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Supporting Adult English Language Learners' Transitions to Postsecondary Education
(This brief is also available in pdf format.)
Adult education programs serve both learners who are native English speakers and those whose first, or native, language is not English. Native English speakers attend adult basic education (ABE) classes to learn the skills needed to earn high school equivalency certificates or to achieve other goals related to job, family, or further education. English language learners attend English as a second language (ESL) or ABE classes to improve their oral and written skills in English and to achieve goals similar to those of native English speakers.
Audience for This Brief
This brief is written for the following audiences:
Adult immigrants studying English in the United States have diverse educational backgrounds. Some have earned graduate degrees, while others have had little or no access to education. Their goals and expectations for future education and employment are also diverse. As shown in Figure 1, some adult English language need English skills to gain admission into a specific work training or certification program. Others take English classes to be able to enroll in postsecondary education, either directly or after first attending adult basic education (ABE) classes or earning General Educational Development (GED) credentials.
What can adult English language learners expect when transitioning out of ESL classes to other education or work opportunities, and in what ways might their expectations and experiences be similar to or different from those of native English speaking adult learners? For adult English language learners with previous higher education or college preparatory classes, the experience may be different from that of native English speakers in adult education programs. Adult English language learners may be familiar with expectations of academic settings; strategies for managing academic coursework; and the process of selecting, applying for, and registering for appropriate classes. Those who have had fewer opportunities to study academic content may share experiences with native English speaking adult learners.
Classroom-level approaches to promote transitions: What teachers can do
Based on the understanding that the purpose and content of the adult ESL curriculum is significantly different from the curricula of GED and postsecondary courses, Rance-Roney (1995) noted that transitional programs should emphasize skills that help learners enter and be successful in academic programs. These skills should
Recent research in second language acquisition and related areas adds further support to her recommendations, as described below.
Focus on language accuracy and careful use of language
Include extensive reading and genre-based writing
Instruction in writing skills also is important for students transitioning to academic studies. This includes teaching the rhetorical organization of American English texts, written sentence structures, punctuation, and cohesion words; and developing familiarity with academic writing tasks. All of these recommendations can be at least partly addressed through the introduction of a genre-based pedagogy (e.g., see Cheng, 2006). Using this pedagogy, students are made aware of the common features and styles of different genres such as academic essays and personal narratives, provided with models of them, and given opportunities collaboratively and individually to analyze and produce samples of the different genres. So (2005) also argues that a genre-based approach to teaching school-based texts, such as editorials and argumentative essays, not only helps students become aware of the rhetorical structures and purposes of these types of texts, but also develops skills that can be transferred to understanding and producing other types of texts.
Develop vocabulary centered on less-frequently used academic terminology
Other suggestions for developing vocabulary can be found in a study by Fan (2003). Through studying adult language learners in a foreign language context, Fan’s large-scale study provides insights into effective strategies for learning low-frequency academic vocabulary. Fan found that successful students used strategies that involve conscious management of vocabulary learning such as
In contrast, memorization strategies such as repetition, grouping, and word association were more frequently used by less successful students.
Fan’s findings on the importance of explicit strategy instruction for increasing learners’ academic vocabulary knowledge are consistent with those of a recent synthesis of research on vocabulary acquisition (Hunt & Beglar, 2005). According to Hunt and Beglar, academic vocabulary is best taught by promoting both explicit and implicit instruction on words and learning strategies. In particular, they recommend teaching explicit strategies of using dictionaries and inferring from context. To provide reading practice, they also recommend narrow reading, in which learners read a number of texts on a specific topic or genre, for example, in connection with their academic or employment training; and extensive reading, in which learners read many different types of texts on many different topics.
Develop conceptual and critical thinking skills
Program Features to Promote Transitions: What administrators can do
Several studies emphasize the key role of community colleges in promoting transitions for adult students (e.g., Chisman, 2004; Jenkins, 2003; Liebowitz & Taylor, 2004; Morest, 2004; Walker & Strawn, 2004).Few of these programs are designed specifically for ESL students (e.g., Goldschmidt, Notzold, & Miller, 2003); most focus on programs for both ABE and ESL students.
In fact, the number of adult English language learners enrolling in postsecondary education is still relatively small. Tyler’s (2001) synthesis of the literature on GED students (including both native and nonnative English speakers) showed that only between 5% and 10% of those leaving a GED program completed at least 1 year of postsecondary education in Washington. A large-scale study of students in Washington State community and technical colleges found that only 12% of ESL students went on to enroll in college-credit courses (Price & Jenkins, 2005). Interestingly, another large longitudinal study of community college students (Patthey-Chavez, Dillon, & Spiegel, 2005) showed that the ESL students who did go on to take regular content courses at the college level tended to outperform the native English speaking students in terms of grades and course completion. Bailey and Weininger (2002) reached a similar finding in their study of students at the City University of New York (CUNY). Foreign-born students in general, and foreign-born high school students with a high school education from a foreign country in particular, showed the greatest likelihood of completing their programs in CUNY’s 2-year colleges.
The following is a description of factors administrators should consider the following when planning programs to promote adult English language learners’ transitions to postsecondary education and programs that incorporate these factors:
Address nonacademic factors
Provide orientation to students
Strengthen programs through cooperation
Solidify economic benefits of postsecondary education
While obtaining a 4-year college degree is not the goal of all adult students in ESL classes, some post-ESL study is needed by many adult English language learners. This study might include GED preparation, vocational training, and certification or recertification courses. Adult ESL teachers and administrators need to ensure that students are aware of the options that exist and prepare them with the tools and strategies that they need to make the transition. Research on reading, writing, and vocabulary instruction provides guidance for teachers helping adult English language learners acquire the linguistic skills necessary for academic coursework. Student orientation, counseling services, and productive integration of adult education programs with content programs in community and technical colleges to meet the particular needs of adult learners are important. Combined, these approaches can effectively serve the needs of adult English learners who are transitioning to postsecondary education.
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This document was produced at the Center for Applied Linguistics (4646 40th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016 202-362-0700) with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), under Contract No. ED-04-CO-0031/0001. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.