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Meeting ESL Students' Academic Needs Through

Discipline-Based Instructional Programs

Loretta Frances Kasper

Kingsborough Community College/CUNY


      Statistics from institutions across the nation show a dramatic increase in the population of ESL students (Crandall, 1993; Nunez-Wormack, 1993).  Yet, at the same time as the ESL population is growing, there have been drastic cuts in programs designed to serve these students.  These cuts have been caused by budgetary problems facing colleges and by a political climate calling for a limitation of developmental/remedial English language courses at the college level.

      As noted by Sarah Benesch (1993), the political climate impacts ESL instruction in higher education in a number of ways.  Factors such as placement procedures, assessment measures, academic credit, and access to content courses are among those which drive the ESL curricula in colleges and universities across the United States.  ESL students are often required to meet institutional standards for English language proficiency before they can become fully matriculated into the academic mainstream. 

      Therefore, their performance on standardized reading and writing tests determines whether ESL students may enroll in credit-bearing mainstream courses, or whether they must take non- or partial-credit ESL courses.  In addition, there is at present a movement toward placing a time limit on the total number of semesters a student may remain in these developmental/remedial courses, thus requiring students to meet institutional standards for English language reading and writing proficiency even more rapidly than ever before.  Ultimately, then, if ESL students do not pass these tests within the specified amount of time, they will be unable to earn a college degree.

      So today, ESL students and educators more and more are finding themselves in a climate of fiscal exigency leading to program reductions compounded by the pressure of constraints in time to meet institutional standards for English language proficiency.  For these reasons, it is becoming ever more incumbent upon ESL educators to develop instructional programs that will facilitate and hasten the full transition of students into the college academic mainstream.  It is no longer enough for ESL programs to teach students the four basic English language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing).  Rather, we must now put these skills into the context of the academic environment to enable our students to find a place in that environment, so that they will not be isolated nor excluded from it.  To accomplish this goal, we must redesign, or transform, our instructional programs so that they better meet ESL students' academic needs.

Transforming Instructional Programs to Meet Student Needs

      Many colleges and universities have attempted to meet ESL students' needs by modifying programs within the college mainstream.  To this end, they have created interdisciplinary collaborations, in which an ESL course is paired with a mainstream content course.  In such an academic course pairing, students are enrolled simultaneously in an ESL course and a mainstream content course, for example, introductory psychology.  Instruction is completely coordinated, and the ESL and content instructors work together to develop parallel materials and assignments.

      Colleges may also attempt to meet ESL students' academic needs by redesigning courses within the ESL program itself, so that the content of a mainstream discipline becomes the medium of instruction, the medium through which the English language skills are taught.  In such a discipline-specific course, the academic discipline, (for example, psychology), becomes the core of the ESL course.  All materials and assignments are drawn from that discipline.  Students therefore use the English language to take in new information, to expand knowledge, and to discuss issues in the context of that academic discipline.

      My own research (Kasper, 1994a; 1994b; 1995b; 1995c; 1995/1996) has demonstrated that discipline-based instructional programs in the form of both interdisciplinary collaborations and discipline-specific ESL courses are effective in shortening the time it takes ESL students to meet institutional standards for English language proficiency.  The following sections will describe the rationale for and implementation of these programs, and will discuss the advantages and problems inherent in each.

Interdisciplinary Collaborations

      Interdisciplinary collaborations set up a dialogue between instructors from different disciplines.  Instructors work together to facilitate the transition from the ESL to the mainstream curriculum by designing instructional activities that will better meet the linguistic and academic needs of the ESL student population.  Interdisciplinary collaborations have evolved out of the need to assist ESL students who are taking mainstream courses while still enrolled in the developmental English sequence.  Given the sophistication and complexity of the ideas and material presented in these mainstream courses, and the fact that many of them are taught lecture style, a great number of ESL students find themselves overwhelmed and frustrated in these classes. 

      An interdisciplinary collaboration involves pairing an ESL course with a mainstream academic course.  Instruction in both courses is completely coordinated, and ESL instruction parallels the topics that students are studying in the mainstream course.  For example, in a collaboration between a course in ESL Analytical Reading and one in Introductory Psychology, students studying the topic, "Learning and Memory," in the psychology class might read the text, "Remembering the Forgotten Art of Memory" by Scruggs & Mastropieri, in the ESL class.  A sample list of parallel content area topics and ESL readings is provided in Appendix I.

      Interdisciplinary collaborations can significantly improve both content area learning and English language proficiency.  My own research (Kasper, 1994a) has demonstrated that academic course pairings have a powerful effect on increasing students' average scores on measures of English language reading and writing proficiency (80.4% versus 47.8%).  Moreover, these paired courses help ESL students perform at the level of native English speakers on measures in the mainstream content area (average scores, 79.9 versus 79.4, for ESL and native speakers, respectively).  In addition to increasing scores on assessment examinations, collaborative programs also appear to increase student retention.   ESL students enrolled in an academic course pairing had a drop-out rate from the introductory psychology course which was ten percent lower than average for the institution (Kasper, forthcoming ESP). 

      Additionally, student feedback on these interdisciplinary collaborations is quite positive (Kasper, 1994a).  Students report that academic course pairings lessen both their anxiety and their sense of being overwhelmed by the academic content and the amount of material to be learned in the mainstream course.  The overwhelming majority of students say that they would recommend this type of instructional program to a friend.

      What factors lead to the impressive results brought about by interdisciplinary collaborations?  Academic course pairings seem to work because they enable ESL students to review content material in the secure, comfortable, supportive environment of the ESL class.  Moreover, because instruction is coordinated, students receive multiple exposure to the subject matter at hand.  The two instructional contexts allow for greater generalization and consolidation of learning.  Finally, focusing on one subject area establishes rich schemata which are continually activated and strengthened throughout the semester. 

      While I and many other researchers (e.g., Benesch, 1988; Brinton, Snow, & Wesche, 1989) have found academic course pairings and other collaborative programs to be very helpful in meeting the academic needs of ESL students, there are several significant problems which often preclude offering such programs on a regular basis.  First, collaborative programs require a significant time commitment.  Faculty must be trained and must be willing to devote the extra time and effort required to make these programs work.  An effective interdisciplinary collaboration requires that faculty meet regularly and coordinate efforts to develop parallel instructional materials.  Moreover, the ESL instructor should have, or should cultivate, some expertise and interest in the content area course in order to integrate the content material into the ESL class effectively and to provide any extra help needed to understand the ideas and concepts presented.  Finally, ESL and content area instructors need to attend each others' classes as often as possible.

      Collaborative programs also cost money.  Colleges must be willing to make adjustments in teaching loads and to provide released time to give faculty the opportunity to plan and prepare materials and activities, to meet to discuss progress and problems, and to attend each others' classes.  In addition, colleges must be willing to deal with the administrative and scheduling difficulties inherent in setting up effective interdisciplinary collaborative programs.

      In today's climate of financial exigency, it is sometimes very difficult, if not impossible, for colleges to offer interdisciplinary collaborative programs on a regular basis.  Budgetary problems, therefore, many times prevent ESL students from taking advantage of this unique opportunity to improve their English language skills.  As a result, instructors need to design other programs that will meet ESL students academic needs.  When circumstances preclude offering collaborative programs, we then have to turn to redesigning and recreating the ESL program to make the content of academic disciplines the medium of instruction and the core of our ESL courses.

Discipline-Specific ESL Courses

      I was faced with just such a situation.  My 1994 study (Kasper, 1994a) had demonstrated that interdisciplinary collaborations were highly effective in meeting ESL students' academic and linguistic needs.  The study, therefore, presented a strong argument in favor of regularly offering such paired courses.  Nevertheless, because of administrative and financial concerns at my college, these interdisciplinary collaborations could only be offered on a limited basis.  I therefore decided to redesign my ESL courses in an attempt to find an alternative form of instruction which might provide my students with benefits comparable to those obtained in the interdisciplinary collaboration. 

      I created a new ESL course, making the academic discipline, psychology, the core of the course.  I put together a text, Teaching English through the Disciplines: Psychology (Kasper, 1995a), which contained the same reading selections that students in the paired course had used.  In essence, therefore, this newly-designed course was identical to the ESL component of the interdisciplinary collaboration; the only difference between the discipline-specific and the paired courses was the psychology course pairing.

      To test the effectiveness of my alternative course, I conducted a study (Kasper, 1995/96) in which I compared the performance of ESL students enrolled in an academic course pairing (with Introductory Psychology) with that of students in a discipline-specific course, where both courses used the same psychology texts and materials.  As an outside check, I also compared their performance to that of other students in our ESL program that semester who had worked with literary rather than discipline-based texts.  The results of my study revealed that on examinations assessing English language proficiency, students in both discipline-based courses performed at statistically equivalent levels (average scores of 73% versus 75% for discipline-specific and interdisciplinary collaborations, respectively), and both performed better than students enrolled in the literature-based courses (average score of 48%).

      As it had been in the interdisciplinary collaboration, student feedback in the discipline-specific ESL course was quite positive.  In fact at the end of the semester, students were asked whether they preferred ESL courses to use discipline-based material or literature, and they indicated an overwhelming (86%) preference for discipline-based material.

Subsequent effects of discipline-based instructional programs

      Preliminary results of a follow-up study (Kasper, 1995c) of ESL students who participated in discipline-based programs indicate that these programs may have beneficial effects beyond a single semester of instruction.  When the progress of students enrolled in both the interdisciplinary collaborations and the discipline-specific ESL courses was followed over several subsequent semesters, some important benefits were noted.  First, when compared with the overall ESL population, a significantly higher percentage of discipline-based students (69% versus 41%) was able to complete the developmental/remedial ESL sequence and enter the mainstream English composition course (English 22).  Moreover, these students earned higher grades than the average ESL student in English 22.  85% of students from both types of discipline-based courses earned a grade of A or B in English 22, as compared with only 69% of other ESL students taking the course.  Second, ESL students who had been enrolled in discipline-based instructional programs were more likely to graduate and earn a degree.  In fact, at present, 64% of the graduation rate for ESL students at the college is accounted for by students who have participated in some type of discipline-based program of instruction.

How do discipline-based instructional programs work to meet students' needs?

      The activities used in discipline-based intructional programs require early on that ESL students use the English language to analyze, interpret, critique, and synthesize information, thereby teaching them the skills they will need to be successful in college.  The texts and activities used in both types of discipline-based instructional programs foster sophisticated uses of the English language, both spoken and written.  

      In their efforts to comprehend discipline-based materials, ESL students must use more advanced levels of language processing (Brinton et al., 1989).  Working through a discipline-based text, ESL students become aware of how to construct meaning from information stored in memory, how to extract relevant information from the larger text context, and how to filter out redundant or irrelevant information.   Specifically, discipline-based texts appear to encourage students to construct schemata, help to increase metacognition of the reading process, and lead to the use of efficient comprehension strategies. 

      Meaning construction, leading to enhanced linguistic proficiency, is facilitated by incorporating and emphasizing activities that require the ESL student to engage in, to interact with, and to synthesize information from course texts (Kasper, forthcoming TETYC).  By creating written responses to a discipline-based text, ESL students articulate their understandings of and connections to that text.  Students are encouraged to relate texts to their own experience, knowledge, ideas, and reflections, as well as to view the information presented from a number of different perspectives. 

      Thus, the instructional activities used in discipline-based courses engage ESL students in a cognitive/intellectual interaction with the course materials.  Such interaction helps to develop not only English language proficiency, but also critical thinking skills, both necessary for a successful academic experience.

Steps to Follow in Designing Discipline-Based Instructional Programs

      Given the rationale for offering discipline-based instructional programs, how does one go about setting up such a program?  Developing a discipline-based instructional program, be it an interdisciplinary collaboration or an individual discipline-specific ESL course, is a challenge.  There are several steps to follow in setting up such a program: (1) Choose a subject area that is of interest to both you and your students, (2) Ask students which subject(s) they plan to major in and develop the course to meet both students' interests and their needs, (3) Choose discipline-based materials that are challenging, but not frustrating, (4) Use a variety of textual material to expose students to different styles of writing and vocabulary.  Include academic textbook chapters, magazine and journal articles, and books.  Have students read topical novels or short stories, (5) Develop oral and written activities which integrate and reinforce the four basic language skills-listening, speaking, reading, and writing, (6) Vary activity to maintain interest, and include audiovisuals whenever possible, (7) Help to consolidate content subject matter and vocabulary by providing visual illustration through the use of topical videos, (8) Allow course content to be flexible and modify it from semester to semester as necessary to accommodate the needs of students. 

      Instructors should keep in mind that interdisciplinary collaborations or discipline-specific ESL courses may be built around any mainstream subject area.  If desired, individual ESL courses (courses within the ESL program itself) may also be multidisciplinary in nature, so that material from a variety of disciplines is used.  These multidisciplinary courses present students with the same types of activities used in the interdisciplinary collaborations and discipline-specific courses described in this chapter.  Multidisciplinary courses may be used with students at the intermediate level or higher.  I have found that even ESL students having an entry level TOEFL score as low as 350 can attain significant gains in English language proficiency from a multidisciplinary course.

      Teaching Academic Skills

      An important part of a discipline-based instructional program is teaching ESL students the skills they will need to make the transition to and then to succeed in the college mainstream.  These skills include how to listen to a lecture, take notes, read a college textbook, and study and review for an examination.  Each of these skills requires that students be able to identify important information in lectures and texts.

      Therefore, activities in discipline-based courses should draw studnets' attention to critical course information by emphasizing context clues, signal words, and rephrasing as ways of identifying important points in a lecture.  Activities should also teach students to identify words or phrases that signal definition, explanation, example, or contrast, as well as teaching them how to restate information through paraphrase or consolidate learning through summary.  To make it easier to understand lengthy academic texts, instructors should suggest that students use the chapter summary or outline and section headings before reading to establish a knowledge base for the material to be covered in the chapter, and thereby aid in comprehension.

      After students have identified and comprehended important course information, they need to be able to demonstrate their knowledge on an examination.  Skill in test-taking includes knowing both how to answer test questions and how to study for the test.  For this reason, each discipline-based unit should contain an examination activity, so students learn how to read and answer various types of test questions, including essay and short answer questions. 

      Finally, discipline-based courses should be designed to teach students how to conduct themselves in an American classroom.  Many ESL students come from cultures where students are neither expected nor required to take an active role in the class.  As a result, these students sit quietly and never participate in class discussions.  To aid their full transition into the college academic mainstream, ESL students need to become familiar with the atmosphere of the American college class by learning how to participate in class discussions and how to ask questions in a lecture-style class.

      A detailed plan for a lesson that may be used as part of an interdisciplinary collaboration or a disciplinespecific ESL course is provided in Appendix II.


      Through carefully designed instructional programs, we can provide ESL students with the linguistic and academic tools they need to succeed in college classes.   Discipline-based instructional programs help ESL students meet the standards for full matriculation into the academic mainstream more quickly and enable them to be more successful once they get there.  Students own comments suggest that discipline-based instructional programs build self-esteem and confidence in their ability to function in an English-speaking academic environment.  Moreover, these programs have been used successfully with students from a variety of levels of English language proficiency.

      The political and fiscal climate impacting ESL instruction today demands the redesign and implementation of programs and courses which will facilitate and hasten the full transition of students into the college academic mainstream.  Thus, meeting the academic as well as the linguistic needs of our ESL student population must become a priority of English language instruction.  With their proven record of success, discipline-based programs provide both ESL students and instructors with a highly effective medium through which to meet those needs.

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      pragmatism.  TESOL Quarterly, 27, 705-717.

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Appendix I

List of Readings for the ESL Paired

and Discipline-Specific Groups

      Reading assignments in both groups correspond to topics discussed in the introductory psychology course.  Selections are taken from Teaching English through the Disciplines by Kasper (1995a).

Psychology Topic         ESL Reading

Learning and Memory:       "Answering Questions"

                              by Donald Norman

                            "Remembering the Forgotten Art

                              of Memory" by Thomas E. Scruggs

                              and Margo Mastropieri

Perception:                "Seeing" by R.L. Gregory

Physiological Psych:       "Right Brain, Left Brain"

                              by Jerre Levy

Development:               "Piglet, Pooh, & Piaget"

                              by Dorothy G. Singer

Personality:               "Psychological Hardiness

                              by Maya Pines

Psychopathology:           "Crazy Talk" by Elaine Chaika
Appendix II

Discipline-Based Lesson Plan

Discipline: Psychology

Topic: Schizophrenia

      The lesson as described here takes approximately 6 hours of class time to complete.

Lesson Rationale:

      This topic was chosen for several reasons.  First, psychology is an interesting course and one which many students will take.  It is also a course which requires a great deal of reading which presents many new and technical vocabulary words.  Psychopathology is an area of psychology which many students find highly interesting and motivating.  Moreover, there is a wealth of supplementary materials available on this topic to help reinforce and consolidate learning.

Lesson Objectives:

      1. To introduce students to the types of activities they will encounter in a course in Introductory Psychology.

      2. To teach students about the mental disorder, schizophrenia.

           a. the definition of schizophrenia

           b. the types of schizophrenia with symptoms of each type

           c. the etiology of schizophrenia, including biochemical factors, environmental factors, and genetic factors.

      3. To discuss some of the famous people in history who have suffered from schizophrenia; e.g., William Blake, Adolf Hitler.

Lesson Activities:

      The readings will consist of a textbook excerpt on the topic of schizophrenia, as well as the article, "Crazy Talk" by Elaine Chaika.  Sources: Morris, Charles G. (1990) Psychology: An introduction, Seventh edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, (pp. 550-554) and Kasper, Loretta F. (1995) Teaching English through the Disciplines.  New York: Whittier, (pp. 91-102).

      The lesson will also make use of several types of audio-visual aids:

           a. Overhead projector transparencies, to supplement the lecture. Source: Myers, David G. (1990).  Exploring Psychology.  New York: Worth, pp. 355-357.

           b. The video, "Broken Minds", an episode of the PBS series, "Frontline".

           c. The video, "Schizophrenia", an episode of the CBS series, "48 Hours".

           d. The TV movie, "Strange Voices", the story of a college student who develops schizophrenia.

           e. The PBS series, "Discovering Psychology" by Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D.

Lesson outline:

      Prereading activity

      1. Students listen as I read an example of schizophrenic speech to illustrate the erroneous perceptions and incoherent thought and linguistic patterns characteristic of this mental disorder.  As the students talk about what was different or strange about this speech, they are introduced to some of the terminology that will be used in the lecture.

      2. Students are then given the textbook excerpt on the subject of schizophrenia.  After discussing this excerpt, students are asked to read the article, "Crazy Talk."

      Factual work

      3. Class lecture and discussion of the topic using the overhead projector with transparencies to illustrate important points.

      Extending activities

      4. Students are shown the videos, "Broken Minds" (Frontline, PBS) and "Schizophrenia" (48 Hours, CBS) to illustrate the points discussed in the lecture and to consolidate learning.

         Time permitting, students may also be shown the movie, "Strange Voices", as well as "Discovering Psychology".

      Discussion and analysis

      5. Written examination on the topic of schizophrenia.  Students will be required to write short, essay type answers to five questions.

      6. If desired, this lesson may be further extended through the reading of a novel with a psychological theme.  I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green is the story of a young girl who suffers from schizophrenia.  The book is appropriate for intermediate and advanced ESL students.

Lesson Examination:

      Directions:  Please answer all questions carefully and completely.  Be sure to include concrete examples in your answers where necessary.

      1. Define schizophrenia (10 points)

      2. Name the four different types of schizophrenia discussed in class (20 points)

      3. List and explain with examples one symptom for each of the four types of schizophrenia (20 points)

      4. Name one person from history or the news who you

think suffered from schizophrenia.  Explain why you think this person is (was) schizophrenic (20 points)

      5. Explain the etiology of schizophrenia in terms of

(a) biochemical factors; (b) environmental factors; and

(c) genetic factors.  Give concrete examples such as we discussed in class (30 points)

Note:  Additional information regarding the design and implementation of discipline-based instructional programs, as well as sample lesson plans, is available from the author.

        Author's address:

           Dr. Loretta F. Kasper

           Department of English, C-309

           Kingsborough Community College/CUNY

           2001 Oriental Boulevard

           Brooklyn, New York 11235