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Last updated:
January 7, 2000

UW-RF Adds New Major for Immigrants

As immigrants continue to flock to America and as foreign nationals seek opportunities for education here, it's created an acute shortage of those who can teach English to non-native speakers.

That problem will be addressed by the recent addition of a new major at UW-River Falls: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

The major was recently approved by the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents and will likely produce its first graduate in 2001, with about 20 students participating in the new program.

Those graduates can't be coming soon enough, according to UW-RF faculty. They noted that in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, which includes UW-RF, some 115 native tongues are spoken in the public schools. UW-RF will offer the first undergraduate program in the metro area.

The shortage of those who are properly trained to teach English to non-native speakers in Wisconsin also is significant. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reported that in the 1996-97 school year, 37 university students graduated with the necessary teaching skills. During the same period, the DPI issued 72 emergency licenses for English as a Second Language and 91 emergency licenses for bilingual education to Wisconsin schools and districts.

UW-RF English department Chair Richard Beckham notes that the need for such teachers is not only found in Wisconsin and Minnesota K-12 classrooms, but also in private institutes and businesses that teach English to adult non-native speakers.

"Many industries are helping non-native speakers to be better and safer workers," Beckham says. In the Upper Midwest's tight job market the ability to speak and write English "will help them to understand the information they are being presented and to address safety concerns."

There is a larger perspective involved for the immigrants, Beckham says. "As a major metropolitan region and two states with growing populations of non-native speakers, language skills are important considerations for schools and industries. We are acculturating people because they are seeking out the advantages of living in America. It's one way of becoming a citizen-mastering the language."

UW-RF has an established track record of working with non-native speakers through a variety of student exchange programs and has offered an option in TESOL for many years. In December the University graduated its first student with a minor in TESOL, Cheryl Holter of River Falls. UW-RF hopes soon to receive permission to develop TESOL into a master's program, too. Coordinating the major are English Professors Annette Klemp and Carl Gao. Klemp worked in the English Language Institute at the University of Oklahoma, and then coordinated a several-year program to teach English to community college teachers from Taipei who attended UW-RF to earn master's degrees. Those graduates then attended other American universities to earn their doctorates before returning to Taiwan.

Gao brings 11 years of experience teaching English to students in his native China as well as in France and Italy. He also taught in a TESOL program at Rutgers University and in Riverside, Calif., before coming to UW-RF. Klemp notes that one of the greatest fallacies about language is the assumption that someone who speaks and writes English can help educate non-native speakers. "Knowing the language doesn't mean that you know how to teach it to others," Klemp said. Gao notes that the program intensely teaches UW-RF students the processes and theories of language acquisition.

The 39 credit major includes up to eight semester hours of a foreign language with an intensive core in such courses as the theory and methodology of TESOL, language and linguistics, English structure, language acquisition, tutoring techniques, and phonetics. Majors also are required to participate n a cultural component that could include the UW-RF European Semester Abroad program, its Mexico tour or an internship.

Holter, as the first graduate of the UW-RF minor TESOL program, noted that her experience with international students at UW-RF was extremely challenging. Last summer she worked under Gao's supervision in concerted tutoring of Japanese high school graduates as they prepared to enter college at UW-RF or other universities this year. She continued to tutor several of them through the Fall semester.

Most had an excellent command of English grammar and sentence structure. Her task was to help them conceptualize what they wanted to express. She also assisted them with fine-tuning their technical skills, such as sentence structure, vocabulary and word choices. For example, some of them routinely misused or omitted articles from their writing, such as "the," "a," and "an," although they used them when speaking.

Just as importantly, she coached them in learning how to communicate in English in a meaningful way.

"I wasn't supposed to think for them," Holter says she was instructed by Gao. "They know the sentence structure well. But they have to come up with the thesis of the sentences themselves."

The program was a success for the Japanese students, who she says have made substantial progress, while the TESOL coursework and experience has made Holter highly marketable.

Holter noted she hasn't pursued the employment market thoroughly and hopes to enroll in a graduate TESOL program. "It's a real good field, and very marketable on your resume," she said.

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