August 2014
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Karen Hamilton, Glendale Community College, Glendale, California, USA

ESL students at Glendale Community College are a diverse group made up of immigrants and refugees from Iran, Armenia, Iraq, Korea, Mexico, and many other countries. As with most noncredit ESL programs, our students have a wide range of previous educational experience. Perhaps due to the fact that our program includes many refugees, whose lives are impacted in their home countries regardless of their economic status, this range seems quite exaggerated. By examining our basic skills assessment data on students' highest school year completed, we found that more than half of our students have fewer than 6 years of formal education, while another 27% report 12 or more years. We have highly-educated professionals, who were engineers and professors in their home countries, in the same classroom as students with very limited educational experience. What many of these students have in common, however, are their vocational goals.

I was hired as the vocational ESL instructor of noncredit ESL in Spring 2013. Since then, I have assessed students’ vocational needs and interests and created workplace-focused courses within our current course offerings. Being new to the Los Angeles area, I first needed to get a sense of the local job market to know which career areas were fastest growing and had the most openings. I took an online course, offered by the California Adult Literacy Professional Development Project, which helped me to identify and interpret labor market data and identify ways to integrate workforce skills into my classroom. I met with career and technical education counselors who told me about popular vocational programs at our college and gave me career exploration materials to use in class. I worked closely with adjunct colleagues to develop curricula and projects that would help students explore these career areas.

We invited guest speakers to our classrooms from our local job center to talk about job trends and the free job-hunting resources available to our students. We also invited the director of the Center for Student Involvement on campus to talk to the students about volunteering opportunities. Volunteering is a great way for students to get work experience in the United States while improving their English. It also helps newly-arrived students make professional contacts that can help them network or that they can later use as references. Finally, we invited a colleague from Human Resources to speak to students about common job interview questions and important dos and don’ts.

Our current vocational ESL (VESL) program consists of two levels of workplace-themed integrated skills courses and an Employment Conversation course. In the integrated skills courses, we cover similar skills and grammar points as our nonworkplace counterparts, but we do so in a workplace context. For example, rather than learning to write a well-organized paragraph about an interesting place they have visited, students write about the soft skills that make them a good employee or about their dream job. Students learn to write formal e-mails, résumés, cover letters, and follow-up letters. We cover job search skills, filling out applications, job interviews, and on-the-job communication.

In the conversation class, we emphasize workplace speaking and listening skills. We focus heavily on transferable skills, making students aware how the skills they are learning in the classroom will translate into the workplace. For example, after a group activity, students look at a list of transferable skills (e.g., giving and supporting an opinion, thinking critically, summarizing information, working in a team, managing time) and identify which ones they used that day. Additionally, these courses include an important cultural component that covers content areas such as appropriate topics for small talk, making polite requests, body language, and accepting positive and negative feedback.

Our Employment Conversation course is project based. Students complete a number of workplace-themed projects, such as a career exploration project, a mock job interview, and an informational interview. In the career exploration project, students choose a career that interests them and research it on If they have no idea what they might like, this site asks them questions about their interests and preferences and suggests careers that match. As they conduct their online research, students complete a handout with information about their chosen career's job duties, education or training needed, outlook, soft skills needed, and salary information. Students then prepare a poster or PowerPoint presentation to share information about their career with the class. For many students, this was their first time giving a presentation in front of a group, so this project gave us a chance to cover some basic presentation and note-taking skills.

Our VESL program is small but growing. What started as an informal workplace theme in existing classes has grown into several new classes across multiple locations. We have already had success stories of students gaining employment and reporting that the skills they learned in their VESL classes helped them to do so. We hope to continue to expand our VESL program and give more students the opportunity to gain workplace skills while they improve their English, thus shortening their pathways from basic skills to successful careers. We have a contextualized course on the topic of VESL for welding/machining in the works, and we are looking forward to future collaboration with other divisions on campus.

Karen Hamilton teaches vocational ESL at Glendale Community College. Her professional interests include curriculum design and content-based instruction. She is a graduate of the MATESOL program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine from 2005–2007.
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Submit work for the next RCIS newsletter by December 15 to We are seeking all types of submissions: teaching tips, resources, stories, art, reviews, interviews or any other topics of interest related to refugees.
Looking to get involved with the organizations mentioned in Brooke Comer's article? Not all refugees can afford school fees, books and uniforms, especially if they have closed files. You can sponsor a student at an African Hope, Sakkakini or stARS or provide vital learning tools by using the following links to contact each organization:

African Hope