Independence Through English: A Reflective Analysis


Michael Lee Harper


During 1999 and 2000 I had the unusual privilege to work in quite unique environment - in a domestic violence shelter in Tampa, Florida, in the U.S. Tampa is home to a large non-English-speaking community. Statistics for cases of domestic violence in the Hillsborough County area are also alarmingly high. A colleague of mine in the Masters program in Linguistics, Beth Ellen Holimon, wrote and applied for a federal government grant for her curriculum planning class. She and a partner researched the plight of abused women in Hillsborough County in order to create this grant. She was awarded a sum of money to head a one-year adult ESL program at the Spring of Tampa Bay Inc., created especially for these survivors of domestic violence. Holimon's undergraduate degree is in Women's Studies, and her MA is in Applied Linguistics. She convinced me, without trepidation, to come on board and help make the program successful. I was hired as an instructor, although I myself had had no prior domestic violence training. I was being recruited for my ESL teaching experience and ability. The year that followed was tumultuous, to say the least. Half way through the program, I became the project coordinator and had the first-time experience of interviewing ESL instructors and hiring my replacement. This article speaks to all ESL teachers regardless of exposure (or, hopefully, lack thereof) to domestic violence. Topics such as classroom logistics and contingency lesson plans and reworking entire curricula are discussed here. I will attempt to discuss the life of the grant, including its successes and weaknesses, and to decide if the grant should be maintained and, if so, how it should be revised for the future.



In their article, Breaking the Language Barrier: A Rationale for Shelter-based English Programs, Holimon and Wynn (1999) assert that the goal of shelter-based English programs is "for shelters across the country to provide women with the tools needed to function outside the shelter, help them gain confidence as learners and teachers, and engage in a critical awareness that leads to action." With this goal in mind, Holimon and Wynn created Independence Through English1, a program designed to be implemented at The Spring of Tampa Bay Inc., in Florida, on October 1, 1999. This article attempts to discuss the life of the grant, including its successes and weaknesses, and to decide if the grant should be maintained and, if so, how it should be revised for the future.

The Spring of Tampa Bay, Inc.

The Spring of Tampa Bay, Inc. is the sole-source certified provider of domestic violence services in Hillsborough County, Florida. The Spring, providing refuge for one of every eight victims in the state, is the busiest of Florida's 39 shelter programs. Among a list of many other services, The Spring offers confidential 24-hour telephone crisis intervention, on-site public school for K-12 students, local education programs for refugee victims, evening educational groups and child care, and post-shelter case management and follow-up. Aftercare services include transitional, single-family apartments; weekly counseling appointments and life skills programs; vocational education counselor for training and job placement; and permanent housing assistance. Admission to Aftercare is limited to clients who elect post-secondary education or training for high-wage enrollment jobs. For the fiscal year 2000-2001 the ethnicity of Spring clients was 49% Caucasian, 24% Hispanic, 23% African-American, 2% Native American, 2% Other, and 1% Asian.2



One major goal of the grant stated that "80% of program participants will show increased levels of English language proficiency." According to Gass and Selinker (1994) "some linguists (e.g. Becker, 1991) suggest that second language learning is much more an accomplishment of memory for text than of the analysis of text. That is, much more is memorized than is broken into parts and subjected to rules and/or generalizations (p. 247). Our clients exhibited difficulty in memorizing simple text and recalling lessons from the previous class. Herman (1997) posits that "traumatic events produce profound and lasting changes in physiological arousal, emotion, cognition and memory. Moreover, traumatic events may sever these normally integrated functions from one another" (p. 34). Because the majority of students moved on to find jobs, further research is recommended to study the effects on cognition and memory in victims of domestic violence.

Another goal attempted to quantify how many limited English Proficiency (LEP) students would reduce the number of client days spent in shelter. This objective proved to be an invalid measure of successful outcome based on many variables involved in the length of a client's stay at the shelter. These variables include, but are not limited to: 1) legal difficulties and the speed of the courts, 2) level of English proficiency, 3) level of education in native language, 4) degree of physical injury, 5) monetary and emotional resources outside the shelter. Variables two and three are mentioned again in the next paragraph.

A third goal anticipated that "10% of shelter and follow-up clients participating in the program will be equipped to take a GED preparation course." This was also quantitatively immeasurable due to the varied educational and English proficiency levels of the students. The vast majority of the clients were at True Beginner level in English and have had very low level reading skills in their native language. Most of them would not be ready to take the GED until they had spent at least one year in an Intensive English program. The remainder, who were ready to take the GED, moved on to jobs and discontinued taking classes because of personal and/or work obligations.


Attendance and other non-ESL problems

The grant was designed for classes to be conducted in two different locations: on the shelter premises for clients who lived there, and an off-site classroom for clients who, as yet, had not checked into the Spring and still lived in their own home, usually still with the perpetrator. Because of court appointments and many other reasons, attendance was usually quite low in both locations, especially the off-site class3. Due to this low attendance, the project coordinator decided to try to move the class to another shelter location where more ESL clients could be reached with more ease. The adult education office offered to share space in their office located in an area with access to many migrant workers with a possibility of increasing enrollment, and he seemed eager to share his space with our clients. As in any bureaucracy, we were given many different names of individuals who would be in charge and be able to help us with the particulars of moving our site. Things were set until someone realized that we would be conducting childcare during the ESL classes. One man in charge of the adult education site called to say that he was having second thoughts about having the children of the clients on-site. Someone else "in charge" approved the childcare situation since a cap of five students had been placed on the arrangement. However, a week later she called again to say that her supervisor had issues with the children being there. Phone calls were made searching for appropriate, qualified childcare professionals to no avail. During Cindy Hewett's entire tenure as Project Coordinator, she worked part-time tending to the children while classes were being conducted, thus compromising her ability to fulfill other grant obligations.



I was hired as one of two English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors to work on this grant. My first concern was that I knew nothing about domestic violence. I was assured that I would be trained sufficiently. Upon arrival for my training, I was shown a video introducing me to the world of a domestic violence victim and what Florida law requires of employees in the field. I was trained at university to understand language and the learning process. This training primarily applied to pedagogy and very little to social issues that would hinder the acquisition of a second language such as domestic violence. I contend that in order for an ESL program to be successful, instructors need more sensitivity training in domestic violence. Isserlis (1998) offers many suggestions to teachers for making the classroom a safer environment for victims of domestic violence. She suggests that teachers "allow [the students'] concerns about violence to surface in one form or another, offer content and activities that allow learners to share as much or as little information about themselves as they want, allow learners to choose their own level of participation in classroom activities, [and] find out about community resources." If teachers are willing to allow this to happen in their classes, they must first be educated and trained in basic domestic violence issues in order, at the very least, to be able to refer the student to the appropriate source of help.


Curriculum Revision

Because of the low level of proficiency, the curriculum had to be revised. Abstract topics proved too difficult for the clients. Hewett and the instructors decided to focus on getting the clients caught up on the basics, such as health, emergencies, and interacting with teachers of their children. In a non-domestic violence situation, "learners with positive attitudes, who experience success, will have these attitudes reinforced. Similarly, learners' negative attitudes may be strengthened by lack of success" (Ellis 1994). As one can imagine, because of the very nature of the clients' situations, this opinion is only intensified. Due to this, the courses were designed around the students' language needs, speed of progress, and need for positive reinforcement. Hewett felt that the ultimate purpose of the grant was "to offer an invaluable tool to those clients in need of English language skills." The grant was a success in that improvements in English proficiency were noticed, as well as attitude and self-awareness. As this was a government-funded grant and measurements are necessary as proof of success, it was recommended that a counselor or psychologist be retained to help with a qualitative analysis. According to Clevia Perez, one of the instructors, (personal communication, March 20, 2002)"[certain areas of second language acquisition (SLA)] such as motivation" made this grant successful. As a result of the clients' high motivation to live a better life, after they leave [the shelter], their English improved considerably; they were willing to become more acculturated and participate more in the English speaking [community]. Some of them wanted more than speaking fluency; they even wanted to improve their skills academically.h So if one only takes into consideration quantifiable measures of success, it would prove difficult to claim that this grant was successful. However, taking into consideration anecdotal materials and non-domestic violence, strictly SLA-based qualitative analyses, the grant succeeded in creating a warm, inviting atmosphere where the clients felt safe to rise above their domestic problems for a two-hour class, and free to make mistakes without being laughed at, or told that they will never succeed. They attained a sense of self worth during these sessions. Occasionally, they even walked away with a smile.




Becker, A. L. (1991). Language and languaging. Language & Communication, 11, 33-35.

Gass, S. M., & Selinker, L. (1994). Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and Recovery. New York, NY: Seabury Press.

Holimon, B. E., & Wynn, M. E. (1999). "Breaking the Language Barrier: A Rationale for Shelter-based English Programs". Voice: The Journal of the Battered Women's Movement. Vol. 2.

Isserlis, J. (2000). "Trauma and the Adult English Language Learner". ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education and Center for Applied Linguistics.


1This grant was funded by STOP Violence Against Women Office (VAWO).

2Information was taken from the Internet at

3According to Maggie Ferlita (personal communication, March 20, 2002) of the Spring of Tampa Bay, Inc., ESL classes for these women must be treated differently than classes for children. Children have no other obligations besides learning. Women, especially mothers, must be able to provide for their families. However important learning to speak English may be, if the mother cannot provide food and shelter for her children, she feels unsuccessful. One suggestion has been to pay the students to attend class, as ESL education is a luxury in the lives of these women. This tactic has proven successful in migrant farm worker situations where the client would lose valuable work time and pay in order to attend ESL classes.


Michael Lee Harper is currently teaching English in the Department of Foreign Languages at Tokai University in Hiratsuka City, and at Tsuda Women's College in Tokyo, Japan.


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