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English as a Second Language Faculty Help International Students Learn Language, Explore Culture

david fox

30 July 2013

WITH MORE THAN 30 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE teaching English as a Second Language – 17 of those at The University of Texas at Austin, ESL faculty member David Fox has helped students from around the world build English language skills needed for success in our increasingly globalized world. A graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, nothing brings him greater joy than witnessing the transformation that occurs when students acquire not only a new language, but also a deeper appreciation of a different culture.

Here David talks more about that transformation and what the opportunity to devote his career to English as a Second Language education has meant to him.

What helped shape your interest for teaching English as a Second Language?

My father inspired me. I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, the southern-most region of Texas, where about 80% of residents speak Spanish as their first language – yet while I was growing up the education system taught only in English, which made learning difficult for students who spoke only Spanish at home. As a result, people in the community went for years, or even their entire lives, trying to get by with the little English they were able to learn.

My father was the director of an adult education center that provided training in English as a Second Language, GED test preparation, and basic math and writing skills for both native residents and new immigrants from our diverse local community. While working as a janitor at the center during high school, I witnessed first-hand the critical need for ESL education and what it meant for residents and their families. I wanted to help make a difference.

How are the ESL programs at The University of Texas at Austin different than other programs?

Given the strong international reputation of our ESL program, we attract students from many different countries. Given this diversity, as well as individual differences in existing language abilities, we begin with an extensive two to three day evaluation of each student’s current English abilities. We assess each individual on their English grammar, listening, speaking, writing, and reading abilities.

This multi-dimensional assessment is rare among ESL programs, as many provide only a single assessment of overall English ability. Our approach, tailored by our program director, Dr. Mike Smith, ensures that students receive instruction and support that is tailored to their individual needs since, for example, some students may speak English very well, but struggle with reading or grammar.

The courses offered through ESL Services are also very interactive. How does that enhance student learning?

If you learned a language in high school, you likely spent time memorizing words, verbs forms and phrases. Without the context of the culture, or the opportunity to practice with others - particularly native speakers of the language you are learning - your high school language learning experience was likely a little frustrating. These traditional methods of teaching don’t work very well for many people, especially adult learners.

So, in our ESL classes we use lots of conversational practice, and popular culture resources like TV and movies. The diversity of students in each class helps this process, too. Since we have native speakers of so many different languages in each class, students don’t have the option of slipping back into their native language to explain what they are trying to say – they can only speak to their partner in English. We also assign homework that gets students out of the classroom and talking to Austin residents. This hands-on, immersive learning not only helps them learn the language but also begin to understand U.S. culture.

Austin is a great place for this type of applied learning, given how friendly people are here. Even something as simple as stopping at a convenience store or ordering a meal at a restaurant provides great opportunity to experience how language is actually spoken in everyday settings.

What do you enjoy most about teaching ESL?

Two things – first, the meaningful relationships we form with students. Months or even years after working with students, they will sometimes invite their ESL instructor to come visit them in their home country. I’ve had the honor of visiting former students in Thailand and Mexico. Students will bring their family members to Austin to meet us. Our connection to students continues through social media, too. It’s great to see pictures of their families and learn about all the great things they do with their newly acquired English skills.

Secondly, the opportunity to witness students coming to truly understand other human beings, to appreciate peaceful diversity – it’s the spice our planet. Many years ago, I overheard one of my current students talking to a friend who was enrolled in my next class. In describing me to his friend, the student said, “You will not only learn English, you will learn about life. He will teach you about life.” I can think of no greater compliment.

What’s one thing most people don’t know about ESL program that you would like to share?

It has to be the talent and dedication of my fellow ESL faculty. I’m amazed by the knowledge of those I’ve taught with for years and inspired by the methods our newer colleagues bring to the program. They all work incredibly hard on behalf of our students– there have been many times I’ve stopped by the office on a weekend and seen a colleague at work on lessons for the upcoming week. I’m also incredibly thankful to our director, Dr. Mike Smith, who actively supports our professional development as faculty and continually brings new rigor to every aspect of our ESL programs. What starts here really does change the world.

Interview & Photograph By Angie Pastorek

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