ESL Should Rely More on Technology, Tech-Company CEO Says

To the Editor:

The current immigration-reform plans under consideration in Washington offer opportunities for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, but for the path to citizenship to work, the country will have to innovate its way around one obstacle on the path to implementation. The proposed provision requiring prospective citizens to learn English is a double-edge sword. Some see this provision as a means to integrate the disenfranchised into American culture while adding productive contributors to the U.S. economy. Others cite this provision as an artificial barrier to entry because of the current state of English-as-a-second-language  education in the U.S.

Both sides have a case. Data uniformly shows that English speakers earn up to three times that of non-English speakers. Making 11 million illegal U.S. residents citizens can be a fiscal jackpot, especially if these new citizens earn three times what they make today. Meanwhile, Pew Research Hispanic Center reports that 26 percent of Latino permanent residents identify the English language requirement as the main reason why they have not naturalized. One reason, these immigrants have not become proficient in English is the bottleneck in E.S.L. courses. Before making the English requirement law, we need to address the underlying causes of this obstacle, which technology can help us fix.

State budgets do not adequately address existing E.S.L. needs. The U.S. Census reveals that 13 of the 55 million people who spoke a language other than English at home in 2007, report they spoke English “not well” or “not at all.” While the U.S. Department of Education reports 6.8 million people enrolled in state adult E.S.L. programs from 2006 and 2012, states with the largest  E.S.L. populations have made unprecedented budget cuts. In March 2010, Arizona completely eliminated funding for adult basic ducation statewide. In California, 23 of the 30 largest school districts made major cuts to their adult education programs. In May, 2012, adult E.S.L. learners and their children rallied in Sacramento and called on the city’s Unified School District to reinstate funding for its E.S.L. program. The list goes on and on. The reform’s English provision will increase the E.S.L. student population in an already burdened system and absent a different approach, will buckle the system under its own weight.

E.S.L. instruction traditionally uses a one-to-many curriculum coupled with one-to-one teacher interaction. In the one-to-many model, students enter the classroom and are taught a uniform curriculum created for that class. The students use the same book their classmates use and it is likely the same book from years past, as well as for future classes (i.e., one curriculum to many students). E.S.L. instruction has the added complexity of teaching students how to actually speak English. Speech instruction is addressed with one-to-one teacher interaction. This approach, while effective, has limited scale and efficiency. Consider this example. Rather than being given a 200-page book, a student receives the 40 pages that match his or her specific learning needs. At the same time, imagine the same student receiving one-to-one speech instruction inside and outside the classroom. Better yet, imagine a virtual classroom in which 100 E.S.L. students are actively pursuing 100 different lesson plans that dynamically update as the student improves. Is this science fiction? Not at all.

Beyond improving scale and efficiency, technologies available today dramatically improve E.S.L. instructional outcomes. The sad truth is that the vast majority of the estimated two billion English language learners taking advantage of these technologies are outside the U.S. Ministries of Education and multinational corporations around the world see English learning as a key strategic priority. When faced with a limited number of E.S.L. teachers and complex operating environments, necessity has been the mother of invention. The invention in these cases is creating blended-learning environments that take advantage of adaptive-learning technology. The results speak for themselves. We see users worldwide experiencing a 100-percent improvement in their spoken English grammar, fluency, word stress, and pronunciation in as little as 10 hours of using these methods.

Innovation stands at the root of what defines our nation and the E.S.L. bottleneck is a great opportunity to use innovation to solve a seemingly intractable problem for our country. Requiring immigrants to have a requisite level of English proficiency to become American citizens is good public policy. Instead of just throwing bodies at the problem, to achieve this goal we must leverage American ingenuity for a smarter more cost effective solution.

Paul M. Musselman
President & CEO
Carnegie Speech Company

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