Training Immigrants in the Culture and Language of the Workplace – Part 1: Designing Impactful ESL Offerings

This article was originally published by the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education. 

When immigrants arrive in the U.S. and look for work, they must learn new culture and workplace norms. Many also need assistance with their language skills. Northern Virginia Community College’s Office of Workforce Development—known as NOVA Workforce—supports these students, as well as international students, through its American Culture and Language Institute (ACLI).  In the next three blog posts, we’ll describe ACLI’s programs, including its most recent ESL Career Readiness program; how ACLU is using data to redesign and improve the Career Readiness program; and ACLI’s current challenges and key strategies for success.

Part 1: Designing Impactful ESL Offerings at Northern Virginia Community College

In an effort to better serve the educational and career needs of NOVA’s immigrant students, ACLI is implementing a new Part-Time English as a Second Language (ESL) Program called Career Readiness, which will offer workforce-contextualized English classes for students at high-beginning through intermediate ESL levels. Subject matter experts from NOVA’s Workforce Credentials program—a state grant program for Virginia residents in industry-specific certification courses—will interact with ESL students through guest lectures, interviews, and noncredit Workforce Credentials classes.

The intent of the new effort is to assist in transitioning Part-Time Program students from contextualized ESL to sector-specific content instruction. Optional Support ESL classes such as grammar, pronunciation, and a learning lab provide supplementary, “soft skill” instruction to promote students’ persistence and prepare them for the workforce.

ACLI also offers tailored workplace training in collaboration with local businesses to develop their employees’ language skills and improve productivity. These services are provided at NOVA campuses and at the workplace. In both the Part-Time ESL and ESL for the Workplace programs, ACLI staff have accelerated the use of data to evaluate, redesign, and tailor curriculum to improve training and target student and employer needs more effectively.

Program Description and Background

ACLI evolved out of noncredit ESL programs that Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) established in the mid-1980s. These programs were operated independently at different campuses until 2009, when the college established a task force to coordinate all ESL programs and create a core set of noncredit courses to be taught on five NOVA campuses.

ACLI comprises an Intensive English Program and a Part-Time Program that provide instruction in the four language skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening). ACLI also offers specialty courses in test preparation and current events for higher-level students. The Intensive English Program prepares local immigrant residents (long-time and recent arrivals) and international students for college-level classes and associate degrees. The Part-Time Program prepares local students for future careers and improves their social skills in English.

ACLI has served more than 32,000 students since 2009. The average ACLI student spends two semesters in the program. As of spring 2017, the majority of ACLI’s 1,274 students were local residents who emigrated from more than 75 countries. International F-1 visa students represented 27 percent of ACLI participants. Approximately 41 percent of ACLI students are enrolled full-time and are high school graduates seeking associate degrees from NOVA. The other 59 percent are enrolled part-time and are seeking to improve their workplace English skills or enter workforce credential programs.

Key Goals 

ACLI strives to increase educational and career opportunities for its immigrant and international students in several ways:

  • Prepare students for successful transition into an associate degree or a workforce credential program
  • Develop students’ workforce and communication skills to become productive community members
  • Prepare students to move from lower- to higher-paying jobs


Please share your comments @CCCIE or success stories in a short paragraph description on Facebook. Let us know why it was a success. Is your college training immigrants in the culture and language of the workplace? How does your college provide immigrant students pathways from part-time ESL to workforce credentials? We’d like to hear from you! 

Next in this blog series: Using Data to Design Programs for Immigrant Student Achievement

For more information, contact:

Keila Louzada, ESL Program Coordinator, NOVA Workforce, Northern Virginia Community College,

Cynthia Hatch, ESL & TESOL Program Developer and Instructional Designer, NOVA Workforce, Northern Virginia Community College,

Jill Casner-Lotto, Director, Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education,