CATESOL Position Statement on the Differences Between English as a Second Language and Basic Skills Instruction at Post-Secondary Levels


(Approved by the CATESOL Board of Directors, June 11, 1994)

The needs of ESL students are not well served by treating ESL as a variety of "remedial" or basic skills education. A distinction at post-secondary levels of education must be made between students who are still at a developmental stage of acquiring English (ESL students) and students whose dominant language is English but who lack academic literacy/basic skills (basic skills students). These two types of students are best served by instruction which recognizes their different backgrounds and needs. Neither should be labeled remedial, a term which suggests that they need to make up for deficiencies; both types of students are involved in the cognitively demanding process of acquiring academic English.

Basic Skills Students

  • have received all or most of their education in English, their dominant language, but still need to develop academic literacy in English.
  • have oral fluency and an intuitive knowledge of the grammar of spoken English but need to develop literacy (i.e., reading and writing).
  • are familiar with American culture and customs.
ESL Students
  • are learning a language that is not their home or dominant language, and are using this language to acquire intellectual knowledge.
  • may have academic skills which they have already developed in their first language.
  • are often unfamiliar with American culture, customs, and academic expectations.
Needs of ESL students
  • to learn English as part of an integrated curriculum, including listening, speaking, reading, writing-as part of an integrated curriculum.
  • to receive instruction that recognizes that language learning is a developmental process. The oral or written ESL features which their language displays are a natural part of this language learning process.
  • to learn the syntactic structures and organizational patterns of both written and spoken English.
  • to receive instruction that recognizes their need to learn about American culture and, at the same time, validates their primary culture.
  • to be identified, not by national origin or length of residence in the U.S., but by the language they produce. All assessment measures should be designed for appropriate ESL populations. Tests designed to assess native speakers of English are inappropriate for ESL students.
Foreign language instruction is not considered remedial. English as a Second Language is as cognitively demanding and academically rigorous as foreign language study. In fact, given that ESL students have to study their content areas in English, the demands on them are even greater than those on native speakers of English learning a foreign language.


For a statement of the relationship between this document and the issue of community college credit for ESL, see the CATESOL Position Statement on Degree-Applicable Credit Courses in Community Colleges.