ESL Classes at Whatcom

Story by Rob Andrilla

For international students, immigrants, and others who wish to further their knowledge of the English language, Whatcom Community College offers ESL (English as a Second Language) courses. These courses are based out of Kelly Hall.

The ESL Program at Whatcom helps students and community members learn English, whether it is for a job/career, comprehension in college-level classes, or simply enhanced ability to function in American society.

The whole ESL program is divided into two sections. The first section is community education classes (not for credit) that teach “how to function in real life,” said David Kehe, professor and one of three ESLA program coordinators. These courses teach immigrants about life in the US and include skills like how to go to a job interview, how to manage a bank account, and other basics, said to Kehe.

The ESL program is designed for general comprehension of the English language. It is “available to immigrants and refugees” for $25 a quarter, according to Whatcom’s catalog of courses.

The second section of the department is the ESL-Academic, and comprises courses for credit to teach grammatical structure, writing and speaking skills to prepare students for college-level classes at Whatcom and beyond.

The academic program of English knowledge must be completed before ESL students can take separate academic classes at Whatcom. This rule could mean being in school for much longer than a student learning English would originally anticipate.

The academic section of the program is designed to prepare learners for college-level classes and understanding of the academic tone that is often used at universities and colleges. Professor David Kehe currently teaches ESLA 117, the highest level of the academic program before students can take classes outside of the program.

“I teach composition and reading skills…[ESLA 117] is the equivalent of English 100,” Kehe said. After ESLA 117, the next standard course for international students is English 101.

In his program, Kehe sees students from 12 nationalities. “There’s no majority. There’s a real wide range of ethnicities [in the program],” Kehe said. “Most are just out of high school or college-aged.”

Kehe uses reading in his class to work towards natural comprehension and composition of sentences. “Grammar rules don’t govern higher-level research and writing,” Kehe said. “I try to teach ‘that doesn’t sound right’ vs. ‘what’s the rule?’”

In Kehe’s class, by doing “a lot more reading”, students can see what works grammatically without applying grammatical rules to adopt a register that is more natural to them. “Use of vocabulary and grammar improve by lots of reading,” Kehe said.

For the student that needs the extra boost to excel, a wide array of support exists. Support classes are not required, but available upon student request. Through the Learning Center, a service which is included in International students’ fees allows them to get academic tutors for free.

Kehe is optimistic about the program, as well as its location. In comparison to other colleges he worked at prior to Whatcom, Kehe said “We have very good retention…I think it’s an excellent program.”

At Whatcom, the sense of community is a high priority among faculty and administrators. The ESL department’s instructional services fit in with Whatcom’s first goal outlined in the mission statement as an institution: “Expand opportunities for students to achieve their potential” by “increase[ing] access for diverse and nontraditional student populations.”

“I’m really impressed with the support for International students,” Kehe said. After telling the story of a teacher emailing him to see if there was anything extra she could do to reach out to a struggling student (formerly a student of the ESLA department), he marveled at the devotion to the sense of community Whatcom showed and continues to show. “It really does take a campus to make an International student successful,” he said.

ESL classes are constantly being offered at Whatcom, with 16 teachers and adjunct faculty instructing English to students and community members every quarter. This summer, 22 academic ESL courses are being offered for students who want to enhance English language communication skills.

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