ESL Students’ Ideal Selves

Part 1 of a 3-part series. As an end-of-semester assignment, I had my summer and fall classes (4 total; 2 intermediate multi-skill and 2 advanced academic writing) write about their ideal, ought-to, and feared selves. Besides being a recent buzzword in ELT, possible selves make an interesting writing assignment for both the teacher, who gets to find out his students’ motivations in a bit more detail, and the students, who get to describe their (hopeful) future lives. Now, in fairness to you, I should point out right at the start that I won’t be excerpting their writing here; I didn’t warn them that I’d be using this assignment for my blog and I am one of those teachers who doesn’t even share pictures with his students’ faces in them without asking each one of them individually. Instead of showing you what they actually wrote, I will be analyzing each of their answers for the prevalences of certain topics and concerns and then doing some basic statistics with these. As it turns out, this takes a lot longer.

This post will only deal with ideal selves, with ought-to selves and feared selves to come later. First, here is the prompt and example that they saw.

“For this discussion, please answer these questions in different posts:

  • Imagine it is 2023, and you have succeeded in English in the best way. What steps did you take to get here? How do you use English now (in 2023)?
  • What can you, now, do every day to bring yourself closer to that future best version of you? What kind of things should you do? How should you “study” or “practice”?
  • Imagine the worst version of you in 5 years (the opposite of the first). What happened to your English, and why didn’t you succeed? Give details. What is different in your life because you can’t use English?

Last, reply to a classmate in at least 3 sentences.

Example first post:

In 2023, I am a college graduate. I have transferred to UCI and graduated with a major in computer engineering. I used English in all of my classes to do homework, work on group projects, and give presentations. Computer engineering was still hard, but my English helped me a lot. It also helped me to make friends and find a job. Now, I work for Blizzard Software and I design graphics for upcoming games. I use English at work, of course, but I don’t think of it as ‘practice’ anymore. Now, it’s just life.”

As students turned in this homework (as a blog on Canvas), I copied and pasted the responses into Word files just to keep them handy. Then I put each of 85 paragraph-length responses into a Google Sheet (side note: I have just cancelled my MS Office subscription) and marked down which topics came up the most, divided into the 3 broad categories of school, work, and life.

Around the time I realized I’d bit off more than I could chew (but kept chewing anyway), it looked something like this:

Below are some findings from that curiously spumoni-colored sheet.


First, I had responses from 51 multi-skill students and 31 writing students. Writing students (naturally) wrote more, with an average of 99 words vs. 64 words for the multi-skill students, with standard deviations of about 35 for both groups. This difference in response length may affect the rates of mentioning specific sub-topics such as college majors; it stands to reason that lower writing ability overall mitigates depth and breadth in any given writing task.

The only correlation among the three response groups (school, work, and life) is that work and life are negatively correlated with one another at -0.21, but this was not statistically significant.


School-related topics were the most prominent in the answers when the 4 classes were considered together. 78.5% of responses at least mentioned school, versus 70.2% for work and 69.0% for other aspects of life. That is, school figured into my students’ images of their ideal L2 selves more prominently than either their jobs or things like family or community.

I may have biased them towards school, since my example mentions both transfer and graduation explicitly. 52.3% of responses mention graduation and 42.8% mention transfer, many to the local University of California, Irvine (if you are new to this blog, I teach at community colleges in Southern California). In addition, 36.9% mention a specific field or major, with the plurality of 13.0% mentioning a STEM subject such as biology, and 11.9% medicine or a medicine-related field such as nursing. Another 10.7% specifically mention being able to communicate with teachers and/or classmates in their description of their ideal self.

Taking multi-skill classes and writing classes separately, 90.6% of writing students mention school while only 71.1% of intermediate multi-skill students do. Of the writing students, 59.3% mention a specific major (STEM again being the most common), while only 23.0% of multi-skill students do (and prefer the humanities or medicine).

This is a good place to remind you that at many community colleges, lower-level credit ESL courses have a lot of overlap in student populations and student goals with free, non-credit Adult Education ESL classes. It is not unusual for students in these classes to express disinterest in the official goals of allowing students to matriculate to transfer-level writing courses.

Still, it is telling that in academic ESL, participation in formal institutions of education are seen by students is either the means for or result of improved English. Typical responses mentioned both the fact that English would allow them to succeed in getting a degree (students mentioned Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s and MD degrees) as well as improving their English by studying hard in formal classes (which could also be categorized under ought-to selves). It seems that students see a strong connection between their success in academic ESL and their future educational paths.


A few interesting things pop up when looking for mentions of jobs or work in students descriptions of their ideal selves, the first being that most students mention work at all: 65.3% of multi-skill students and 78.1% of writing students, or 70.2% overall as I said earlier. This is a bit surprising, as only 36% of my multi-skill students and 43% of my writing students last semester actually had paying jobs (many of the writing students are full-time college students and many of the multi-skill students are homemakers – the data on this may be coming in a future post).

Of the specific content of their jobs, the most common comments are on the ease with which they hope to communicate with coworkers and customers – 30.9% mention this; more than any specific job. The most common jobs mentioned overall are in services (14.2%) and education (13.0%), but writing students in particular mention working in medicine 21.8% of the time, their most common field mentioned.

Students who mentioned going to school for STEM or medicine were also likely to mention working in STEM or medicine. The correlations for mentioning studying these and mentioning working in these fields was about 0.59 for both.

Surprising to me at least, 17.8% of responses specifically mentioned being self-employed, with slightly higher numbers for the multi-skill students than the writing students. Now, only about 10% of the US workforce is currently self-employed (although who knows how many ideal selves are), making this aspiration just a bit lofty. Plus, one may assume that people hoping to be self-employed could choose their field and coworkers in such a way that they wouldn’t need as advanced second language skills – especially if they also described wanting to open a business in their home country, as some do. It seems that some of my students want to be the next Jack Mas and Hiroshi Mikitanis of the world and start global businesses back home.


Non-school and non-work concerns were more common in the responses of my multi-skill students than the writing students. Overall, 69% of all responses mentioned something besides school and work, or 76.9% of multi-skill student responses and 56.2% of writing student responses. In both cases, more than half of responses mentioned something like “communicating with Americans in daily life” or “watching movies”, but only for multi-skill students were these concerns more prominent than either school or work.

Among only the multi-skill students, some form of both “helping with daily life” and “communicating with family and/or friends” were mentioned in 32.6% of responses. These included references to going out more or living more easily for the former and a wide range of English-related applications for the latter, from reading to their children to having “native American” roommates. The most common reference to life outside of work and school among writing students was the removal of barriers due to low fluency. High language skill, phrased variously as “perfect English”, “fluency”, or “English like a native speaker” was mentioned by 31.2% of writing students and 23.0% of multi-skill students. It seems that the lower-level students in my multi-skill classes were more concerned with just getting by in American society, while the writing students were more concerned with removing the stigma of “learner’s English” for social advancement.

A finding I certainly didn’t anticipate (although I probably should have) was that fairly large numbers of students’ ideal selves are not in the United States at all. As previewed above, many students see an ideal version of themselves where language is concerned not living as bilingual immigrants in the United States, but using English for social and professional success in their home countries. Of those who specified a country in their responses or made very clear through context (for example by mentioning grocery shopping in English), 83.8% locate their ideal selves within the USA (I assume they are not moving to Australia for this). This includes more multi-skill students (89.4%) than writing students (75.0%). Their responses should be taken as more fanciful conjecture than concrete plan, given my prompt above, but perhaps it is revealing especially for that reason. Not a small number of ESL students apparently maintain an instrumental rather than integrative view of English even in the best version of themselves that they can imagine, or imagine themselves integrating into an international English-speaking community rather than America specifically.

Last, and to end on an optimistic note, 11.9% of responses overall included some reference to doing volunteer work, whether as related to refugees, church, or helping the homeless.

Stay tuned for a similar analysis of students’ ought-to selves, whenever I feel like poring over 85 paragraphs for patterns again.

2 thoughts on “ESL Students’ Ideal Selves

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