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CAELA Activities: Ask a Simple Question…

CAELA staff members are involved in a number of activities that include preparing reports and research briefs; supporting state teams through telephone calls, emails, and regional meetings; disseminating information and resources at conferences and workshops; and moderating the electronic discussion list (Adult English Language Learners’ List, accessible at for practitioners who work with adult English language learners.

An important role that CAELA plays is responding to questions from state teams and the field. In the past few months we have responded to dozens of questions on topics related to adult ESL teaching and learning. Questions range from how best to provide feedback on learners’ writing to what information is available on teaching and assessing math literacy, to whether there are studies on setting English language standards in the workplace.

As an example:

Question: What statistics are available on the training and education levels of adult ESL teachers?

Answer: One recent study about adult educators and reading instruction surveyed 208 adult education practitioners (77.9% were teachers, 16.8% were program supervisors or coordinators) and found that 21.6% had certification in elementary education, 5.8% in secondary education. 26.9% had certification in more than one area, and 17.3% had no certification ( Bell, Ziegler, & McCallum, April 2004, “What adult educators know compared with what they say they know about providing research-based reading instruction,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 47:7, 542-563.)

Searching CAELA resources To find more information on the topic and to follow the steps CAELA followed click here:

Searching CAELA resources
Searching public access Web sites
Asking colleagues
Searching academic databases


Searching CAELA resources

The first thing we did was to explore CAELA and CAL’s own resources for information on the topic and found several useful pieces describing the state of the profession. Probably the most cited work of this type is Jodi Crandall’s article on “Professionalism and Professionalization of Adult ESL Literacy” (1993, TESOL Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 497-515), which was later summarized and released as a CAL Digest in 1994 (Available at These pieces have few statistics about adult ESL instructors, but they estimate that “80-90%” of adult ESL and adult literacy instructors work part time and often as volunteers (1993, p. 499(too old)). The assumption that can be made from the 1993 article is that these teachers are probably unlikely to have extensive focused training in teaching English as a second language (ESL). Can you find any more recent sources.

Searching public access Web sites

We then turned to other Web sites accessible to the public, such as government and research institutes sites. The Web site of the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) posts a study with statistics on instructors in all state-sponsored adult education programs. The study reports that 48% of teachers are volunteers (OVAE, Division of Adult Education and Literacy, August 1999, LINK However, it must be noted that the data in this study were not restricted to ESL teachers, but applied to adult education teachers in general.

A study on the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) site focuses on adult educators in general (Sabatini, Ginsburg, & Russell, 2002, Professionalization and certification for teachers in adult basic education, NCSALL, The study gives background information on adult education teachers and the contexts in which they teach. An earlier study by some of the same authors (Sabatini, Daniels, Ginsburg, Limeul, Russell, & Stites, 2000, Profiles of an emergent profession: Findings from a national survey of adult literacy professionals, reports on a survey of over 400 adult educators. Less than 5% of adult educators had degrees in adult basic education; 80% had work experience spread across elementary, secondary and community college levels; and 66% were certified as elementary or secondary school teachers. Of the ESL teachers (55 of the total surveyed), 60% had a B.A., 30% had an MS/MA degree or higher, and 11% had a high school diploma or GED certificate. Detailed information on these statistics can be found in the summary tables at the end of the report. ABE and GED teachers were more evenly divided in terms of degrees, with 48% of ABE teachers having a BA, 47% an MA, and 5% a high school diploma; 46% of GED teachers having a BA, 35% an MA, and 4% a high school diploma). This serves as a reminder that statistics on the credentials of adult educators may not accurately reflect the credentials of adult ESL teachers. (This is way too long!!)

When we turned to public access sites in other countries, we found much the same situation—few provide statistics on adult ESL teachers’ education and training backgrounds. The Canadian national organization for Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL Canada) has a new national initiative to offer standardized TESL certification to adult ESL teachers and an accreditation process to recognize qualified TESL education programs. TESL currently recognizes four levels of professional adult ESL teaching credentials (see The distinctions between the first three levels reflect teachers’ experience rather than education, which suggests that adult ESL teachers are unlikely to have TESL-specific education.

Similar patterns emerge in Australia and New Zealand, where adult education teachers tend to be part-time volunteers with no focused training in adult education or ESL. (See the New Zealand Ministry of Education report on “The Adult ESOL Strategy,” The following quotation, written about the situation in Australia, seems to sum up the situation in Australia and New Zealand as well as in North America and the UK: “The volunteer ethos in most countries, despite its strengths, has created a tradition of a teaching workforce with minimal professionalism and with high degrees of casual employment even in the paid workforces…and a lack of clear training and career pathways” (McKenna & Fitzpatrick, 2004, Building sustainable adult literacy provision: A review of international trends in adult literacy policy and programs, NCVER, Adelaide, Australia, )

Asking colleagues

Another step we often follow in answering questions is to contact colleagues in the field to solicit their perspective or insights. In this case, we spoke with researchers involved in the “What works study for adult ESL literacy students” (Condelli, Wrigley, Yoon, Cronen, & Seburn, in press). We learned that the teachers in that study were literacy teachers and did not represent a broad range of adult ESL teachers. Just over one-half were employed full time (55%), and all but one had earned a bachelors degree or higher. About half held a master’s degree or higher; most of these were in the field of linguistics/TESL (21%) or in education (18%). About a third of the teachers held ESL/TESL certification, an additional third held a regular K-12 state teacher certification, and seven (18%) were not certified.

Searching academic databases.

A final but significant step in answering questions posed to CAELA is an in-depth search of academic databases, including Academic Search Premier, Education Abstracts, ERIC, Harvard Educational Review, Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts, Dissertations Abstracts, and Proquest Research Library Plus. For the question on adult ESL teacher training and education statistics, we found that few published research studies exist on the subject. Studies that have been published tend to encompass all adult educators (ABE and ESL). Statistics indicate that large percentages of volunteer and part-time teachers continue to work in the adult ESL sector although there has been a slight movement toward certified instructors since the early 1990s. The data on adult ESL educators’ credentials remain limited. Those data we found have contradictory results about the undergraduate training of adult ESL teachers, with one study showing just 60% of these teachers having bachelor’s degrees, and another showing nearly 100%. There is less confusion on the question of TESL credentials in particular, as the studies agree that the majority of adult ESL teachers do not have special training in teaching ESL. It appears that while the professionalism and professionalization of adult ESL teachers may be improving slowly, more progress still needs to be made.

Responding to questions about adult ESL education can be a complex and challenging process, but we welcome the opportunity to think about new questions and consider old issues in new ways. If you have a question about adult English language learners or adult ESL education, please do not hesitate to ask us (, and we will do our best to find an answer for you.