Running an Effective ESOL Program [Interview with Sally Rushmore]

Sally Rushmore has worked with Faith International English Classes at Faith Church in Indianapolis, IN, for almost 12 years as a teacher, as part of the leadership team, as a trainer, and now as the Director.

In this interview she shares her practical wisdom, tips, and resource recommendations for running an effective ESOL language class! It’s long, but don’t let that scare you away. The content is GOLD for anyone helping internationals learn language!

Jessica Udall: To start out, can you tell us a little bit about the format and structure of your program? What do you offer, and to whom?

Sally Rushmore: We have people from about 25 languages. We register 150 – 175 adults and test them into levels from Basic through Level 4, putting 3-5 people with a Conversation Facilitator and 3-5 tables worth of people in a Level classroom with a trained ESL Teacher.

We are using new curriculum this year which we are really excited about – Stand Out by Cengage and National Geographic. It has beautiful color pictures on every page and shows people as they really look from various ethnicities and use real names for those people. It is designed for life skills, getting and keeping a job, navigating shopping, living in community, etc. but also teaches lots of vocabulary and the verb tenses, prepositions, etc. the people need – but all in real-life contexts and conversations! We trained 20 brand-new volunteers this year, so we have about 60 people working with adults.

We also accept the children of our students! And we have written our own curriculum for ages preschool through fourth grade. The woman who wrote it designed it around the words that are common among languages, so the first of the three years of curriculum is all about astronauts and planets, teaching colors, shapes, sight words, ditties and songs American children know, etc., so that preschoolers who come for two years have everything they need to be ready for kindergarten.

In both programs we have a Bible verse every week. Those verses for the adults are given to them at the beginning of the year in English and in their heart language.

We do a variety of programs throughout the year – bring teachers in to explain the American school system and grading and how to help your children even if you don’t know English (and they bring translators!), bring in police and firefighters to help allay fears and give understanding about emergencies, a mock shopping event with clothing and groceries and play money to also talk about colors and making change, and mock doctor’s visit with doctors and nurses. We also have a Christmas program with a Christian message done through pantomime and lots of music provided by choirs in various languages (including a choir of the students’ children – always a big hit).

JU: Wow! Your program seems like a well-oiled machine and I know it has a huge waiting list! But I’m sure it didn’t start out quite this way. Can you tell us about the small beginnings of this ministry?

SR: Our church is a missionary sending church and has always supported a lot of missionaries on a personal level. One of those families, Steve and Joan Eisinger, was on extended leave from Turkey when the church had an event where people went throughout the neighborhood handing out Jesus DVDs. There are four apartment complexes surrounding our church and the people realized they were hearing a wide variety of languages in the apartments, but one couple realized the people in one of the apartments spoke Turkish and called the Eisingers.

They visited the apartment and found there were several families who had been refugees from Turkey to Russia and now to the U.S. and they knew no English so they were having trouble with everything. They started teaching them English two nights a week using a simple method called The Learnables. A few people in the church offered to help. However, the needs of these families were great and soon those working with them were exhausted.

By the third year, the Turks seemed to be getting on with their lives, but their neighbors were coming to English lessons—people who spoke a number of different languages and were at various levels of learning English. That’s when Steve Eisinger went to the Institute for Cross Cultural Training at Wheaton College and took a 30-hour course called Reach Out With English. He came back and named our program, wrote a mission, and formed a team to run the program. Three years later we brought the program to Indianapolis and trained a number of our staff! We learned so much about teaching English!

We have been very blessed to have a church that recognized that not only do we send people to the nations but God is sending the people of the nations to us! As a result, our church gives us a nice budget to run Faith International English Classes (FIEC). However, we have never paid any of our workers until a year ago when the church made the Directorship a part-time paid position. The rest of the staff works tirelessly to make a better life for our students. It is their ministry.

JU: What factors along the way have contributed to your phenomenal growth?

SR: There are several factors that have contributed to our growth:

We take the children of our students. No other program in our area has any provision for the students to bring their children. Most of the people who are moving into the apartments around the church are very family-oriented and never leave their children at home, so most of the mothers have never had any opportunity to learn English.

We have proven trustworthy. Many of our students are distrustful of a church, but they come to our church because a friend told them it was a safe and friendly place. We’ve had covered ladies tell us they love coming to English classes because they feel loved and safe and aren’t afraid to try to use their English. They also trust us with their children because they see their children doing fun things, getting help with homework, improving their literacy, and being loved.

Our location is a huge factor in the growth of our program. With four large apartment complexes within walking distance that are filled with immigrants and refugees, our church is the first place they look for English.

We work with many agencies and churches in our area. We soon learned we could not continue to do everything for everyone. Then we realized that the Baptist church down the street had a Karen (Burmese) service and one of the refugee organizations started parking their bus in our church’s parking lot and one of our members was a lawyer who worked for a free legal clinic. We all joined forces and created a group that meets monthly and includes representatives from several churches, the school system, the free legal clinic, the free medical clinic, and others. We talk about people groups and their needs and who can do what and we talk about individuals and families and figure out who can best help them.

We realize we are working with adults. That has a lot of implications! They have some very set ideas of what level they should be in and sometimes that depends on an inflated idea of their ability in English, the level their friend is in, or some other factor rather than where the placement test put them. However, they will quit coming if they are put in a lower level than they think they should be in, if their child is sick, if they are sick, if their work schedule changes, or a multitude of other reasons. We try to work with them to keep them from dropping out, but if they choose to quit coming, we see it as a “temporary” stopping out (not dropping out, which has a more permanent connotation) and realize that when the need is great enough, they will start English classes somewhere again.

We advertise our registration. We use a 9-month curriculum, so we have a single evening for people to register for each school year. We make hundreds of postcards with basic information (what, when, how much, when registration is) and share them with all the organizations and agencies in the area as well as passing them out to previous students. We also rent a sign for one month prior to registration (actually two since we are on the corner). We put one sign on each street for 30 days and have it picked up the day after registration. That sign has attracted a lot of students and several new staff.

For several years, when the program was young, we had a carnival the Saturday before the Fourth of July and had free food, games, face-painting, balloon animals, etc. and handed out the cards. We’re not sure how many people came to classes as a result, but it was a wonderful goodwill gesture to the community!

Word of mouth is powerful. We now have six people working in our program who went through the program and have truly made better lives for themselves and their families. And every year we have relatives of former students who either register or bring someone to register. Our students and former students talk to others about where they got better with their English and those people come for help.

JU: What advice do you have for churches and organizations that are just starting to consider offering an ESOL class?

SR: There are many things to consider and questions to answer!

  • Focus on doing one thing and doing it well. For example, try a conversation café to gauge the interest of those in your church and the interest of those who will be coming.
  • Call other churches, libraries, immigration welcome centers, and anyone else who is reaching out to immigrants and find out what they are doing. Ask to observe and to get together with the leaders.
  • Find out if there is a regular meeting of all the agencies doing various outreach (English, medical services, legal services, resettlement, etc.) that you can attend to assess the needs in your area and to get support for what you will be doing.
  • Learn what languages people speak who would be coming. Ask your state department for numbers of people who are coming to your area. Look for translators to help you if you work with new immigrants or those with very little English.
  • Put together a leadership team. This job is too big for one person—and it grows exponentially! Find at least two more people who are willing to work with you for at least three years to get a program started. Each of you must pray, study the Bible, and be committed to learning all you can and working together to put it into practice.
  • Plan to spend an intense year researching programs and curriculum, talking to others, getting training, planning, and preparing before launching a program.
  • Visit a variety of types of programs so you can see the wide variations in how groups “teach English.” Not all are considered classes, but all do help immigrants. They vary from one-on-one tutoring to an English conversation café to an English lounge to programs for beginners offering a couple of lower levels (such as Basic and Level 1) to programs for mid-range learners (Levels 2 and 3) to programs for professionals (such as college students or doctors trying to pass their TOEFL test.) Some focus on reading and writing, some on speaking and listening, some work on becoming a citizen, some help those who want a GED, and some focus on life skills. Some use Christian curriculum, but many do not use a Christian curriculum but choose instead to model their faith and teach some scripture verses and have Christmas and Easter programs that proclaim the basis of their faith.
  • Decide if you will provide childcare. That will entail finding workers and deciding what ages you’ll provide care for and if you’ll use any curriculum for the children. Childcare attracts students, but takes a lot of work and more classrooms and workers.
  • Determine when and where classes will be held and how often and for how long. We started with two evenings a week for two hours each and quickly burned out 75% of our workers!
  • See if a program in your area has a leadership team to mentor your leadership team or provide some training for your staff.

JU: What a treasure trove of information! Thank you, Sally for sharing with us.

You can contact Sally at to continue the conversation!

Heads up! Faith International English Classes will soon be launching a website that shares even more of their tips and resources. Make sure you’re subscribed to this blog so you don’t miss my update announcing when it goes live!



  1. Jessica,

    I just got off the phone with Pat Hatch, an old friend and we reconnected a few years ago only to find out we are now in the same area of ministry to refugees and immigrants. I was actually trained by Nancy Booher of the PCA MNA in 2017 and have been traveling to teach their 11-hour ESL Teacher Training Workshop in many different denominations. She shared your Blog with me and told me of your book.

    As she was guiding me thru your Blog topics I saw the cover and realized I have read your book. Loved it. Very practical and down to earth. In fact, it is one I recommend when I do these workshops.

    Small World isn’t it!

    Lookoniof forward to looking at more of your blog!



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