[lg policy] How to Teach English to At-Risk College Students

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sat Mar 19 15:12:55 UTC 2011

How to Teach English to At-Risk College Students
Teaching 2 Careers Illustration

Brian Taylor

By Melissa E. Lee

Over the last 15 or so years, many colleges have seen an influx of a
certain type of student. Beneath a show of bravado, these students'
classroom demeanor is tentative. Their bursts of confidence are
ephemeral; their hands descend as quickly as they are raised. When
these students visit our offices, ostensibly to ask questions about
homework, their strained expressions explain what their words cannot:
They have questions but don't know how to put their thoughts into
words. They may understand conceptually why they chose to come to
college but don't really understand how to translate that motivation
into effort. These students are at risk—at risk of failing, of
dropping out, and of losing opportunity.

My observations of educationally at-risk students are drawn from my
experiences as an English instructor in the State University of New
York system, but the situation is prevalent elsewhere, too, usually at
public universities and community colleges.

At-risk students usually share one or more of the following obstacles:
Their families live below the poverty line, they are black or
Hispanic, they come from single-parent homes, their mothers have less
than a high-school education, the primary language spoken at home is
not English. A report by the National Center for Education Statistics,
"Programs at Higher Education Institutions for Disadvantaged
Precollege Students" (2005), adds to that list one more risk factor:
belonging to "the first generation in the family to attend college." A
2009 article in the National Education Association's Higher Education
Journal explains the impediments first-generation college students can
face: "parental ambivalence, lack of understanding, and even hostility
to [the] child's college plans."

In order to help at-risk students to succeed—and thereby to succeed
ourselves as instructors—we must meet students where they are. Of
course, that doesn't mean holding their hands to the extent that they
forget that they alone are responsible for their studies. But the only
ethical thing for instructors to do is to try to be as accommodating
as possible.

Three practices are essential in helping at-risk students:

Provide structure in the classroom. I am continually surprised by my
students' gratitude toward me for the daily agendas I write on the
board. Though all instructors surely understand how helpful it is to
provide structure for students, it seems that doing so isn't a very
common practice in many classrooms these days. Instructors should map
out a master plan for each class session. I write the day, the date,
and the word "Agenda," under which I place three or four bullet points
followed by my plan of attack. My students have told me they
appreciate the sense of direction that the day's agenda provides.

Instructors can also offer periodic final-grade predictions to help
students understand how each assignment contributes to the whole
course grade. I like to calculate the final grade each student will
end up with, based upon the ones he or she has already earned,
combined with hypothetical perfect scores on the remaining
assignments; then hand out the reports (printed in an easy-to-read
grid) on unimposing half-sheets of paper. The motivation students
display after receiving such signifiers of the semester's structure is

Finally, at the end of every day, I send out an e-mail to students who
were absent. I try to include the key elements of the class, explain
the homework, and attach copies of any handouts. Some may criticize
this practice of filling in for absent students as a crutch that
encourages them to skip class. But I still have a strict absence
policy, and their absences do indeed count against them. The e-mail is
just my way of letting absent students know that the world will move
right along without them if they don't get with the program. I
consider my message a compassionate reminder of this fact of
life—which some of them have never have learned before.

Show the connection between classroom learning and the real world. To
help your students understand the practical applications of what
they're learning, try to link everything to the real world. For
example, I have created a course unit called "Real-World Writing." It
includes lessons on how to write effective résumés and cover letters,
as well as letters of resignation and even obituaries. Students learn
about the concept of different audiences far more quickly and
effectively through such real-world writing than they do through essay
assignments—which come later in the semester, after I've hooked their
interest with work they perceive as more directly relevant to their

Make your students accountable. Students generally work harder on
their homework assignments if they are required to meet with the
instructor and present their work aloud—especially if they are then
graded on that oral presentation. As an undergraduate, I studied
abroad at the University of Oxford, where the tutorial model is used
widely. My Oxonian tutorials were terrifying and humbling, and served
to hone my academic discipline more effectively than any other
academic experience I have ever had.

Now I subject my students to the same experience. It is nothing short
of amazing to see how much energy they put into papers when they know
they'll have to present and defend their work face to face—as opposed
to their usual, more lackadaisacal efforts, which involve typing
mindlessly until 5 a.m., then sneaking the shoddy result under my door
and failing to show up to class later that day.

Many students in the public and community-college systems don't know
what it takes to succeed academically at the college level. It's the
downside of the welcoming, egalitarian spirit of our admissions
departments. There are simply more steps that we as educators must
take to accommodate our students' needs. The principles of
organization, connection, and accountability, elementary as they may
seem, can reap tremendous results in terms of students' success.

Melissa E. Lee is an adjunct instructor of English at the State
University of New York at Canton.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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