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A Phenomenological Look at Adult English-Language Development Through the Lens of Students' Sense-Making Practices


This dissertation examines the participation of adult English learners in a community college ESL course. The research synthesizes phenomenological views of human action with recent findings in cognitive sciences and cognitive linguistics to create a framework for understanding how learners' ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and educational histories shape their patterns of participation in the course. By using the learners' sense making as a lens, the study connects relevant structural and biographical factors to how students perceive and engage with language and instructional practices. The data collection relied on ethnographic techniques of participant observation and interviews coupled with extensive use of video and audio recording. Transcripts of students' interview responses and classroom interaction were analyzed through a combination of thematic and conversation analysis with an attention to metaphor and gesture. The findings indicate that a series of factors conspires to discourage students from focusing on unknown language, and that the needs of the language learner may at times conflict with norms of classroom interaction. The students' focus on saving face and attending to procedural aspects of course assignments often overshadowed purposeful engagement with language and literacy. Students who immigrated to the United States during their middle and high-school years were less likely to attend to language that they needed to learn and more concerned with presenting themselves as competent actors. The findings suggest that schools must better understand and address the emotional needs of adolescent English-language learners and build a school climate where limited English proficiency is not stigmatized. They further suggest that educators cannot rely on learners to draw attention to language that they need to learn. The instructional focus on process and strategies in ESL courses needs to be critically examined, particularly in regards to how it may detract from meaningful language and literacy use. Several of the conclusions of this research contrast with earlier empirical findings and point to the importance of investigating actual classroom behavior to balance the potential biases of experimental and interview only studies.

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