Building ESL program health and sustainability

By Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton

Are enrollments in your ESL or EFL program dropping? Is your program under the threat of closure due to low registrations? Situations like this can strike panic into the heart of a program administrator, because not only does closure mean that teachers and staff lose their jobs, it means that students no longer receive all the benefits of learning English. Here are a few strategies that may help.

Saving an ESL or EFL program from closure takes dedication and strategic planning. The best thing you can do for a program that gets a failing grade when it comes to its own sustainability is create positive buzz about it. Get people excited about the impact that learning English can have. Or at the very least, catch their attention. Here are a few ideas:

1. Every semester plan second or foreign language events.

Events are important. Think about it. School sports tournaments generate interest in physical activity. Science fairs generate interest in science and math. Performances and recitals highlight the importance of dance and music. Events generate buzz and may even get media coverage.

Events can include:

Native Speakers’ Day – Bring in native English speakers who are successful and could be considered role models to come into the school to give presentations on their work, their life, their travels, their culture or whatever inspires them. Get bios for each speaker and have students prepare questions to ask them.

ESL / EFL Speech Competition – Bring in “celebrity” judges from your local community who speak the English (politicians eat this stuff up and we’ve had good success getting both local,  provincial support and even embassy support for speech competitions).

Cultural celebration day – Have students showcase their work through videos, poster presentations and demonstrations. They can prepare food, perform a dance (or better yet, give a short dance class) or have a sing-along. Make the students who are currently enrolled in the program the focus of the entire day. Invite parents and community stake-holders to observe, drop by and share in the celebration. Having a local “celebrity” native English speaker to offer opening and closing remarks or emcee the day is a huge boost.

The idea behind all of these is to get involvement from people in the community. This not only generates interest, when we get outsiders involved, it also builds credibility and legitimacy. These events take a huge amount of organization and they are absolutely worth it.

Passionately communicate the importance of learning English. Send out press releases. I guarantee you that if your events get media coverage, you will generate interest. There is an art to writing press releases, and often school districts have strict protocols around communications, so working with your admin team and district is not only helpful, it is essential.

  1. Have a contest – any kind of contest – with the students enrolled in your program. My favorite is a video contest on centered around a key question. My favorite is “How does learning a language change your world?” You can get more details on this particular activity in my free downloadable ebook – Want to Change the World? Learn Another Language: Leadership Inspired by Language Learning ebook.

If your school allows it, students can post their videos on YouTube. Their friends see it… they get talking, and interest in your program goes up.

Come up with your own ideas for contests. Start small and let the idea take hold and then grow over time.

There is no short-term solution to the issue of dropping enrollments in an ESL or EFL program. Events that engage the community are critical in generating interest, creating buzz and boosting program morale. The trick is to invite people from a broad audience who have an interest in what you’re doing. Go beyond the idea of  “round up the usual suspects”. Even if you invite new people and they don’t come, they’ll at least have you on their radar, which is a good thing.

Doing events consistently, such as once a semester, builds credibility over time. You can’t do one event and expect that to save a failing program. Think of it as re-building your program’s health. Go for long-term health and vibrancy, not just a band-aid solution. Nourish your program’s health on a regular basis, so it can grow strong and shine.

Consistently celebrating students work, adding in the element of community, getting a local celebrity native speaker or two to champion your program and getting some positive media coverage will all contribute significantly to bolstering the program’s image and generating interest. Do that for several months and you’ll see some positive buzz about your program start to generate more interest. More interest means more investment. Sometimes, emotional, pedagogical and community investment in programs is the best thing to rebuild your English program.

Written by Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton for September 2010
Author of 101 Ways to Market Your Language Program, Dr. Sarah Eaton is an expert on the management and marketing of language schools. She coaches school directors on how to manage more effectively and market more powerfully. Visit her website at or her blog at

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