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Adolescent Learners in Adult ESL Classes

Sarah Young
Center for Adult English Language Acquisition
October 2005

Background on Adult Learners

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 basic skills so they can obtain a high school diploma, high school equivalency certificates or achieve other goals related to job, family, or further education. Sometimes ABE classes include both native English speakers and English language learners. 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. Adolescents (16-18 years old) are among the populations served in these programs.

Audience for This Brief

This brief is written for the following audiences:

  • Practitioners : teachers, teacher trainers, curriculum writers, and program administrators who work with adult English language learners in ESL classes or in mixed ABE classes (with native English speakers and English language learners); and those who work in high schools and transitional high schools, school services, or intake centers with adolescent English language learners
  • Educational researchers: Researchers focusing on adolescents in secondary school or adult education programs


Adolescent English language learners (ELLs) are a growing population in secondary schools and a steady presence in postsecondary (adult) education programs. These students, a mix of immigrants and native-born children of immigrants, make up 6.4% of secondary school populations (Fix & Passel, 2003); from 1990 to 2000, the percentage of ELLs grew by 64% in secondary schools and 46% in elementary schools (Capps, Fix, Murray, Ost, Passel, & Herwantoro, 2005). As high school exit criteria grow more demanding in the United States, students with limited or interrupted schooling are finding it difficult to graduate within the timeframes traditionally allocated for high school study. As a result, these students are turning to adult education and other means of education to earn high school diplomas, increase their job skills, and improve their English language proficiency. Adult education programs are working to address the needs of these students.

Adolescents in adult education programs (defined in this brief as students 16 to 18 years old) have been a small but stable population in recent years. The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education (2005) reports that in 2003-2004, there were 1.2 million adult English language learners enrolled in adult education programs, or 44% of all enrollees in adult education (2.7 million enrollees total). Students aged 16 to 18 comprised 14% of the total enrollment in adult education that year, which is comparable to previous years’ reporting. This brief explains some of the reasons why these adolescents attend adult ESL classes and describes the characteristics of adolescent learners. The brief concludes by providing guidelines for adult ESL program administrators, instructors, and communities to improve adolescent ELLs’ chances of success in and beyond adult ESL programs.

Who are the adolescent ELLs in adult ESL classes?

Adolescent ELLs usually are first-, second- or third-generation students who received the majority of their schooling in the United States, or are newcomers—immigrants who have recently arrived in the United States. Fifty-six percent of the 1.6 million ELLs in grades 6-12 are second- or third-generation, U.S.-born children of immigrants (Capps et al, 2005). These students, sometimes referred to as Generation 1.5, may be enrolled in bilingual or ESL programs for years before being promoted, dropping out, or enrolling in an adult ESL program. Their levels of first and second language literacy (reading and writing skills) and oral proficiency are often unequal, with literacy skills in both languages being significantly lower than their oral language skills (Harklau, 2003).

Newcomer students with interrupted schooling often lack native language literacy and academic content knowledge. They also may experience social and cultural adjustments that affect or prevent their learning in the United States (Mace-Matluck, Alexander-Kasparik, & Queen, 1998; see United Nations Population Fund, 2003 for a comprehensive report on a variety of social, educational, cultural, and health issues affecting adolescent populations around the world). One study (Fleischman & Hopstock, 1993) reported that 20% of ELL-designated students at the high school level had missed two or more years of schooling since age six (See also Ruiz-de-Velasco & Fix, 2000). Some are refugees or have been victims of civil war, violence, trauma, or famine (Isserlis, 2000). Although 75% of ELL-designated students are Hispanic (Fix & Passel, 2003), there are increasing numbers of students from other language and cultural groups (Frey & Lerew, 2004).

Why are adolescent ELLs in adult ESL classes?

Educational, societal, and personal factors contribute to adolescent ELLs’ inability or unwillingness to begin or continue a course of study in a traditional secondary school. Adolescent ELLs may find that adult ESL classes are more flexible, more accessible, and more accepting than secondary school programs, and some may be pursuing a high school diploma through an alternative means such as a GED (General Education Development) program.

Educational factors: Adolescent ELLs are affected by educational factors related to their English language proficiency, first and second language literacy, formal schooling, and expectations regarding school performance and high school graduation. Recently arrived immigrants may not hold the proper documentation (Van Hook, Bean, & Passel, 2005) or have the formal schooling or English language proficiency to approach education in a traditional setting. Their language skills and academic development may be inadequate for them to attend a traditional high school. Many adolescent ELLs quickly realize that a traditional high school program will not meet their needs, so they drop out. Research suggests that it may take four to seven years to acquire academic English under the best of circumstances (Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000), and adolescents often do not feel that they have that amount of time to invest in their education when they also need to work to support themselves and their families.

The limited number of secondary school teachers, administrators, counselors, and support staff trained to work with ELLs also may contribute to these students’ lack of success in traditional schools, and newcomer schools may not be available in their area. (See Short & Boyson, 2000, and Short & Boyson, 2004, for more information about secondary school newcomer programs.) In addition, the disparity that may exist between ELL students’ age and academic proficiency level as compared to that of their peers may make attendance in a traditional secondary school uncomfortable for them.

Recently, the use of high-stakes assessments in grades K-12, which determine student promotion and graduation regardless of English proficiency, has led to increased dropout rates among high school students generally, and adolescent ELLs in particular (Edley & Wald, 2002; Ruiz-de-Velasco & Fix, 2000). Nineteen states require exit exams for high school graduation, and seven other states are planning to implement an exit exam by 2012 (Center on Education Policy [CEP], 2005). Although high school graduation rates of ELLs have not been collected accurately and consistently across states, the CEP reports that ELLs have lower pass rates on exit exams and lower graduation rates than native English speakers. This situation exists even when accommodations are provided, such as instructions given in the first language and use of bilingual dictionaries or glossaries. Fortunately, due to No Child Left Behind regulations, all states will report more information about adolescent ELL enrollment, promotion, and graduation rates by 2006. Consistent and accurate reporting of these data should provide valuable national information about the school progress of adolescent ELLs that can influence and inform the services provided for them.

Societal and personal factors : Expectations of adolescents in the United States also may affect adolescent ELLs’ opportunities to attend school. Along with their U.S.-born peers, adolescent ELLs may be expected to find employment, take care of relatives, participate in civic and community activities, learn to drive, budget their money, or obtain job-related training. Adolescent ELLs may struggle with family reunification, their new roles as interpreters for non-English-speaking relatives, and family systems that are different from those they are familiar with (e.g., American self-reliant culture vs. collectivist and interdependent cultures) (Adkins & Sample, 1999). All of these factors may make it difficult for adolescent ELLs to attend or feel comfortable in a U.S. secondary school.

Why is education for adolescent ELLs a critical issue?

The consequences of dropping out of high school are serious. More jobs than ever before require above average literacy and technological and problem-solving skills (Barton, 2000), and individuals with education are more successful in the workforce. For example, educated adults experience higher incomes, lower rates of unemployment, better health, stronger civic participation, and greater opportunities for career advancement (Bailey & Mingle, 2003; Southern Regional Education Board, 2005). The median income of adults without a high school diploma in 2002 was $18,826; of those with an associates degree, $31,046; and of those with a bachelors degree, $51,194 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).

As language minority populations continue to immigrate to the United States, the need for functionally biliterate and bilingual workers continues to rise. When students drop out of school before obtaining the education and skills required to participate effectively in the 21 st century workforce, they are at risk for needing services and resources later on for social adjustment and job counseling.

How are adolescents developmentally different from adults?

Whatever their nationality or cultural background, adolescents share developmental traits that make them unique from adult learners and that place them in a distinct position in society. By age 16, adolescents have begun to define their own identities, to explore transitions that will take them to their next stage of life, and to manage changing relationships in their families and communities (Borgen & Amundson, 1995; Lucas, 1997).

Adolescents are at an experimental age and therefore may face challenges due to societal pressures. They often struggle with feelings of insecurity, self-consciousness, and sensitivity to advice they may perceive as criticism from adults (Rumptz, Lucas, & McEmrys, 2001). One secondary school ESL teacher consulted for this brief emphasized that many adolescents are cavalier about their health: By not getting enough exercise, nutritious foods, or sleep, they put their own capacity for participating effectively in the classroom at risk (T. Bauder, personal communication, September 16, 2005).

Cognitively, adolescents’ brains are still forming in ways that differentiate them from adult learners. In terms of language acquisition, adolescents may not yet have exited the hypothesized “critical period” (Birdsong, 1999). As a result, their brains are still malleable, and they may learn a second language faster than adults. However, from a cognitive and developmental perspective, adolescents may not have reached the stages of reasoning, organization, and self-control that adults have. Until their early 20s, many young adults struggle to control behavior, emotions, memory, and impulses. While adolescents often have more energy than adults, they may lack the patience and communication skills that adults have developed. Due to continual development and adaptation in the various parts of the human brain, many adolescents have trouble with organization, judgment, communication skills, and decision-making, and may take risks that adults would not. Mentorship from adults and teachers and a structured learning environment can help adolescents develop these skills (National Academy of Sciences, 2002; Price, 2005; Sprenger, 2005; see Feinstein, 2004 for more on adolescent cognitive development).

How are adolescent ELLs’ educational experiences different from those of adult ELLs?

Adult ESL classrooms are known to include diverse groups of adult learners; in some parts of the United States, there are a variety of languages, cultures, nationalities, educational levels, and careers represented in each classroom. Adolescent ELLs add a new dimension to an already diverse educational environment. Although adolescent and adult ELLs may face many of the same circumstances in terms of education, literacy skills, family responsibilities, employment, and legal status, there are still certain strengths, weaknesses, interests, and goals that set them apart. For example, adolescents may not have the wealth of experiences and the general understanding of the world that older learners have. Adults often have high motivation to attend classes, whereas adolescents may not perceive the long-term benefits of education (Weber, 2004). Adult learning theory emphasizes adults’ need for self-directed, practical learning, using their own experience as a resource and making direct applications to everyday life (Knowles, 1990). These approaches to learning can also be practiced by many adolescents; however, adolescents still have a greater need for structure and guidance in the classroom, particularly if they have limited or interrupted schooling (Mace-Matluck, Alexander-Kasparik, & Queen, 1998).

What specific training do adult ESL teachers working with adolescents ELLs need?

Teachers can benefit from training on the developmental stages of adolescents and how this population differs from adult ELLs. Professional development might provide teachers with background information on how adolescents are viewed differently in other cultures and how these differences might affect adolescents’ classroom attitudes and behavior. Teachers may also need to be trained to recognize and address symptoms of mental stress or trauma caused by immigration and resettlement, war, natural disasters, injury or accident, and family conflict (Adkins & Sample, 1999). Research suggests that adolescents can benefit from adult mentoring (Sprenger, 2005). Teachers can be trained in specific mentoring techniques that focus on communicating with students about dropout prevention, career exploration, steps toward independence, decision making, transitioning from high school to higher education and employment, conflict resolution, parenting, and community participation (Rumptz, Lucas, & McEmrys, 2001). Teachers also may need training on how to teach in a multi-generational as well as multi-cultural classroom and meet the needs of both adolescents and adults in lesson planning and group work.

Adult ESL teachers also should be aware of their important role in helping adolescent ELLs set high expectations and goals for themselves. One school provides an example of the positive outcomes that are possible in this type of environment. In the high achieving University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts, 80% of the students (grades 7-12) come from homes where English is not spoken. Despite coming from backgrounds of high poverty, low English proficiency, and lack of previous academic success, all of the students in the school pass Massachusetts’ 10 th grade graduation exams (MCAS) and are accepted to colleges. The school attributes this success in large part to the school staff’s belief and insistence that at-risk students are capable of achieving academically and meeting high standards and goals (Eressy, 2005). Eressy believes that teacher professional development on adolescent literacy, particularly on how to integrate literacy into a language classroom, bolsters the high expectations for students that adult ESL instructors can have. The more adult ESL teachers learn about adolescent cognitive, literacy, and developmental stages and how to help adolescents set high expectations and goals, the better prepared they will be to serve this population.

How can classroom instruction support adolescent ELLs?

Whenever possible, teachers should differentiate adolescents’ learning goals from those of adults in their classes and select materials and instructional strategies that meet both groups’ real-life needs and goals (Tardaeweather, 2004). Adolescent ELLs with previous experience in the American K-12 education system may expect that curricula and standards will incorporate academic content and content-based instruction into classes; however, many adult ESL programs are life skills-based rather than oriented toward academics or content-based instruction. Students who plan to transition (back) to academic programs (secondary or postsecondary) will benefit from classroom instruction that creates high expectations and standards for student performance and provides access to information about future options ( Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 2004). Teachers and administrators can investigate different types of diagnostic, placement, and progress assessments that may be needed for adolescent ELLs and that reflect their stages of cognitive development and educational goals (CEP, 2005). Basic study skill, reading comprehension, and metacognitive strategies in which adolescents assess their success at completing a task are helpful (T. Bauder, personal communication, September 15, 2005).

Adult ESL teachers can contribute to a supportive classroom environment by helping to develop ground rules and using the “collective wisdom” of multiple generations to model tolerance and equity ( Tardaewether, 2004). Adults and adolescents can work together to focus on skills that may be relevant to their current and future employment. In addition, classroom environments that give adolescents opportunities for leadership, decision- making, and self-directed learning will result in more confident and informed young adults (National Academy of Sciences, 2002; Weber, 2004). Adolescent learners often look for personal connections with their teachers and may need more assurances from and interactions with them than their adult counterparts do (T. Bauder, personal communication, September 16, 2005).

What literacy instruction strategies work well with adolescent ELLs?

Research in K-12 educational settings shows that intensive and focused literacy instruction will result in higher graduation rates and academic success (Joftus, 2002). To succeed in secondary school, adolescents need critical thinking skills and highly qualified content area teachers who also serve as reading and writing teachers (Sturtevant, 2003). Motivation, engagement, computer-assisted reading instruction, and strategies instruction can be very powerful tools to use with adolescents struggling with literacy. Instructors also should incorporate into the classroom the varied types of reading and writing that adolescents need to do outside of academic contexts (Kamil, 2003). As is the case for adult ELLs, strong vocabulary knowledge also is critical for acquiring literacy (Burt, Peyton, & Van Duzer, 2005).

Adolescents with limited schooling need basic literacy instruction that emphasizes knowledge of the alphabet and sound-symbol correspondence, fluency, comprehension, phonics, and vocabulary (Curtis & Longo, 1999; Kauffman & Franco, 2004; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Like all learners, adolescents respond to activities that help activate their prior knowledge on topics that are engaging for them. The use of graphic organizers, literature circles, cooperative learning, and guided reading provides adolescents with a structure in which to explore their own learning in an independent, yet supported way (Crandall, Jaramillo, Olsen, & Peyton, 2001; Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000; Kamil, 2003; NICHD, 2000; Ruby, 2003). In addition, according to the Teacher Quality Initiative led by Aida Walqui, teachers should “learn to amplify and enrich — rather than simplify — the language of the classroom, giving students more opportunities to learn the concepts involved. For example, rather than avoid a complex term, a teacher might use it in context and then paraphrase it” (“A framework for teaching,” 2004, p.8). (See also Curtis & Longo, 1999, for suggestions about working with adolescents with reading difficulties.)

How can adult ESL programs and administrators support adolescent ELLs?

Program administrators can adapt aspects of their adult ESL programs in a variety of ways to be more welcoming and helpful to adolescent ELLs. Adolescent-specific policies and criteria regarding entry and exit in adult ESL programs might be established. Some adolescent ELLs who enter adult ESL programs may possess educational records from their native country or the United States that should be consulted when placing them and considering instructional options for them. One way to inform and improve upon these administrative procedures is to establish systems of national data collection and analysis that portray an accurate picture of adolescent ELLs and their needs. Doing this will facilitate easy access to student records when highly mobile adolescents move from one school system to another. Adult ESL programs may also wish to identify grant-making organizations that donate funds for work with adolescent populations. ( e.g., the Web site of The Foundation Center,

What other educational opportunities are available to adolescent ELLs?

For adolescent ELLs who hope to continue their academic or vocational education, obtain a GED certificate, return to traditional educational settings, pursue higher education, or rejoin their peer groups, there are alternative secondary school and adult education programs. An alternative secondary education program, such as a newcomer or transitional high school, is one option. Newcomer programs may be housed in traditional secondary schools or in separate centers, but they generally provide intensive English instruction to students with limited English proficiency, usually for no more than two years, in order to prepare them to join a traditional secondary school program. Transitional ESOL high schools are similar but offer a more flexible schedule for students who are older and have work schedules that must be accommodated (Focus on Basics, 2004). The goal of transitional ESOL high schools such as one in Fairfax, Virginia, is to raise students’ English proficiency and academic levels so that they can transition to one of the local adult secondary school education programs and earn their high school diploma there (Focus on Basics, 2004).

The Newcomer High School in Houston, Texas, serves its adolescent and adult students in a different way: The charter school is not intended to transition students to traditional secondary or adult secondary school programs. Rather, Newcomer High School is a self-contained program that helps older and first-time high school students prepare for and receive their high school diplomas while working part- or full-time jobs (“ Houston ‘ Newcomers School’,” 2005).

Limited research has been done on the effects of alternative education programs on adolescent ELLs, although there is significant literature available about alternative education for other at-risk youth (Aron & Zweig, 2003). Overall, r esearch and practice have shown that adolescents benefit from the following youth development principles: physical and psychological safety; appropriate structure; supportive relationships and opportunities to belong to a community of learners; positive rules and expectations for behavior; empowerment techniques that develop autonomy, such as problem solving; and opportunities to build physical, mental, emotional, and social skills. Integrated family, school, and community efforts can support and develop adolescents in these areas (National Academy of Sciences, 2001). An example of an integrated effort to address these needs is the collaboration among the federal Departments of Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice in a new “Shared Vision For Youth.” This collaborative initiative aims to improve upon existing alternative education services and to incorporate measures of progress that provide youth with the occupational, academic, emotional, and social resources necessary to connect them with quality education and employment opportunities (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005). For more information on this initiative, see  

How can adult ESL program administrators and teachers help adolescents transition to other programs?

Adult ESL program administrators and teachers can provide adolescent ELLs with information and opportunities to learn about multiple career and educational pathways (including General Education Development [GED], Adult Basic Education [ABE], Adult Secondary Education [ASE], and higher education options), coupled with goal-setting, study skills, and life skills. Community job fairs, service learning organizations, career exploration services, volunteer organizations, internships, apprenticeships, and mentoring programs may present opportunities that may help adolescents develop language and employment skills and encourage them to pursue further education. Young adults (often up to the age of 24) have access to secondary school and alternative programs in many states. Adult ESL administrators and teachers can create partnerships and connections with local secondary school and newcomer programs and community organizations so that adolescents have access to student support groups, tutoring, extracurricular activities, dropout prevention programs, and health and social services. When possible, adult ESL programs should seek and encourage family support. Talking to parents or relatives, when possible, will enable instructors to consider how students’ backgrounds and personal situations may affect their classroom success.


Adolescent ELLs in adult ESL classrooms face challenges in many areas: language proficiency, academic achievement and literacy, poverty, legal status, and family situations. Many traditional high schools are unprepared to address adolescent ELLs’ unique needs. The consequences of not educating and supporting these students are severe and can result in higher rates of crime, unemployment, poverty, and illiteracy that are carried through to the next generation (e.g., a high percentage of high school dropouts in many prisons are linguistic and cultural minorities; DelliCarpini, 2003). On the other hand, the benefits of serving these students are many. Adolescent ELLs are a growing population with tremendous future potential in academics, on the job, and at home. Addressing their academic needs should help to provide them with the opportunity to meet their potential and become contributing members of society. While adult ESL administrators may need to restructure some aspects of their programs to accommodate these students, adult ESL instructors will also benefit from training on adolescent development, adolescents’ needs, and mentoring techniques. At its best, the education of adolescent ELLs, whether newcomers or second-generation students, is a comprehensive endeavor among secondary school and adult education programs, higher education, communities, and families – an endeavor that should yield valuable results.


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This document was produced by the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA) 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.