allowed the AMEP, which oversees ESL programs,
to develop progressive, research-based teaching methods centered on authentic texts. This
program relies on student-to-student and student-to-teacher collaboration to help students
concurrently acquire linguistic features like grammar and vocabulary, cultural context,
background knowledge and comprehension (Burns and De Silva Joyce 2007b, 13). In this way,
immigrants acquire language skills as well as the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully
use the language in their communities, allowing them to gain legitimacy in communities of
New Zealand has suffered from a much more unstable and underfunded system of ESL
programs (Roach and Rostvisk 2007, 54). Despite these challenges, it has managed to develop a
patchwork of ESL classes that target specific immigrant populations’ needs. There are separate
programs for refugees and employed, unemployed and senior citizen immigrants. This allows the
programs to target instruction to immigrants’ needs within specific communities of practice.
Language programs and the workplace
However, in many cases language programs have failed to facilitate immigrants’
integration or participatory citizenship. Many programs have a very narrow focus on job
preparation. Their goal is to ensure students have the language skills necessary to enter the
workforce as low-wage workers. While these programs are often successful in accomplishing
their goals, their limited focus can prevent immigrants from fully integrating beyond their
workplace. Warriner (2010) found that the ESL curriculum in one American community helped
students to access the community of practice of low-wage, entry-level jobs, but limited their full
participation in other communities of practice available to them. Because classes were focused
on isolated elements of grammar and simple language skills necessary for entry-level jobs, they
failed to engage students in discussions that would use higher-order thinking and other language
skills, which would facilitate their entrance into better jobs and other communities of practice
(26). Lindberg and Sandwall (2007) examined the Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) program. They
found that, despite the fact that SFI is part of a federal integration program that guarantees
language education for all immigrants, participatory citizenship goals have been overshadowed
by the need to quickly prepare immigrants for entrance into low-wage jobs. This is consistent
with Warriner’s (2009) findings.
Brooks (2009) also researched the connection between language classes and work. She
examined the complex and often conflicting practices of ESL programs provided at or through
immigrants’ workplaces. She found that it is difficult to deduce patterns and trends because
workplace ESL is complex and even chaotic due to the multiple partners and sources of funding
involved (66). However, she did find that there is often a conflict between ESL educators, who
are learner-centered and concerned with the immigrants’ ability to develop their language
proficiency, and HR Managers, whose expectations for workplace ESL are oriented toward
improving “productivity, quality, and workplace safety issues” (67). This conflict meant that it
was often difficult to provide ESL that was geared toward both learner and employer needs.
Brooks found that the practices in workplace ESL that best help learners to function successfully
and safely in their workplace communities of practice make learning relevant, reflective and
cooperative. ESL providers also need to actively “attend to the membership and belonging needs
of ESL speakers” by involving supervisors and coworkers and advocating for a bilingual
The importance of contact with native speakers
Language programs can fail to reach their potential if their immigrant students have
limited contact with target language speakers outside the classroom. As Norton (2000) explains,
“SLA theorists have not adequately explored how inequitable relations of power limit the
opportunities that L2 learners have to practice the target language outside of the classroom”
(cited in Warriner 2010, 24).
Elmeroth (2003) researched the factors that govern immigrants’ acquisition of Swedish in
Sweden. She found that a lack of contact with native Swedish speakers hampered learners’
proficiency and motivation, and more importantly, prevented them from feeling a sense of
belonging in Sweden, which in turn made it more difficult for them to learn the language (441).
Immigrants’ language learning was mostly limited to the language classroom community of
practice and failed to help them become full participants in mainstream communities of practice.
This lack of contact was in part caused by and also aggravated by immigrants’ illiteracy. This
illiteracy exacerbated barriers in understanding between immigrants and their language teachers
(435). It also slowed down immigrants’ progress in learning Swedish, making ordinary timelines
unrealistic and a source of anxiety for immigrants (437).
Wright (2006) conducted an intervention with ESL students in New Zealand with the
goal of increasing their contact with English and their use of English outside the classroom. The
intervention was three-pronged. Students met with language tutors for conversation practice. The
class heard from advanced-level ESL students, who gave them advice and suggestions on how to
use English outside the classroom. And students kept a language log of conversations held in the
community and a series of reflections on their experiences. Although many students still
expressed frustration at the difficulty of English and their lack of speaking ability, students
overwhelmingly found the language log, language tutors, and discussion with advanced level
students to be helpful in their efforts to use English in the community.
The effect of curriculum
The curriculum and other materials used in language classes can also affect how well
classes facilitate immigrant integration. Carlson (2006) studied the textbooks and other materials
used in teaching Swedish for Immigrants (SFI). According to the SFI curriculum, the program is
designed to teach language and also to be a “bridge to Swedish life” (as cited in Carlson, 2006,
p.131). Instead of looking at how culture is taught explicitly in language classes, she looked at
how these materials implicitly communicate expectations for immigrants and present Swedish
culture. This implicit transmission of ideas and values is called Social Orientation (SO). She
found that textbooks prevailingly presented a division between the ‘Swedish way’ and immigrant
perspectives. Immigrants were expected to unilaterally adapt to the ‘Swedish way’ in their
lifestyles, values and choices. This expectation is unrealistic, since scholars have found that
integration is more complex, flexible, and cooperative than this simplistic attitude would suggest
(Ramakrishan and Bloemraad 2008, 6). This rigid attitude can prevent immigrants from feeling
like they belong and becoming legitimate members of mainstream communities of practice. In
her study of two Toronto ESL programs, Damjanovic (2010) also found that the national
curriculum limited immigrants’ active citizenship (or in her terms, citizenship as agency). She
found that, even at higher levels, the curriculum contained very little content about Canada, its
cultures and values. What little content present was simplistic and did not invite discussion that
would facilitate integration or active participation (39-40).
Most second language curriculums for adult immigrants have not been researched or
evaluated in any way. Many programs allow teachers to choose or develop their own
curriculums, while others provide curriculums that have not been researched or evaluated
(McMurtrey 2004, 59). Still other programs ‘teach to the test,’ teaching only the isolated
language structures necessary to pass a particular language test, whether it be for citizenship, the
GED, entrance into higher education or another purpose.
Targeted interventions in ESL classes can help immigrants become involved in a specific
community of practice. Waterman (2008) researched the ways in which targeted ESL instruction
could improve parent-school collaboration among Mexican immigrant mothers in Colorado. He
used a quasi-experimental approach to explore whether ESL classes that specifically and
explicitly focused on parent involvement at school could improve both language proficiency and
parent-school collaboration. Although the experiment was small, involving only 87 mothers, and
was limited to Mexican mothers in one urban school district, it yielded impressive results, with
immigrants in the experimental group performing significantly better on quantitative and
qualitative measures of both language proficiency and parent involvement than immigrants in the
control group (a regular ESL class). This is supported by SLA research, which has shown
repeatedly that students learn a second language better when it is taught using meaningful,
applicable content (Lightbown and Spada 2006, 156). Since parent involvement in school has
been associated with positive outcomes for student achievement, these results could have far-
reaching implications for immigrant families in their efforts to integrate successfully into
American life (Arellano Anguiano 2008, 198).
An ESL program case study
Jelena Damjanovic (2010) in Canada conducted what is perhaps the most detailed and
comprehensive study of the relationship between ESL and participatory citizenship focusing on
one program. For her master’s thesis, she examined two classes of the COSTI ESL program in
Toronto, Canada. She interviewed teachers and students, observed classes, and examined
curriculum materials. Then she made conclusions about what kind of citizenship was being
taught and communicated indirectly through the program. She outlined four different kinds of
citizenship, which are related to the categories presented in this paper: citizenship as status (most
closely related to formal citizenship), as identity, civic virtues and agency (most closely related
to active or participatory citizenship (8). She found that ESL classes focused almost exclusively
on teaching the survival English necessary to enter the workforce. Classes contained little to no
honest reflection on current issues of culture and politics in Canada, nor did they teach Canadian
history with a critical eye. In doing so, they promoted citizenship as status, but did not assist
students (or even sometimes inhibited students) from developing citizenship as agency (71).
Damjanovic did not blame ESL teachers, citing a lack of appropriate resources, training, and
understanding of the importance of teaching citizenship as agency. She called for a change in
policy at the national level, supported by appropriate teaching materials for all levels of ESL and
professional development for teachers (72).
Introduction to Faribault
Faribault is a small town of about 20,000 in southern Minnesota. According to the US
Census Bureau (2011), it is estimated that 7.2% of Faribault residents speak English less than
‘very well.’ In the last twenty years, there has been an influx of immigrants, predominantly
Mexican Latinos, Somalis and Sudanese, many of whom have moved to Faribault to work at
Jennie-O Turkey Store, a local meat-packing plant. Despite being quite welcoming to its
immigrant newcomers, the town has struggled to accommodate them because of a lack of access
to resources and funding that are available in larger cities. The town previously had a Welcome
Center, which served new immigrants by pointing them to services and resources in the
community. In 2010, the Welcome Center closed, and the town has been struggling with how to
best serve its immigrant population in the absence of the center. One way that Faribault has
particularly struggled is in helping immigrants learn English. Although several programs exist,
there is confusion and a general lack of knowledge about what programs, funding and resources
are available and being used (Arbeiter, Ward, and Tegtmeyer Pak 2010, 35).
A federally funded adult ESL program exists in Faribault, provided through the
Community Education office of the school district. The Office of Vocational and Adult
Education, the federal office that oversees and regulates spending for government-provided adult
ESL instruction in the US state in their 2005 report that the goal of the program is to “help
learners acquire the skills and knowledge to become active and informed parents, workers, and
community members” (Lasater and Elliot 2005, 3). Presumably this last clause is intended to
encompass all other rolls that immigrants could play in their communities, beyond parents and
workers. Thus the program’s goals include integration and participation in various communities
of practice. However, this program does not seem to be meeting the communication and
integration needs of the immigrant population. In After the Welcome Center, Arbeiter, Ward and
Tegtmeyer Pak reported that every survey respondent “emphasized language barriers as a
priority challenge confronting immigrants” (2010, 34). Agencies also expressed a need for
research-based knowledge that could be used to enact changes in Faribault programs and petition
for grant money. Therefore, it is important to examine the ESL instruction already available in
Faribault in light of current research, in order for local agencies and organizations to be able to
make recommendations for improvements.
In this section, I examine the programs in Faribault, both the state-funded program that
operates within the Adult Basic Education branch of the Faribault School District, and volunteer
programs taught through various non-profit organizations. I outline the availability and types of
programs, their goals and curriculums. I compare my findings with the current research. I
conclude that the ESL programs in Faribault face significant barriers to promoting participatory
citizenship for immigrants.
There is no longer a central source of information about ESL services that exist in
Faribault. So compiling a list of programs and their characteristics was my first task. I began
with the ESL program run through the Adult Basic Education (ABE) branch of the school
district. I then contacted community leaders who work for non-profits that work with
immigrants. I asked each ESL program that I contacted if they knew of other programs. This
process turned out to be quite challenging due to a general lack of up-to-date knowledge and
communication among the various organizations. I managed to compile a list that may not be
comprehensive, but certainly represents the largest and most well known classes.
I communicated with both directors and ESL teachers at each program. From these
conversations and emails, I gathered both objective and subjective data about the programs. I
then observed classes at ABE ESL, Somali Community Services, and St. Vincent DePaul. I
collected curriculum and testing materials at each program.
Characteristics of ESL Programs in Faribault
Program Type of Volunteer Number of Class Curriculums
funding or paid immigrants schedules and testing
ABE ESL State Paid 268* M-Th, “Reading for
10am-12pm, Life,” The
1pm-3pm, Complete Story
6pm-8pm by Story,
Somali Grants Volunteer 8-15 M-F 10am- Variety
Community and 12pm
SHAC Grants Volunteer 20 T, Th Rosetta Stone
Rosetta and 6:30pm-
Stone** donations 7:30pm
Mary Ho @ None Volunteer Drop-in M, W 4pm- Variety
St. Vincent 6pm
*FY 2010-2011 (ABE Minnesota)
**This program is planned to begin in January 2012.
Some would not question the lack of participatory citizenship in ESL classes. The
ostensible responsibility of ESL programs is to teach immigrants to read, write, understand and
speak the English language. However, as stated previously, participatory citizenship is a goal of
government-funded ESL classes, according to the Office of Vocational and Adult Education. The
question is, is there evidence of both language and participatory citizenship being learned in
Faribault’s ESL programs? If not, what barriers and challenges exist that prevent this from
happening? And could their efforts be improved? To answer these questions, I begin with the
Office of Vocational and Adult Education’s definition of participatory citizenship. This
definition applies directly to the ABE ESL program, and should directly inform their classes. But
since the other ESL classes are intended to replace the ABE ESL classes, this definition should
be applicable to them as well. Do Faribault’s ESL classes help immigrants to “acquire the skills
and knowledge to become active and informed parents, workers, and community members”
(Lasater and Elliot 2005, 3)?
First, I consider immigrants who should be being served by ABE ESL but are not
currently in the program. I have heard from multiple second-hand sources that there is a waiting
list for the classes, and one of the reasons the other programs were set up was to handle the
overflow from these classes (Mary Ho, personal communication, December 5, 2011, Gary
Kasten, personal communication, November 28, 2011). Yet the state program purports to serve
all immigrants needing or desiring language classes, and distributes funding according to the
number of students (ABE Minnesota). This discrepancy must be resolved. Although students
should have the opportunity to choose between different programs, they should not be forced to
attend classes with uncertified teachers, or worse, no classes at all, because of a lack of space.
Next I consider students in the ABE ESL classes, which serve the majority of immigrants
taking language classes (see table). The ABE ESL is the only program in Faribault that receives
consistent state and federal funding. It is also the only program to employ paid, certified ESL
teachers, most of whom are K-12 ESL teachers during the school day (Pam Wieseler, personal
communication, November 14, 2011). The program is a part of Adult Basic Education, which is
itself a part of the Community Education program. This program has been run through a
partnership between the Faribault Public School District and the city of Faribault, whereby the
district provides $160,000 to the city to provide services and support, including management
staff (Lindberg 2011). However, the program is currently under review by the school board, and
the city has voted not to continue this partnership past June of 2012 (ibid.). Classes are held at
three times throughout the day. They are separated by levels, based on students’ scores on the
CASAS Competencies test. Students in lower levels are mainly learning ‘survival English’,
while many students in the higher levels are working on passing the GED or entering the
I observed in two ESL classes at this program. The first was an advanced beginner class,
where they were working on simple ideas of health, the body and doctors, as well as the past
tense of irregular verbs. The class consisted of seven students, five Somalis and two Latinos. The
second class was an intermediate level. It consisted of seven students, all except one of whom are
Somali. The class was also learning about health and doctors, but at a more advanced level.
Based on my very limited observations and interviews with teachers and the director,
Pam Wieseler, these classes demonstrate some evidence of helping students to integrate into their
Faribault communities. Integrated into lessons on grammar are discussions of important aspects
of American culture and life that students will encounter as parents, workers, and community
members, such as visiting the doctor, fill out job applications, and shop at grocery stores. The
classes are certainly designed with an eye toward focusing on those elements of these situations
that are most likely to be unfamiliar to immigrants. For instance, the intermediate class was
learning about visiting a doctor or hospital during the class that I observed. However, barriers
still exist that largely prevent true participatory citizenship.
As Carlson (2006) in Sweden and Damjanovic (2010) in Canada found, the curriculum
and materials of the Faribault program do not encourage participatory citizenship. As in most
ESL classes in the US, teachers in this program are allowed and even encouraged to choose and
invent their own curriculum materials. The only guiding expectations or goals are the Marshall
Adult Education Scope and Sequence (Freiermuth 2003). These consist of a list of
‘competencies’ that students must achieve for each of six levels of ESL. They range from ‘Read
and tell time’ and ‘Recognize the English alphabet’ at the beginner level to ‘Describe
tenant/landlord rights and responsibilities’ and ‘Write paragraphs and multi-paragraph essays on
personal topics’ at the advanced level. These competencies seem highly academic- and work-
Like Damjanovic (2010), I found that overall these competencies contain little American
content and are missing important aspects of participatory citizenship. The advanced level
includes 19 computation goals, including “Convert and calculate measurements using US and
metric units” and nine employment competencies, including “Complete a job application, resume
and cover letter.” Some of these most certainly are oriented toward participatory citizenship,
although the focus on computation seems strange, and more appropriate to a GED class. And
these competencies include nothing about parenting in the US, nothing about the public school
system, college, scholarships, American expectations of parenting, etc. They are also missing
many important elements of being a ‘community member.’ The advanced level, under
community resources, includes telephones, directories, and recycling, but nothing about
neighborhood or homeowner associations, PTOs, or other community groups or activities in
which immigrants might be involved. Thus even the highest levels, by focusing on the Marshall
Scope and Sequence, omit a lot of important information necessary for active citizenship.
Teachers are also provided with various textbooks. The only one I saw in use during
observations is called The Complete Story by Story. It consists of short stories written at an
elementary level, about a variety of topics, including everything from baseball to Cub Foods.
Each story teaches a phonics sound or letter combination. It is designed to teach illiterate adults
to read, but as the authors state in the introduction, it can be “used, modified, adapted or
expanded…to meet the…needs of…ESL/ELL students” (Frank n.d., 1). Despite the authors’
claims, this book does not seem well-suited to immigrants’ needs. Although (unlike the
textbooks in Damjanovic’s (2010) analysis) they include a lot of American content, these stories
are designed for people who know exactly what baseball and grocery store shopping are like.
They do not teach, inform or encourage discussion. Rather their goal is to provide easy reading
practice using topics with which adults will be familiar. Since these topics are not familiar to
immigrants and are not explained in the stories, they may be too challenging for some
Another textbook that was shown to me is Reading for Life. It was written by Linda
Strand for the state of Minnesota ABE program, and is designed to help illiterate adults learn to
read. It consists of ‘real-life’ written materials like job applications and advertisements, and
worksheets about those materials. Since these materials are authentic, they have the potential for
fostering real conversation about important aspects of immigrants’ culture. Unfortunately, I did
not see this textbook in use in my observations. Other materials used in the classes I observed
were either photocopied worksheets, chosen presumably for their relevance to the theme or
grammar point being taught, or activities invented by the teachers. Even worksheets that were
related to the themes were overwhelmingly grammar-focused, requiring students mostly to fill in
blanks with the correct form of the word.
The format of the courses is also not particularly conducive to learning active citizenship.
Much of class time is focused squarely on acquiring (memorizing) isolated grammar structures
and vocabulary. In the beginner class, students spent about half of the class on two grammar
activities. One required students to listen to present tense verbs and write down the past tense
form. The other required students to fill in the verb in a sentence, choosing between does, did,
doesn’t and do. In the intermediate class, students spent about half of the hour completing a
worksheet that required them to list the months and days of the week in order. Warriner (2010)
found in his examination of ESL programs that an overemphasis on grammar caused students to
prioritize grammar over other aspects of language included in the course. I also found that the
grammatical emphasis of the classes affected immigrants’ engagement. Immigrants prioritized
the vocabulary and grammar exercises over everything else. They participated in discussions
only when they had completed and corrected the exercises.
In general, students do not talk much in class, at least in the lower and intermediate
levels, and the emphasis is not on conversational skills. When students converse in class, it is
often not a planned part of the lesson, but rather a spontaneous discussion. The most extensive
conversation in the advanced beginner class actually occurred because the teacher made a
mistake on the numbering of the activity on past tense verbs. In the intermediate class, students
‘talked’ about the story they had read from The Complete Story by Story about visiting a doctor.
She first discussed filling out forms, and explained ideas like emergency contact and allergies.
Then she described waiting rooms, seeing a nurse, seeing a doctor, getting results, and having the
results explained. This process was very teacher-oriented. The teacher occasionally prompted
students to contribute when they knew what a term was or what step came next. But most of the
time the students said nothing at all, and the one-word answers rarely involved students in an
actual discussion. Warriner (2010) found that this lack of discussion limits immigrants’ abilities
to apply their language learning in their various communities of practice (26).
Finally, many students’ primary difficulty with the exercises in both classes was actually
the literacy aspect of them. They had difficult writing down answers to spoken questions,
copying down the months correctly, etc. Yet when the teacher asked the students to list the
months orally, they did it with ease. Literacy is taught explicitly in this program. For instance, in
the intermediate class, students reviewed the ‘short a’ sound at the end of the class. However,
despite these efforts, students’ illiteracy is affecting their ability to benefit fully from the classes.
My observations suggest that, like Elmeroth (2003) concluded in her study of SFI, the lack of
understanding between illiterate students and their teachers is negatively affecting students’
ability to learn.
In addition to the ABE ESL program, several non-profit organizations in Faribault
provide or are planning to provide ESL classes. These programs are all very small, have limited
hours and run on sporadic grants and donations or no money at all (see table). It is important to
note that the variety of ESL services in Faribault is not necessarily a negative factor in the
programs’ effectiveness. As Roach and Rostvisk (2007) found in their examination of programs
in New Zealand and as McMurtrey (2006) found in his research on programs in Kentucky, a
variety of programs means that each one can focus on a different target population, goal or
teaching style. This ensures that immigrants’ diverse needs are better met. In Faribault, the
different programs vary in teaching styles, levels of formality and consistency, hours and
locations. This helps immigrants to better access programs, since they are more likely to be able
to find transportation to one of the programs during hours when they are not otherwise occupied.
It also means that immigrants who do not feel comfortable with the structure and formality of the
ABE ESL classes or cannot consistently come to classes can access more flexible options.
Finally, members of the Somali population can access classes at the Somali Communities
Services that are conducted within their own cultural community.
Nevertheless, these volunteer-based programs have been somewhat unstable in their
offerings, curriculums and teachers. And if the ABE ESL program has difficulty ensuring
students acquire participatory citizenship skills, the programs run by non-profits and volunteers
have still more problems and setbacks in doing so. They suffer from the same problems as ABE
ESL, plus additional challenges. They do not have the funding or resources to purchase
appropriate (or even modern) materials, train teachers, divide students by level or give
personalized attention. They also are challenged by unstable class sizes, irregular attendance, and
a lack of testing, firm goals and accountability. Unfortunately, I did not see any evidence of
citizenship, as defined by the Vocational Office, in any volunteer ESL class.
Somali Community Services
Somali Community Services (SCS) was established after the Welcome Center closed, as
a way to help Somali immigrants connect to services. They also offer ESL classes once a day,
and sewing classes and a citizenship course as well. The ESL class is taught in the ‘lobby’ of the
small building, with both clients and students walking in and out constantly. This informality and
flexibility was explained to me as being quite a normal aspect of Somali culture. However, it is a
challenge for the teacher, Gary Kasten, a retired pastor who is not trained or certified in ESL. He
does not teach from any specific textbook or plan. He chooses materials from a variety of books
and textbooks. He remarked to me that the class is especially difficult to teach, both because of
the constant movement through the room, and because attendance is not stable or predictable.
This was quite evident throughout the class that I observed, as some students arrived late, left to
answer cell phones, and turned out not to be students at all, but rather clients waiting to meet
with someone (although they had happily taken one of the worksheets that he had passed out).
The number of students varied from six to fifteen throughout the two hours. Not only the number
of students, but also their levels varies widely within the class and from week to week, which is
evidently a challenge as well. One woman sat at the side studying the alphabet the whole time,
while others were easily able to answer Kasten’s questions.
It is quite evident that Kasten struggles to teach this population. First, despite the
unstable attendance, he attempts to teach from a lesson plan. On the day that I observed, this plan
consisted of an overview of the months of the year, days of the week and seasons, and a
worksheet about a drawing of people in a train station. As in ABE ESL, these two activities were
focused on isolated elements of grammar and vocabulary. The class did not include any
conversation practice or other skills that they could directly apply in their communities.
Furthermore, the choice of topics for the worksheet (a train station) seemed oddly irrelevant,
since most of the immigrants had never seen and probably will never see a train station. The
activities were also at too advanced of a level, evidently a result of the unpredictable attendance
Finally, his teaching style relies heavily on reading and writing skills that many of the
students do not have. They struggled to copy the months down from the board, did not
understand the concept of multiple choice, and had trouble reading the exercises on the
worksheet. Some students were not engaged in much of the lesson because they spent a full half
hour trying to copy down the months from the board before giving up. Like Elmeroth (2003), I
found that overall, illiteracy greatly contributed to a lack of understanding between the teacher
and the students, and caused frustration in the classroom.
Mary Ho at St. Vincent de Paul
Mary Ho has no official training in teaching ESL, but she has been doing so in the
Faribault community for many years. She used to teach a class in the Welcome Center. When the
center closed, she asked for and received permission to use a room at the St. Vincent de Paul
center. She is available for four hours a week to teach immigrants on a drop-in basis. Most of her
students come for an hour or two after they finish work. The levels and numbers of students vary
Like Kasten, Ho does not use any specific curriculum or textbook. She has borrowed
some materials from the ABE ESL program. Over time she has accumulated a wealth of maps,
puzzles, calendars, posters and other resources. In addition to these, she writes her own stories
and worksheets based on what level she perceives her students to be at. Since she does not test
her students, this of course raises doubts about the appropriateness of the materials. But given the
fact that she receives no funding at all, her stockpile of materials is frankly impressive.
Although Ho prepares materials for each day, she conducts the class more like one-on-
one tutoring sessions than an entire class with a lesson plan. She provides assistance and
guidance, but she largely lets the students direct their learning. On the day that I observed, she
put one student to work on an alphabet puzzle while two other students worked with her on
reading a story. The story they were reading was not new to them. They had read it the week
before and requested to review it again. Out of all the Faribault programs, this one shows the
most evidence of focusing on students’ needs and learning goals. Ho has also in the past included
discussions and activities that directly contribute to immigrants’ integration and participatory
citizenship. She has helped students to acquire and learn to use library cards. She has also helped
students to understand current events like the recent Fukushima nuclear plant crisis (Ho 2011).
Nevertheless, like the other programs Ho’s classes do not focus much on conversational
skills. The class was centered on reading the story and doing a worksheet about writing the date.
However, unlike the other classes, Ho writes her own material for the stories, and the stories she
writes are, to the best of her ability, contextualized within her students’ culture. The story they
were reading on the day that I observed was about a father named Omar and his child named
Zuhur who take a trip to New York. This story utilized transportation vocabulary in a way that is
much more relevant to the students than Kasten’s train station worksheet.
Again, like in the SFI program (Elmeroth 2003), illiteracy is a major challenge for Ho.
While she has taught one student the alphabet, she does not seem to be teaching him the sounds
that the letters make (phonics) or to recognize sight words. She also does not try to teach students
any English conversational skills until they learn the basics of reading. Some of the students
struggled to read the story they were working on together, yet she did not help students learn to
sound words out. Unfortunately, the students struggled so much in reading the text that they did
not have time afterwards to practice using the information, vocabulary and structures in the story,
because they were not discussed or applied in any way. However, given the flexible, student-
oriented structure of the class, it is possible that the information and language from the text will
be used later on in another class.
SHAC Rosetta Stone
So How Are The Children (SHAC) is a Faribault non-profit organization that “work[s] to
implement programs that meet the challenge of raising healthy children” (So How Are the
Children). It is setting up an ESL program that will pair immigrants with a community volunteer
who will help guide them through learning English using Rosetta Stone software. The program
will be piloted with twenty immigrants beginning in January 2012. Although the exact structure
of the program is not yet known, it has the potential for helping immigrants to develop
participatory citizenship due to the collaboration between immigrants and community volunteers.
Conclusions and recommendations
It is important to emphasize that not only is it possible to teach both language and active
citizenship in an ESL class, it is likely to result in better mastery of both the language and the
citizenship. As stated previously, students tend to learn a language better when it is taught
through meaningful content (Waterman 2008, Lightbown and Spada 2006, 156). Since ESL
students are relatively new to the community, are striving to learn how to live, participate and
belong, and are for the most part parents, workers, and neighbors, active citizenship should be
highly applicable and interesting content for them.
Using the Office of Vocational and Adult Education’s definition of participatory
citizenship, in many ways ESL classes in Faribault are indeed conducted with an eye to helping
immigrants “become active and informed parents, workers, and community members” (Lasater
and Elliot 2005, 3). In ABE ESL classes, lessons focus on teaching language and information
that students would need in common situations, like going to a doctor. There is also heavy
emphasis on work-related information, which helps immigrants to successfully enter workplace
communities of practice. Furthermore, staff members have created a unique and innovative
program that partners with South Central College to provide targeted instruction and ESL
support to students in welding and nursing classes, which directly supports immigrants’ efforts to
become active and informed workers (Wieseler 2011 and MN ABE 2011). The program is very
effective in helping students achieve the language goals for each level, and has always performed
well on the state-mandated report cards (Barry Shaffer, personal communication, December 15,
2011). Mary Ho also supports immigrants’ integration efforts, for example by using her ESL
class to help immigrants acquire and learn to use library cards (personal communication,
December 5, 2011). However, much more could be done to help students to become
The ESL programs in Faribault face significant challenges and barriers to their attempts
to facilitate integration and participatory citizenship. First, all of the programs are constrained by
funding. Although ABE ESL receives consistent funding from the state, it is limited and
dependent on the number of students enrolled in the previous year. This has been seen as
restrictive, and makes it difficult for the program to provide for a fluctuating population (Pam
Wieseler, personal communication, November 14, 2011). Their source of funding also means
they are restricted in the kinds of education they can provide for immigrants, because the
government dictates what kinds of classes they can and cannot teach. The volunteer programs are
limited by a near total lack of funding. This prevents the programs from acquiring the resources,
training and staff necessary to teach a wide variety of immigrants. Due in part to the lack of
training, the programs are challenged by a general lack of knowledge and understanding of
immigrant issues including illiteracy. ABE ESL is also somewhat limited by testing and
accountability requirements, which are well-intentioned but restrict teachers to teaching the
specific competencies listed on the Marshall Scope and Sequence. Barriers also result from the
characteristics of the immigrant populations. Immigrants’ illiteracy makes it difficult for teachers
to understand and teach them. Unpredictable growth in the population and fluctuating enrollment
and attendance make it difficult to predict learners’ needs. These challenges are not to be taken
lightly. Many of them have been a source of frustration for language program providers across
the US and the world (Elmeroth 2003, Warriner 2010, McMurtrey 2006, Cooke 2006, Wright
2006, Damjanovic 2010).
In order for ESL classes in Faribault to better serve immigrants’ participatory citizenship
needs, changes would need to be made both at the state level and at the local level. At the state
level, Minnesota’s policies would need to be updated in order to reflect the state’s participatory
citizenship goals. The Marshall Scope and Sequence would need to be either replaced or
supplemented by a list of goals or competencies that reflect all aspects of immigrants’
involvement in their community. The state would need to provide materials that involve
immigrants in discussing and actively building their own connections to their communities. They
also would need to train teachers about the importance of helping immigrants become active
Despite the challenges summarized above, several changes could be made at the local
level, even without the formal and monetary support of the state. The first thing programs must
do is reflect on their goals. They need to decide if their goal is just to teach the English language
(thus contradicting the state goals) or if they will strive to support immigrants in becoming active
citizens. In the latter case, they need to consciously target classroom routines and activities to
that goal. This means involving students in discussions and debates, allowing students to ask,
explore and answer questions about their communities and the people they meet, and teaching
history and government from a critical and reflective perspective. Ultimately, it means listening
to immigrants and helping them to speak. Obviously, these kinds of discussions would be more
limited and simplistic at the lower levels. However, given that Mary Ho successfully discussed
current events with her students and ABE ESL teachers discussed rather complex doctor’s office
procedures, it would certainly be possible to extend these kinds of discussions to other
disciplines and involve immigrants more extensively. An excellent starting point would be to ask
students in the first class what their goals are and what they would most like to learn (this
conversation could be conducted in their native language with translators, if necessary). It is
impossible for teachers to fully support immigrants’ communication and integration needs if they
do not know what they are. Doing so would also help to balance the power dynamic, giving
immigrants a voice and allowing them to participate actively in the community of practice that is
the ESL classroom. They can apply the skills they acquire through this process to communities
outside the classroom, where speaking out and being involved might be more difficult or more
In light of Wright’s (2006) and Elmeroth’s (2003) findings, immigrants may also need
more support in applying the English they learn in class to their interactions in the community.
ESL teachers could guide immigrants in keeping a language log, as Wright did in her study. For
illiterate students, this log could be developed orally, with students reporting in class on their
experiences using English. For the same reasons, student might benefit from actual simulations
and real-life activities being done in class. Wright (2006) found an actual conversation with the
school principal to be a highly productive classroom activity. This kind of activity could easily
be implemented in Faribault, even if real community members are not available to participate.
Instead of discussing a doctor visit, the class could simulate one, with the teacher playing the part
of the doctor and nurse. Students could be given the building blocks of language and be
presented with a situation, such as a particular symptom. They would then have to go through the
process of filling out forms, waiting, seeing the nurse and doctor, and receiving instructions. This
would allow them to practice being active, participatory citizens and prepare to use English in
the community. And because it is a more natural situation than a discussion about doctor visits, it
is more likely to illicit discussion and questioning over issues that would come up during a real
Another technique that could be useful is language partners. Language partners are
native-English-speaking community members who are not trained in teaching or tutoring, but
who agree to meet with an immigrant one-on-one periodically, in order to practice conversational
skills in English. Wright (2006) found language partners to be a successful strategy for helping
ESL students apply their language skills outside of the classroom. In Faribault, language partners
could also exchange English conversations for conversations or instruction in the native language
of the immigrant. This could help break down cultural barriers and facilitate communication and
understanding between immigrants and non-immigrants, which was cited as a major need by
interviewees in the After the Welcome Center Report (Arbeiter, Ward, and Tegtmeyer Pak 2010,
36). Language partners also could help immigrants to build connections with their communities.
Finally, the different perspectives of the students and their partners should naturally lead to
reflection and discussion about elements of American culture, government and history. This
technique has been used in other communities. The Intercambios program in Chicago, for
instance, used language partners and was found to help both groups to interact and reflect
honestly about each other’s experiences and perspectives (d’Arlach Bagnon 2007).
Faribault’s ESL programs should also consider questions of literacy among the
immigrants they serve. In a society that revolves so much around the written word, illiteracy is a
serious barrier to active participation. However, as Elmeroth (2003) explains, it is nearly
impossible for literate members of a literate society to understand the situation of an illiterate
(436). Mary Ho expressed this limitation well, when she confessed that it would be “hard for me
to think about learning another language if I didn’t read my own” (personal communication,
December 5, 2011). This lack of understanding seems to be hampering success in the SCS ESL
class especially, where there is no targeted instruction of literacy and the teacher and directors do
not seem to understand the students’ situation. ABE ESL and Mary Ho’s ESL include instruction
in literacy, but students were still observed struggling with the reading and writing requirements
of the classes. It might be helpful for teachers to use more oral activities and rely less on written
supports. All programs could also consider adding a separate literacy class for immigrants. This
could significantly help students to succeed in ESL classes, in daily life in Faribault, and in
engaging in communities of practice beyond the ESL classroom. Furthermore, programs should
consider separate classes teaching literacy in Somali and Spanish, since learning literacy is easier
and more successful in a native language (Elmeroth 436). Learning to read and write in their
native language could also help immigrants to engage more fully within the immigrant
community. However, ABE ESL, which serves the majority of immigrants taking ESL classes
(see table), cannot use state or federal funds to provide classes in languages other than English
(ABE Minnesota 2004). These classes would have to be provided by another organization.
Finally, in light of Waterman’s (2008) research, ESL programs should also consider
incorporating parent-school collaboration into ESL classes. All program leaders and teachers
interviewed said that there are significant numbers of parents in the classes, many of whom are
unemployed and are primarily learning English for ‘general life.’ Classes that focus on the
school system, homework, and communication with teachers could be especially valuable to
them. They could even invite teachers and principals to talk to the students during ESL classes,
as Waterman did in his study. As Waterman showed, these activities could significantly increase
both immigrants’ English proficiency and their collaboration with schools, an important element
of participatory citizenship in that community of practice. Furthermore, leaders who have tried to
encourage immigrant participation in parenting classes suspect they have had limited success due
to immigrants’ prioritizing English classes over other classes (Arbeiter, Ward, and Tegtmeyer
Pak 2010, 40). Combining parenting classes with ESL classes has the potential for benefiting
Thus all of the ESL programs in Faribault show some evidence of promoting
participatory citizenship and all have areas where they can improve. All programs suffer from
barriers and challenges that to a certain extent prevent them from fulfilling their goals for
language acquisition and integration. More research is certainly needed to explore the exact
nature of these barriers and their possible solutions. However, improvements are still possible,
and have been successful in other programs that have faced similar challenges. The most
important improvement that can and should be made in Faribault is to listen to immigrants and
involve them in the process of learning. All the recommendations in this paper begin with
listening to immigrants. This will ensure that their needs are being met, that they are becoming
full legitimate members in the ESL class community of practice, and that they are actively
learning skills that they can use to become “active and informed” community members.
In my analysis of Faribault programs, I have employed the Office of Vocational and
Adult Education’s limited definition of participatory citizenship. However, scholars’ definition
goes far beyond this to include not just “active and informed” participation, but also a sense of
belonging (Bloemraad, Korteweg and Yurdakul 2008, 154). Furthermore, when immigrants are
fully integrated into their communities of practice, they are not just members of the community,
they participate in the process of creating and building knowledge systems and contribute to the
construction of an identity for themselves and the community (Warriner 2010, 23). In this study,
applying the more demanding definitions of participatory citizenship described in the literature
review is not possible because of a lack of knowledge and information. Understanding
immigrants’ place in their various communities of practice would involve in-depth interviews
and extensive observation, which was not possible due to time and resource constraints. Nor was
it possible to quantitatively evaluate immigrant integration, as Drbohlav and Dzúrová (2007)
attempted to do in the Czech Republic. But based on the data gathered, it is unlikely that
Faribault’s ESL classes help immigrants to integrate fully into their communities of practice and
achieve a sense of belonging. Further research in this area would be very beneficial.
Appendix 1: Majority language programs and abbreviations
For the sake of clarity, English language programs are referred to as ESL throughout the paper,
regardless of the country. Below are the terms used in each country and their abbreviations.
New Zealand and Canada: English as an Additional Language (EAL)
United States, Canada and Australia: English as a Second Language (ESL)
English Language Learners (ELL)
United Kingdom and New Zealand: English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)
Sweden: Swedish for Immigrants (SFI)
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