English as a Second Language

The United States is the most popular destination for international students seeking to learn English or to improve their English skills. There are over 400 educational institutions that offer English language programs, spread across the many geographic and cultural regions of the United States. These programs provide a variety of courses, from academic English for university-bound students to language and culture courses for travelers.

English language programs of high quality can be found at a variety of U.S. educational institutions. High-quality programs have a professionally trained faculty, an excellent curriculum, and superior facilities for study. Such facilities may include classrooms, libraries, laboratories, computers, and other equipment. As a prospective student, you should examine the following criteria carefully and use them to help you decide whether a program is appropriate for you.

There are three main types of English language programs available in the United States:

Intensive English Programs (IEPs): These programs generally require 20 to 30 hours per week in the classroom. Courses include classroom instruction, small group discussions, language labs, and out-of-class work. Intensive courses may or may not allow students to attend regular academic classes in subjects outside the Englishas- a-second-language curriculum. Most programs are developed as pre-academic preparatory courses, designed to prepare students for admission into a U.S. college or university.

Semi-intensive English Programs: Like IEPs, semi-intensive courses include classroom instruction, small group work, language labs, and out-of-class work, but students usually also take academic courses in subjects other than English. A university may require you to take a few semiintensive English-as-a-second-language (ESL) courses if your Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores were sufficient for admission into a degree program at the university, but further proficiency is desired.

Professional English Programs: Many private English language programs and some university-based ones are tailored to fit the needs of professionals. These may include programs in business English or special certificate programs in fields such as law, engineering, education, medicine, architecture, computer science, aerospace, hospitality management, and travel. Internships with U.S. businesses are available with some programs, both private and university-based. This chapter will focus on Intensive English Programs (IEPs) only.

Most language programs’ curricula are divided into levels, starting with courses for beginners who have never studied English and progressing to courses for advanced students who are refining their skills in preparation for beginning studies at a university or college in the United States. A typical language program’s curriculum is designed to improve the student’s understanding and use of English in reading, writing, listening, and speaking; some define grammar as a distinct skill. Some language programs focus exclusively on English for academic purposes, while others concentrate on preparation for such examinations as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Test of Spoken English (TSE). To find out more about what a particular English language program offers, check the program’s Web site. If you cannot access the information you need on the World Wide Web, contact the admissions office of the IEP by e-mail, in writing, or by telephone, and request that they send you detailed information about their programs.

How long will it take to achieve the language skills you desire? It is difficult to determine how long a student will need to spend in an IEP. At the beginning of each program, all students take a placement exam so they can start their studies at the appropriate level. Some students will progress quickly, while others may take longer to develop the necessary skills. It could take one or two terms/semesters, or in some cases longer, to reach the level you are aiming for. Progress from one level to the next depends on the abilities of the individual student as well as on his or her existing English language skills.

The United States is a large country with a diverse range of geographic features, climates, urban environments, and cultural flavors. An important factor in your choice of a program will be where it is located. There are high quality programs in all regions of the United States. In addition to the geographic location, you should consider the setting in which a program is offered and find out what services are available. There are three common models:

  • programs run within and by a department of a university or college, such as the English language department;
  • privately owned (proprietary) language schools that are associated with a university or college and are on or near the campus;
  • private schools that are not connected to a college or university.

The United States is a large country with a diverse range of geographic features, climates, urban environments, and cultural flavors. An important factor in your choice of a program will be where it is located. There are high quality programs in all regions of the United States. In addition to the geographic location, you should consider the setting in which a program is offered and find out what services are available. There are three common models:

  • programs run within and by a department of a university or college, such as the English language department;
  • privately owned (proprietary) language schools that are associated with a university or college and are on or near the campus;
  • private schools that are not connected to a college or university.

The way that classes are structured is another good indicator of a quality IEP. Some questions you might want to ask are:

  • What is the average class size?
  • How many students are there per teacher?
  • Is there a standard policy concerning the number of students with the same native language who are placed in one class?

The class size and student-to-teacher ratio can indicate the level of personal attention that students might reasonably expect to receive. Having students from many language backgrounds, and not just your own, usually will provide a setting in which you will learn English more quickly.

A very important item to consider in choosing any program is cost. Besides tuition, programs may require payment for student fees, housing, board (meals), books, health insurance (required for anyone who is in the Unit- ed States on a student visa), and other miscellaneous expenses. Many programs require an application fee, which is often nonrefundable. Some programs also require a tuition deposit. It is important to find out the total cost of the program before you apply. Full payment is made after arrival at the school, so make sure you are prepared to pay all of the required costs.

Each IEP in the United States sets its own admission requirements. These vary from program to program; however, most require that you have completed secondary school, and that you provide financial information showing you can pay the full cost of the program. Some programs will ask you to provide additional information such as educational transcripts and documentation of English proficiency, and some will require that you devote the majority of your time to language studies while you are studying with them. You should be able to find all of the requirements for admission in the program’s brochure or catalog or on its Web site.

It is very important to remember that admission to a language program does not mean that you have also been accepted into other academic programs offered by a university or college. However, some institutions in the United States offer conditional or provisional admission to academic programs. For international students, conditional or provisional admission most often will be granted to applicants whose academic or professional qualifications are very good but whose English language skills need some improvement.

Before you apply to a language school, you should make sure it meets accepted minimum standards. Accreditation is the process whereby standards are established and maintained for educational institutions in the United States. There are two specialized accrediting bodies for Intensive English Programs in the United States: the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET) and the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA). Check to see whether the programs you are considering are accredited by either of these bodies. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) authorizes English language programs to issue the government Form I-20, which you will need to apply for your student visa. The INS will consider a program as an Intensive English Program only if it offers a minimum of 18 classroom hours (also called contact hours) per week for its students, and if it is accredited by a national or regional accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Therefore, if an Intensive English Program has approval by the INS to issue the government Form I-20, that is one indicator that the program is accredited. Further information on accreditation and recognized accrediting bodies can be found in chapter 4 of this booklet. Two professional organizations for Intensive English Programs have established standards that all of their members’ programs must meet: the Consortium of University and College Intensive English Programs (UCIEP) and the American Association of Intensive English Programs(AAIEP). Ask whether the programs you are considering are members of UCIEP or AAIEP.

Locating information on English language schools in the United States on the Internet has become relatively easy. There are three main types of Web sites for you to look at:

  • English language programs’ own Web sites;
  • the Web sites of professional associations and accrediting bodies, which list their member programs;
  • commercial sites that list language training programs. These sites include institutions that have paid fees to have their sites listed and to have their Web sites linked to the site.

Below is a selection of different types of Web sites, all with useful information on English language programs.