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Teaching English to trainees

  • Published
  • By Army 1st Sgt. Kevin Bowens and Air Force Senior Airman Krystal M. Jeffers
  • Defense Language Institute English Language Center and JBSA-Lackland Public Affairs
Echo Company under the Defense Language Institute English Language Center, or DLIELC, is a unit here that most Soldiers may not be familiar with. Although it's not widely known, the unit has an important and challenging mission that differs from anything else in the Army.

This unit allows Army recruits, who would otherwise be disqualified for military service, due to their poor English comprehension, an opportunity to improve their skills in the language and become Soldiers.

Without this program, recruits who are not proficient in English, but are great candidates, would not be able to enlist. By recruiting non-native English speakers for military service, the Army gains valuable assets because the Soldiers already possess a second language.

All potential recruits must score a minimum of 40 points and less than 75 points on an English Comprehension Level test to qualify for this U.S. Army program.

Recruits are the placed in DLIELC's self-paced General English Program for a maximum of 24 weeks. To graduate, they must maintain an average score of 70 or better on the weekly book quizzes and achieve a 75 or higher on the ECL test twice.

On average, recruits graduate after 12 weeks. During that time, in addition to learning English, they will receive military training in preparation for Basic Combat Training.

Before arriving at JBSA-Lackland, the recruits are sent to Fort Sill, Okla. where they in-process into the military, are issued uniforms and equipment, receive medical exams and shots and receive dental and eye exams. They will also complete their will and in process into the TRICARE system.

A recruit's first week starts with a reception and integration period where they receive a history of DLIELC and are introduced to the Echo Company personnel, who are referred to as cadre. Also, they are given their first tasks, like rolling socks, marching or making their bunks to military standards. With the explanation of the tasks, the recruits are also informed of the corrective training and actions that occur if tasks are failed to be completed in the prescribe manner.

"The correction will correlate to what they are doing," said Army Staff Sgt. Iris Autrey, Echo Company drill sergeant. "If they are falling asleep in class then they might do five push-ups to wake them up and then stand at parade rest. If we are teaching them drill and ceremony and they keep getting it wrong, then we will slow it down, go step by step and take our time going through it with the recruit."

English lessons begin the second week, starting with an introduction to the classes and a second ECL test. If they score 65 or higher on the initial test and a minimum of 75 on the second one, the recruit will graduate Thursday and ship out Friday to BCT. Otherwise, the ECL test is then taken on a monthly basis until the minimum score of 75 is achieved.

Once accomplished, the test is taken a second time the following week to confirm their comprehension. Those who drop out may attempt the program a second time after a six-month waiting period.

The mornings start with formation at 4:45 a.m. where they recite the Soldier's Creed and sing the Army Song before performing physical training. Afterwards, there are barracks and in-ranks inspections followed by breakfast.

School is Monday thru Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Friday 7:30 a.m. to noon.

"The teachers explained things perfectly," said Pvt. Albert Hepburn, a DLIELC recruit who scored a 70 on the initial ECL and 96 on the second.

"In two days I learned a lot," added Pvt. Fernadez Edjardo, DLIELC recruit. "The classes helped me and I scored a 96 (on the second ECL) because of it."

After school, they attend mandatory study hall in the Echo Company English Learning Center, followed by BCT preparation training, which includes classes on Equal Opportunity, suicide prevention, sexual assault and prevention, and other similar topics.

"We make it exactly like it will be at basic training, which is an advantage to our recruits." Autrey said. "When they get to basic training, they are put into leadership positions because they already know discipline, how to march, call cadence, make their bunks and what the Army values mean."

Weekends consist of more military training on Saturday, such as land navigation, self-aid and buddy care, basic rifle marksmanship, and drill and ceremonies, while Sunday is reserved for spiritual/personal time and barracks maintenance. Books are allowed, but they must be in English with the exception of religious materials, which may be in the recruit's native language.

Echo Company has about 200 to 250 students annually and 40 to 50 day-to-day; approximately 85 percent are male and 15 percent female. The majority are U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico, like Edjardo and Hepburn. In addition, the unit also consists of legal U.S. residents from Korea, China, Turkey, Russia and other countries.

The cadres face many challenges and obstacles that other units may never experience due to the language barriers and cultural differences from having recruits
from many parts of the world.

The drill sergeants take an active role in their English training and expose them to the American culture, which helps transitioning non-English speaking civilians to Soldiers. Because drill sergeants are responsible for the military training and day-to-day accountability of these recruits, they must ensure that the recruits understand the orders or instructions being given.

"We overcome the language barrier by talking a lot slower and having them repeat back what we just said to ensure that they understand," Autrey said. "We also show them what we want done or get another Soldier who speaks their native language to translate."

The recruits appreciate the drill sergeants' efforts as well as the program.

"This program and all these people here help us learn," Hepburn said, adding that he enjoyed the program.

"There is a lot of support from the people here, even from the other Soldiers," Edjardo added. "They are supporting us all the time. I had a problem with '-ing' and the other guys here taught me that. The drill sergeants too give us a lot of support."

Cultural exposure is done through Equal Opportunity classes and trips to historical and educational locations like the Army Medical Department Museum at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston and the Alamo.

Even with these unique challenges and obstacles, Echo Company has proudly maintained a 95 percent pass rate. Success isn't just a result of the cadres' efforts though; part is because of the determination of each recruit.

"The recruits who come to us really want this," Autrey said. "The main reason why a lot of them join the military is to make better lives for their families. They really get into the studies and are always asking us questions trying to better themselves. They are determined to pass and that motivates me to find different avenues to better assist them in obtaining their goals."

For more information about Echo Company and the English program, contact a local Army recruiter.