Following the Vietnam War a large number of Southeast Asians immigrated to the United States. Today, many of these individuals are entering our universities and colleges in quest of improved status and the American Dream. Nursing programs are not exempt from this trend, and we find these new citizens with limited English speaking and comprehension skills in our classrooms and clinical sections. A variety of terms are used to describe these students - "Limited English Proficiency," "Second Language," or "Non-native Speakers." For now, I will refer to these individuals as "English as a Second Language" (ESL) students. While providing a rich source of diversity in our student population, these individuals also present a tremendous challenge to their teachers.
For example, the ESL student may have deceptively good verbal skills but limited English comprehension. A "YesNo" question posed by an instructor, viewed as an authority figure by many ESL students, will frequently elicit a polite nod of the head and a smile from the student. We need to call forth our very best instructional skills and questioning strategies to help evaluate the student's understanding of the concept or procedure being presented. For the ESL student, reading comprehension may be adequate when there is time to look up unfamiliar terms but he or she may have difficulty keeping up with rapidly spoken language in the classroom and clinical setting. We need to create a learning environment where asking questions or saying "I don't know" or "I don't understand" can be done comfortably without fear of reprisal.
From a teacher's perspective, the ESL student frequently presents a confusing and complex picture. Although you sense that the student's progress in your course is less than adequate, you may have difficulty identifying the source of the problem. Is it limited language and comprehension skills? It is part of having to learn a new role in a strange new country? Will time and experience take care of the difficulty? In her October 1985 JNE Editorial, Rheba de Tornyay described the use of the "Second Opinion" when we are uncertain about our teaching decisions. The complexities of working with ESL students may well warrant such consultation from our colleagues.
These students are intelligent and capable individuals, attempting to proceed through demanding programs with a significant handicap. Providing extra time may increase the possibility of their success. Can we give them more time - more time to do the assignment, to finish the test, perhaps even more time to complete the course? In the event that they have to repeat a course, can we help them do so with dignity and minimal financial and emotional distress?
While I have described some of the challenge and complexity of working with the ESL student, I have saved the rewards for last. These students are hard working and highly motivated, welcome qualities in any group of learners. One has only to imagine what it would be like to learn nursing in a foreign culture and language to appreciate their courage. They are survivors. We need to help provide opportunities for their success.