The Internet TESL Journal

Employee Skills and Attitudes Utilized in Workplace ESL Training

A description of how the author facilitated English language acquisition in the workplace.

Izabella Horvath
ihorvath [at]

Workplace ESL is a specific environment, where the ESL trainer's skills and ingenuity are challenged on a continuous basis. When training non-English speaking employees involved in manual labor, a trainer must know what the previous academic exposure of each employee had been. The average academic- oriented ESL instruction is often ill fit for those employees whose academic training is barely on the elementary school level. These approaches tend to intimidate them, a state which is counterproductive to language learning.

However, there are a number of other skills they possess which are closely related to their daily work. Therefore, it behooves the trainer to pay close attention, make efforts to discover, and fully exploit these skills for the language learning process. This can be done with positive results.

I had the opportunity to work with a group of employees at a leading ice-cream additive producer company in Chicago. They were Mexican-American men and women between 30-55, with little basic formal education. They work as forklift operators, machine operators on the production line, packers, quality controllers, and custodians . They have been with the company between 7 to 20 years.

First, I had to draw up an employee skill and attitude profile, so I could determine the direction for the program and the lessons, thereby enabling them to learn on their own terms, rather than impose on them a heavily academic oriented, (books, worksheets, written assignments) program . By conducting discussions with middle management, questioning the employees, I soon discovered that working with thousands of pounds of ingredients daily, and following detailed recipes for manufacturing, required a sense of responsibility, good powers of concentration, patience, and teamwork. The workers were also keenly aware that language learning needed time and effort. None had the illusion that it was going to be easy. They also valued education They exhibited great respect for knowledge and educators, mostly because they had few opportunities to study and now had a unique opportunity to do so. . They were also fiercely proud of their Mexican heritage, as well as the work they performed--often physically taxing--at the company. I also discovered they loved to talk about their jobs. Though they exhibited some sense of inferiority because of their lack of education and English knowledge, they had a strong feeling of identity and were eager to share it and their practical knowledge.

These were then the qualities and attitudes the employees possessed when they entered my ESL classes. It was up to me to allow them the opportunity to transfer the skills successfully to their English language learning experiences.

I took advantage of their eagerness to share their knowledge by starting English classes -- after eight hours of hard work-- in a relaxed atmosphere. They taught me about life in Mexico and the values of that culture. I learned the details of their jobs. A lot of gesticulations went on as they did this and this was a good opportunity to learn new on the job vocabulary and pronunciation for many of the activities and objects at work. Often this was the only opportunity that day for them to speak English . They also enjoyed telling me about the Spanish language. We had many hours of rewarding exchange of comparing English and Spanish grammar points. Drawing up the equivalents in both languages was an eye-opener for many of them. They marveled at the similarities and differences in the verb patterns. The next day we reviewed the English verb usage. After this we used the verbs in many examples dealing with their jobs and daily lives. All work was done together and orally. Only after that did I hand out sheets with exercises.

The fact that we did the work as a team--everybody got into the act--eased the "academic learning tension". This was also an excellent opportunity for them to realized how much knowledge they possessed. They knew things that I did not: Spanish and how to do their specific jobs. This was an atmosphere where pride of what they knew became reinforced. It also worked on lessening the feeling of inferiority as they started to talk in English about their knowledge. I did a lot of listening and learning.

Being a teacher means wielding power. Giving it up is not easy, but we must realize that there is only power focus shift in one sense. The power is shifted to the student, to take charge of his or her own learning, which is the ultimate of learning situations. In such situation the perspective becomes one of functionality: learning is a continuous process. It takes place in many different situations at all times, not only in a "classroom situation" . Truth be told we do not know how and when learning happens. We can only see its results. Allowing for the cacophony of grammatical arguments, and on the job gripes, learning was brought to a practical, daily level. The discussions were spontaneous, natural. Many a time I stood by the board with chalk in hand, waiting until they came to a consensus and then a spokesperson gave me the deliberation of the group for me to put on the board. We had disagreements, arguments, and not a little mirth--both in English and Spanish--but nobody was bored and everybody took part. In the classical sense, I gave up some of the control of the class, so that badly needed spontaneous language could happen.

We enjoyed these sessions a great deal, sipping our coffees in a relaxed atmosphere. They felt too, maybe subconsciously, that being "uneducated" had nothing to do with language learning. After all, they all spoke a language excellently already--their native Spanish. We shared our humanity through language. They were able to contribute positively through their own existing knowledge of their own language, and build on it to master the second one. I got feedback from management that these employees became more confident in speaking English, asked more questions, and comprehended directions better than previously.

Academia tends to neglect the old tried-and true learning method: repetition. There is a saying in Latin, " Repetitionem mater studiorum": (repetition is the mother of learning). I designed various repetition exercises, having realized its usefulness was clearly understood by the employees. They knew that one learns a job well by doing it again and again. They know their jobs inside out, having done it a thousand times. The favorite exercise was Jazz Chant rhymes and other memory exercises that we used as jumping off points to do impromptu dialogs, all orally, working on pronunciation, intonation as well as--for the more advanced group--appropriate expressions for particular situations on the job. Some classes started by someone walking into class the following day, with a big grin, while reciting one of the Chants.

I was deeply impressed by the efforts of some employees . One 50-year old man, Tomas, with the company for over 20 years, came to the beginner class in January, l998 totally unfamiliar with the alphabet. He spent much effort to learn the names of the letters. By mid-session he knew almost all the letters and was able to do limited sight-reading. I have rarely seen such concentration at a task that must have seemed to him overwhelming. Yet, he rarely showed discouragement. I was impressed.

My admiration for Tomas only deepened when I was told that not being able to read the English labels of the raw materials in the stockroom, he very imaginatively memorized the 6-digit stock number of dozens of ingredients needed for the recipes. His ability to discriminate stock, based on the order of the numbers was transferred to his efforts in learning sight-reading. It was this skill I had to allow him to use, since it was a tired and true method for him, and my previous method of making him write the letters over and over, failed. His method worked. I could not argue with success.

Many think of language learning as an individual effort. Because it is a medium of communication, this can not be exclusively so. At GB the language "mistakes" ceased to be a problem when solved together. It was a give- and- take, not a competition, and I soon realized that it was a result of teamwork . It is a skill that they need on a regular basis on the production line, but now transferred to language learning, in a safe, comfortable atmosphere. I soon realized its value for a learning opportunity : they gained confidence in talking to each other, me and the colleagues on the job. Another student, Guillermo, lost at first, gained momentum and confidence in the second term and started to help the others when needed. They worked on the exercises not competitively, but cooperatively. Many a light bulb went on during these peer- learning sessions.

I think that there is no single right way to learn, but many ways, and a trainer must pay attention to the skills and positive attitudes of employees which can benefit both. Teachers need to make efforts to recognize and acknowledge pride in knowledge as well as in achievement, individual or team effort, concentration skills, the willingness to "repeat until learned", and at the same time allow for a conducive atmosphere to develop in which to tap into this valuable resource. It will produce a win-win outcome.

At this company the Old Chinese saying was born out: "there are no teachers, only students". This is the basic belief of Taoism, the oldest Chinese philosophy, which I had seen in operation many times while I did consulting in Beijing for five years. Tao teaches us to pay attention, keep our eyes and ears open, to be patient, tolerant, and always expect change. It means we may have to "give up control", or our pet methodology and to get off some of the latest methodology bandwagons. We need to adjust to the student, to let him take charge of his own learning.

After all, we can but point the way by being, acting and behaving "in English", but the structure in the guidance must be spontaneous, adjusting to the need of the moment.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IV, No. 9, September 1998