ERIC Identifier: ED367190
Publication Date: 1993-10-00
Author: McGroarty, Mary - Scott, Suzanne
ERIC Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC., National
Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
Workplace ESL Instruction: Varieties and Constraints. ERIC
Changes in the U.S. economy are altering employment patterns, and these
changes have implications for workers whose native language is other than
English. While the nature and type of English language skills needed to succeed
on the job vary according to local employment patterns, many commentators on
trends in the workplace see a broad-scale shift to jobs that demand better
communication skills and thus assume English fluency, both oral and written
(e.g., Naisbitt & Aburdene, 1990). Though the extent and impact of such a
shift has been questioned (Mishel & Teixeira, 1991), lack of English
language and literacy skills is clearly a barrier to many kinds of employment.
Hence, many programs have been established to prepare adults for the workplace
or to help workers already on the job. Here we summarize the types of existing
programs and discuss constraints on program development.
MEANINGS OF "WORKPLACE LITERACY INSTRUCTION"
including some component designated as "workplace language" are found in a
variety of settings and funded by various sponsors. This variety is a key to
understanding the nature of instruction provided (Kerka & Imel, 1993).
Pre-workplace classes. Some ESL literacy programs might be more accurately
called "pre-workplace." They serve unemployed heterogeneous groups of adult ESL
learners who are preparing to enter the workplace. Learners in these programs
work on a variety of second language skills, many of them related to
interviewing or filling out the forms needed to get a job. Some programs are
aimed specifically at training workers for a certain job area or occupational
cluster, such as manufacturing or custodial positions. Much of the course
material comes directly from the jobs learners expect to do.
"Work-centered" approaches. The usual meaning of "workplace ESL" is second
language instruction held at the work site. Goals for such programs generally
reflect a competency-based approach, particularly if they have been developed
based on an employer's perception of participants' language needs for their
positions (Wrigley & Guth, 1992). Thus the language structures, functions,
and vocabulary are drawn from the work life of the participants and can range
from discrete study of specialized vocabulary items, to the more abstract and
often convoluted language used in procedures manuals or benefits packets, to the
language needed to communicate with co-workers.
"Worker-centered" approaches. A limitation of competency-based workplace ESL
programs is that they dwell on isolated second language skills and ignore
participants' full social identity, only part of which is constituted by the job
held. Labor organizations have been particularly sensitive to the need to take a
"worker-centered" rather than "work-centered" view of second language
instruction, which includes finding out what workers want to know for their
personal lives as well as the tasks they perform in their jobs (Gueble, 1990).
Many adult education agencies and employee organizations now favor this more
holistic and participatory approach to determining participants' second language
needs (Wrigley & Guth, 1992).
CURRENT PERSPECTIVES ON WORKPLACE LEARNING
noted that, too often, workplace education programs treat workers as skills
deficient rather than as multifaceted individuals with strengths to be built on
and perspectives that enrich workplace activity (Hull, 1993). While
worker-centered, participatory programs value employees as multifaceted
individuals, they often retain a focus on functional language, teaching workers,
for example, how to interact with supervisors or customers in typical production
or service settings when they may already have done so successfully for months
or years. Recent research in Britain (Roberts, Davies, & Jupp, 1992) and the
United States (Hart-Landsberg, Braunger, Reder, & Cross, 1993) emphasizes
the social construction of work-based learning, the interactive nature of human
negotiations on the job, and the need to build workers' self-confidence as well
as language skills.
Advisory committees made up of learners, supervisors, and teachers are one
way to assure that all of the participants' needs are being addressed.
CONSTRAINTS ON ESL WORKPLACE PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT
of program and its underlying philosophy, as well as other issues detailed
below, affect the course goals, materials, and methodology; time, location,
frequency, and duration of ESL classes; and voluntary or mandatory nature of
participation. There are many factors for both program developers and learners
Needs assessment. To discover what skills employees need, most program
developers conduct some form of a needs assessment, although the depth and scope
of such assessments vary considerably.
Explanations of needs assessments and program development abound in the
literature. Here we address criticisms of and constraints on needs assessment.
One recent criticism is that the task analyses (or job audits) that normally
comprise needs assessments are too narrowly focused on specific job skills;
needs assessments should incorporate a broader range of knowledge (U.S.
Department of Education, 1992).
The time required to conduct a comprehensive needs assessment presents
another concern. Thomas, Grover, Cichon, Bird, and Harns (1991) suggest that, at
a minimum, six weeks of detailed planning precede a 40-hour course. Such lengthy
preparation time is unlikely to be universally feasible, so some negotiation
will probably take place. Even with considerable lead time to develop curricula,
it is not possible to predict all workplace language needs; flexibility and
spontaneity allow for emerging curricula.
Assessment measures. Like other adult ESL and literacy programs, workplace
ESL programs face difficulties identifying appropriate language assessment
measures, particularly for the job-related skills developed as a part of
workplace training (Berryman, 1993). Program developers need to define
appropriate indicators of instructional quality and tailor standards for
evaluating participant outcomes to their particular circumstances.
Participant attitudes and expectations. Both workers and employers may
demonstrate either skepticism or unrealistically high expectations about what
can be accomplished during instruction. Employers need to acknowledge the
concerns of employees and their unions, who may fear that job audits could be
used to fire or demote employees whose skills fail to match those putatively
required for tasks they already perform satisfactorily (Sarmiento & Kay,
1990). Thus, the types of information required for a needs assessment and their
uses must be established and known to all parties from the program's inception.
Enrollment management. The recruitment and retention of students presents
additional challenges for program developers. Developers need to decide which
employee groups to target and whether to make participation voluntary or
mandatory. Most practitioners strongly recommend that participation be
voluntary. If training does not occur during work hours and at the work site,
issues of childcare, transportation, and remuneration must also be resolved.
Language choice. While employers may expect or even demand that English be
the sole language of instruction, this is not always the most effective use of
instructional time. Recently arrived immigrants and refugees with limited
English proficiency may benefit from explanations of workplace procedures and
training in their native language. Developers thus must determine whether
English, the native language(s) of learners, or some combination is the most
effective vehicle for instruction.
Support. Finding financial and organizational support for a workplace ESL
program is a multifaceted task. Presently, funding for training primarily
benefits professional and managerial employees, most of them college educated
(Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, 1990). The nonnative
English speaker is rarely the recipient of training, except in new-hire
education. Support is often short term and comes from a complex combination of
public agency, private employer, union, and community-based organizations, and
is realized in a variety of forms (McGroarty, 1993): direct payment of costs,
subsidies in the form of childcare or transportation costs, or provision of
things such as classroom space.
Building coalitions. A major challenge for workplace programs is the creation
of a successful coalition among the many parties involved. Second language
professionals, accustomed to operating with some measure of autonomy, need to
learn to collaborate with employers, employees, and officials in public agencies
and unions. Each stakeholder must cultivate an ability to appreciate the
concerns and expertise of others. No one of these groups can successfully take
on alone the considerable task of designing, implementing, and evaluating a
workplace language program (Vanett & Facer, 1992).
Decentralization. No single federal or private educational or business agency
coordinates all workplace ESL programs, although the Departments of Education
and Labor oversee current federally funded projects. This decentralization makes
gathering information difficult for program developers, who must often reinvent
the wheel when starting a program if they are not already part of a network of
experienced professionals. Even if developers are aware of different programs,
the short lifespan of many workplace language programs, combined with the
fragile nature of the support coalitions and the often customized nature of
specific worksite curricula, hinder efforts to gather information on curricula
or program results. To alleviate this problem, several manuals for workplace
language training have been published (e.g., Bradley, Killian, &
Friedenberg, 1990; Cook & Godley, 1989). Recognizing the problems inherent
in short-term projects, the U.S. Department of Education (1992) recently
extended the length of its workplace education grants to three years.
In conclusion, development of ESL instructional programs for the workplace is
a complex and long-term process. As the national employment picture changes, ESL
workplace instruction needs to remain flexible and innovative to serve
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