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Adult ESL Teacher Credentialing and Certification

JoAnn Crandall, University of Maryland Baltimore County
Genesis Ingersoll and Jacqueline Lopez, Center for Applied Linguistics
January 2008

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 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 literacy skills in English and to achieve goals similar to those of native English speakers.

Audience for This Brief

This brief is written for program administrators, education researchers, and policy makers concerned with professionalizing the workforce of educators who serve adult English language learners.

The need to educate adult immigrants has grown and is increasing. One recent report states that 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 immigrants will require English language instruction to pass the naturalization exam and obtain legal permanent resident status; and 2.4 million immigrant youths aged 17 to 24 need English instruction to begin postsecondary education without remediation (McHugh, Gelatt, & Fix, 2007). In addition, 55% of immigrants eligible to naturalize and 67% of immigrants soon to be eligible have limited proficiency in English (Passel, 2007). A number of states (e.g., California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas) have had large populations of adult English language learners for many years. However, many states have recently experienced record growth in their immigrant populations (Capps, Fix, & Passel, 2002; McHugh, Gelatt, & Fix, 2007; U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). For example, from 2000 to 2005, 14 states (including Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah) experienced a 30 percent or greater increase in foreign-born populations (Jensen, 2006; Kochhar, 2006). Thus, it seems that the number of adult immigrants who need to improve their English language and literacy skills, gain citizenship, and move from adult education and adult ESL programs to higher education and increased work opportunities is on the rise.

To meet these needs, the United States needs a qualified teacher workforce that is prepared to work effectively with adult immigrants. The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (1998) provides resources for improving the quality of instructional staff and allows each state to determine its own teacher development systems. At the same time, some challenges exist in the development of a teacher workforce that is qualified to work with adults learning English. Many adult educators have backgrounds in K–12 education, no training or credentials in teaching adults (Smith & Gillespie, 2007), and limited access to professional development opportunities. In fact, there are disparities among states in the credentials required for adult ESL teachers and the professional development opportunities available to them (Schaetzel, Peyton, & Burt, 2007).

This brief describes efforts to professionalize the workforce of adult ESL educators, including efforts to certify and credential these teachers; discusses the qualification requirements for adult ESL teachers in the 50 states and the District of Columbia; and recommends steps for states to take to continue to professionalize the field.

Efforts to Professionalize Adult ESL Instruction

There have been a number of efforts to professionalize adult education in general and adult ESL education in particular. Central to these efforts has been a focus on professional standards, which have been developed by professional organizations, states, and the federal government as part of a call for increased accountability in education. To date, content, program, and teacher standards have been developed for adult ESL, which are helping to professionalize the teaching of adults learning English. These three types of standards are described here.


Content standards provide guidance for educators on what students should know and be able to do as a result of instruction (Florez, 2002; Schaetzel & Young, 2007). Adult ESL content standards from 11 states, as well as those from the Equipped for the Future (EFF) initiative at the Center for Literacy Studies at the University of Tennessee ( and the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS), are available through the Adult Education Content Standards Warehouse, an online resource for use by others developing standards ( A Process Guide for Establishing Adult Education Content Standards (American Institutes for Research & U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, 2005) is also available for states seeking to develop content standards.

Program standards identify the characteristics of effective programs, providing guidance on areas such as curriculum, staffing, professional development, and facilities (Peyton, 2005). Program standards for adult ESL programs have been developed by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), the major professional association for ESL practitioners in the United States, as well as by a number of states, including Arizona, California, and Maryland. The TESOL Standards for Adult Education ESL Programs (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 2002) provide program quality indicators for program structure, administration, learner instruction and assessment, support services, employment conditions, hiring and evaluation of instructors and other staff, and professional development. The online document includes a program self-review instrument that can be used to measure “continuous improvement,” a requirement of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 that provides federal funds for adult English as a second language/English for speakers of other languages (ESL/ESOL) programs (U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, 1998). Peyton (2005) discusses the ways the standards can be used in adult ESL programs and provides an electronic version of the self-review instrument.

Teacher standards identify the knowledge and skills that adult ESL teachers and other educators need. TESOL has developed Standards for Teachers of Adult Learners (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, in press) for teacher training programs, educational institutions with adult ESL and English as a foreign language (EFL) programs, and professional development of teachers and administrators. There are eight standards: three related to planning, instructing, and assessing student learning; three related to understanding language, learning, and content within and outside of ESL classes; one on the importance of identity and context (the sociocultural and sociopolitical contexts that influence identity and learning); and one on commitment and professionalism (commitment to ongoing participation in adult ESL teaching and professional development). The standards provide a series of performance indicators; vignettes that illustrate the presence of the indicators in a range of contexts such as large, open-entry programs and workforce programs; and rubrics that can be used by teachers in self-assessment or by supervisors in teacher supervision.

A set of instructor competencies has also been developed by PRO-NET 2000 through research and consultation with instructors, administrators, and learners (Sherman, Tibbetts, Woodruff, & Weidler, 1999). While these competencies were not explicitly focused on adult ESL, the similarities to the TESOL Standards for Teachers of Adult Learners are striking. The six categories of PRO-NET competencies are (1) Maintains Knowledge and Pursues Professional Development, (2) Organizes and Delivers Instruction, (3) Manages Instructional Resources, (4) Continually Assesses and Monitors Learning, (5) Manages Program Responsibly and Enhances Program Organization, and (6) Provides Learner Guidance and Referral.
In addition, the Association of Adult Literacy Professional Developers (in press) has developed draft Professional Development Standards and Indicators, designed to facilitate continuous instructional and program improvement and result in improved instruction and learning for all adult learners, including those learning English. The document includes standards and indicators related to instruction and assessment, as well as a number of other factors that affect the classroom learning environment.

Other Efforts to Professionalize the Field

In addition to the development of standards by professional organizations and states, the federal government and states have undertaken a number of efforts to improve access to resources and professional development through state Adult Literacy Resource Centers; online discussion lists such as NIFL-ESL and NIFL-Professional Development, sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy; training and technical assistance provided by the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA), funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education; and various statewide professional development efforts such as those undertaken in California through the Outreach and Technical Assistance Network, in Indiana through English Works, in Massachusetts through the System for Adult Basic Education Support, and in Texas through Texas LEARNS.

Together, these initiatives point to increasing efforts to professionalize the field of adult education and adult ESL, involving what Shanahan, Meehan, and Mogge (1994, cited in Sabatini, Ginsburg, & Russell, 2002) characterize as the use of “education or training to improve the quality of practice” and “standardization of professional responses” in an attempt to “define the persons representing a field and enhance communication within that field” (p. 1). It is not clear, however, how teachers are to acquire, maintain, and extend that expertise. It is here that teacher certification and credentialing efforts become important.

Certification and Credentialing of Adult ESL Educators

While there is some agreement about standards for the knowledge and skills that adult ESL teachers need, there is less agreement about how teachers should acquire and demonstrate their mastery of these standards. Two approaches to documenting that expertise are certification and credentialing.


Certification is a process by which professional associations, states, or others identify a set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that a teacher must demonstrate, usually through participation in university coursework and teaching practice (Crandall, 1993, 1994; Sabatini, Ginsburg, & Russell, 2002).

Credentialing recognizes and validates the experiences and expertise of teachers, focusing on what teachers have learned and are able to do because of their experience rather than on specific courses they have taken and degrees they have earned (Crandall, 1993, 1994; Freeman & Johnson, 1998; Sivell, 2005).


The list below, from the Directory of Teacher Education Programs in TESOL in the United States and Canada, 2005–2007 (Christopher, 2005), gives examples of three kinds of certification programs that are available to teachers of adult English language learners. One provides a certificate to prepare teachers to work with learners in workplace settings to build workplace skills, one provides a master’s degree in TESOL with a focus on research in adult ESL settings, and one delivers instruction online.

Examples of Teacher Certification Programs Focused on Adult ESL Education

Ball State University (Muncie, Indiana)
ESL Workforce Training Certificate, in partnership with English Works, a project of the Indiana Department of Education and Workforce Development
Four graduate courses: Introduction to TESOL Theory and Research; Issues in Second Language Acquisition for Adults; Curriculum and Training Design for Workplace ESL; Methods and Materials for Workplace ESL

Portland State University (Portland, Oregon)
Master’s degree TESOL program offering “adult ESL training” with “extended research options” through the Adult ESL Lab School and the Longitudinal Study of Adult Literacy

Hamline University (St. Paul, Minnesota)
Online Graduate Certificate for teachers of adult ESL
Four courses: Introduction to Adult ESL Learners, Developing Reading and Writing; Introduction to Adult ESL Learners, Developing Oral Skills; Course Design in Adult ESL; Assessment of the Adult ESL Learner


Adult ESL Certification and Credentialing in States

Earlier attempts to document state efforts to professionalize the field of adult basic education include, for example, Sabatini, Ginsburg, and Russell’s report (2002), which looked at professional development certification offered to practitioners in adult basic education programs at that time; and the report from the National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium (1998). However, to date, there has been no systematic documentation of adult ESL teacher certification and credentialing requirements in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Even within states, this information is not always available, as states may not have a staff person who is responsible for gathering and maintaining it. Moreover, as the number of adult English language learners increases and efforts are undertaken to professionalize the teaching of adult ESL, it is difficult to keep this information up-to-date. This brief sets out to provide this documentation.

Data Collection

The basis for information-gathering used in this brief is a template that was developed by the Massachusetts Department of Education, Adult (Basic) Education Credential Information by State ( Permission was received from the Massachusetts Department of Education to use the template as the basis for the work, and a section on credentialing of teachers of adult English language learners was added to the template. A formal survey was not conducted. Instead, several communication channels were used to update the survey and to add information about credentialing for adult ESL instruction. First, state department of education Web sites were examined. Then, state department of education credentialing departments were emailed and called and asked to confirm the information and to add credentialing information specific to teachers of adult English language learners. In many cases, there was multiple correspondence with multiple state and district representatives or one representative a number of times. The information in Table 1 (click to access the table) was confirmed by staff at the Department of Education in each state, who also gave permission to publish it. Information was accurate at the time of publication.


As shown in Table 1, the requirements for teaching adult ESL vary widely. Some states have specific requirements for certification; others require an endorsement (often to a K–12 teaching license); others offer an optional certificate or voluntary license; and some have no special requirements other than perhaps a level of education. The range of expected education also varies, from an advanced graduate degree to a bachelor’s degree, an associate degree, a high school diploma, a score on a specific test, or no stated educational level.

Some of the differences in requirements result from differences in the type of institution at which adult ESL instruction is delivered. For example, several states, including Iowa, Oregon, and Washington, deliver adult ESL through the community college system, with the colleges determining the requirements. Because these are postsecondary institutions, it is likely that many of the teachers have specialized (and often graduate-level) training in TESOL, applied linguistics, or a related field. Other states, such as Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Virginia, deliver some or all of their instruction through local education agencies (LEAs). In these states, the initial requirements relate to certification for teaching in elementary or secondary schools, with an optional or required ESL endorsement. States that fund a number of different education service providers—LEAs, community colleges, or community-based organizations (CBOs)—may find it difficult to specify requirements that apply to these different settings.

Several states, such as Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, require some kind of adult education certification or teaching license. A number of these states require ESL preparation; others offer the option of an ESL endorsement or certificate; still others are planning to require ESL coursework for an adult education/ESL certificate. Colorado requires a four-course series to obtain an Authorization in Literacy Instruction, with one of the four courses focused on teaching ESL to adult learners.

Among those states that do not currently require a credential, a number are considering some kind of additional coursework and verification of experience or expertise in the form of an endorsement, a credential, or a certificate. For example,

  • Kentucky is considering a credential.
  • North Carolina is working to put a credential in place.
  • Pennsylvania is developing guidelines for teacher knowledge in ESL instruction.
  • Rhode Island has appointed a work group of ABE and ESL practitioners to research models and develop a proposal for credentialing, compensation, and qualifications of staff.
  • South Carolina has a task force that is working to establish a credential.
  • Utah is considering a possible ESL endorsement.


There are some promising developments related to voluntary credentials, certificates, or licenses.

  • Massachusetts offers a Voluntary License that requires an ABE Subject Matter Test, part of which focuses on ESL.
  • Nevada offers a Voluntary ABE Certificate of Performance, though it is not specific to ESL.
  • Texas offers an Optional Credential in Adult Education.


Some states also have specific requirements related to adult ESL:

  • Maryland requires all ESL teachers to have knowledge of and be able to implement the Maryland Content Standards for Adult ESL/ESOL.
  • Mississippi requires completion of a Certificate of ABE Orientation and completion of training to deliver the BEST Plus assessment.
  • South Dakota requires New Teacher Training for all ABE and ESL teachers within the first 4 months of teaching.

It is important to remember that while states may identify minimal requirements for hiring or professional development of teachers, specific programs in those states may have substantially higher teacher expectations and requirements. In addition, even states with limited requirements for adult ESL teachers at the time they are hired may have stated expectations for the types and amount of professional development activities that teachers must engage in after they are hired. These expectations might include enrollment in undergraduate or graduate-level courses; participation in workshops or seminars; demonstration of competencies through portfolio or performance assessments; and participation in study circles, group inquiry, or action research.

Recognizing that many adult ESL teachers receive much of their training while they are teaching, many states have undertaken substantial professional development initiatives, some of which may lead to recognized certificates or credentials. In recognition of this fact, Illinois, for example, is implementing a new information management system that will document teacher educational backgrounds and professional development hours.

Next Steps

CAELA has recognized the preparation of, and professional development for, professionals working with adults learning English as a national priority (Schaetzel, Peyton, & Burt, 2007). The results of the study of teacher credentialing and certification in states reported here make clear the need for more systematic data on the steps that states are taking to professionalize their adult ESL workforce. This could be accomplished by systematic data collection within the states through a formal survey.

The survey could be informed by a series of questions that are relevant to all states considering certification or credentialing of adult ESL instructors. These include the following:

  • What is the range of knowledge and skills that teachers should have before they are hired? What are those that can be developed on the job?
  • Should there be different standards for full-time and part-time teachers and volunteers?
  • What types of professional development are most appropriate for teachers with different backgrounds and experience and for those working in different kinds of programs (e.g., literacy, citizenship, workforce preparation)?
  • What are ways to document and evaluate teacher competencies and the effectiveness of professional development?
  • What incentives should be provided for participation in professional development?
  • How can attainment of new knowledge and skills be rewarded?
  • Does participation in professional development encourage teacher retention? What are additional ways to prevent teacher burnout and turnover?


In their review of the literature on professional development (e.g., Belzer, Drennon, & Smith, 2001; Sabatini, Ginsburg, & Russell, 2002; Shanahan, Meehan, & Mogge, 1994; Smith & Gillespie, 2007) Schaetzel, Peyton, and Burt (2007) found that sustained, systematic, high-quality professional development had a larger impact on outcomes than did one-day workshops with little or no follow-up. This apparent value of high-quality professional development suggests a need for credentialing or certification of those working with adult English language learners. Schaetzel, Peyton, and Burt’s paper provides information about what teachers of adult English language learners need to know and be able to do. Research on successful adult ESL teachers would help in creating teacher preparation and professional development programs and in addressing the question of how much and what kinds of professional development should be provided. Additional research on adult ESL teacher certification and credentialing in states, through a formal survey, would provide a national picture of this important component of developing a professional adult ESL workforce across the United States.


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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.