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Career-Focused ESL

May I borrow your hammer?” “Could you hand me the Phillips-head?” At Sonoma Valley Adult School learning English is all about building practical language skills.

The school offers ESL students a different way to learn, with classes oriented around a specific industry focus.

The program stems from the school’s successful ESL Summer Workplace Academy, in which students sign up for their area of interest and study a curriculum grounded in content from the workplace. In the past, summer classes have included Restaurant Work, Health Care Givers, Cottage Industries, and Construction/Landscape Work. All classes were well attended, and teachers reported that they enjoyed the change of format as well.

Facing severe budget cuts, the school was unable to offer the academy this summer, so teachers decided to incorporate elements of the program into their regular ESL classes for the fall.

Students who enroll in the school’s vocational ESL classes learn more in their area of interest than they would be able to learn in a regular ESL class. For example, a recent Construction/Landscape class invited a local contractor volunteer to share blueprints and teach a lesson, in coordination with the ESL teacher, on blueprint reading. Regardless of language level, students around the table were riveted, gleaning as much information as they could on the subject. A local hardware store donated a large box of tape measures, and students spent several lessons measuring everything in sight.

When all other communication failed, students could always ask, “I don’t understand, could you show me on the blueprints?”
Similarly, the school’s Cottage Industries class made a number of arts and crafts and then sold them at an art sale to other students and staff on the last day of class. One year, the Health Care Givers class was headed up by Frances Frazier, 2009 CCAE Teacher of Excellence. Students investigated various healthcare fields, and used a kit to learn about basic first aid. All of the workplace academy classes would spend part of the summer session in the computer lab to work on advertising flyers and business cards.

Next year, ESL teachers at the school will take the industry focus into a new managed enrollment model. Along with the EL Civics and CBET curriculum, VESL will become a strand running through four semesters, with a different industry focus each semester.  

“If we can also manage to incorporate a civic objective or two into an industry strand along the way, all the better.,” says Principal Pam Garramone. “Like everything else these days in adult education, big changes are happening, and the teachers are trying to figure out how to teach to their students’ most pressing needs. For us, workplace ESL is priority number one.”

For more information, contact Frances Frazier at 707 484-8229.

Visit Sonoma Valley Adult Education at

Published in the June 2009 issue of the CSCAE Insider.