What Does “Intensive” Mean in “Intensive English Programs”?

I’ve worked in several contexts that have been called “intensive”. Most recently, I have spent the last three years teaching in one full-time – an “intensive English program,” or IEP. Despite knowing the pedagogy and politics of these programs, I have always wondered what the word “intensive” really means, and how teacher’s and administrator’s (and maybe student’s) interpretation of this word effects instruction.

Based on IEP organizations such as EnglishUSA and UCIEP, and communication with colleagues at other IEPs, it seems that there is a lot of variety in terms of how a program is structured, but there are also some common features.. Common features typically include 8-week terms, a minimum of 18-hours of instruction per week (required for F-1 visa holders and therefore a staple of IEPs), multiple levels of instruction per skills-based course (e.g. Reading, Grammar, Listening), faculty with a minimum of Master’s degrees, being part of or associated with a university, and being accredited by an outside organization. They also share the word “intensive” despite this word not being defined by any standards or mission statement I have seen.

What does the word “intensive” means in terms of language stud? Maybe I’m being obtuse, but, to me, this word seems to have two important definitions that, when applied to pedagogy, are at odds with each other:

  1. thorough, rigorous, in-depth, concentrated
  2. fast, accelerated, vigorous

An intense workout can be rigorous, in that it works out multiple areas of your body thoroughly. It can also mean a fast-paced workout that hits key areas of your body. Despite being described by the same word, the exercise takes on different forms and likely has different results. Applied to language learning, I’m not sure the second definition, the one that focuses on speed, is apt. Or, at least it shouldn’t be. Yes, 8-weeks is an accelerated period in which to learn language, but that is not the I’m talking about. Students are not expected to master English after 8-weeks. Eight weeks are the period in which they can hopefully improve key skills which can put them on a trajectory towards their ultimate goal of entering the university.

The speed I’m talking about is in the sense of covering multiple units, hitting multiple curricular goals, addressing a bunch of grammar points or reading skills, or churning out essay after essay each week. I’ve seen colleagues do this. By the way published coursebooks like to cram so many units into a single book, they expect us to do this, too. However, to me, language is not learned by rushing through it.

I like to take my time when I teach, being as detailed as possible and working with language from multiple cognitive and linguistic aspects. In almost all my classes currently, we are only on the second unit after one month of instruction. Adaptation and supplementation, assessment and reteaching really slow things down – but in a good way. Most terms, I feel bad because only a portion of the coursebook actually gets used (another charge against the notion that we even need coursebooks!). In my writing classes, students spent the first several weeks on research, planning, subskills, and drafting, and now they are doing it again. We’ll be feeling time pressure at the end of the term when trying to finish our third paper. Yet, I know some instructors who try to get an essay done each week. I’m not sure how they do it! The adage of “quality over quantity” comes to mind.

The meaning of intensity as rigor and not speed was brought home to me the other day by an observer in my class who commented that my class seemed “intense in the sense that [my students had to] do/accomplish a lot during the class hour.” This was interesting. We really only had two or three activities, but those activities demanded a lot of students. It was a lesson based on reading, and this lesson involved them in vocabulary review, re-reading and highlighting, discussion, and critical thinking questions. This may seem like a lot, but we took are time and moved naturally from activity to activity, doing about three-quarters of what I had planned. They did accomplish a lot, but they also worked with a text in-depth, from multiple angles, and were challenged on both linguistic and cognitive levels. To me, this fits the very definition of intensive: thorough, rigorous, and in-depth.

As teachers – language or otherwise – time is always against us, and in that sense, there is always some element of speed to our teaching. However, it should not be a defining element of pedagogy, and it certainly should not be seen as a key aspect of intensive English programs.


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