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Online Professional Development for Adult ESL Educators

Julie Mathews-Aydinli, CAELA
Karen Taylor, Arlington (Virginia) Education and Employment Program (REEP)
November, 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 get 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.


Audience for this Brief

This brief is written for the following audiences:

  • Practitioners: teachers, teacher trainers, and program administrators who work with adult English language learners in ESL classes
  • Educational researchers focusing on professional development issues for adult ESL teachers


Note : A number of Web sites are provided as examples in this article. The list is not an exhaustive one nor does this brief necessarily endorse these specific sites. It is strongly recommended that practitioners take the time to evaluate for themselves whether a particular Web site or online professional development service can meet their needs in an effective manner. The reader should be aware that given the speed at which electronic resources change, the Web sites listed within this brief may not remain current after publication of this brief.



Programs face a number of challenges in providing professional development for educators of adults learning English as a second language (ESL). Adult ESL teachers often work part time, may teach in more than one program, and often transfer from program to program (Hawk, 2000; Smith, Hofer & Gillespie, 2001; Wilson & Corbett, 2001). Facilities for providing professional development may be located far from one another within a state or region. In addition, teachers may have widely varying teaching experience, training, and qualifications. As a result, it can be difficult to:

  • bring teachers together in one place and at one time for professional development events
  • group teachers appropriately according to their experience and needs; and
  • sustain activity over time after an initial presentation or workshop.

Professional development provided online offers a way to address these challenges. Increasingly, educators and researchers are seeking ways to use the Internet to deliver content, provide opportunities for interaction, and build community among groups of teachers who are not in the same place at the same time (Lites, 2004; Pelz, 2004; Ramirez & Savage, 2003).

This brief describes current efforts to provide online professional development opportunities and resources for adult ESL teachers and discusses factors that must be considered in the development, delivery, and evaluation of professional development that is available online.

Research Findings

Online professional development programs hold great promise for use with adult ESL educators. If adequate attention is given to instructional design and content, such programs can help overcome geographic and time barriers, and ease teachers’ access to relevant, personalized, and meaningful professional growth opportunities (Egbert & Thomas, 2001). Recent studies that focused on K-12 teachers suggest that online professional development efforts can have a positive impact on teachers’ practices. Both Childs (2004) and Coffman (2004) observed that new skills learned through online professional development activities were transferred to the classroom, and Childs and Crichton (2003) described teachers’ reports that they had made changes in their teaching practices as a result of online professional development.

Working in the context of a graduate level program for teaching English to Speakers of other languages (TESOL), Roessingh and Johnson (2005) compared the challenges and benefits of teaching online courses with teaching the same courses in a traditional face-to-face setting. They found the quality of the students’ work in the two courses to be the same, and concluded that online courses will increasingly have a place in education and professional development because they offer flexibility and choice, can help in overcoming physical barriers, and can provide an effective environment for promoting self-reflection and community building among learners. These findings take on particular significance when considered alongside the results of studies exploring the primary problems (outlined in the Background) of traditional professional development for teachers in adult education. Both Marceau (2003) and Belzer (2005) emphasize that professional development programs for adult educators need to be more accessible, offer greater choices (for experienced as well as novice teachers), and promote an “ethic of collaboration” (Marceau, 2003, p. 67). Online professional development seems poised to help in meeting these needs.

This does not mean that online professional development is a panacea. A study looking at the benefits and problems surrounding the use of an online professional development resource site for teachers of English as a foreign language (EFL) found that while the teachers reported positive perceptions of the resources on the Web site, they did not make frequent use of them (Kabilan, 2003) Given the large investments of time, money, and expertise necessary to design and facilitate courses online, a question to be considered is: what can be done to encourage and assist teachers in the use of online professional development programs? A variety of factors has been found to contribute to teachers’ use of online professional development programs.

Course Content and Design

Online courses need to directly address teachers’ needs and learning goals (Smith, Hofer, Gillespie, Solomon, & Rowe, 2003). A survey of adult educators in 2000 revealed that only 24% of those who participated in online courses and electronic discussion lists found these experiences to be the “most useful” form of professional development, with 11% ranking these modalities “least helpful” (Sabatini, Daniels, Ginsberg, Limeul, and Russell, 2000). Egbert and Thomas (2001) point to the design of online programs as a possible culprit: “There is a sense of groping for guidelines, models, or at best, lists of best practices, for the design and delivery of online instruction” (p. 391). A key finding in Russell, Coplan, Corrigan, and Diaz’s (2003) study on establishing an online professional development course was that in order to be successful, a course must be centered on the teachers and their needs—both in content and delivery style. This encourages teachers’ continued participation and provides a useful model of learner-centered teaching. Analyses of teachers’ professional development needs in particular contexts can lead to the development of more appropriate online professional development courses and increase the chance that teachers will remain committed to them. Because adult ESL educators are often limited in choice to online professional development courses designed either for a general adult educator audience or for ESL teachers who do not teach adults (see Tables 1 and 2 below), the question of content relevance is particularly valid.

Technical Support

Researchers have found that teachers have a persistent, if hesitant, interest in technology for instructional purposes, but often feel uncomfortable or ill prepared to use it in their teaching (Sabatini, Daniels, Ginsberg, Limeul, and Russell, 2000). This hesitance towards using technology in the classroom may negatively affect teachers’ willingness to participate in online professional development activities as well. Therefore, one way to facilitate teachers’ successful participation in online professional development may be to first train them to integrate technology into their instruction.

A Sense of Community

A factor considered central to successful online learning is the learner’s sense of belonging to a community (Feger, 2004; Lites, 2004; Nunan, 2005; Nussbaum-Beach & Norton, 2004; Pelz, 2004). Much remains to be learned about what goes into building a community identity among adult ESL teachers. Establishing a common discourse based on shared knowledge and known references is especially challenging given the high staff turnover in and part-time nature of adult ESL teaching, as well as the often diverse professional backgrounds of adult ESL teachers (Sabatini, Daniels, Ginsberg, Limeul, & Russell, 2000; Smith, Hofer, Gillespie, Solomon, & Rowe, 2003). One element that has been found to contribute to community building online is to emphasize a common sense of responsibility among members. In an online course or workshop this can be done by including activities with shared responsibilities and outcomes (Vrasidas & Zembylas, 2004). The same study also found that having clear rules for member participation—some predefined, some negotiated by the group—also helped create a sense of community among the learners.

Time and Incentives

Offering a course on the Web is only a first step in providing online professional development options for teachers. The course needs to be maintained through continuous funding and disseminated so that teachers will know that it is available and how they can benefit from using it. Ramirez and Savage (2003) argue that we need an “infrastructure for distance education” (p. 8). The key to ensuring teacher commitment in many ways goes back to the administrators, whose responsibility it is to make sure that teachers receive the time and incentives necessary to participate in professional development opportunities (Johnson & Summerville, 2004).


Online Professional Development Programs in Use

In order to understand the full range of professional development options available online for adult ESL instructors, it is helpful to distinguish between two broad categories of online resources and online training. Both have an important role to play in a teacher’s career-long learning experiences, and there is undoubtedly some overlap between the two (particularly in the sense that online training options usually make use of online resources). However, distinguishing the two is a first step in helping practitioners select options to meet their needs. It should be noted that while some of the Web sites listed here have been designed specifically for adult ESL teachers, others are designed with different teacher populations in mind but nevertheless provide important information and activities for adult ESL teachers.

Online Resources

Online resources include a broad range of Web sites and online materials. What is common among these resources is that they can be accessed by teachers in order to learn about and, in some cases, share ideas on topics related to the profession of adult ESL teaching. These sites are often—but not always—free. While they do not provide formal feedback to the teacher, they may involve interaction online with other adult ESL practitioners. Use of these resources is on an informal basis and does not result in a recognized, formal outcome such as a certificate or professional development points.

It is possible to distinguish among three types of online resources that adult ESL practitioners can access: professional texts, discussion lists, and Web spaces. The following section describes these types of resources and sample Web sites and a summary is provided in Table 1.

Professional texts

The broadest type of online resources refers to the many texts available online for the adult ESL practitioner who is looking for current research from the field; guidelines on designing, teaching, or assessing adult ESL classes; or general information on issues of relevance to the profession. These texts include online journals on topics such as ESL teaching (e.g. TESL Journal at, general issues of adult education (e.g. New Horizons in Adult Education at, or teaching literacy (e.g. Reading Online at

Online resource texts also include newsletters of particular relevance to adult ESL practitioners, such as the quarterly CAL Progress, which is published by the California Adult Literacy Professional Development Project and is accessible at Although intended primarily for teachers in the state of California, the newsletter contains useful information for out-of-state adult ESL teachers as well, such as articles on recent research, a resource corner, and essays of shared experiences and ideas from the field. Teachers are encouraged to check whether similar newsletters are produced by, for example, the department of adult education in their own state.

Other resources are various online toolkits or handbooks. Examples include The Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners, available from the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA) at, which offers not only background information on adult ESL learners, but also activity packets for use in the classroom, information on issues such as family literacy, and additional resources for teachers. Another example is the ESOL Starter Kit at, which focuses on lesson planning and classroom management. Other guides include the ESL New Teacher Resource Guide and the Online Health Literacy Guide, both of which can be downloaded and printed from the CALPRO Web site, and Understanding What Reading is All About, a booklet on the teaching of reading to adult native English speakers that can be adapted for use with adult ESL students, at

The interested practitioner can also access online seminal articles and reports from the fields of adult education, TESOL, and papers on related topics such as literacy and civics. These articles and reports are made available from CAELA,, or the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL),

Finally, it is possible to read prepared texts on different topics of interest to the adult ESL practitioner, presented in the form of mini-modules or units. Examples of such modules are those on “Working with Adult Literacy Learners,” “Culture and English Language Learners” or “Principles of Adult Learning,” all of which are available through Verizon Literacy Campus, In the case of the mini-modules, print texts are followed by suggested activities or investigations that encourage the reader to make connections between the text material and his or her teaching practices. A training module on introducing family literacy to adult learners is also available through the CALPRO Web site, Similar to the mini-modules, though not appearing as written texts, are Web casts on topics related to adult education. One was offered in October 2005 by the National Centers for Career and Technical Education ( on “Serving Adults and Non-Traditional Students,” and another was offered in July and September 2005 by the National Center for Family Literacy ( on “S cientifically Based Reading Research in Adult Education.”

Electronic discussion lists

Various electronic discussion lists are active on topics that may be of direct or indirect interest to adult ESL instructors. By accessing the Web site of the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL),, practitioners can join in discussions on specific topics such as Adult Literacy Professional Development, Family Literacy, ESL Education, or Workplace Literacy. Other discussion lists of possible interest to the adult ESL teacher are those directed at ESL teachers, such as In addition, many states run local discussion groups that may be of interest to teachers outside the state as well. Teachers can learn more about these from their local TESOL affiliate, local literacy organizations, or their state’s department of adult education.

Web spaces for professional development

Some Web sites now provide adult ESL teachers with space online that can complement their off-line professional development efforts. For example, teachers may use these spaces to build up online portfolios, post reflective journals for feedback, participate in online mentoring, or make public the results of an action research project. One example of such a site is the Professional Development Kit, developed in 2002 by the National Center for Adult Literacy (NCAL) with funds from the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE). Available at , the Web site includes Web space facilities as well as other resources, such as investigations on such topics in adult education as assessment, diversity, community building, workplace literacy, and teachers’ roles.

Table 1. Online Resources




Online Journals

Articles on issues related to teaching English, adult education, and literacy


CAL Progress


The Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners;

The ESOL Starter Kit;

ESL New Teacher Guide and the Online Health Literacy Reference Guide; Understanding What Reading is all About



45-minute to 2-hour modules on topics such as Principles of Adult Learning and Culture & English Language Learners, with suggested follow-up activities;

Web casts with suggested follow-up activities


Electronic discussion


Online discussions of topics such as ESL education, family literacy, workplace literacy, and adult education

Web spaces

Online space for posting portfolios, action research projects, journal entries, or participating in mentoring


 Online Training

Online training refers to courses or programs in which adult ESL instructors can enroll and learn about the adult ESL profession under the guidance or direct instruction of an online facilitator or teacher. Upon successful completion of the course or degree, teachers earn some formal recognition in the form of Professional Development Points, Continuing Education Units, university course credits, certificates, or degrees. In distinguishing among the various types of online training available, it can be useful to consider five key factors:

Time commitment

Online training may consist of short-term (e.g. one week) online workshops to mid-term (two to six months) certificates and courses, or long-term (two or more years) online degrees. Teachers need to consider the amount of time they are willing and able to invest in completing the training.


Workshop or course content can range from topics of general relevance to adult ESL teachers (e.g., classroom practices or understanding adult ESL students) to topics specific to particular state or federal policies regarding adult ESL instruction or assessment. Degrees are offered in Teaching English as a Second Language or in Adult Education. Teachers need to ask what type of information is most important to them at their stage of professional development and in their particular teaching context.


Upon completion of the training workshop or course, teachers may be awarded Continuing Education Units or Professional Development Points. Also called Professional Development Units or In-service Points, these points are generally awarded to teachers employed by the state for participating in in-state training workshops or courses. The purpose of the points varies, with some states requiring teachers to obtain a specified number of points each year and others offering financial incentives for earning points. Longer training programs generally lead to the awarding of Certificates, Diplomas, or Degrees (e.g., B.A., M.A., M.S. Ph.D., or D.Ed). Teachers need to know what types of outcomes are recognized in their teaching organization or context.

Style of course delivery/required tasks

Online training varies widely in terms of the interaction required (e.g., how much of the work can be done on one’s own and how much requires interacting online with others). It may also require different types of interaction (e.g., between students or with a facilitator, asynchronous or synchronous). Training courses also demand different types of tasks, such as reading and responding to texts, writing papers, conducting projects, leading online discussions, or participating in-group work. Teachers need to consider the types of tasks they are most comfortable with and whether they have access to the necessary resources for completing those tasks.


The price for online training ranges from free (generally in the case of state-based initiatives offering online professional development courses for in-state adult ESL teachers) to very costly (upwards of $10,000 for complete online graduate degrees). In between these two extremes are courses and certificates ranging in price from less than $100 to several hundred dollars.

Table 2 gives a selection of online training options for adult ESL educators. Included are examples of state-based initiatives open to out-of-state teachers (teachers are highly recommended to check with their own state for training options), private TESOL courses or certificate programs, and private or state-based degree programs. This list is not exhaustive, but it provides an idea of the range of options available. Also on the list is adult education professional developers (AE-Pro), an online professional development service created by the Center for Literacy Studies at the University of Tennessee and the Ohio Literacy Resource Center of Kent State University. AE-Pro offers courses for individual teachers as well as fully prepared group courses for states or organizations looking to provide online professional development opportunities for their teachers.


Table 2. Online Training








ESL/Civics Link


6 months of open access to the Web site

Units on building cross-cultural awareness, teaching approaches, Internet use, civics

No official outcome

portfolios, discussion boards, study groups, Web research

Under $100 for an individual

Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center


2 months

Adults as Learners, ESOL Basics, Using Technology

PD Points

Readings, assignments, discussions

Free to VA teachers, under $100 out of state

Florida state adult ESOL instructional improvement project


5-10 hours

Modules include Understanding ABE Students, Adult ESOL Instructional Improvement, and Health Literacy for Adult ESL

Inservice points for in-state teachers

Pre/post test, projects, postings


Adult Education Professional Developers



6 weeks

Courses include ESOL Basics, Adult Education: Teachers & Students, and Integrating Technology in Adult ESL Classes

Certificate of completion

Online activities, discussion boards, assessments

$149 for individuals;

$800 for 25-seat group course without facilitator

PBS TeacherLine


15-45 hours

Generally for K-12 teachers, though some relevant courses may be found

Optional graduate course credit

Varies: assignments, readings, discussions

Approx. $200 per course

School for International Training, Center for Professional Development

2 months

One online course per semester (e.g., Putting Reflective Teaching into Practice)

Course grade

Assignments, discussion of readings, exchanges with teacher and peers


TEFL Course

40 or 60 hours

10 modules including Student Motivation, How to Teach Vocabulary, Games and Lesson Planning


Coursework with teacher feedback


TESOL courses and seminars

2-hour virtual seminars

1-month courses/2-year maximum to earn certificate

Seminars on ESL teaching (e.g., Civic Development, Assessment)

Courses/ certificate

on teaching online

Completion of 6 courses results in a certificate in online teaching

Certificate: assignments, feedback, discussion

Seminar: $52, members free;

Certificate: $950 members, $1,460 others

University of Phoenix

2+ years


M.A. adult education

Assignments, feedback, discussion

$588/credit hour

Capella University

2+ years


M.S./Ph.D. adult education

Assignments, feedback, discussion

$350/credit hour

SUNY State University

2+ years


Graduate certificate; M.S. adult education

Assignments, feedback, discussion

$288/credit hour for NY residents; $455 others


Selecting Online Training


The resources and training options listed above represent a sample of what is available online. With both public and private organizations adding regularly to this selection, it is increasingly important for practitioners to develop their skills of evaluating online professional development resources and training options. Developing criteria for evaluation of online training is most important, since these options generally involve a significant investment of time and money. After first confirming that a particular online training course or program will meet the professional development requirements of the state or institution in which one teaches, the following are additional factors to consider in evaluating its quality:


  • Accreditation: Is the course accredited by a nationally or state-recognized academic accrediting agency?
  • Site: Are the technical requirements and minimum technology competencies clearly stated? Is technical assistance readily available? Is access to learning resources made available? Is information available on past evaluations/reviews of the course materials, instructors, or student performance?
  • Course content: Is the syllabus available for review? Are the instructional goals and objectives clearly defined? Do the course activities promote active learning through interaction with peers? Do the course activities promote the development of a learning community? Is the course organized in a coherent, sequential manner? Are the assignments clear and understandable? Are selected course links working?
  • Instructors: Are the teachers’ credentials made available? Are the instructors trained in Web-based instruction?
  • Assessment: Is there a range of assessment tools? Are the criteria for grading available for assignments? Will feedback be provided regularly? How often is feedback given?
  • Cost: Are the full costs clearly posted and easy to understand? Are there options for financial aid?


Online resources and training programs increasingly offer adult ESL practitioners a wide choice of options for professional development. Given the complexities of providing relevant, ongoing, easily accessible, and time- and cost-efficient professional development, these online options are attractive. While online professional development can contribute to the life-long learning experiences of adult ESL teachers, it should not be considered an easy solution to professional development needs. Administrators need to be aware of the challenges involved in designing and facilitating effective online courses or workshops. They also must avoid thinking that after having set up or referred their teachers to a course, their responsibility has ended. Online professional development requires at least as much time and energy as traditional professional development, and teachers need to be compensated fairly for their time and participation. Moreover, for teachers and administrators alike, it is important to learn ways of critically assessing the quality of the resources and training options available online. Finally, while research on online professional development has greatly expanded in recent years, studies focusing particularly on the needs, experiences, and outcomes of adult ESL teachers are still very much needed.


Belzer, A. (2005). Improving professional development systems: Recommendations from the Pennsylvania Adult Basic and Literacy Education Professional Development System Evaluation. Adult Basic Education, 15(1), 33-55.

Childs, E. (2004). The impact of online professional development on teaching practice: A case study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Calgary, Canada.

Childs, E., & Crichton, S. (2003). Online professional development for online educators: Does it change teaching practice? Proceedings of the World Conference on E-Learning in Corporations, Government, Health, and Higher Education, 178-181.

Coffman, T. (2004). Online professional development: Transferring skills to the classroom. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Capella University.

Egbert J., & Thomas, M. (2001). The new frontier: A case study in applying instructional design for distance teacher education. Language Learning & Technology, 9(3) 391-405.

Feger, S. (2004). Rethinking collective participation in an online professional development seminar. Proceedings of the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference, Norfolk, VA.

Hawk, W.B. (2000). Online professional development for adult ESL educators. Center for Applied Linguistics. Available:

Johnson, C., & Summerville, J. (2004). Rural creativity: A study of district mandated online professional development. Paper presented at the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Chicago, IL, October 19-23, 2004.

Kabilan, M.K. (2003). Online professional development of teachers: An examination of structure and trends in Malaysia. International Journal of Instructional Media, 30(4), 367-383.

Lites, E. (2004). Visionary view: Is online professional development for you? Essential Teacher, 1(5) 37-40.

Marceau, G. (2003). Professional development in adult basic education. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 98, 67-76.

Nunan, D. (2005) General principles of distance education. Paper presented at the American University Summer Intensive Workshop: Making Distance Learning Work, Washington D.C., July 9, 2005.

Nussbaum-Beach, S., & Norton, J. (2004). Keys to quality: Five questions to ask before you choose an online provider. Access Learning, 8-9.

Pelz, B. (2004). Three principles of effective online pedagogy. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks,8(3), 33-46.

Ramirez, S., & Savage, L. (2003). Video-based education for adult English language learners. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. Available:

Roessingh, H., & Johnson, C. (2005). Online teaching and learning in TESL professional development. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education,6(2), 107-115.

Russell, M., Coplan, R., Corrigan, C. & Diaz, R. (2003). Factors influencing the effectiveness of a distance-learning model for professional development for teachers of adults: The case of ESL/Civicslink. NCAL Working Paper. Philadelphia, PA: National Center on Adult Literacy.

Sabatini, J.P., Daniels, M., Ginsberg, L., Limeul, K., & Russell, M. (2000). Teacher perspectives on the adult education profession: National survey findings about an emerging profession. Philadelphia, PA: National Center on Adult Literacy.

Smith, C., Hofer, J., & Gillespie, M. (2001). The working conditions of adult literacy teachers: Preliminary findings from the NCSALL staff development study. Focus on Basics,4(D),

Smith, C., Hofer, J., Gillespie, M., Solomon, M., & Rowe, K. (2003). How teachers change: A study of professional development in adult education. Report 25a. Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.

Vrasidas, C., & Zembylas, M. (2004). Online professional development: Lessons from the field. Education and Training. 46(6/7), 326-334.

Wilson, B., & Corbett, D. (2001). Adult basic education and professional development: Strangers for too long. Focus on Basics, 4(D),


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.