Why Do Adult ESL Learners Drop Out?

This month we published Understanding Success and Failure in Adult ESL by Taewoong Kim. In this post the author explains the inspiration behind the book.

“I need English to protect my kids. My 9 and 11 year-old daughters translated in an emergency room 18 years ago when my husband died due to cancer. It was so sad. I couldn’t speak English, couldn’t protect my kids. I wanted to tell doctors, ‘talk to me, don’t touch my kids,’ but I couldn’t. I always want to learn English, but I dropped, because teacher didn’t care for us, never prepared. We did the same thing for 3 days. It was waste of time.” (Irma, pseudonym)

Like Irma who immigrated from Mexico to the US, 28 million immigrant adults have a strong desire to learn English. Despite their busy lives, usually a life marked by struggle as they navigate living in a new country, they often persist in learning English (Comings, 2007; Darvin & Norton, 2012). However, sometimes adult ESL learners drop out without giving a reason (Comings, 2007).

When adult immigrant ESL learners drop out of their ESL classes, administrators’ comments often include: “they are busy” or “they don’t have transportation,” or even “they are not smart enough to take the class.” When adult ESL learners drop out, they “disappear” without a word. Then, those administrators’ apathetic comments and thoughts linger in the empty spots of the learners. Are those reasons – being busy, having no transportation, or being not academically ready yet – the real reasons that adult ESL learners drop out? In my five years of ESL teaching experiences, I witnessed that many adult ESL learners persist in learning in spite of their busy and hard lives. What indeed made such persistent learners drop out?

This question led me to start this research about why adult ESL learners continue or drop out of their classes. This book, Understanding Success and Failure in Adult ESL, is the result of the qualitative study that explored six immigrants’ unheard voices over their journeys of learning English and living in the US.

Superación, meaning self-improvement or self-actualization in Spanish, was reported as a thematic desire for why adult English learners want to invest in learning English. When their ESL classes did not support their Superación, the adult ELs dropped out. Other themes that support students’ staying in class include: learning something new, caring feelings, and comprehensible instructions. Each individual’s Superación has different characteristics such as being able to support and protect children by using English like Irma, pursuing job promotions, and becoming a better person.

As for dropout factors, this book adapted the Push, Pull, Fall Out framework (Doll et al., 2013). I found that the adult English learners were not passively forced to drop out of their ESL class, rather they actively made their decisions through their rigorous, systematic, and thorough evaluation of the class. When the learners see that the class does not support their Superación, the learners evaluate that the time they spent is wasted, which triggers their final decision to say “me no more come.” Among the three constructs of dropout – Push, Pull, and Fall Out – the data revealed that the students were pushed out by the less-meaningful instructions, unrelated topics, and teacher apathy.

Understanding Success and Failure in Adult ESL sheds light on the importance of the probable interplay between cognitive and affective aspects in learning English. Although both aspects work together, when students drop out, affective aspects seem to play a stronger role. Based on real-life stories, rigorous thematic data analysis, and academic discussions, the readers will not only enjoy reading unheard and authentic voices from the margin, but also gain new insights about how to make instruction more engaging.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like English Learners’ Access to Postsecondary Education by Yasuko Kanno.

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