The Internet TESL Journal

Creating Authentic Dialog: ESL Students as Recipients of Service Learning

Stephanie Marlow
stephaniemarlow1 [at] boisestate. edu
Boise State University (Boise, Idaho, USA)
"Tell me and I forget,
Teach me and I may remember,
Involve me and I learn. "

-Benjamin Franklin


An environment where authentic dialog with native English speakers occurs on a regular basis presents ESL students with the possibility to grow both linguistically and socially. In this article, I will describe how introducing a service-learning component to an ESL program provides the students with the opportunity to meet regularly with native English speaking peers, to apply what they have been learning in class, and to engage in various extracurricular and cultural activities in the community. I will present guidelines about how to initiate a service-learning element to your ESL program, give examples of various activities our students have engaged in and provide tips on how to make the experience smoother for both the ESL students and the service-learning students. [1]

The Dilemma

Most ESL students decide to study abroad hoping to improve their language ability and to experience total immersion in the language and culture. Unfortunately, living and studying in a country does not necessarily ensure acclimation and acculturation since the basic structure of many English language programs does not provide much interaction with native English speakers. Indeed, the ESL students work hard to learn and master various language skills; however, outside of the classroom environment, they have little opportunity to practice and fine tune these skills with native speakers aside from their instructors. Therefore, despite a strong desire to integrate more fully into American life, most remain in the comfortable cocoon of the small international student[2] community, unable to cross the gap into the American life.

What Is Service-Learning and How Can It Benefit My Students?

Service-learning is experiential learning that uses community service to reinforce classroom learning objectives. It engages students in active learning and critical reflection while fostering their civic responsibility.

Service-learning combines service objectives with learning objectives with the intent that the activity changes both the recipient and the provider of the service. This is accomplished by combining service tasks with structured opportunities that link the task to self-reflection, self-discovery, and the acquisition and comprehension of values, skills, and knowledge content.
(Clearinghouse. "Welcome").

Service-learning contrasts to volunteerism in that the service itself is directly linked to a course. It encourages the service-learning students to reflect not only on the service but also on how it directly relates to the subject of the class and the development of their own identity and awareness of the world around them. This self-reflection is seen as the key factor of turning a service experience into a more fulfilling learning experience (Rice & Pollack, p. 133).

The service-learning component related to our ESL program was designed to provide native English-speaking language and culture mentors for the international students. This provides a community-based support for the ESL program by helping integrate the international students socially and culturally into the American college experience. The ESL students are thus the recipients of the 'service' by the native speaking mentors. In addition to a weekly class session, the service-learning students and ESL students spend 30 hours together over the course of a semester; how they spend these 30 hours is entirely up to the pairs. Together they brainstorm ideas of activities and interests to create their unique experience, tailored to fit each individual peer group. Often, the peer groups join other peer groups to form a group activity. Since both the service-learning and ESL students share an equal voice in deciding the path, their personal investment increases as they take ownership of this experience.

Immediate initiation and clear yet flexible guidelines are paramount to providing a successful foundation for the semester. The pairs are introduced during the second week of the semester once the course syllabus and goals have been presented and discussed separately with each group. In the introductory class and in separate groups, students brainstorm various activities and interests that they can then share with their partners. Subsequent classes provide a controlled environment in which the service-learning and international students are engaged in context-based linguistic activities which apply the skills that the international students have been studying in their core classes. At the end of each class period, students have time to meet with their assigned peer to plan their next extracurricular activity. Limited only by safety and practical restrictions, the students' interests were transformed into a colorful plethora of activities for the semester.

Below are examples of some of the activities our students did.

Both the recipient, in our case the ESL students, and the service-learning students benefit from this experience. For the service-learning students, this experience fosters civic responsibility by presenting them with the prospect to examine how their cultural identity influences the way they view the global community and to recognize that there are no superior or inferior cultures. Reflecting on how cultural identity affects her global perspective, one American student mentioned this in her paper:

In all, I think I am learning as much about myself and my culture as I am about them and theirs. Being raised in America, you have certain values and ideas instilled in your mind whether you know it or not. Meeting people from other countries has put my American values in perspective. I've learned more about the world than I ever thought without leaving Boise. I never realized how skewed the American view on the rest of the world is, but this class has opened my eyes. I'm more culturally aware now.

A service-learning course focused on helping integrate the international students socially and culturally into the American college experience promotes cultural diversity and gives service-learning students the opportunity to expand communication skills and share various language skills with the international peers. It also provides valuable experience, which may coincide with career preparation.

The international students benefit in many ways by being the recipients of a service-learning course. First, by having regular, direct contact with a native speaker, the international students have recurring opportunities to practice what they are learning in class in an informal yet authentic environment. Practicing and mastering listening, speaking and grammar no longer remains a wearisome task when real-life contexts and situations are in place and native speakers are present. The students leave their textbooks behind as they go out into the real world to use what they have been studying. As one of our Colombian students commented,

I realized that all of us live in different countries and have different cultures, but also we are young people and we can share interests and experiences. I liked (my service-learning peers) because I could express things that I didn't know how to say, just because they helped me.

Additionally, accompanied by a sympathetic native-speaking peer with whom they regularly meet throughout the semester, the affective filters wane as the ESL students become more comfortable in their language ability. As they gain more confidence, they are more willing to take risks, explore new language and practice authentic dialog in a non-threatening environment. In addition to the linguistic benefits of this service-learning component, the international students are exposed to various cultural and social events which enable them to adapt gradually and integrate more fully into the culture and community. When asked to summarize her overall experience, a Korean student wrote:

I really had a good time. Even though I made a mistakes several times in speaking English, my partner responed to me very nicely and helped my English speaking. Especially, I could know about her life. Also, throughout these activities international students can make native speaker friends and native speakers can make international students friends. It is great.

Laying the Groundwork for a Positive Experience

Below are some tips based on some of our trials and errors on making the journey smoother.

Establishing Communication

Creating Curriculum

Tips for a Smoother Journey


As we reach the end of our first year of this pilot course, the feedback from both the international and service-learning students highlights the values of this rewarding experience on both sides of the cultural fence. When asked what they had gained from this experience, some American students wrote:

I have a better respect for Non-English speaking people who are trying to learn English. I'm also humbled by the amount of English they have learned in a matter of months. Makes me want to put myself in their shoes, move to France, and learn to speak French!

The cultural experience was awesome too. I didn't know a thing about Palestine or Korea and now I do.

I gained a better understanding and respect for students who move to America. I caught a glimpse into the struggles that they must deal with day in and day out. Combined with my own feelings of confusion and bewilderment that I feel every class session in French class, I can somewhat empathize, be it on a small scale, with what the ESL students go through all day every day while they are in America.

When responding to the same question, some of the international students wrote:

I gained new friendships and more confidence in my English. They understood what I was trying to say!

I really enjoyed this experience. I got to know cool people. I feel comfortable talking to them. After that, I had to talk to different Native Americans to get my admission at BSU done and I haven't had any problem at doing it. I didn't feel shy because I feel more confidence. My shyness is gone.

It was a great opportunity to get learn vivid words and idioms which are used by native speakers but not my teacher.

As a result of this experience, the ESL students have had many opportunities outside of the classroom to practice authentic dialog, to gain communicative competence, and to increase their confidence in their conversational abilities. Everyone involved, both the service-learning students and the international students, has an opportunity to gain interpersonal and global communicative experience while enhancing cross-cultural awareness.


[1] In this study, the term service-learning students (or SL students) refers to the native or near-native English speakers who are enrolled in the service-learning course. In addition to their course instruction, the service-learning students complete 30 hours of community service. In our case, this 'service' is the time spent as a mentor to the ESL students.

[2] In this study, the terms ESL and international students are interchangeable.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 7, July 2007
http://iteslj. org/Techniques/Marlow-ServiceLearning. html