ELT Best Practices: Intensive English Programs in the USA

Alyssa Swanson, manager of Penn’s Intensive English Program, believes that best practices are routed in envisioning new avenues, bridging the gap between administrators and teachers, and engaging in professional development.

With a background in international education and public relations, Alyssa Swanson was first introduced to the field of ESL while working as an administrative assistant in international affairs at a U.S. university.  After receiving an MSEd in TESOL and several years of teaching and advising in ESL, Alyssa is now the manager of the Intensive English Program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Sherry Blok (SB): We met at the English USA conference in Monterey, California last January—a conference specifically for IEP programs. You are very active in attending and presenting at conferences, such as the recent TESOL 2016 convention in Baltimore. Can you speak to the importance of professional development in your own journey as an educator?

Alyssa Swanson_PhotoAlyssa Swanson (AS): I think as educators we need to always be growing and learning in the field. Though professional development, I am able to explore new avenues to connect with others, learn how things are being done in the field, and re-envision my own philosophy and methods. Engaging in these types of activities allows us as teachers and administrators to stay connected.

SB: How do you mentor your teachers as an administrator in their own professional development?

 AS: I feel like I am at an advantage, because at Penn we do a lot of things in-house to help us collaborate and engage in professional development. For example, each term, our associate director of curriculum and instruction organizes and leads a research reading club. The articles for these forums are focused on things like corrective feedback, strategies for helping students with disabilities, service learning, etc. We discuss how to best integrate the ideas from the literature into our program and curriculum in a meaningful way. It keeps us involved in the literature and up to date with current practices.

Another thing we encourage at Penn is cross-training.  We achieve this through full staff participation in our orientation.  This set-up gives teachers insight to some of the administrative procedures we have and background on our administrative decision-making processes. We invite teachers to participate in administrative tasks such as scheduling and coordination to better share our processes and roles.  This also gives our instructors unique experience in partaking in administrative tasks. In addition, many of our administrators teach in programs, so that they can stay connected to our program’s curriculum.  Through sharing these responsibilities and experiences, we try to bridge the gap between administrators and teachers—to create a shared community.

SB: In the last 10 years, there has been a significant increase in the number of IEP programs in the USA. What in your view contributes to a successful IEP?

AS: So, having just completed our program’s CEA (Commission on English Language Accreditation) Re-accreditation, I am guided by the 11 standard areas.  However, there are a few key things that strike me personally as most important:

Clear Vision
The first one is to have clear vision and strong leadership in terms of the direction of your IEP. Is it focused on IEP academic prep? Is it a bridge program? Does it serve special groups in summer programs? Focus on ESP? And asking oneself—how does that work?  How can we best serve the needs of this population?

Curriculum and Instruction
Having a well-designed curriculum and talented instructors is essential to success. One of our program requirements is that our instructors have an MA in TESOL or closely related field. I feel like this speaks to the strength of our faculty and the high standards we have as a program.

Creative and Meaningful Student Services 
In terms of student services, it’s really about knowing your study body and offering them the things that they need. Our student body is primarily from the Middle East, and we are always looking for ways to connect with them and get them involved on campus. For example, we assisted students in organizing an Omani National Day on campus. The students reserved a space on the main walk of campus, handed out Omani flags, and had stations with traditional food, tea, and henna. By sharing their culture, our students can better integrate into the campus community.

SB: IEP programs are traditionally pathways program. However, as IEP professionals, we know that there is much more to just academic and language preparation. Can you speak to how your program at Penn welcomes and prepares students to reach their goals?

AS: One way we prepare students for the academic world is by giving them opportunities for leadership.  Our IEP has a student ambassador program, which gives students the opportunity to be a leader in our orientation.  In addition, we have courses that are designed to help students obtain academic success at American universities. One of our courses, “Skills for Success at U.S. Universities,” focuses on motivation, time management, scheduling, and overall preparation for the rigour of university life. We try to shape our program as a stepping stone to academia.

SB: Alyssa, what are your best practices?

AS: This is a hard one to answer, because I have so many. In terms of looking at it from the perspective of an IEP administrator, they are:

Firstly, clear vision and leadership. With the state of the field today, it is essential to be forward-thinking and know where you are going to go next with your program.

Second, it is having a well-designed curriculum with clear objectives, learning goals and student learning outcomes that are evaluated, and tracked with progression across the curriculum.

Third, without a doubt, meaningful student services and being connected to the student body. We want to know what is happening, so we are constantly connecting with our students face-to-face or in surveys. We have coffee/tea and activities in the Student Center daily. I talk to students on a daily basis to check in and monitor how things are going.  The students are the focus of our program.

SB: TESOL’s 50th was a golden opportunity to highlight the association’s contributions to English language teaching in the last 50 years. From your experience at TESOL in Baltimore this year, what are some of the golden nuggets that you will try to implement into your program and with your IEP teachers?

AS: One thing I love and am very interested in is service learning. I’d like to create more service learning opportunities for our students and find ways to connect it back to the curriculum—whether that is through students blogging about their experiences in a reading and writing course or maybe even presenting about different service learning projects they are doing in a speaking and listening course.  I want to look at ways to connect these ideas with our Student Services Coordinator and curriculum. It was neat to learn how some of the other schools are doing this. It is such a unique way of getting students involved and using their language skills.

Another takeaway was on a teacher mentoring session. The presentation focused on the different stages of a mentoring relationship and how important it is to build trust in that relationship—to open up to one another and find those avenues where you can develop. The presenter said that sometimes as mentors we are not open to sharing, which will never allow our mentees to find those avenues. It was neat to look at it from that relationship perspective and really think about what are we doing with our mentoring, and think about how we can be more successful.

SB: Do you have any tips for IEP teachers looking to seek more professional development and/or to expand their own personal learning networks?

  1. Read the literature! It is highly accessible, so keeping up to date is easy.
  2. Collaborate with colleagues and draw on their experiences.  As many of us know, it is quite difficult to present at TESOL.  To help with this, our program holds a TESOL Proposal Writing Group. This gives us the opportunity as a group to write and get feedback on our proposals.
  3. Look into smaller regional conferences as an entryway to TESOL. Many states have their own TESOL chapters.
  4. Utilize what your institution offers on campus. It is a quick and easy way to get your feet wet if you are considering submitting a conference proposal.
  5. Get out there and talk to people. Grab a handful of business cards and connect with colleagues at other institutions.

Glad I brought my business cards! Thanks for your insights, Alyssa!

About Sherry Blok

Sherry Blok
Sherry Blok is the assistant director of programs at the Centre for Continuing Education, Concordia University. Montreal, Canada. She holds a master’s degree in second language education from McGill University and has more than 20 years of experience as an ESL lecturer in the intensive English program at Concordia University. She received the TESOL Teacher of the Year Award in 2015 and has presented nationally and internationally on topics related to English for academic purposes, global citizenship education, assessment, and teacher feedback.
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3 Responses to ELT Best Practices: Intensive English Programs in the USA

  1. Claudio Mattos says:

    Thank you so much for sharing.
    To be honest, I feel inspired and motivated by your deep and experienced words.
    I hope one day to bridge the gap between theory and practice.
    Claudio Mattos
    Rio de Janeiro – Brazil
    ELT Professional

  2. Muhammad Ali Khan says:

    Excellent insights on professional development through close engagement with the ever evolving text, talk around the text, and the community. I benefited enormously from the conversation. .

    I am in complete agreement with Alyssa Dawson that we must be forward-looking in our approach to professional development in order to offer more meaningful and enabling language learning experiences to our students. I have also found that by taking stock of our field gives a clearer view of the possible roads ahead.

  3. Eve Nora Litt says:

    GREAT advice! It can be intimidating to jump into the world of presenting, especially at a place like TESOL. Thousands of people, hundreds of sessions – everyone coming from their isolated contexts. I good to be reminded of how enriching these experiences can be, and also how to get started! Thanks for sharing!

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