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Adult ESL Fact Sheets

In January 2002, adult ESL experts at the Center for Applied Linguistics developed four facts sheets on important topics in Adult ESL:


Assessment with Adult English Language Learners

The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (Title II of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998) requires each state to report educational gains of learners in terms of level descriptors defined by the National Reporting System (NRS) document. This requirement has intensified the debate among practitioners, researchers, and policy makers as to what constitutes success and how to measure it. The NRS implementation document states that a standardized assessment procedure (a test or performance assessment) is to be used to measure level gains, but the choice of procedure is left up to each state. Most states have chosen a standardized test. Several give choices among a list of approved tests. A few states allow a standardized test for initial level determination and then a competency checklist or uniform portfolio for level exit.

Trends and Issues

Measuring learner gain
The NRS level descriptors for ESL define English language proficiency for speaking/listening, reading/writing, and functional and workplace skills across 6 levels. However, there is no research to support how long it takes to move from one NRS level to another. Such information is crucial so that learners, program staff, and funders can set realistic goals.

It takes several years to learn a language well (Thomas & Collier, 1997). The time it takes to show level gain on a proficiency scale depends on both program and learner factors.

Program factors include
  • intensity of the classes (how long and how many times per week),
  • training and experience of the instructors,
  • adequacy of facilities (comfortable, well-lit), and
  • resources available to both instructors and learners.
Learner factors include
  • educational background (including literacy in the native language),
  • age,
  • experiences with trauma, and
  • opportunities to use the language outside of instructional time.

Standardized testing
One way to test language development is through the use of a standardized test. Paper and pencil standardized tests are often used because they are easy to administer to groups, require minimal training for the test administrator, and have documentation of reliability (consistency of results over time) and validity (measuring what the test says it measures).

Despite these advantages, standardized tests also have limitations. They may not capture the incremental changes in learning that occur over short periods of instructional time. This is particularly a problem in adult education programs where learners may have only a few hours per week to devote to attending classes or where instruction is focused on a limited number of learner goals. Because it takes a long time to learn a language, learners may not have enough instructional time or broad enough instruction to demonstrate gain on a standardized test. Under these circumstances, the results of testing will have meaning to the learners and instructors only if the test content is related to the goals and content of the instruction and instructional time is sufficient. Programs need adequate resources to support test administration.

Performance assessment
Performance assessments require learners to use prior knowledge and recent learning to accomplish tasks that demonstrate what they know and can do. Teachers and learners like this type of assessment, because they can see the direct link between instruction and assessment. Examples of performance assessment tasks include oral or written reports (e.g., how to become a citizen), projects (e.g., researching, producing, and distributing a booklet on recreational opportunities available in the community), exhibitions, or demonstrations. A variety of performance assessments provide a more complete picture of a learner's abilities than can be gathered from performance on a standardized test.

In adult ESL, performance assessment reflects current thought about second language acquisitio--learners acquire language as they use it in social interactions to accomplish purposeful tasks (e.g., finding out information, applying for a job). Performance may be assessed by documenting the successful completion of the task or by using rubrics to assess various dimensions of carrying out the task (e.g., rating oral presentation skills on a scale of 1 to 5). Both instructors and learners can be involved in the development of evaluation guidelines and rubrics and in the evaluation procedure itself.

Although performance assessments provide valuable information to learners, instructors, and other program staff, their use for accountability purposes is currently limited. To produce the reliable, hard data required for high stakes assessment, performance assessments would need to be standardized. That is, for each of the NRS functioning levels, tasks that represent level completion and guidelines and rubrics for evaluating performance on that level need to be developed, and evaluators need to be trained.

At the national level, the Workforce Investment Act and the NRS have set criteria that states must meet in order to receive federal funding, but states have leeway to set their own performance measures and assessment procedures for meeting the criteria. Certain states have instituted performance-based contracts by which programs receive money only for the learners who make certain gains. Not all program staff may be aware of these policies and who sets them. Their attitudes towards being required to use certain assessments may affect the assessment process and, hence, the results.

Best Practices

For both standardized and performance assessments, application of the following principles will produce effective assessment procedures:

  • Clearly identify the purpose of the assessment (why the learners are being assessed) and what learning is to be assessed (e.g., increased speaking proficiency).
  • Select assessment instruments and procedures that match the program's learning goals (e.g., an oral interview to show progress in speaking skills, writing samples to show progress in writing) and that engage learners so they are interested and will strive to do their best.
  • Whenever possible, use multiple measures to present a more complete picture of what has been learned.
  • Ensure that adequate resources are available to carry out the assessments (e.g., enough materials, comfortable environment, adequately trained administrators and scorers).
  • Be aware of the limitations of the assessments selected.
  • Remember that assessment is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. Share assessment results with learners and instructors, as well as with administrative staff and funders and the results as a basis for decisions.

However, to put these principles fully into practice, the following critical questions need to be resolved:

  • Under what conditions can measurable gain be achieved?
  • What is the interrelationship among measurable gain, the assessment procedures used, and the resources available to carry out the procedures?
  • Are standardized tests currently in use able to adequately measure what learners know, can do, and have learned over short time spans?
  • What resources (time, adequately trained staff) are needed to ensure consistent and reliable standardized assessment?
  • Do programs have adequate resources (time, staff, staff training) to use performance assessments reliably?
  • Can performance assessments adequately measure what learners know, can do, and have learned over a short time span?
  • Are there differences in outcomes between states that require certain assessments and states that allow programs to choose?
  • What impact do national, state, or local policies have on assessment procedures and outcomes?
  • What policies need to be changed or created?


Over the past decade, the United States has made progress in creating a cohesive system of adult education through legislation such as the Workforce Investment Act. Answers to the critical questions listed above will continue to move the field forward in solving the complexities of defining learner progress.


Thomas, W.P., & Collier, V. (1997). School effectiveness for language minority students. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. Available:

Additional Resources

Ananda, S. (2000). Equipped for the future assessment report: How instructors can support adult learners through performance-based assessment. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Holt, D. & Van Duzer, C. (2000). Assessing success in family literacy and adult ESL. McHenry, IL & Washington, DC: Delta Systems & Center for Applied Linguistics. See

National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (2001). CAELA resource collections: Assessment and evaluation in adult ESL. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Department of Education. (1999-2001). NRS online. Washington, DC: Author. Available:

Van Duzer, C. & Berdan, R. (2000). "Perspectives on assessment in adult ESOL instruction." The annual review of adult learning and literacy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. See

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. RR 93002010. The opinions expressed in this fact sheet do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

Family Literacy and Adult English Language Learners

Family literacy programs have been recognized as a way to help children become successful in school while adults develop literacy skills. The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, Title II of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, reflects this dual goal in its encouragement of adults to "become full partners in the educational development of their children." The law also mentions helping adults to "become literate and obtain the knowledge and skills necessary for employment and self-sufficiency."

Trends and Issues

The Even Start Family Literacy Program, first authorized in 1988 as part of Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965 (ESEA), is the major family literacy initiative administered by the U. S. Department of Education (2001). Many family literacy programs, including Even Start, use an educational model with four components (U.S. Department of Education, n.d., Programs and responsibilities: Even Start):
  • Adult education and adult literacy
  • Parenting education to help parents support the educational growth of their children
  • Interactive parent and child literacy activities.

Family literacy programs have created many learning opportunities for adult English language learners and their children in rural and urban settings. Particularly in parts of the country that are experiencing a rapid increase in immigrant population, programs are adapting to address immigrant family issues. While addressing the needs of all families, program staff must be aware of the differences between immigrant families and native-born U.S. families in terms of their strengths, goals, and challenges.

Best Practices

Family literacy programs serving adult English language learners need to do the following:

Implement programs of sufficient duration to demonstrate learner progress
Because it is required by law that learners' educational progress be documented, family literacy programs must be of sufficient intensity and duration for visible progress to be made. This is particularly important with adult English language learners, because they may need time to understand American school culture and expectations while they are increasing their literacy skills. Many learners may not have had opportunities for education in their native countries. In addition, their native language may not be written, or it may use a different alphabet. As a result, they need sufficient instructional time to learn the language offered by family literacy programs in order to become comfortable and proficient in the new language and culture

Address both early childhood learning and older children's needs

Scientists, researchers, and teachers agree that a child's early learning environment is important for school success. Some research suggests that a stimulating and positive environment in the first three years is essential (Chugani, 1997; see also U.S. Department of Education, n.d., Implications of brain development research). Other research suggests that the brain's elasticity allows for lifelong active learning (Bruer, 1999). Since immigrant adults and their children often come to this country after the 0-3 year old period, the needs of older children and their parents must be addressed, as well as those of young children. Families with middle- and high-school-age children often need to negotiate whether old country or new country rules apply to social and school situations. As family literacy programs expand their scope to include all children--not just pre-school and early elementary children-- they may be able to help families negotiate these complex issues.

Build on parents' language and literacy

Many immigrant parents have literacy skills in one or more languages other than English. Others are not literate in any language. Researchers and practitioners are exploring the value of learning to read in a first language other than English both for its own sake (i.e., as a vehicle for passing on culture and knowledge) and to facilitate becoming literate in the second language.While reading and writing are critical to effective functioning in the United States, the first educational need that many adult English language learners express is to speak English well. Many adult English learners hold two jobs to make ends meet; it may take some of them many years to read well in English. During this time, they are still able to help their children in school.

Respect parents' cultures and ways of knowing

Immigrant parents come to the United States to find a better life for themselves and their children, and they often cite their children's opportunities for education and future success as reasons they came. These parents are eager to understand U.S. culture in general, and specifically, the complexities and expectations of school. Yet the language and cultural knowledge that non-English speaking parents have is valuable and should be shared with their children. Family literacy practitioners and parents themselves need to know that telling stories and sharing cultural traditions with children in any language help prepare the children to do well in school, even when the language is not English, and even when this is done orally rather than through print (Weinstein & Quintero, 1995). Family literacy practitioners also need to understand that immigrant parents come to educational programs with many strengths. Their knowledge about learning and child raising may be different, but not deficient. Family literacy program staff should learn about and respect these parents and their cultures, which often include strong, intact, multigenerational family structures. These parents want to learn, but they also have much to teach.


As family literacy programs continue to grow in all parts of the country, program staff need to understand and incorporate immigrant parents' strengths, knowledge, and needs into all facets of instruction.



Bruer J.T. (1999). The myth of the first three years: A new understanding of early brain development and lifelong learning. New York: The Free Press.

Chugani, H.T. (1997). Neuroimaging of developmental non-linearity and developmental pathologies. In R. W. Thatcher, G.R. Lyon, J. Rumsey, & N. Krasnegor (Eds.), Developmental neuroimaging: Mapping the development of brain and behavior. San Diego: Academic Press

U.S. Department of Education. (compiled February 22, 2001). The Even Start family literacy programs statute, as of December 31, 2000. Retrieved from:

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Implications of brain development research for Even Start family literacy programs. Available:

Weinstein-Shr, G., & Quintero, E. (Eds.) (1995). Immigrant learners and their families: Literacy to connect the generations. McHenry, IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Additional Resources

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.

Auerbach, E. (1998, Spring). Designer literacy: Reading the labels. Bright Ideas,7(4), 3-6 (Available from World Education, 44 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210) Available:

Pastore, J.R., Melzi, G., & Krol-Sinclair, B. (1999). What should we expect of family literacy? Experiences of Latino children whose parents participate in an intergenerational literacy project. Newark, DE and Chicago, IL: International Reading Association and National Reading Conference.

Taylor D. (Ed). (1997) Many families, many literacies: An international declaration of principles. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Weinstein, G. (1998). Family and intergenerational literacy in multilingual communities. Q & A. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education. Available:

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. RR 93002010. The opinions expressed in this fact sheet do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

Professional Development and Adult English Language Instruction

The demand for English as a second language (ESL) classes and for qualified personnel to work with adult English language learners has greatly increased in recent years. The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education reports that in 1999, adults seeking English language and literacy instruction represented the largest segment (37%) of federally funded adult education enrollment. Much of this increase is due to immigration patterns. States not historically associated with immigrant influxes such as Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Tennessee are experiencing huge growth in immigrant populations.

To meet this demand, more teachers are needed. New teachers are entering the field, experienced teachers are being asked to take on greater challenges, and adult basic education teachers are now working with English language learners in classes along with native English speakers. Professional development is crucial for these teachers.

Trends and Issues

Despite their numbers, adult ESL programs, learners, and teachers are still somewhat marginal in adult education policy and structure. In addition, many adult ESL teachers express a feeling that the field itself has a low status. Practitioners often work in cramped conditions with limited resources and materials. Most adult ESL teachers are part-time, hourly employees with minimal or no employment benefits. They come to the field with varied backgrounds, training, and experiences. There is a high turnover rate. A wide range of instructional contexts and content focuses (e.g., workplace, academic, non-academic, life skills, and volunteer pro-grams) make uniform professional development challenging. Certification and training requirements for teachers vary. There are limited opportunities and funding for professional development, and many teachers who work on part-time schedules or in isolated programs have difficulty connecting with other teachers and participating in a professional community.

Best Practices

Studies of professional development efforts in adult education reveal that effective staff development practices for adult educators

  • are ongoing, extensive, and based in solid theory.
  • involve teachers themselves in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of the training efforts.
  • provide teachers with opportunities to try new skills on the job and then engage in feedback and follow-up activities.
  • include time for inquiry, reflection, and collaboration.

Given the realities of the field of adult ESL education, creating professional development opportunities that meet these criteria is challenging. Recent professional development efforts that show promise include

  • building teachers' knowledge in the following areas: adult learning principles (in ESL contexts), second language acquisition processes, effective second language teaching approaches, and techniques for working with multicultural groups;
  • exploring continued, ongoing professional development formats with opportunities for application of new ideas, collaboration, and feedback (as well as integrating one-time workshops and conferences into these formats);
  • using technology-based approaches (e.g., CD-ROMs, teleconferences, synchronous and asynchronous Internet-based courses, television broadcasts) to offer professional development options that optimize financial resources, reach scattered teachers and programs, and promote collaboration and community;
  • fostering reflective practice through individual or group models;
  • promoting professional communities through efforts such as mentoring, practitioner research groups, reading circles, or peer teaching;
  • encouraging teachers to bring theory, research, and practice together through practitioner research or joint projects between researchers and teachers;
  • developing new models for credentialing and certification based on the skills and knowledge that adult ESL teachers need to be able to demonstrate;
  • focusing on professional development within other national efforts such as the Adult ESOL Program Standards created by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and A Research Agenda for Adult ESL by the National Center for ESL Literacy Education (NCLE).


Policy makers and funders must acknowledge and address constraints of time and financial resources available for professional development for teachers of adult English language learners. State program administrators, who are responsible for setting funding allocation guidelines, must make difficult decisions about how to support professional development. (One state, for example, decided to place limits on the number of adult English language learners it would serve through its programs in order to make more money available for professional development for instructors.) Until discussions of these critical issues take place, professional development will remain a marginalized activity for instructors, and the quality of instruction for learn-ers will suffer.


Burt, M., & Keenan, F. (1998). Trends in staff development for adult ESL instructors. Q & A. Washington, DC: NCLE.

Crandall, J. (1994). Creating a professional workforce in adult ESL literacy. Digest. Washington, DC: NCLE.

Florez, M.C. (1997). The adult ESL teaching profession today. Digest. Washington, DC: NCLE. Available:

Florez, M.C., & Burt, M. (2001). Beginning to work with adult English language learners: Some considerations. Q & A. Washington, DC: NCLE.

National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (1998) A Research Agenda for Adult ESL. Washington, DC: Author. Available:

Smith, C., Hofer, J., & Gillespie, M. (2000, April). The working conditions of adult literacy teachers. Focus on Basics, 4(D), 3-7. Available:

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. (2000). Program standards for adult education ESOL programs. Alexandria, VA: Author. Order from:

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. RR 93002010. The opinions expressed in this fact sheet do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

Uses of Technology in Adult ESL Education

The use of technology is not new to the field of adult ESL education. Adult ESL professionals have long used applications such as audio and videotapes, cameras, overhead projectors, and software programs to enrich their instructional activities. More recently, they are integrating multimedia packages and PowerPoint presentations into instruction. Educators continue to explore and develop new uses of technology. They are using it as an instructional tool in the classroom, as a delivery system for learner instruction and teacher training, and as instructional content itself (e.g., learning word processing programs or building Web pages).

Technology can be used in a range of different contexts--in the classroom, at distance learning sites, and for extended or self-study. This adaptability is extremely appealing in a field with a wide variety of program types, content objectives, instructional settings, and learner needs and goals. At the classroom or individual learning level, new technologies present opportunities to accomplish multiple instructional goals (e.g., integrated language skills, critical thinking, cooperative and interpersonal skills). They may also be responsive to different learning styles (e.g., auditory, visual, tactile).

Trends and Issues

While technology can benefit programs, instructors, and learners in adult ESL (Fitzgerald, 1995), challenges still exist. Programs need financial resources to acquire technology and to support technology use, particularly as applications become more sophisticated, extensive, and expensive than in the past. Funding for adult ESL instruction is usually limited. These financial constraints make the use of technology appealing (e.g., to reach dispersed learner populations or to provide self-access ESL support). However, acquiring and supporting the hardware and software needed to integrate technology applications in instruction often exceeds the resources available.

Matching technology applications to the instructional needs and goals of the program is another challenge. Factors such as financial limitations or fascination with a high-end technology application can lead to adoption of applications that are either more limited or more complicated than necessary to meet existing needs and goals.

Finally, the digital divide, the gap between who has access to technology (specifically computers and the Internet) and who does not, must be considered. While computers and the Internet play a growing role in adult ESL learners' lives at work and home, there are still large segments of this population who do not have easy access to this type of technology and the information it conveys.

Best Practices

Efforts to use technology applications effectively in adult ESL instruction include the following:

  • addressing the need for sufficient funding to support technology integration, including the purchase of hardware, software, and accompanying materials and providing adequate, ongoing technical support for maintenance;
  • including technology objectives in state-level adult education planning;
  • choosing technology that supports and complements the approaches, needs, and goals of the instruction;
  • developing instructional models that integrate technology applications, as well as expanding existing ones;
  • creating and using hybrid models that combine technology components with elements such as accompanying print materials, traditional classroom instruction, and face-to-face meetings;
  • developing software programs and Web sites that are truly appropriate for and usable by immigrants learning English, especially at beginning levels;
  • providing practitioners with training in instructional approaches and techniques that incorporate technology applications as well as in the functions and uses of the equipment ("hardware") being used;
  • researching and documenting the benefits and challenges of various uses of technology applications as instructional tools and as delivery mechanisms (e.g. video delivery of classes, video series with accompanying materials, hybrid models, online courses);
  • using technology to expand or individualize learning inside and outside the classroom (e.g., individualized activity stations, self-access learning labs, and online courses).


In adult ESL, technology is no longer viewed simply as a replacement for a live teacher. Rather, its various applications are being developed and used as additional tools in the adult ESL instructional repertoire.


Fitzgerald, N.B. (1995). ESL instruction in adult education: Findings from a national evaluation. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education: Available:

Additional Resources

Burt, M. (1999). Using videos with adult English language learners. Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Children's Partnership. (2000). Online content for low-income and underserved Americans: The digital divide's new frontier. Washington, DC: Author. Available:

Gaer, S. (1998). Using software in the adult ESL classroom. Q & A. Washington, DC: NCLE.

Hacker, E. (1999). Surfing for substance: A professional development guide to integrating the World Wide Web into adult literacy instruction. New York: Literacy Assistance Center. Available:

Hawk, W. (2000). Online professional development for adult ESL educators. Q & A. Washington, DC: NCLE.

New England Literacy Resource Center. CESOL: Computers and English for speakers of other languages web site. Available:

Silc, K.F. (1998). Using the World Wide Web with adult English learners. Digest. Washington, DC: NCLE.

Terrill, L. (2000). The benefits and challenges in using computers and the Internet with adult English language learners. Washington, DC: NCLE.

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. RR 93002010. The opinions expressed in this fact sheet do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.