ESOL and Healthy Communities

English and Healthy Communities

What makes a “healthy community”? When I first heard the phrase, I pictured UnderArmour-clad model-bodied suburbanites jogging to Equinox past Trader Joe’s, Sweetgreen, and BeGood, scarcely breaking a sweat. But perhaps that says more about unhealthy consumerism than about healthy communities. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a healthy community is “one that continuously creates and improves both its physical and social environments, helping people to support one another in aspects of daily life and to develop to their fullest potential” (2010).

Where ESOL Fits In

So why are we talking about community health on an ESOL blog? Well, notice some of the components of community health: social connections, support systems, access, achieving potential. Compare these with the experience of many newcomers to an English-speaking country: Without English, social connections can be severely limited, accessing support systems can be daunting, potential too often goes unrealized. In order for our immigrant communities to be “healthy,” English is crucial.

This is a particularly important case to make today, when ESOL is increasingly treated as merely a component of workforce development. WIOA is the most cited example of this trend, but certainly not the only: I recently came across a paper geared toward funders that classified English as a “soft skill.” The notion that learning English is valuable and fundable only inasmuch as it contributes to the workforce threatens to leave a large group of immigrants (stay-at-home parents, the elderly, etc.) in the lurch, so the case for English as a gateway to vital services is increasingly necessary.

Open Door Collective

Enter The Open Door Collective (ODC). ODC members are professionals who “believe that adult education and lifelong learning programs can help open the doors of opportunity for everyone to healthier, more prosperous and satisfying lives.” The Collective makes a strong case for the connection between community health and adult basic skills (ABS) like English in a background paper entitled, aptly, “Why Healthy Communities Need Adult Basic Skills Education.” One compelling  point that they drive home is that limited ABS are associated with poor health outcomes. The relationship between ABS and health is multifold: not only are those with limited basic skills less likely to access preventative care and other health services; they are also more likely to live in poverty, which itself can lead to poor health and heightened mortality.

The ODC recommends “innovative social and economic policies…that synergistically address education, income and inequality could…save more than 500,000 lives per year.” One specific recommendation that they forward is partnerships between adult basic education systems and Community Health Centers (CHC), focusing on their often overlooked overlapping responsibilities.

Read the brief paper in full: Once I finished it, I immediately applied to join the ODC. David Rosen and Marcia Hohn of the Collective were kind enough to answer some questions regarding the role of classroom practitioners in creating healthy communities.

What Teachers Can Do

On what teachers can do inside the classroom, both David and Marcia recommended initiating meetings and ongoing partnerships with local community health centers. Marcia said, “both systems serve largely the same population with joint responsibility for the their well-being.” CHC reps can be invited into classes to “talk with students about their services as well as providing on-site preventive services such as blood pressure checks, sugar/cholesterol screenings.” David recommended finding plain English texts on diseases and conditions that students are interested in; teaching basic numeracy and applying it to reading a thermometer, scale, etc.; teaching common health vocabulary; and helping students to understand how health care may work differently in their new home than in their country of origin.

Although some teachers worry that health education is not their expertise, Marcia emphasized that incorporating health literacy actually plays a very important role in increasing students’ interest and motivation levels. Her research

showed that healthy eating (getting fat in America is a big theme), stress/depression (difficulties of adjusting to a new language, culture, and absence of family) and cancer (learners being asked to interpret and/or make treatment decisions for family members) are consistently strong interests among ABE/ESOL learners.

David concurred, and added that “if [teachers] have a partnership with health practitioners from their local community health centers, they do not have to be health content experts.”

Asked whether teachers ought to be active in advocacy outside of the classroom, both Marcia and David emphatically agreed. In David’s words,

Until the resources increase to the extent that in good conscience teachers can comfortably say that in their state there are no waiting lists and the services can be shown to significantly improve adult basic skills, teachers, administrators and—of course—adult learners and graduates need to do everything they can to assure that students receive high quality free services without long waits.


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2010). Healthy People 2010. Part 7: Educational and community based programs. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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