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Professional Development for Adult ESL Practitioners: Building Capacity

Kirsten Schaetzel, Joy Kreeft Peyton, and Miriam Burt
Center for Applied Linguistics
October 2007

(For an annotated bibliography on this topic, see Professional Development for Teachers of Adult English Language Learners: An Annotated Bibliography)

Background on Adult Learners

Adult education programs serve 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), ABE, or workforce preparation 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 professional developers, teacher trainers, program administrators, education researchers, policymakers, and others who work with adult English language learners and who plan and deliver professional development to teachers of this population.

During the past 20 years, the immigrant population in the United States has continued to grow. Between 2002 and 2006, the immigration rate averaged 1.8 million per year (Meissner, Myers, Papademetriou, & Fix, 2006). In 2005, immigrants comprised over 12% of U.S. residents and 15% of the workforce (Migration Policy Institute, 2007a, 2007b). These population increases have not been evenly distributed across states. Instead of settling in large, urban centers, as in the past, many immigrants are now settling in states with employment opportunities in construction, industry, and tourism (Singer & Wilson, 2006). As a result, many states are experiencing record increases in immigrant populations,  for example Arkansas, Georgia, Utah, and the Carolinas,(Capps, Fix, & Passel, 2002; McHugh, Gelatt, & Fix, 2007); for example, from  2000 to 2005, these states experienced a 30% or greater increase in foreign-born populations (Jensen, 2006; Kochhar, 2006).

The need for education services has increased as immigrant populations have grown and dispersed across the country. According to recent statistics, 5.8 million legal permanent residents are in need of English language instruction to pass the naturalization exam and be able to participate in civic life; 6.4 million unauthorized immigrants will require English language instruction to obtain work permits and obtain legal permanent resident status; and 2.4 million immigrant youths aged 17-24 need English instruction in order to pass the GED exam (high school equivalency exam) or to begin postsecondary education without remediation (McHugh, Gelatt, & Fix, 2007). Learner progress is also an issue. Only 36% of students enrolled in ESL classes during 2003-2004 advanced to the next English proficiency level (McHugh, Gelatt, & Fix, 2007), and Chisman and Crandall (2007) estimate that only 10% of adult ESL students transfer to certificate- or degree-bearing programs based on the patterns they identified in their study of community college programs.

Because of these trends, there is a demand for qualified teachers to teach adult English language learners and a need for training and professional development for these teachers, who often do not have background and experience teaching this population. In addition to knowledge about second language acquisition and training in instructional methodologies, teachers need clear models of effective classroom practice that promote language learning and learner transitions, and they need support for participation in a coherent, sustained professional development system.

This brief describes the need for professional development, in adult education generally and specifically for teachers of adults learning English; reviews the literature on professional development in K-12, adult education, and education for adult English language learners and its implications for professional development planning; and describes a process for planning, implementing, evaluating, and systematizing professional development for teachers of adult English language learners. It ends with recommendations to ensure that quality professional development is in place in programs across the United States.

A need for professional development
Most professional development in adult education occurs through in-service opportunities rather than preservice training, and many adult educators begin teaching without the necessary training or credentials for teaching adult learners (Crandall, in press). While some adult educators have backgrounds in K-12 education, they often do not have training or experience with teaching adults (Smith & Gillespie, 2007). For example, one survey found that only nine states required adult educators to have preservice training in teaching adults (Tolbert, 2001). Even if preservice training is provided, more professional development is needed after teachers begin teaching, because not all topics can be covered during preservice education. Richards and Farrell (2005) explore this issue in their discussion of the difference between teacher training and teacher development: Teacher training is focused on the teacher’s present responsibilities and short-term goals. Teacher development addresses the teachers’ long-term goals and “seeks to facilitate growth of teachers’ understanding of teaching and of themselves as teachers” (p.4). Richards and Farell argue that professional development for teachers of adult English language learners needs to focus on both teacher training and teacher development.

Adult education is a challenging environment in which to provide professional development opportunities. Many adult educators work part time; teach in a variety of different programs and subject areas; are not paid to participate in in-service opportunities; and have time, distance, and financial constraints that limit their ability to participate in in-service professional development (Smith & Gillespie, 2007). Under the National Literacy Act of 1991, states began developing systems for providing teachers, tutors, administrators, and other adult education staff with professional development opportunities. Under the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 states began to set aside 12.5% of their adult education funding for applied research and program development activities to improve and expand adult basic education. However, these systems are in various stages of development (Belzer, Drennon, & Smith, 2001). In a review of professional development systems in five states (Idaho, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia), Belzer, Drennon, and Smith identified key system features, including scope of the professional development offerings; leadership, individuals in the state who ensure that quality professional development is in place; coherence, logical relationships among professional development offerings; and accessibility to teachers of those offerings. Some states have well developed systems that possess these features. However, in many states with new immigrant populations, a professional development system for teachers of adult English language learners is just beginning to be developed.

Professional development for teachers of adult immigrant learners
Teachers of adult immigrants learning English need information and skills that are different in some ways from those of teachers of native English-speaking adults and students in K-12 programs. In addition to information about adult learning principles , they need information about language background and cultural differences among learners, processes of second language acquisition, and ways to facilitate reading and writing development in a second language. They also need training in instructional methodologies that promote English language acquisition of adult learners, design of curricula and lessons for this population, assessment of learner needs and progress, and uses of technology and other resources to enhance learning in and out of the classroom.

Teachers also need to understand the social, cultural, and institutional contexts of their own and their students’ learning (Freeman & Johnson, 1998; Royal, 2007). When students are learning about their new culture, teachers may face difficult and unpredictable questions and situations that they need to know how to address “sensitively, respectfully, and appropriately” (Royal, 2007, p. 12). They need to not only teach English but also to be cultural and social brokers, to help students understand cultural meanings in specific events and situations (Gee, 2004). Teachers also need to help students make smooth transitions to higher levels of English classes, additional education, and additional responsibilities at work (Migration Policy Institute, 2007a).

Credentialing of teachers
As more states and programs strive to meet the professional development needs of teachers of adult English language learners, systems for teacher credentialing also need to be put in place. Some states have an adult ESL credential, some have an ESL endorsement to complement an adult education credential, and some states are just beginning to examine the credentialing of adult educators (Crandall, in press). The move toward credentialing is an important step toward professionalizing the field and has been called for repeatedly in K-12 and adult education (e.g., Byrnes, 2000; Crandall, 1993, 2000; Sabatini, Ginsburg, & Russell, 2002).

Two examples of credentialing programs are the TESOL Certification Program at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois (Chisman & Crandall, 2007) and the Teaching English Literacy to Adult Learners course, sponsored by the South Carolina State Department of Education, at the College of Charleston. The TESOL Certification Program offers ESL teachers 30 credit hours in academic subjects and pedagogical skills specific to teaching adult English language learners. Teaching English Literacy to Adult Learners is a 45-hour course that covers the basics of teaching English to adult learners: needs assessment, lesson planning, formative and summative assessment, materials and resources, and teaching practices.

Review of the literature on professional development processes
The literature on professional development in adult and K-12 education was reviewed for this brief. Documents reviewed include quantitative and qualitative studies, evaluations of programs and professional development models, and seminal articles on professional development for teachers of adult English language learners. Documents identified in major education databases (for example, ERIC, LLBA, and PDC) between 1990 and 2007 were examined, and those relevant to the planning, design, implementation, and evaluation of professional development were selected for inclusion.

Eight components of quality professional development emerged from the literature review. Each component is listed here with a brief statement of its implications for practice, followed by a summary of the literature that informs the implications.

Analyze data to determine needs.
Professional development must be designed to meet the needs that are evidenced in data on learner populations, teacher backgrounds and needs, and situational factors.

Literature review. Researchers argue that effective professional development is based on analysis of data, so that it reflects understanding of the student population served and the teachers who work with those students (e.g., Gonzalez & Darling-Hammond, 1997; Sherman, Kutner, Tibbetts, & Wiedler, 2000; Smith, Hofer, Gillespie, Solomon, & Rowe, 2003). In adult education, data to be considered are immigrant populations in the areas served (e.g., numbers, countries of origin, native languages); learners’ English proficiency levels according to the National Reporting System (NRS); learner and program goals for level gain; teacher backgrounds and needs; program characteristics; and situational factors (e.g., a business has moved into the area and is hiring new immigrant workers who have limited literacy in their native language) in the state, regions, and programs that have an impact on the education of the student population.

 Build professional development principles of adult learning
Professional development must be based on principles of adult learning including the following from Knowles (1990) .

  • Adults are self-directed in their learning.
  • Adults have reservoirs of experience that serve as resources as they learn.
  • Adults are practical, problem-solving-oriented learners.
  • Adults want their learning to be immediately applicable to their lives.
  • Adults want to know why something needs to be learned.

This means that professional development needs to be relevant to teachers’ work experiences and to build on those experiences in active learning opportunities. It also must increase teachers’ content knowledge. For teachers of adults learning English, this includes knowledge about acquisition of a second language and culture and about the language and cultural backgrounds of a diverse student population.

Literature review. Those involved in professional development for in-service teachers need to consider how adults learn (Earley & Bobb, 2004). Adults prefer to be in charge of their own learning and responsible for its direction, are problem solvers and able to draw on their experiences as they gain new knowledge and skills, and prefer their learning to be immediately applicable to their lives (Knowles, 1990).

Dennison and Kirk (1990) reflect the cyclical nature of adult learning in their “do, review, learn, apply, do, review, learn, apply” model, in which teachers build on their professional wisdom and knowledge of their classrooms. For example, a professional development activity in which teachers learn about student language errors and the possible effects of students’ first language on their production of English might have teachers analyze a sample of writing for errors (do), review their analysis with the trainer (review), ask questions about the patterns they see (learn), bring samples of their students’ writing to analyze in class (apply), develop a lesson for their students to address one of the types of errors identified (do), and so on.

In their evaluation of the Eisenhower Professional Development Program for K-12 math and science teachers, Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, and Yoon (2001) describe three core factors that promote teacher learning and change in classroom practice. The professional development activity focuses on content that teachers teach in their classes; provides opportunities for active, hands-on learning; and is integrated with other learning opportunities that teachers have. Similarly, in a study of three urban school systems, Firestone, Mangin, Martinez, and Polovsky (2005) found that the district with the most coherent focus on building teacher knowledge in selected subject areas had the greatest positive influence on teaching practice.
Develop a vision and goals that are shared by all involved.
All of the stakeholders involved, including the teachers receiving professional development, need to have a shared vision for the scope and expected outcomes of the professional development provided, understand how specific activities relate to each other, and work together to reach shared goals.

Literature review. Many researchers argue that a vision for professional development must be shared across a broad range of practitioners if it is to become a nautral part of teachers’ lives and programs. (Belzer, 2005; Belzer, Drennon, & Smith, 2001; Garet et al., 2001; Joyce & Showers, 2002; Marcinkiewicz, 2001; Senge, 1990). A shared vision “connects with the personal visions of people throughout the organization” (Senge, 1990, p. 214). In adult education, it reflects program directors’ and state education officers’ program improvement goals; teachers’ and tutors’ instructional goals; and national and state initiatives; and incorporates all of these into professional development offerings (Belzer, 2005). This allows participating practitioners to see how a particular activity helps fulfill their vision for improving the teaching and learning in their classes at the same time that it meets the needs of administrators in the program and the state.

In their review of five state professional development programs, Belzer, Drennon, and Smith (2001) found that all of the states “worked diligently to establish logical relationships in the range of their professional development offerings to ensure internal coherence across activities” (p. 8). Garet et al. (2001) found that shared vision is fostered when teachers from the same program or subject area are grouped together. Much K-12 professional development builds on natural teacher groupings according to grade levels, subjects, or schools that teachers work in. Such groupings are more challenging to identify in adult education, because teachers within a subject area or an entire program seldom meet during a term (Smith & Gillespie, 2007).

Increase the time and duration of professional development.
If teachers are to engage in a reflective change process, the professional development offered must be of sufficient duration so that they can reflect on their current practices, fully understand the new knowledge and skills they have gained, and incorporate them into their teaching.

Literature review. Research indicates that the duration of professional development activities has an impact on outcomes and that one-day workshops with little or no follow-up do not have lasting impact on teaching practices (Garet et al., 2001; Richards & Farrell, 2005). In the Garet et al. study, two measures of duration, time span and contact hours, were found to have substantial influence on what the researchers term the core features of professional development: content, active learning, and coherence. The National Center for Education Statistics (2005) reports that K-12 teachers received 25 to 33 hours of professional development in the 1999-2000 school year. Although there are no such data for adult educators, it is unlikely that they receive this much professional develpment even in a full calendar year. Since many work part time, they do not have opportunities for regularly scheduled professional development over extended periods of time (Smith & Gillespie, 2007).

Research on “traditional” and “reform” professional development activities is also enlightening. Traditional activities—workshops, courses, and conferences—usually take place in brief time segments outside a teacher’s classroom. Reform types of professional development, sometimes referred to as on-the-job (or embedded) professional development, take place during a teacher’s class or within the context of a school program and tend to be based on reflective, collaborative models. They include mentoring, coaching, study circles, and formal professional learning communities (Garet et al., 2001; Smith et al., 2003;). Garet et al. found that reform activities tend to produce better results primarily because they are more intensive and sustained over periods of time. Likewise, a survey of teachers’ professional development activities found that the type of professional development provided did not have as much impact as other factors, such as the amount of time the teacher attended and the quality of the professional development provided (Smith & Hofer, 2002).

Finally, Farrell (in press), Richards and Farrell (2005), and Richardson (1998) distinguish between training models and reflective, collaborative models of professional development. Reflective, collaborative models tend to support voluntary teacher change through a process that is systematic and reflective, helping teachers to focus on their own change process. Through this, teachers may change not only their behaviors and actions, but also their rationale and justification for what and how they teach.

Provide a system for professional development.
Systems for delivering professional development to practitioners working with adult English language learners need to be developed. This will improve participation in professional development, build a shared vision for professional development among practitioners, and provide a mechanism for evaluating what is implemented in classrooms to inform new professional development endeavors.

Literature review. Researchers and program evaluators assert that in order to design and deliver professional development that is timely, based on data, and coherent, a state needs to have a system to facilitate its delivery (Belzer, Drennon, & Smith, 2001; Brancato, 2003; Senge, 1990; Smith et al., 2003). Brancato points out that professional development “is not merely the sum of its parts; it is the system in its entirety” (p. 63). In the conclusion of their study, Smith et al. observe that “professional development, while necessary, is not sufficient by itself to drive changes in practice. Professional development is one tool for change but needs to be offered within a context that supports teachers to make change” (p. 127).

Belzer (2005) recommends the following components of a professional development system that provides a context for teacher change:

  • A shared vision among state staff, program administrators, and teachers
  • An understanding of the realities of the field and the range of teacher needs
  • A planning process that begins with needs analysis
  • A balance between depth and breadth in offerings
  • Incentives to support teacher participation
  • Quality standards and credentials for teachers
  • Ongoing evaluation

In addition, a professional development system needs effective leadership. Program administrators need to be fully committed to the professional development effort. The evaluation of the Local Systemic Change Through Teacher Enhancement Program, designed to improve the teaching of science, mathematics, and technology in grades K through 8 through teacher professional development, showed that the involvement of principals and other administrators led to a better understanding of the support that teachers need and a greater willingness to provide it (Weiss, Montgomery, Ridgway, & Bond, 1998).

Similar results were found by evaluators Smith and Rowley (2005) in their analysis of data from the Schools and Staffing Survey, the largest, most comprehensive data source on the staffing, occupational, and organizational aspects of elementary and secondary schools. Smith and Rowley found that schools with a stronger commitment strategy (an organizational design that uses collaborative and participatory management strategies to improve teaching quality and student achievement) may be better able to achieve their goals because of increased teacher participation in content-related professional development activities. When administrators supported professional development activities and teachers had influence over policy, the impact of professional development was greater, and there was less teacher turnover.

Provide access to professional development opportunities.
Since adult educators receive much of their training on the job and through in-service activities, they must have access to professional development opportunities.

Literature review. Smith and Gillespie (2007) chronicle many of the challenges related to making professional development accessible to teachers of adult  learners, such as the part-time nature of employment and limited funding for teachers to attend. Crookes (1997) adds to these challenges teacher isolation and limited funding for programs. Of the five states that Belzer, Drennon, and Smith (2001) studied, four had developed regional systems to deliver professional development that was more accessible to teachers than when all activities were centralized in one area of the state. In these states, technology was also used as an alternative mode of delivery.

Evaluate professional development outcomes.
Evaluation data and an evaluation plan are critical for determining the success of a professional development effort and for planning subsequent professional development. Such data can be used at program, regional, and state levels and must be incorporated into the planning process to ensure coherence among professional development offerings.

Literature review. Researchers and program evaluators assert that it is essential to evaluate the outcomes of professional development (Belzer, 2005; Darling-Hammond, 2005, 2006; Guskey, 2002; Kutner, Sherman, Tibbetts, & Condelli, 1997; McNamara, Mulcahy, & Curry, 2001; Mitchem, 2003). This includes involvement of all stakeholders (including participating teachers) in articulating expected outcomes, how outcomes will be measured, and what data will be collected when designing professional development activities. Data can be collected and used not only to evaluate the impact of an activity but also to be shared with others in the program (Mitchem, 2003). For example, if participants create a lesson plan using a new teaching strategy, the lesson plan can be used to evaluate how well they understood and used the new strategy and also can be shared with colleagues who were not able to attend the professional development activity.

Darling-Hammond (2006) argues that multiple pieces of data must be used to assess outcomes, because different types of data provide different kinds of information and indicate the strength of the results. For example, in assessing whether a teacher uses a new teaching strategy effectively, an evaluator may look at the teacher’s lesson plan. However, if the lesson plan is the only piece of evidence, the evaluator knows whether the teacher understands the new strategy but does not know if the teacher is able to use the strategy appropriately in the classroom. Another piece of evidence, such as a peer or mentor observation or a teacher reflection on the lesson, is needed.

Guskey (2002) argues that the impact of professional development should be evaluated in terms of the following levels:

  1. Participants’ reactions: level of satisfaction with the experience
  2. Participants’ learning: new knowledge and skills acquired
  3. Organization support and change: evidence of the organization’s advocacy for, support for, and facilitation of the professional development experience
  4. Participants’ use of new knowledge and skills: the degree and quality of participants’ use in practice of what they have learned
  5. Student learning outcomes: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor student learning outcomes resulting from the professional development experience

Though much professional development evaluation focuses only on Levels 1 and 2, evaluation at all five levels needs to be part of an ongoing professional development process.

Similarly, the framework for evaluating professional development articulated by Kutner et al. (1997) assesses changes in instructors, program services, and student outcomes. Evaluation of instructors addresses instructor reactions to professional development experiences, acquisition of new skills and knowledge, and changes in instructional behavior. Evaluation of program services includes changes in instructional arrangements, program processes, student assessment, and learner supports. Evaluation of learners addresses student reactions to new teaching strategies, student acquisition of knowledge and skills, and changes in student behavior. Tools for evaluation include questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, peer or mentor observations, practitioner journals, instructor portfolios, and reviews of program policies and processes.

Engage a critical friend with whom to collaborate.
A critical friend is a person or group of individuals (e.g., from a state or national organization) outside the class, school, or program who provides guidance and feedback. When planning, implementing, and evaluating professional development, this individual or organization can listen to, question, and reflect on data analysis, decision-making, planning, and resources and can provide insights that those within the system may not have. A critical friend should have expertise in the content areas involved in the professional development in order to work together with insiders to plan the design and delivery of the professional development.

Literature review. The literature on critical friends provides strong support for work with an outsider, who brings perspective on processes, data, and outcomes from outside the system (Baker, Curtis, & Benenson, 1991; Carrington & Robinson, 2004; Fullan, 1991; Olsen & Jaramillo, 1999; Stenhouse, 1975; Swaffield, 2005; Swaffield & MacBeath, 2005). Baker, Curtis, and Benenson’s study of 48 school districts in Illinois found a positive correlation between the use of external consultants and school improvement.

Swaffield (2005) identified five aspects of the work of a critical friend:

  • Roles: the functions that the critical friend fulfills (e.g., facilitator, supporter, critic, challenger)
  • Behaviors: the things that the critical friend does (e.g., listens, questions, reflects)
  • Knowledge and experience: the background and expertise that the critical friend brings (e.g., about the educational system, student learning, teacher opportunities and challenges)
  • Skills: the techniques that the critical friend uses (e.g., interpersonal and group work skills, data analysis and interpretation skills)
  • Qualities: the critical friend’s character, attitudes, beliefs, and values (e.g., respect, empathy, genuineness, confidence, enthusiasm)

Through this work, the critical friend assists teachers and program administrators in a change process, particularly in the process of program or state self-evaluation of professional development efforts (Swaffield & MacBeath, 2005). As data are analyzed to determine professional development needs and professional development is planned, a critical friend can assist in interpretation and reflection, providing a voice from outside the system.

Review of the literature on necessary teacher expertise
Professionals in the field have varying views on the skills and knowledge that teachers working with English language learners need to possess. In two seminal articles, Freeman and Johnson (1998, 2004) argue that the core knowledge base of ESL teachers must focus on the teaching activity itself, including “the teacher who does it, the contexts in which it is done, and the pedagogy by which it is done” (1998, p. 397). Teachers need to be trained to learn and to assist students in learning within the social, cultural, and institutional contexts in which they study, live, and work.

Others argue that while this focus is important, it overlooks critical components of knowledge (Yates & Muchinsky, 2003). It is important that teachers understand their teaching practice in its social and cultural context. At the same time, there are particular concepts that they must also understand in order to be effective with adult English language learners: how second and additional languages, and specific components of language, are learned; the role of the native language in learning a second language; evaluation of language learning; and cultural issues that teachers must address. The knowledge that teachers of adult English language learners need to have in each of these areas is described here.

Second language acquisition

  • Knowledge of second language acquisition includes understanding the order of acquisition of linguistic features, interlanguage patterns (the emerging linguistic system of the language learner), differences in child and adult language acquisition, the impact of social and cultural identity on language learning, and the need for intensity of exposure and opportunities to use the language. With knowledge of these concepts, teachers can structure language learning appropriately for their students, help them set realistic goals for achievement of levels of proficiency over time, and understand why some students progress faster than others and why some materials and methods work better with particular groups of students than with others  (Adger, Snow, & Christian, 2002; Baca & Escamilla, 2002; Cummins, 1991; Ellis, 2000; Fillmore & Snow, 2002; Florez & Burt, 2001; Grabe, Stoller, & Tardy, 2000; Johnston & Goettsch, 2000; Long, 1990; Muchisky & Yates, 2004; Nolan, 2001; Richardson, 2002; Yates & Muchisky, 2003).
  • Individual teaching styles are influenced by one’s own experience as a language learner (Borg, 2006; Freeman & Freeman, 1994). Opportunities should be provided for teachers to reflect on their own language learning experiences and on what second language acquisition research shows about language learning as they consider strategies to use with learners in their classes (Farrell, 2004, in press; Richards & Farrell, 2005, Smith, Harris, & Reder, 2005).


Acquisition of components of language
Native language speakers and second language learners learn components of language, such as vocabulary and grammar, differently (Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003; Doughty & Williams, 1998; Eskey, 2005; Flahive & Bailey, 1993; Folse, 2004; Nation, 2000, 2005). Some strategies that work well with native speakers do not work as well with second language learners. For example, when teaching new vocabulary words to native English speakers, teachers may suggest that students determine the meanings of some words by looking at the contexts in which the words appear. However, for this strategy to be successful, students need to understand 95 to 98 percent of the words in the passage (Nation, 2005). Second language learners may not know enough words in English to be able to use this strategy. Nation argues that reading instruction needs to include both “guessing from natural contexts and deliberate learning with specially constructed or chosen contexts” (2000, p. 235), and other strategies have been described in the literature as well. (See Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003, for a review.) Teachers of adult English language learners need to know what strategies for teaching reading, writing, listening, and speaking are most effective with adults learning English.

Types of native language literacy
The type and level of literacy that the students have in their native language has an impact on how they will learn the second language and on how best to facilitate their learning (Birch, 2002, Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003, Huntley, 1990). For example, methods used to teach reading to students who are highly proficient readers in a language with a Roman alphabet are different from those used with students whose language is not a written language or whose language is written in a non-Roman alphabet or a non-alphabetic script.

Evaluating language production
Students learning a language engage in hypothesis testing, where they try to determine if their assumptions about specific language features (e.g., grammatical structures or vocabulary items) are correct (Ellis, 2000). A student may have a logical explanation for using a grammar or vocabulary item in a particular way. A teacher who does not understand the possible reasons the student made such a choice will not know how to provide adequate  feedback to help the student correct the error.

Cultural issues
In addition to acquiring English, students are learning about the culture of their new country, city, school, or workplace and the varieties of English that are used in these environments. Teachers need to be able to help students function effectively in these different contexts and act as cultural brokers for them (Gee, 2004; Hawkins, 2004). For example, students need to know the varieties and registers of English that are appropriate for particular settings and situations, which might include academic contexts, workplace preparation, and the workplace (Hawkins, 2004). Gee (2004) refers to these varieties of English and the meanings associated with them as cultural models. Explaining cultural models and facilitating students’ functioning in them are responsibilities of teachers of adult English language learners.

A Professional Development Process
To support the provision of effective English language instruction for adult immigrants, professional development systems and processes that reflect the literature reviewed above need to be developed, implemented, and evaluated. The Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA) developed such a process based on our review of the professional development literature and our experience working with 24 states. The process  involves practitioners working together to plan, implement, evaluate, and systematize professional development in an annual, cyclical system shown in Figure 1. Data are used to inform planning each year, professional development is implemented and evaluated, and the outcomes of these efforts inform planning for the next year (Peyton et al., in press). State teams made up of state department of education representatives, professional development specialists, local program administrators, and teachers of adult English language learners carry out this process. Each team works with critical friends from the CAELA staff who provide ESL expertise and ongoing guidance and support. 


Figure 1. CAELA process for professional development


Planning professional development
The planning process involves four steps: conduct data and situational analyses, identify practitioner groups to be served, prioritize practitioner professional development needs, and write a plan to meet those needs.

1. Conduct data and situational analyses

  • Student performance data. Teams analyze data collected from the state education agency, programs, teachers, and students as well as NRS and other learner progress data. These analyses are used to determine the English proficiency levels of the learner population served and the levels at which the state is and is not meeting its targets for learner progress (level gain).
  • Teacher background data. These indicate the number of full- and part-time and new and experienced teachers in the state, the credentials and degrees that teachers hold, and teacher experience working with the learners in their programs.
  • Teacher survey data. Teacher surveys examine teachers’ professional development needs and desires; previous professional development received; and preferences in terms of activity types, topics, instructional strategies, and formats.
  • Data related to professional development, teaching, and learning. These may include program reviews; evaluations of professional development activities; data from classrooms and students; and other state, regional, and local program data.
  • State context data. Various factors in a state or in regions of the state can have an impact on the teaching of adult English language learners. These factors include changes in
      • student population (e.g., numbers, native language, ethnicity, diversity)
      • enrollment at different English language and literacy levels
      • student achievement (e.g., NRS data)
      • the teacher workforce—teacher background and needs
      • state or local policies, requirements, or initiatives
      • inter-agency or workforce board policies
      • state leadership
      • program offerings

The information culled from these analyses provides a picture of a state’s learner population, teaching force, and other factors that indicate needs and guide professional development planning.

2. Identify practitioner groups to be served
Using the outcomes of the data and situational analyses, state teams identify practitioner groups in need of professional development and the areas or topics in which they need knowledge and skills. The practitioner groups and their needs are then prioritized to determine what professional development needs will be met in the coming year and in subsequent years.

For example, in a given state, analysis of population data might show that a new group of immigrants with little to no English proficiency (Somali Bantu) has settled in two regions in the state, and classes for beginning level learners have been established for them. NRS data might show that level gain targets for beginning level learners in those two regions are not being met. Teacher surveys show that teachers in those two regions are new and are asking for strategies to work with beginning and literacy level students. As a result, professional developers determine that in the coming year, the teachers in these literacy and beginning level classes need strategies and resources for teaching this population of students. (In this brief we use as an example practitioners working with literacy and beginning level learners. Many other learner groups might also be the focus of such a process, including those at high advanced levels who are making transitions to academic and workplace preparation programs and the workplace.)

3. Write a professional development plan
The priorities established in the second step inform the writing of a professional development plan for the coming year. The plan

  • lists expected outcomes for professional development
  • describes the professional development activities to be implemented
  • identifies resources that the state has for carrying out these activities, and resources needed

For example, professional development on working with literacy level and beginning students may include training in conducting needs assessments with this population, planning lessons for them, and incorporating appropriate teaching strategies and formative assessments into lessons. Expected outcomes might be that teachers write effective lesson plans and teach effective classes based on those plans.

4. Decide how to evaluate professional development outcomes
State teams determine how they will evaluate the expected outcomes, the measures they will use and data they will collect to determine whether the outcomes were achieved, and how the information gathered from evaluating these outcomes will be used to plan further professional development.

In line with the literature review discussed above, multiple measures need to be used and evaluations need to include more than the professional development activity itself, e.g., organization support and change, teacher use of knowledge and skills in practice, student outcomes. The team may measure teacher change in instruction of the student population through a review of participating teachers’ lesson plans, of teachers’ reflections on their lesson plans and on the lessons they taught, and of mentor observations of lessons taught. They may also measure changes in learners’ English language proficiency advancement through the program through a review of NRS and other data (e.g., student portfolios).

Implementing the professional development plan
During the implementation of the state plan for professional development activities, state teams and critical friends may support the efforts by reviewing training modules, materials, content standards, and evaluation tools; identifying quality materials to be used; conducting trainings for state trainers; and collecting data for evaluation.

Evaluating professional development
Multiple outcome measures are collected to construct a complete picture of the quality and impact of the professional development implemented. Results of these outcome measures are used for planning further professional development.

For example, one measure of the success of a training on lesson planning for beginning level learners might be that teachers would be able to conduct a language lesson in their classes, including the following lesson components: introduction, review, presentation, guided practice, communicative practice, evaluation, and application. This could be measured by the submission of a lesson plan and then observation of the teacher using the lesson plan to determine if all of the components are included and if the instructional strategies that have been the focus of professional development are used effectively. This review of lesson plans and subsequent observation might reveal that teachers do not know which activities to use for guided practice and which activities to use for communicative practice and that they need more practice in using the instructional strategies they have learned about. The state team might conclude that the teachers need more information about second language acquisition, the stages of language learning, and activities best suited for teaching language to beginning level students.

Other measures to determine the impact of professional development might include measures of student progress – NRS data, student portfolios, and data on student progress through and after the program.

Sustaining professional development
When the professional development process is firmly in place, the state team needs to decide how the system and processes developed will be sustained so that coherence and continuity are achieved. For example, the team may decide to put two adult ESL instructional leaders in charge of ensuring that the process described above is followed each year and setting up an annual schedule for its implementation and review. The team will also need to determine what resources are in place and needed for the system to be sustainable over time.

Levels of implementation of quality professional development
While all states need the eight components of quality professional development described above, not all states and programs are at the same starting point or have the same supports to carry out strong professional development programs. Some states have established formal systems for professional development planning, implementation, and evaluation, while others are just beginning to design and develop such a system. What follows is an operational model to determine levels of implementation of the CAELA processes for professional development (i.e., planning, implementation, and evaluation). Of the eight components, the following four criteria are key to stages of implementing quality professional development and, thus, form the basis for this operational model. A given state’s implementation of its professional development program may be measured in relation to four criteria (Alamprese, 1999):

  • Data: Data are collected, analyzed, and used to identify needs and plan professional development
  • Alignment: Professional development is aligned with the needs identified through data analysis
  • Resources: to support professional development -- based on adult learning principles and second language acquisition theory -- are identified and used in the provision of professional development
  • Evaluation: Data on outcomes of professional development are collected and used to inform subsequent professional development activities

A given state may be at one of three levels with respect to these four criteria, as defined in Table 1.

Table 1. Stages of implementation of professional development






Level 1

Data have not been collected and analyzed to identify and plan PD.*

PD is not aligned with data and identified needs.

Some regions/programs are using identified resources.

Outcomes of PD are not documented and evaluated, and information is not used to plan subsequent PD.

Level 2

Some new and existing data are collected and analyzed to identify needs and plan PD.

PD is not systematically aligned with data and identified needs.

Most regions/programs are using identified resources.

Outcomes of PD are documented but not evaluated, and information is not used to plan subsequent PD.

Level 3

New and existing data are systematically collected and analyzed to identify needs and plan PD.

PD is systematically aligned with data and identified needs.

Identified resources are used systematically to carry out PD.

Outcomes of PD activities are documented and evaluated, and information is used to plan subsequent PD.

* PD = Professional development

By using the criteria outlined in Table 1 state teams and critical friends can assess a state’s current situation and ensure that they have taken all relevant aspects into consideration. They can then identify steps and strategies for establishing a systematic professional development plan for teachers and administrators working with adult English language learners. 

Conclusion and recommendations
The characteristics of successful professional development for teachers of adult English language learners have been described in the literature and illustrated in the experience of the CAELA project. These sources inform the following recommendations for state professional development:

  • Professional development plans need to be based on analysis of data from multiple sources.
  • Professional development must reflect principles of adult learning.
  • Professional development processes need to be developed and implemented by a team of the key stakeholders in the state or program. Team members should represent administrators at the state and program level as well as teachers. There should be a shared vision among team members and continuity of team members over time.
  • State staff and professional developers should consider whether the time and duration of the professional development provided is adequate for teachers’ acquisition of knowledge and skills.
  • Professional development should not exist in isolation but as a part of a system for insuring that the teacher workforce is qualified to teach adult English language learners.
    1. State officials with authority and access to funding need to be  engaged in the planning, implementation, evaluation, and sustainability of professional development.
    2. The professional development process needs to be institutionalized and sustained as an integral part of the education system.
  • Teachers need to have access to professional development opportunities, support for their participation in these opportunities, and opportunities to gain credentials.
  • Professional development is documented and evaluated.
  • Outsiders (critical friends) should provide a supportive, critical eye to the state professional development team when the team is planning, implementing, and evaluating professional development.
  • In delivering professional development, content knowledge that teachers need should be balanced with instructional skills. In the case of teachers of adult English language learners, content knowledge includes second language acquisition processes and characteristics and needs of diverse learner populations.
  • States need to build internal capacity to provide professional development on working with adult English language learners that includes training of trainers. (State trainers become knowledgeable in the content areas and instructional skills that teachers in their state need.)
  • Indicators of quality professional development for adult ESL educators should be developed. The Association of Adult Literacy Professional Developers has written recommended policies to support professional development for adult basic education practitioners ( These can be consulted in the development of quality indicators for adult ESL.
  • More research is needed to ascertain the impact of professional development activities on teachers and their students in adult ESL instructional settings.
  • With an estimated 5.8 million legal permanent residents requiring English language instruction to pass the naturalization exam and have the necessary skills to participate in civic life (McHugh, Gelatt, & Fix, 2007), the need for high quality English language teachers in adult education is pressing. The process described here involves states designing, implementing, sustaining, and evaluating professional development for teachers to gain the knowledge, skills, and reflective practices they need to deliver relevant and appropriate lessons; and adults learning English to make the educational gains they desire and achieve their work and family-related goals. 


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Additional Resources

There are many resources that will help professional developers facilitate the learning of content knowledge and instructional skills of teachers of adult English language learners. The following resources provide additional information. More resources can be found at

The CAELA Guide for Adult ESL Trainers (in press).
A resource for trainers that contains workshop modules and study circles, both with follow up activities, to provide professional development in the knowledge base and teaching methodologies of teaching adult English language learners.

Mathews-Aydinli & Taylor, Online professional development for adult ESL educators. (Washington, DC: Center for Adult English Language Acquisition, 2005).
Provides a compendium of online professional development opportunities for teachers of adult English language learners.

Schaetzel & England, New professional development strategies (ESL Magazine, 4(3), 26-28). Provides a list of different ways to make professional development available to busy practitioners.

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.