ESL program for adult learners builds confidence, community, and skills

If you asked most Conway residents to name a local educational institution that attracts students from approximately 15 countries every year, many would guess the University of Central Arkansas. If you gave them a hint and said “name one that is in downtown Conway,” they might say Hendrix College. And while those institutions do serve many international students, there is another organization discretely located on Markham Street helping people from around the world learn English.  

The Faulkner County Adult Education Center is operated by the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton. In early 2021, they moved into their new home at 1070 Markham Street. The education center’s mission is to prepare students to the take the General Education Diploma (GED®) test, to train people who need to develop their basic skills for the workplace, and to teach basic skill-refresher courses for students about to enter college.  

Each of those foundational efforts has an added layer of complexity when the student’s native language isn’t English. That’s why the Adult Education Center offers an English as a second language program. But the ESL program does more than simply prepare people for a job or an exam – a lot more. 

“I can’t drive. That limits my boundaries,” said Saemi Shim, a native of Seoul, Korea.  

Shim came to Conway about five years ago when her husband got a job at Acxiom. She said that the Adult Education Center gives her a comfortable place to improve her English.  

“I want to work here. Language is a problem. This is a safe place to practice.” 

When ESL teacher Christy Koeth hears this description of her program, her eyes light up.  

“My main goal is to help people build their confidence and gain skills.”  

After graduating from Hendrix College with a degree in Spanish, Koeth has taught around the state at the high school, college, and adult levels. For the last three years, she has been the ESL teacher at the Faulkner County Adult Education Center.  

“This is a welcoming place for students, a community, a place to find a friend,” Koeth said.  

Koeth said that, on average, there are 50 or more students from around the world participating in the ESL program.  

“This morning I had 10 people from nine different countries speaking six different languages. Our students are as young as 19, and my oldest is 65.”  

Koeth said that the variety and diversity within each classroom is an advantage when teaching English. 

“It’s actually better when everyone is speaking a different language,” she said. “English is the only option; it’s their only common language. The more languages in the room, the better it is.  

“It’s beautiful. I love it.” 

The diversity doesn’t stop with country of origin and age. Keoth said that the ESL program has students with widely disparate education levels and reasons for attending.  

“We have students who have never had access to a formal education next to people with master’s degrees. Slightly more than half are here to improve conversation and grammar skills. Others are here to gain the skills they need to get a job or get a better job.” 

While many ESL students decide to pursue workplace certifications, a GED, or college admission, the ESL program is not a prescribed curriculum with a timeline attached. Many students come for years and continue to grow in their English proficiency. Keoth said that the material is based on current student needs.  

“We can learn English while studying for the U.S. citizenship test. Sometimes I use the driver’s education test book. That’s a great place to learn a word like ‘skid’ that may not come up in normal conversation.  

“I love it here. Where else would you get to see a lady from Pakistan teaching English to a woman from Ghana using the Arkansas driver’s manual?”