Volume V- 2000

An ESL-TESL Drop-in-Center that Works
by Connie Mitchell and Christine Mueller

         Connie Mitchell, who holds a B.A. in English and Linguistics and an M.Ed. in Teaching English as a Second Language, is currently a teaching assistant enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Cincinnati. She is also an adjunct instructor at Cincinnati State Community College.

Christine Mueller is working for a M.Ed. in Literacy with a specialization in Teaching English as a Second Language at the University of Cincinnati. She has taught ESL courses in the University's ESL program.

         The Drop-In-Center (DIC) at the University of Cincinnati is a cross between a lab and a lounge, jointly run by programs that usually remain at a curious distance from one another. One of the programs is concerned with the teaching of English as a Second Language(ESL), and the other with the preparation of teachers of ESL (TESL). This article describes that Center and mentions the ways in which it benefits both groups. Although there is no attempt to discuss the broader, more philosophical issues involved in a close relationship between the two programs, the success of the Center tends to offer positive evidence. It is significant that, at our University, both ESL and TESL are headed by the same person, Dr. Susan Jenkins. Inquiries should be addressed to the authors or Dr. Jenkins at:

The Drop-in-Center
Program in ESL
University of Cincinnati
Cincinnati, Ohio,45221 USA.
E-mail: Susan.Jenkins@email.uc.edu

The Need for "Authentic" English

         The DIC was formed as an extension of the ESL Program in 1995 in response to the clear observation by students and faculty that more opportunities were needed for informal communication in "authentic" English outside the classroom. The organization of the facility was the responsibility of the two authors, then graduate teaching assistants (TAs) in the TESL Program, which itself had been established in 1993. Now, only one TA is assigned to the DIC--all of the other ten tutors are either volunteers or graduate students fulfilling practicum credit hours. Initially, we concentrated on ESL students and did not think that TESL students would consider the DIC of much importance one way or the other. They would do it to fulfill a requirement--little else. We were badly mistaken. Both parties came together very well. Almost instantly, the DIC blossomed and has been healthy and vigorous ever since. In particular, TESL students have welcomed the opportunities to build administrative, teaching and collaborative skills, and to conduct formal research. ESL students have a similar enthusiasm:

         I can ask about some unclear things in American life and get some advice if I need it. Nobody is forced to participate, but usually everyone has something to say. I enjoy these interactions. We can really learn things from the DIC. It's a good chance to practice our English, and we can make friends and actually know something about what is happening in our lives.

         In the DIC, you have to get the feel, get into the mood of speaking and interacting, and then try to understand and make use of your own vocabulary even if it's not large. You have to practice your way of speech in order to make people understand what you want to say. As this evidence indicates, we have tried to make the DIC a learner-centered environment where importance is placed on helping students to feel at ease, enabling them to become comfortable in their target language (Brown 1987, p. 138). The DIC offers an excellent opportunity for ESL students to learn about the the culture of the USA. It also provides an authentic environment for them to increase their communicative competence.

         Many of the students have expressed their feelings of discomfort in speaking. One in particular related a story about working in a restaurant as a waitress. She spoke to a customer, and he did not understand her. She panicked and began to apologize profusely, to which the customer said, "You'll have to speak up: I'm hard of hearing." The difficulty in communication was not at all due to a deficiency in her speech, but to his hearing problem. This story illustrates the amount of anxiety that non-native speakers of any language experience. They tend to blame themselves for every breakdown in communication. Thus, there is a need to incorporate more authentic experiences into the ESL curriculum. We believe that the Drop-in-Center is one way to do this.

Organization of Center

         There is no grade for DIC activities, but attendance is required of all ESL students. Participants are asked to maintain a folder that the tutors sign at the end of each session. The tutors place emphasis on establishing rapport through small talk, learning each other's names, teaching how to include newcomers in conversations, and validating everyone's comments. Specific activities include informal discussions about cultural topics or controversial issues (e.g., travel, health insurance, politics and religion), help with homework assignments, games such as Scrabble™ and Boggle™, story-telling such as picture descriptions or personal narratives, presentation practice, pronunciation practice, coaching on specific problems with landlords or the boss, or anything else the students want help with.

         The arrangement of the physical DIC is more informal than a structured classroom. The room is not too big, which has proven to be better in that it allows students to feel closer to one another. The students sit at tables With the tutors: it is not a teacher-fronted tutorial environment. There are several bookshelves with magazines, a collection of ESL books, and assorted teaching materials for the tutors and student to use. Recently a coffee and tea machine was added to create a more relaxed, "chit-chat" atmosphere. In short, the DIC looks and feels "lived in." One or two tutors serve from one to ten students during each of the 10-16 opening hours per week. Different tutors often engage in conversations with students in different parts of the room. Students are free to break off into their own subgroups and carry on conversations among themselves. Every so often, all groups come together and are addressed by one of the tutors.

Responsibility and Research

         This general arrangement has at least two distinct advantages. First, it provides an opportunity for ESL students to take charge of their own learning by discussing issues that are of concern to them. Second, it presents TESL students many opportunities for research. No fewer than seven different projects have been made involving the DIC. Among these are two studies by Ms. Mitchell: Negotiating Meaning: Tutor/Student Relationships which will be published as a monograph, and Communication Styles of Chinese ESL Speakers, her dissertation. Other ongoing research projects include Participation Structures and Conflict in an ESL Drop-in-Centerby Kate Reynolds and and Reflecting the World of Teaching in an ESL Drop-in-Center by Susan Jenkins and Holli Schauber, which looks at the education of teachers.


         The DIC is constantly evolving and changing because the tutors and students are evolving and changing. We began using primarily TAs, and now we have practicum TESL students, volunteers, and instructors who hold their office hours there. Originally, all of our tutors were native speakers of English, and now some of them are nonnative The authors were given the opportunity to train practicum students and to help them to learn to operate in as well as to administer the Center. The ESL students are able to look beyond the one-on-one instruction of traditional tutoring and to appreciate the benefits of group interaction in language learning. In short, it is a win-win situation, and we are glad to be a part of it.


Brown, D. 1987. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Mitchell, C. In press. Negotiating Meaning: Tutor/Student Relationships. Cincinnati, OH: University of Cincinnati.

Mitchell, C. and C. Mueller. 1997. "An Informal Drop-in-Center for English Improvement." Poster session presentation at the annual TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Conference in Orlando, Florida.

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