History of ESL Education in the U.S.

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  • 0:03 ESL Education in the U.S.
  • 1:23 TESOL & Beyond
  • 2:30 ESL Methodologies
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

When did ESL (English as a Second Language) education begin in the United States? Would you believe as far back as the mid 1600s? This lesson provides a history of the strategies and methodologies of ESL education in the U.S.

ESL Education in the U.S.

ESL (English as a Second Language) education has a long history in the U.S. In fact, ESL education was an important part of the earliest settlements in North America. People from a variety of cultural and language backgrounds were arriving in the New World in a steady stream. This mass immigration meant that at least 18 languages were commonly spoken in the 17th and 18th centuries throughout the territories that would eventually become the modern United States.

Many schools and other educational institutions embraced bilingual education until a shift in attitudes towards bilingualism and multiculturalism began to occur at the turn of the 20th century. Students were increasingly required to assimilate into English-speaking environments and either had to learn English or be left behind. Between the 1920s and 1960s, the immense need for ESL education was largely ignored until the government eventually stepped in to officially sanction bilingual programs.

The first major government effort to establish ESL programs as part of the public education system occurred in Dade County, Florida, in 1963. A rapid increase in the number of Cuban immigrants necessitated the need for an ESL curriculum, and soon educators and institutions from around the country began to base their own ESL programs after the Dade County model.

TESOL and Beyond

TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) was established in 1966 as a resource for ESL materials and the need for teaching methodologies to accompany them. During this period, the U.S. was experiencing a significant demand for ESL programs to cater to an increasing population of different immigrant groups.

In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act, which essentially acknowledged the fact that proper ESL education was strategically necessary to prevent non-English speakers from remaining in poverty and cultural isolation, a direct result of insufficient English training. Additional legislation was enacted throughout the 1970s and 1980s at both the state and federal levels, as ESL education was increasingly viewed as a right by immigrant and other non-English speaking communities. However, beginning in the 1980s, there's been some backlash against government-mandated ESL and bilingual education in schools, particularly in places like Arizona and California, which have experienced a significant increase in immigrant populations.

ESL Methodologies

Grammar Translation Method

The history of the most common ESL teaching methodologies in the U.S. essentially began with the grammar translation method in the 1700s. This method remained popular until the 1960s and is still used by some institutions today. Essentially, this method focused heavily on correct grammar usage and rote learning of vocabulary. While this method did help students learn to translate and write, it provided little in the way of practical, real-world language training.

Direct Natural Method

By the beginning of the 20th century, the direct natural method, whose most prominent supporter was Charles Berlitz, began to replace the increasingly outdated and cumbersome grammar translation method. The direct natural method focused on common vocabulary and correct pronunciation and encouraged the use of visual aides and naturally flowing speech.

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