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Remediation Reforms and English Learners

by Sharon Avni & Heather B. Finn - February 02, 2022

In colleges that prioritize equitable access to quality education, accelerated approaches may not be the answer for adult learners trying to balance school with work and family responsibilities. While exploring the popular trend toward co-requisite solutions, community colleges must continue to support learning options that allow sufficient time for adult students to develop the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills that form the foundation for lifelong learning.

Approximately 60% of students entering community colleges require at least one remedial course.  Typically, these courses must be completed before students are able to enroll in college-level courses, often lengthening the time until degree attainment, and thus a major factor contributing to the low completion rates among community college students. An increasingly popular strategy for addressing this conundrum is to create a co-requisite structure where despite demonstrating remedial needs, a student enrolls in a college level course with supplemental instruction. As with any intervention, co-requisite courses may solve some of the equity issues that it seeks to do, but at the same time may create unanticipated problems that require attention as this strategy gains traction. These commentaries focus on how institutions are addressing this problem and suggest an optimal pathway based on how faculty traverse these challenges.  

- Robin G. Isserles and David Levinson

What does equity mean for English learners (ELs) at community colleges? The answer to this question has surprisingly become more complex as City University of New York undertakes dramatic reforms to accelerate students progress into and through credit-bearing classes, provide guided pathways for streamlined course-taking options, and redesign college testing and placement protocols for incoming students. One of the most significant reform efforts over the past decade has been in the area of remediation, which began as a way to mitigate long pathways within developmental English and math sequences; more recently, remediation has included the shortening or elimination of English language classes and the development of corequisite course models for underprepared students. We take the opportunity of this issues focus on remediation reforms to reflect on ELsdefined broadly here as speakers of other languages who are in the process of developing their English language and literacy skillsand how these reform efforts have shaped pedagogical, curricular, and conceptual practices for this group of students.

We bring a rich perspective to addressing this question. We are both currently faculty members in the Department of Academic Literacy and Linguistics at Borough of Manhattan Community College, the historical home of teaching English language and developmental literacy skills, and we have been teaching ESL writing and linguistics courses for over a decade at CUNY. Our collective experiences with ELs include curriculum development, instruction, and research within K12 settings, community-based organizations, community colleges, and graduate schools of education. We entered the field of second-language acquisition (SLA) because we were passionate about working with language learners, supporting their English language development, and providing them with the linguistic and cultural competency to succeed academically, professionally, and personally.

Before the launch of CUNYs widespread remediation reform in 2016, noncredit developmental classes in reading and writing (for students who were educated in the United States and needed additional support in English literacy) and ESL classes (for students identified as ELs who needed to learn and improve their English) were subsumed under the umbrella of developmental education at the college. A collection of studies and policy papers on developmental education produced at this time argued that these courses stymied student persistence (Moore & Shulock, 2010), decreased college completion rates, and disproportionally affected minorities and students of color. Specifically, the criticism of developmental education focused on inaccurate student placement (Hodara et al., 2012), depletion of financial aid to pay for courses that did not earn credit toward a degree (Bailey et al., 2010), and long course sequences that inhibited taking credit-bearing classes (Bunch et al., 2010) and decreased students motivation (Cho et al., 2012). These concerns led community colleges across the country to rethink existing course models and sequences, resulting in a range of acceleration course structures designed to streamline pathways for completing developmental and freshman requirements, reduce the number of exit points, and attain better retention and graduation rates (Cho et al., 2012; Edgecombe et al., 2014; Jaggers et al., 2015). Within this conversation, however, except for a handful of studies (Anderst et al., 2016; Bunch et al., 2020), policy makers have overlooked ELsa category that includes students with tremendous variation in cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds, as well as in literacy levels in home languages, economic circumstances, and motivations for acquiring English (Harklau et al., 1999).

ELs comprise a significant proportion of community college students nationwide (Bergey et al., 2018; Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education, 2015; Raufman et al., 2019); at CUNY, 38.8% of students have a native language other than English (City University of New York, 2017), though the percentage of those needing language support within this group is not clearly documented. Faculty at CUNY were on the vanguard of promoting more educationally sound and equitable practices for improving the retention of students placed into developmental classes, including questioning the rigid protocols of advancing through and testing out of the ESL course sequence with only one high-stakes exam for exit. There was recognition among faculty that research was showing that students who were required to complete linear ESL course sequences before enrolling in credit-bearing courses were less likely to persist over time, whereas students who enrolled concurrently in ESL and non-ESL credit-bearing courses were less likely to drop out of school (Razfar & Simon, 2011). However, there was also concern among ESL faculty across CUNY that the impending developmental reform efforts might not only inadvertently minimize the very pressing language support students would need, but also promote structural and curricular changes without enough attention to the deep scholarship on what language learning and teaching entails.  

While the reforms to developmental education did not initially include ESL courses, there was implicit pressure from the university to accelerate instruction for all students, including streamlining course sequences and developing corequisite models of instruction that included combining ESL courses with credit-bearing first-year composition courses. Though there is some variety in the structural composition of these classes, in general, corequisite classes pair a developmental course with a credit-bearing college-level course. This model has proved successful for students with the highest level of English proficiency (Anderst et al., 2016); however, there has not been sufficient long-term research to understand the long-term effectiveness for students at all levels, especially the lower levels of English proficiency.

To better understand acceleration models that merge the teaching of disciplinary content with language support, it is necessary to contextualize this reform effort within language learning traditions. For much of its history, the field of SLA curricularized language (Valdés, 2015); that is, the field structured language learning as a curricular subject or skill that could be acquired through the presentation of ordered and sequenced material. Concomitantly, SLA research has shown that that the challenge of acquiring and using a new language for use in cognitively demanding settings, like schools and universities, takes sustained effort and time (Cummins, 2008; Hakuta et al., 2000). Together, these principles led to the creation of a corpus that defined what a language learner needed to know, the identification of hierarchical learning levels, and the use of assessments to measure placement and proficiency. It is equally important to recognize that while language learning has been isolated from other disciplinary learning in some contexts, the model of combining language learning and subject matter is not new to SLA. Integrating content and language has successfully taken on various forms—including sheltered instruction (Echevarrıa et al., 2008) and content-based instruction (Tedick & Cammarata, 2012)—but much of this research has focused on the K–12 setting (de Jong et al., 2013; Lucas et al., 2008). As instructors of newly designed corequisite courses and scholars in the field of SLA, we embarked upon research projects that examined how reforms had been influencing reading and writing pedagogy within corequisite courses, with a focus on ELs (Avni & Finn, 2017, 2020; Finn & Avni, 2016, 2021). We have been particularly interested in what acceleration means for language learning and teaching, and how this connects to questions of equity for ELs.

Our findings show that, on one hand, corequisite classes disrupt the curricularization approach to language instruction. Rather than adhering to the belief that attaining academic language proficiency requires a certain duration of time, the corequisite model speeds up this process. Instead of subscribing to the notion that academic language proficiency is a prerequisite to participation in disciplinary courses, the corequisite structure places language and disciplinary content learning in parallel, thereby offering a new model of language development as an integrated component of course material. On the other hand, corequisite designs at the community college level have widely ignored the decades of scholarship of what it means to learn a language and be able to use it in a variety of high-demanding contexts. We quickly learned that many of the reform efforts in remediation were not being implemented with input by scholars and practitioners in the field of language learning. At the same time, we also discovered that the field of SLA and researchers in bilingual/multilingual education were not aware of what was happening in the community college context. Studies on the implementation of the corequisite model showed that community college faculty faced significant challenges in implementing corequisite models, including limited buy-in among faculty, advisors, and students, issues with scheduling and advising logistics, limited preparation and support for model design and instruction, and rapid speed and uncertainty around policy-making (Daugherty et al., 2018); however, there was (and still is) a significant gap in what we know about these models and ELs at various levels of proficiency.

So, what does equity look like for ELs at community colleges in light of remediation reforms? Discussions about equity and reform efforts in remediation, including accelerated coursework, must focus more attention on ELs across the proficiency levels and research related to the time it takes to learn a language (David & Kanno, 2021). There may not be a one-size-fits-all structural or curricular approach for English learners, but what remains clear at this point is that research is needed to take stock of the new measures that affected these students, especially given the fast rate at which they have been conceived of and implemented. Furthermore, research on equity, ELs, and remediation must be done in collaboration with language education scholars and with community college professors with expertise in SLA and bilingualism. Too often, the latter especially have not been part of the conversations or part of the research teams developing the research questions or analyzing the collected data. Only in this way can we better understand not only how reform policies impact this populations academic outcomes, but also how decisions around assessment, curriculum, and pedagogy shape the types of equity these students deserve.


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Avni, S., & Finn, H.  (2017). Pedagogy and curricular choice in community college accelerated writing courses. Community College Journal of Research and Practice. doi:10.1080/10668926.2017.1398687

Avni, S., & Finn, H.  (2020). Meeting the needs of English language learners in corequisite courses at community college. Community College Journal of Research and Practice. doi:10.1080/10668926.2020.1727383

Bailey, T., Jeong, D., & Cho, S. (2010). Referral, enrollment, and completion in developmental education sequences in community colleges (CCRC Working Paper No. 53). Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Bergey, R., Movit, M., Simpson Baird, A., & Faria, A. (2018). Serving English language learners in higher education. American Institutes for Research. https://www.air.org/sites/default/files/downloads/report/Serving-English-Language-Learners-in-Higher-Education-2018.pdf

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 02, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23977, Date Accessed: 2/11/2022 10:38:07 AM

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About the Author
  • Sharon Avni
    Borough of Manhattan Community College
    E-mail Author
    SHARON AVNI, Ph.D., is a professor of academic literacy and linguistics at Borough of Manhattan Community College, at the City University of New York (CUNY). Her scholarship focuses on ideological, discursive, and policy perspectives of Hebrew learners in the American context and English language learners at community colleges.
  • Heather B. Finn
    Borough of Manhattan Community College
    E-mail Author
    HEATHER B. FINN, Ph.D., is an associate professor and Deputy Chair, ESL, in the Department of Academic Literacy and Linguistics at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Her research focuses on post-secondary language and literacy learning, particularly among adult immigrant and refugee English language learners in community college classrooms and community-based organizations.
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