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What Beginning Teachers and Tutors of Adult English Language Learners Need to Know

In many parts of the United States, the number of nonnative adult learners seeking English language instruction is growing. In the past decade, states that had not previously had significant numbers of immigrants witnessed a rapid growth of their immigrant population. As a result, new teachers are entering the field, experienced teachers are being asked to take on greater challenges, and many adult basic education teachers are working with English language learners in classes along with native English speakers. What do teachers and tutors who are beginning to work with adult English language learners need to know? This resource collection provides materials about second language acquisition, language and culture, instructional approaches that support language development, curricula, and professional development. While this is not an exhaustive list of materials, it is representative of what is available online and in print.

In January, 2003, Adult ESL specialists from the Center for Applied Linguistics conducted a teacher focus group at the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP) in Arlington, Virginia. Ten experienced teachers were asked to share their advice about what teachers beginning to work with adult English language learners need to know. These teachers worked in intensive (ten hours a week or more), non-intensive, workplace, family literacy, language lab, and volunteer settings. The teachers offered advice on appropriate resources for teachers and learners, professional organizations, and successful activities. This information helped inform the resources listed below. Teachers also shared "pearls of wisdom" that they learned through their own years of teaching. This advice, from nitty-gritty specifics to over-arching ideas may help new teachers become successful teachers.

Practical advice includes:

  • Observe master teachers in the classroom before and during your first months of teaching; talk with other teachers.
  • Write the day's agenda on the board.
  • Do a lot of physical activities.
  • Write everything you say--write it on the board, too. Say it before you write it!
  • Ask learners to change seats so they don't only stay in the "comfort zone" and have to work with different people.
  • Always practice more than you think is enough; recycle.
  • Call your students by name; look them in the eye.
  • Limit teacher talk.
  • Smile a lot/make them laugh--learners love a good joke.
  • Make a flexible lesson plan (lessons are like flow charts).
  • Keep a teaching journal: write/reflect for 15 minutes after every class.
The focus group agreed on several basic precepts on dealing with adult English language learners:
  • Know--and enjoy--your students.
  • Don't underestimate adult English language learners; they are competent adults.
  • Class building is crucial; the importance of building a comfortable learning environment can not be overestimated.
  • Respect all differences and require learners to do the same.
  • Telling does not=learning.
  • Practice imagination!
  • Seize all training opportunities, especially free workshops!

This list was compiled by Donna Moss and Lynda Terrill at the Center for Applied Linguistics.

CAELA Resources ERIC Database Articles and Reports Books for Teachers
Curricula Organizations Discussion Lists Policy Issues


CAELA Resources

The following briefs, bibliographies, digests, and other papers written by adult ESL professionals offer information that might be helpful to new teachers working with adult English language learners.

New adult ESL teachers and tutors need to have an understanding of adult learning principles and second language acquisition.

CAELA has many materials that discuss good instructional practices in the adult ESL classroom.

CAELA resources discuss the development of language skills.

CAELA has resources that address issues related to culture.

CAELA has a number of briefs and digests and an annotated bibliography that focus on the topic of professional development.

For access to to a complete list of briefs, digests, and bibliographies click on ESL Resources on the left navigation bar on this page and click on the resource type you are searching looking for. Also see the Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners available in pdf at and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) at

The ERIC Database

The ERIC database can be accessed at

Efficient searches of the ERIC database usually use a search strategy based on descriptive terms already defined by ERIC. Descriptors that you might want to use to find information on adult ESL instruction include some combination of the following:

adult basic education English (second language) teaching methods
adult education limited English speaking classroom techniques
adult learning non English speaking classroom environment
adult literacy second language instruction affective behavior
adult programs second language learning professional development

Articles, Reports, and Other Documents

Bygate, M., Skehan, P., & Swain, M. (2001). Introduction. In Researching pedagogic tasks: Second language learning, teaching and tests (pp.1-20). Harlow, England: Pearson.

Center for Impact Research. (2002). What's new? Reaching working adults with English for speakers of other languages instruction (ESOL): A best practices report. Chicago: Author. Available from

Crandall, J. A. (1993). Professionalism and professionalization of adult ESL Literacy. TESOL Quarterly, 27, 497-517.

Eckardt, M.E., et al. (1993). Teaching strategies for ESOL volunteers. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania State Department of Education, Bureau of Adult Basic and Literacy Education. (ERIC No. ED 386 959)

Foster, P., & Skehan, P. (1996). The influence of planning and task type on second language performance. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 18, 299-323.

Porter, D. (2002). The California adult education 2000-2002 innovation and alternative instructional delivery program: A review. Dominguez Hills: California State University, School of Education, California Distance Learning Project. Available from

Skilton-Sylvester, E., & Carlo, M. (1998). "I want to learn English": Examining the goals and movitvations of adult ESL students in three Philadlphia learning sites (Technical Report No. TR98-08). Philadelphia: National Center for Adult Literacy.

Smith, C., Hofer, J., & Gillespie, M. (2001, April). The working conditions of adult literacy teachers. Focus on Basics, 4(D), 3-7.

Wrigley, H., Chisman, F., & Ewen, D. (1993). Sparks of excellence: Program realities and promising practices in adult ESL. Washington, DC: Southport Institute for Policy Analysis.

Teacher Reference Books

Bell , J. S. (2004). Teaching multilevel classes in ESL. Ontario. 2 nd ed. Canada: Pippin Publishing. The author describes a variety of features that make a class multilevel including differences in language proficiency, education experience, and situational factors. This book discusses the challenges of planning curriculum and teaching multilevel classes and offers strategies for classroom management (e.g., evaluation and assessment, grouping strategies) as well as practical activities and resources.

Bell, J. & Burnaby, B. (1984). A handbook for ESL literacy. This book was written for both novice and experienced teachers who are teaching initial reading and writing skills to adult English language learners. It provides background information about literacy theory and offers practical suggestions for lesson planning. It is a classic adult ESL education guide.

Brown, H.D. (2001). Teaching by principles (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education. This book discusses teaching practices that are grounded in principles of language learning. The book is written for new teachers and covers topics such as the history of language teaching, cognitive, affective, and linguistic principles of language learning, designing and implementing classroom lessons, and assessing language skills.

Celce-Murcia, M. (Ed.) (2001). Teaching English as a second or foreign language. Boston: Heinle & Heinle. This book gives a comprehensive overview of teaching English to speakers of other languages. It discusses research and practice. Each chapter is written by a specialist in the field and provides background information on a specific topic and suggestions for instruction.

Hess, N. (2001) Teaching large multilevel classes. New York: Cambridge University Press. While this book is not specifically geared for adult ESL classes, it systematically addresses one of the perennial issues for teachers that teacher trainers must address—multilevel learning groups.

McKay, H. & Tom, A. (1999). Teaching adult second language learners. New York: Cambridge University Press. The authors focus specifically on adults learning English. This book provides a summary of the principles of teaching adults, a lengthy section on building community in the classroom and a variety of activities organized by life skill topics.  Topics include personal identification, family, community, housing, work, and other typical content. Within each of these sections the authors provide several interactive activities including purpose, time, level, preparation, step-by-step procedures, and follow-up. The overview of teaching adult ESL as well as the structure and detail, make this book ideal for practitioners new to teaching adults learning English.

Parrish, B. Teaching adult ESL: A practical introduction. (2004). New York: McGraw-Hill.
This introduction to teaching adult ESL presents the many complex facets involved in teaching adult ESL in a thoughtful and interactive manner. Chapters include “Working with Adult ESL Learners,” “Approaches and Program Options in Adult ESL,” “Managing ESL Classes,” and “Selecting Instructional Materials and Resources,” “Assessing Learning and Teaching,” and “Standards and Accountability” as well as chapters on focused on teaching language skills. Because of its collegial tone, accessible format, and activities for readers to apply what they are learning, this book may be a natural for use in a peer-mentoring or study circle format.

Smoke, T., ed. (1998). Adult ESL: politics, pedagogy in classroom and community Programs. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. The articles in this book could be used to encourage teachers to consider more complex issues than daily classroom and instructional issues. Titles include “The Politics of Adult ESL Literacy” (p.3), “The Relationship Between Knowing Our Students’ Real Needs and Effective Teaching” (p. 41), “The Politics of Pronunciation and the Adult Learner” (p. 171), and “ Building on Community Strengths: A Model for Training Literacy Instructors” (p. 209). These provocative articles could lend themselves to study circle or peer mentoring activities.


Arlington Education and Employment Program.(1994). The REEP Curriculum: A Learner-Centered ESL Curriculum for Adults (Third Edition). This curriculum includes information any serious ESL teacher -- whether just beginning to teach, or a veteran of many years in the classroom -- would need to know about providing instruction to adult English language learners. The curriculum is comprised of the following units: learner needs assessment, learner evaluation, needs assessment, instructional units from levels 100 (pre-literate, no English ability) through 550 (high advanced English), and a transitional self-study unit to prepare learners for college level ESL. The appendices contain information on cross-cultural issues; using computers with language instruction; sample lessons, activities, and assessments; and a bibliography of resources. If you could have just one document to help you plan and deliver ESL instruction, this would be the one. (ERIC No. ED 397 695). The newest version of the REEP Curriculum is also available online at

Auerbach, E. (1992). Making meaning, making change: Participatory curriculum development for adult ESL literacy. McHenry, IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics. (ERIC No. ED 321 593) This book describes the University of Massachusetts Family Literacy Project, a participatory adult ESL civics project, and offers insights for teachers who want to undertake a similar project. Examples are given of how the project sought to use literacy to make changes in the community.

Massachusetts Adult ESOL Curriculum Framework is available at
This is a draft document of the framework for a statewide adult ESOL curriculum. It outlines the core concepts and seven guiding principles behind the framework, as well as the five principle strands for instruction and learning, and the specific learning standards (skills and knowledge) related to each.

Tennessee Adult ESOL Curriculum Resource Book is available at This online document defines the language, EL/Civics, and workplace competencies for six adult ESOL levels recognized by the state of Tennessee. It provides descriptions of student learning plans, as well as appendices on materials and resources, samples of student portfolio sheets, and general information and guidelines for new teachers.

Weinstein, G.(ED.) (1999). Learner's lives as curriculum: Six journeys to immigrant literacy. McHenry, IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics. (ERIC No. ED 447 738). This book describes the philosophical background and the actual process of using learners' needs and concerns to develop curricula and materials to assist them to meet language-learning and life goals while they participate actively in their communities. This volume describes six projects that were undertaken in the late 1990s by community-based organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

National, Regional, and International Organizations

National Institute for Literacy (NIFL). NIFL is an independent federal organization focusing on adult literacy and basic education issues, in the United States. NIFL's website offers access to information on its programs and services, national literacy policy and legislation, NIFL publications, and LINCS system of adult education and literacy resources on the Internet.

Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), U.S. Department of Education.
OVAE sponsors a wide range of programs, activities, and information dissemination on adult and vocational education and related areas.

TESOL--Teachers of English to speakers of other languages--is a global education association. Founded in 1996, the organization has approximately 14,000 members in over 120 countries. TESOL's Web site features a database of TESOL members; links to state, local and international affiliates; advocacy information; and information about TESOL membership, publications, and services such as its placement/career services.

Discussion Lists

Adult English Language is an electronic discussion list--a listserv--sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy and moderated by staff at CAELA. Discussions focus on issues related specifically to adults learning English. Participants include ESL teachers, program administrators, policy makers, and other stakeholders who share resources, ideas, news, and concerns related to adult ESL. (The archives of discussions can also be searched by keyword from this Web page.)

Policy Issues

A Vision and Action Agenda For Adult ESL in the 21st Century is a report published by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in collaboration with NCLE. The Agenda articulates a vision for policy and practice in adult ESL in the next decade and describes specific action steps required to accomplish this vision. Input and feedback on the development of the document were provided by adult ESL and related professionals from across the United States. This document was originally commissioned by the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) to inform its National Literacy Summit 2000 process.

The Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) Web site offers access to information on a variety of government educational initiatives.

The National Reporting System for Adult Education (NRS) Web site informs programs and teachers about accountability issues related to federally-funded adult education programs.