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Practitioner Toolkit: Working With Adult English Language Learners book cover
Practitioner Toolkit: Working With Adult English Language Learners

This toolkit provides a variety of materials to help language and literacy instructors who are new to serving adults and families learning English. These materials include a first-day orientation guide, lesson plans, and research-to-practice papers on English language and literacy learning.

Promoting education and achievement of adults learning English


Beginning and Literacy-Level Adult ESL Learners

Dora Johnson, Center for Applied Linguistics Lynda Terrill, Center for Adult English Language Acquisition October 2006

A number of quality resources available in print and online provide background information and suggest approaches, techniques, and activities for teachers working with beginning- and literacy-level adult English language learners (those with minimal experience with literacy in their first or native language or with any language). The resources in this collection were selected because they are evidence- based and provide suggestions and materials for practitioners working with adult English language learners.

One way for teachers to learn to work with a new group of students is to work with experienced colleagues and observe their classes. Teachers new to working with these learners might consider contacting experienced colleagues in their own or other programs to set up observations or a peer-mentoring process. For more information about peer-mentoring, or if you know of resources that you think should be included in this list, please contact CAELA staff at caela@cal.org.

Alcala, A.L. (2000). The pre-literate student: A framework for developing an effective instructional program. ERIC Digest. College Park, MD: ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation. (ERIC No. ED 447 148)

This article is written for teachers working with students between the ages of 12 and 21 who lack literacy skills in their native language and generally have fewer than 2 years of schooling. Although most of these students attend secondary schools, some enroll in adult literacy classes. These students tend to find the school experience alien—from language, to culture, to procedures, to the building facilities. This digest addresses the training that instructors need to provide these students with ESL instruction to help them obtain literacy in English. It also describes services that programs need to provide their students (e.g., native-language support and goal-setting activities).


Brod, S. (1999). What non-readers or beginning readers need to know: Performance-based ESL adult literacy. Denver: Spring Institute for International Studies. (ERIC ED No. 433 730)

This guide provides adult literacy teachers with background information and resources in adult learning and performance-based approaches to literacy education. According to the author, adult ESL literacy students need to learn quickly, see frequent proof of their progress, and have input into what is being taught. The guide is divided into two sections: The first section is a review of the theory and research on adult learning, including factors that affect learning, such as language background, expectation, gender, learning styles and modes, age and health, and education background; the characteristics and needs of literate and non-literate learners; the differences between teaching reading to adult ESL learners and native English speakers; motivation and retention activities; creating a learning-centered classroom; and using multiple learning modes to match the varied learning styles of students. The second section describes performance-based instruction; its rationale; and its components, which include whole language, document literacy, numeracy, and employment related content.


Condelli, L. Effective instruction for adult ESL literacy students: Findings from the What Works Study. (Retrieved September 1, 2006 from www.nrdc.org.uk/uploads/documents/doc_54.pdf)

Larry Condelli and Heide Wrigley were principal researchers on a literacy study concerning adult ESL literacy students. This detailed report is located on the National Research and Development for Adult Literacy and Numeracy Web site from the United Kingdom at www.nrdc.org.uk. Although the study was not a quantitative one, it is one of the few studies to date on the adult ESL literacy population, and as such, is of interest to the field. The report includes an overview of the study’s design and procedures and the instructional framework and observation guide. It explains the analytic approach used in looking at data, summarizes the study’s main findings, and offers suggestions for further research. Because the paper includes an extensive bibliography focused on research and analysis, it may be of special interest to researchers or practitioners who want to investigate how data relates to their own professional wisdom. This article and Wrigley’s (below) provide suggestions to teachers on what works with literacy-level adult English language learners.


Croydon, A. (2005). Making it real: Teaching pre-literate adult refugee students. Tacoma, WA: Tacoma Community House Training Project (now part of  Literacy Network of Washington) (available from www.tchtrainingproject.com/pdf/prelit.pdf)

This free resource addresses the complexities of working with pre-literate adults learning English, focusing specifically on teaching refugees. This guide focuses on teaching adults from cultures that do not have a written language, such as the Somali Bantu, but the approaches, techniques, and activities described are useful for teaching other learners as well. Making it Real includes sections on teaching speaking and listening as well as reading and writing. Within the first section, specific techniques such as grids, information gap and dialogs and role- plays are described. The section on reading and writing explores approaches to teaching reading and includes descriptions of literacy-level learners and a discussion of “Literacy Basics” (p. 53) such as helping pre-literate learners become familiar with the left-to-right and top-to-bottom directionality of English reading and writing.

Florez, M. C. (August 2001). Beginning ESOL learners’ advice to their teachers. Focus on Basics, 5(A), 7-10. (www.ncsall.net/?id=279)

English language learners come with a variety of educational and linguistic backgrounds and represent a wide age span. Administrators of these programs need to be efficient and responsive to meet the diverse needs of their students and to provide opportunities for systematic and ongoing staff development. This article focuses on a rationale for structuring a program in response to what the students expect from their learning experience. Included are activities on self-assessment and ideas for eliciting learner feedback.


Florez, M.C., & Terrill, L. (2003). Working with literacy-level adult English language learners. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (www.cal.org/caela/esl_resources/digests/litQA.html)

This article uses a question and answer format to describe literacy-level learners and the language skills they need to survive in an English speaking environment. It discusses effective practices for literacy-level classes and gives examples of activities and techniques that support these practices. The article addresses such questions as What are effective practices in the literacy class? What are effective needs assessment activities for literacy learners? and What does an effective literacy lesson look like? An extensive reference list with teacher and learner resources is also included.

Grant, R. A., & Wong, S. D. (February 2003). Barriers to literacy for language-minority learners: An argument for change in the literacy education profession. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46(6), 386-394. (www.reading.org/publications/bbv/books/bk568/abstracts/bk568-2-3-Grant.html)

Concern about the "performance chasm" in reading achievement between language-minority learners and students whose first language is English is an important topic, especially given continuing growth in the population of language-minority students and expectations of higher levels of literacy for all students. Two barriers to literacy are the failure of teacher-education programs to adequately prepare reading specialists to work with language-minority learners and the failure of education researchers to engage in more substantive research on English reading development for such students. The authors point out barriers within the literacy education profession that may slow or even prevent language minority learners from becoming fully literate in English. They use the term "full literacy" to stress not just English proficiency, but levels of achievement, especially in reading and writing, that help English language learners to meet native-speaker norms across the curriculum.


Gunn, M. Opportunity for literacy? Preliterate learners in the AMEP

This paper describes the outcomes of an action research project, a systematic inquiry conducted by instructors who gather information about the ways that their specific program operates, how they teach, and how well their students learn. (For more information and a discussion of action research, please see Richard Donato’s Action Research at www.cal.org/resources/digest/0308donato.html)
 During 2001-2, the Adult Migrant English Program [AMEP, Australia] Research Centre funded instructor Margaret Gunn’s action research project with a class of preliterate women from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and southern Sudan. Over three terms, twenty-five women students participated in the project with a core of ten of these students being interviewed by bilingual assistants. The class focused mainly on reading and writing. The author reports on her journal entries and organizational and pedagogical issues arising in the class and discusses definitions, teacher assumptions and expectations, and syllabus construction. Changes occurred in three major areas – in teacher attitudes and approaches, in the school’s relationships with the learners’ communities, and in the general curriculum and learning environment.


 Holt, G. M. (1995). Teaching low-level adult ESL learners. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education. (www.cal.org/caela/esl_resources/digests/HOLT.html) (ERIC ED No. 379 965)

This digest explains how to identity and assess the instructional needs of adults learning to read in a second language; it discusses techniques that facilitate instruction; and it describes appropriate classroom materials. Learners who can benefit from the approaches and techniques used in instruction for literacy-level learners are those who are non-literate and have little or no schooling in their native language; those unfamiliar with the Roman alphabet, such as speakers of Chinese, Arabic, or Khmer; or those who, although literate in a native language such as Croatian or Spanish that does use the Roman alphabet, want to participate in a slower paced class. Techniques in working with literacy-level adult English language learners include building on the experiences and native languages of the learners; sequencing activities from less challenging to more challenging; and combining life-skills reading competencies with phonics, word recognition, word order, and reading comprehension.


Johansson, L., et al. (2000). ESL for literacy learners. Ottawa, ON, Canada: Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. (www.language.ca/pdfs/esl_literacy.pdf)

This handbook is intended for teachers of adult ESL learners who are not functionally literate in their own language for a variety reasons, such as that their native language is not written (for example, Bantu), their native language uses a non-alphabetic system or a non-Roman alphabet, or the learner has had little or sporadic previous education. The benchmarks in this book lay out the progression of reading, writing, and numeracy skills. These benchmarks are intended to inform the teacher about what students should be able to do at various stages of their development. The introduction gives a brief explanation of how people learn to read. The characteristics of a good reader, various methodologies and suggestions for ESL literacy methodology, and the need for clarity of language and format in choosing or developing materials are described.


Nichols, P., & Sangster, S. (1996). An investigation into the reasons for the literacy difficulties experienced by female ESL students from Ethiopia and Eritrea in Perth, WA. Sydney, Australia: National Centre for English Language Teaching and Research (NCELTR), Macquarie University.

Although only seven students were interviewed for this study, the interviews with the Ethiopian and Eritrean female students attending courses at Adult Migrant Education Service, in Perth, Australia (AMES) provide a window to the experiences of an important population of students with limited literacy skills any language. The purposes of this study were to

  • identify the reasons for the lack of progress in literacy skills common among Ethiopian and Eritrean female students of ESL, who, despite having completed at least five hundred and ten hours of ESL instruction made little or not progress in English, and
  • present suggestions and advice to ESL literacy practitioners to assist this particular type of student.

The format consisted of open-ended questions asked during semi-structured interviews and the responses of the targeted students were compared with those of similar groups of non-Ethiopian students. The interviews and research, funded by the Adult Literacy and Numeracy Australian Research Consortium (ALNARC) focused on ascertaining learners' backgrounds, education, and attitudes. Interviewers also obtained data from teachers involved with the students. Analysis yielded recommendations about class placement, successful teaching strategies, and cultural considerations.


Spiegel, M., & Sunderland, H. (2006). A Teachers’ guide: Teaching basic literacy to ESOL learners. London, England: LLU+ and London South Bank University. (Available in the United States from Peppercorn Books at www.peppercornbooks.com/catalog/)

This teachers’ guide outlines models for teaching reading and writing to basic literacy learners. The guide has ideas for beginning and experienced instructors, and it traces several approaches to literacy from a historic perspective. There is a practitioner’s chart for working one on one that outlines stage and purpose, activity and material needed as well as sample curriculum. The guide treats a broad range of topics including learning styles, dyslexia, assessment, materials, planning, and managing courses and classrooms. Resources for teachers include materials, a glossary, and an extensive bibliography. The authors recommend that the guide be used by ESL teachers who are new to literacy levels, working on their ESL certifications, teaching EFL, or changing to a career in ESL. The book evolved from a need for theoretical and practical ESL background. LLU+ (formerly the London Language and Literacy Unit) and the authors discovered the gap in materials when they were developing ESL teacher training courses to be used throughout the United Kingdom.


Wrigley, H. (September 2003). What works for adult ESL students. Focus on Basics, 6(C), 14-17. www.ncsall.net/?id=189

In this article, Wrigley describes a study carried out by American Institutes for Research (AIR) that focused on how literacy-level learners in adult ESL classes develop reading and communicative skills in English. According to Wrigley, “One of the key findings for reading development was that students learned more, as measured in movement on standardized tests, in classes where the teacher made the connection between life outside the classroom and what was learned in the classroom than in classes that did not” (page 15). In this interview with Focus on Basics editor Barbara Garner, Wrigley notes that one unexpected finding was that the “judicious use of the native language made a difference in both reading and oral language skills acquisition as shown by results in standardized tests” (page 16). This article can give teachers pertinent advice on what works with literacy-level adult English language learners. To obtain a report of the study, contact AIR through their Web site at www.air.org

For more information about teaching literacy-level adult English language learners, please see CAELA’s online resource collection Working with Adult Literacy-Level English Language Learners and FAQ#19 What instructional practices best meet the needs of literacy-level adult English language learners?

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