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Reading and Adult English Language Learners

How do adult learners learn to read in English? What are the best ways to teach reading to this population? Over the past 20 years, a growing number of adult ESL educators have grappled with the challenges posed by an increasingly large and diverse population of adults in the United States who are learning English as a second language.

According to the 2000 Census, more than 35 million adults are non-native speakers of English, and 9 million adults do not speak English well or at all (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001).  This population has become a significant part of adult education programs. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in program year 2003-2004, 43.8% of adults enrolled in state-administered, federally funded adult education programs were enrolled in ESL classes. 

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) included a category for the “non-literate in English.” This category represents adults who could not be tested on the main part of the NAAL because they did not have the English literacy skills. Two groups make up this category:

Adults who were able to take an alternative assessment specifically designed for the least-literate. These adults were asked questions in either English or Spanish, but all supporting written materials were in English. Three percent of those who were tested fell into this category, which probably includes non-native speakers of English, as well as native English speakers with minimal English literacy skills.

Adults who could not be tested on either the main part of the NAAL or the alternative assessment because they did not possess the English or Spanish oral skills to understand the interviewer. Two percent of those who were tested fell into this category. In 2003, nearly two-thirds of the adults in this category were deemed unable to participate due to a language barrier; the remainder were unable to participate due to a cognitive or mental disability.  

White and Dillow’s (2005) preliminary analysis of categories that might indicate non-native English speakers indicated that the average prose literacy scores of Asians/Pacific Islanders increased, rising 16 points between 1992 and 2003; the average prose literacy scores of Hispanics decreased 18 points from 1992 to 2003, and average document literacy scores of Hispanics decreased by 14 points.

The background questionnaire given to those who participated in the NAAL included questions on language background, as well as education background and experiences. Further analysis of these background data-–though, unfortunately, no data exist for the two percent of adults who were unable to respond to the interviewer’s questions in either English or Spanish--is needed before we truly can identify the English literacy skills of non-native English speakers in the United States. For an example of such a study done after the 1992 assessment, and a possible reference point for comparative analyses with the 2003 results, see the NCES publication, English literacy and language minorities in the United States (Greenberg, Macias, Rhodes, & Chan, 2001).

This resource collection provides background about reading and adult English language learners and gathers resources that directly address the particular topic of adult immigrants learning to read in English. Little research has been conducted with adult English language learners in ESL adult education contexts because the complexities of adult ESL (e.g., a diverse mobile population and varied learning contexts such as workplace, family literacy, and general ESL classes) make research in reading somewhat challenging.

While this is not a definitive list of research in reading for adult English language learners, it is representative of what is readily available online and in print. CAELA does not endorse any particular set of materials, and we encourage users of this collection to give thoughtful consideration to all resources and materials. Because this collection is still being constructed, CAELA welcomes comments and suggestions at


CAELA Resources ERIC Database Articles/Reports Newsletters/Journals
Organizations Discussions Policy Issues Other Resources


CAELA Resources

Adult ESL professionals at the Center for the Applied Linguistics (CAL) have developed a variety of materials specifically about reading and adult English language learners.  While the research that directly deals with English language learners in adult education settings is still slim, what is available, as well as professional wisdom, and pertinent data from K-12 and post-secondary education has also been included.

Activities to Promote Reading Development” in Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners. National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) and National Center for ESL Literacy Education (NCLE) (2004)

Adult English Language Instruction in the 21st Century Carol Van Duzer and MaryAnn Cunningham Florez (Issues in Preparing Adult English Language Learners for Success Series, 2005)

Ask CAELA: Vocabulary Acquisition in Adult English Language Learners (2006) 

CAELA ESL Resource Database

How Should Adult ESL Reading Instruction Differ from ABE Reading Instruction?  Miriam Burt, Joy Kreeft Peyton, & Carol Van Duzer  (CAELA Brief, 2005)

Reading and Adult English Language Learners: A Review of the Research. Miriam Burt, Joy Kreeft Peyton, & Rebecca Adams (Center for Applied Linguistics and National Center for ESL Literacy Education, 2003) Also available in print version at

Reading and Adult English Language Learners: The Role of the First Language. Miriam Burt & Joy Kreeft Peyton (ERIC Digest, 2003)

Research on Reading Development of Adult English Language Learners: An Annotated Bibliography. Rebecca Adams and Miriam Burt (Annotated bibliography, 2002)

Second Language Acquisition in Adults: From Research to Practice. Donna Moss & Lauren Ross-Feldman (ERIC Digest, 2003)

Excerpts from CAELA materials


Factors Influencing Adult L2 Literacy Development

Adults learning English come from diverse backgrounds and have widely differing experiences with literacy in their first languages. A number of factors influence the ways that adults' English literacy develops and the progress that different learners will make in learning to read English. They include level of literacy in the first language and in English, oral language proficiency in English, educational background, personal goals for learning English, and the structure and writing system of the first language. These factors must be taken into account in all areas of instructional program planning, learner placement in classes, and instructional approaches.

The chart below identifies six types of L1 Literacy and their possible effects on L2 literacy learning


Types of L1 Literacy and Effects on L2 Literacy Learning

L1 Literacy


Special Considerations


L1 has no written form (e.g., many American indigenous, African, Australian, and Pacific languages).

Learners need exposure to the purposes and uses of literacy.


Learners have no access to literacy instruction.

Learners may feel stigmatized.


Learners have limited access to literacy instruction.

Learners may have had past negative experiences with literacy learning.

Nonalphabet literate

Learners are fully literate in a language written in a nonalphabetic script (e.g., Chinese).

Learners need instruction in reading an alphabetic script and in the sound-syllable correspondences in English.

Non-Roman alphabet literate

Learners are literate in a language written in a non-Roman alphabet (e.g., Arabic, Greek, Korean, Russian, and Thai).

Learners need instruction in the Roman alphabet in order to transfer their L1 literacy skills to English. Some, such as readers of Arabic, will need to learn to read from left to right.

Roman alphabet literate

Learners are fully literate in a language written in a Roman alphabet script (e.g., French, German, and Spanish). They read from left to right and recognize letter shapes and fonts.

Learners need instruction in the specific letter-to-sound and sound-syllable correspondences of English.


Learners can transfer skills they have from L1 reading to L2 reading. However, the transfer may not always be automatic or positive. 

Excerpted from Reading and Adult English Language Learners (pp. 13, 15)


What Research Says about Teaching Reading to Adult English Language Learners

  • Systematic, planned reading instruction is important.
  • Learners’ needs should be addressed in the curriculum.
  • Learners need direct teaching about English sound-symbol correspondence.
  • Direct vocabulary instruction is very important. (Guessing meaning from context is not recommended.)
  • Learners need direct teaching of grammar and syntax.
  • Pre-reading discussion of content and cultural background is advisable.
  • Good texts should be supplemented, especially with authentic materials.
  • Learning how to read in English takes time

Adapted from How Should Adult ESL Reading Instruction Differ from ABE Reading Instruction?  

The ERIC Database

You may find additional information, in the form of bibliographic references and citations, in the ERIC database. For access, go to: 
A good search of the ERIC database--most databases, in fact--begins with a search strategy that identifies the main concepts of the topic. In this case [adult ESL instruction], there are three: adults/adult education; ESL/limited English fluency; and reading/literacy.

A search of ERIC, then, would draw on descriptive terms (descriptors) that identify important aspects of those three concepts. Thus, descriptors chosen from ERIC's controlled vocabulary that you might want to use include some of the following:

adult basic education
adult education
adult learning
adult literacy
adult programs
English (second language) limited English speaking
second language learning
reading strategies
reading instruction
reading research
reading comprehension
literacy instruction

Articles and Reports

Aebersold, J. A., & Field, M. L. (1997). From reader to reading teacher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Birch, B. M. (2002). English L2 reading: Getting to the bottom. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Brown, D. (2000) Principles of language learning and teaching. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Chiswick, B. R., & Miller, P. W. (2002). Immigrant earnings: Language skills, linguistic concentrations, and the business cycle. Journal of Popular Economics, 15, 31-57.

Cummins, J. (1991). Language learning and bilingualism (Sophia Linguistica Monograph No. 29). Tokyo: Sophia University, Sophia Institute for International Communication.

Ellis, R. (1997). Second language acquisition. Hong Kong : Cambridge University Press.

Eskey, D. (2005). Reading in a second language. In E. Hinkel (Ed.) Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 563-580). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Flahive, D. E., & Bailey, N. H. (1993). Exploring reading/writing relationships in adult second language learners. In J. Carson and I. Leki (Eds.) Reading in the composition classroom (pp. 128-140). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Folse, K. S. (2004). Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Greenberg, E., Macias, R. F., Rhodes, D., & Chan, T. (2001). English literacy and language minorities in the United States. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. NCES 2001-464.

Hadley, A. O. (1993). Teaching language in context. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Kruidenier, J. (2002). Research-based principles for adult basic education reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy. Retrieved February 8, 2005, from

McLeod, B., & McLaughlin, B. (1986). Restructuring or automaticity? Reading in a second language. Language Learning, 36, 109-123.

Nation, I. M. P. (2000). Learning vocabulary in lexical sets: Dangers and guidelines. TESOL Journal, 9(2), 6–10.

Nation, I. M. P. (2005). Teaching and learning vocabulary. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 581–595). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum

New report on adult literacy levels. (2005). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Rivers, W. M. (1981). Teaching foreign language skills (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schaetzel, K. (2000). The future success of a story is in the preview. Thai TESOL Bulletin, 13(2), 64-73.

Showalter, E. (1985). Feminist criticism in the wilderness. In E. Showalter (Ed.) The new feminist criticism: Essays on women, literature and theory (pp. 243-70). New York: Pantheon.

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

Web documentation for NAAL general audience report. (2005). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

White, S., & Dillow, S. (2005). Key concepts and features of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. NCES 2006-471.

Newsletters and Journals


The following links will connect you to further publications on a wide variety of topics related to reading, second language acquisition (SLA) and literacy.

Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy

Journal of Literacy Research

Language Teaching Research

Modern Language Journal

National Reading Conference Newsletter

Reading in a Foreign Language

Reading Matrix: An International Online Journal

Reading Online

Second Language Research

Studies in Second Language Acquisition

TESOL Quarterly


American Association for Applied Linguistics
This is a professional association of people interested in the field of applied linguistics including language acquisition and second and foreign language teaching.

Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition 
This center at the University of Minnesota supports research, dissemination of information and training related to second language learning, teaching, and assessment.

International Reading Association (IRA)
IRA is a professional organization for those involved with teaching reading to learners of all ages. The IRA Web site declares “Our members are dedicated to promoting high levels of literacy for all by: Improving the quality of reading instruction, disseminating research and information about reading, and encouraging the lifetime reading habit.”

National Reading Conference
The NRC Web site explains the organization as "a professional organization for individuals who share an interest in research and the dissemination of information about literacy and literacy instruction." NRC hosts an annual conference and a quraterly journal, Journal of Literacy Research.

National Institute for Literacy
NIFL is an independent federal organization that was established in 1991 to focus on adult literacy and basic education issues, in the United States. One of the initiatives the Institute is currently involved in--The Partnership for Reading--concerns reading across the lifespan.  Other partners in this project are the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and the U.S. Department of Education.

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.

ProLiteracy Worldwide
This international non-profit literacy organization includes several programs. For example, in the United States there are 1,200 affiliates in community-based organizations in all states and the District of Columbia.  New Readers Press, the publishing house for the organization, produces a variety of resources appropriate for adults learning English including News for You, a weekly newspaper.  

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.


The Adult English Language electronic discussion list is 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.) Other pertinent discussion lists, such as Family Literacy, Health and Literacy, and Women and Literacy are also available from this link.

Policy Issues

National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (1998). Research agenda for adult ESL. Washington, DC: Author.

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. (2001). Adult ESL language and literacy instruction: A vision and action agenda for the 21st century. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Other Resources

This section gives a selection of research, training materials, and other information available online related to reading and adult English language learners.  More entries will be online shortly.

Bell, J.S. (2000). Literacy challenges for language learners in job-training programs. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 57(1), 173-201.

The author studied a pre-apprenticeship job-training program held at a community college in central Canada, in which learners from a variety of language backgrounds were enrolled. The study sought information on factors (language and literacy challenges) affecting progress in such programs through student questionnaires, interviews, and participant observation in the classroom. The framework used for literate competency was the Luke and Freebody (1997) four-tier model. Discussion outlines the preferred teaching characteristics which learners identified as helpful and explores the possible long-term impact of learning initial literacy in a second language. Includes a 46-item bibliography.


International Adult Literacy Survey Database

This database allows users to retrieve literacy data--prose, document, quantitative--on over 25 countries described in this data tool. This database is a joint project of Statistics Canada and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Institute for Educational Sciences (IES), U.S. Department of Education.


National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL)

This Web site offers many reading resources based on the research that NCSALL has conducted as well as a link to Focus on Basics: Connecting Research and Practice. Pertinent information includes the research brief, “Patterns of Word Recognition Errors among Adult Basic Education Native and Nonnative Speakers of English” and a link to the ESOL Lab School at Portland State University, which has been conducting research on a variety of adult ESL topics including reading such at the study on sustained silent reading available at

Opportunity for literacy? Preliterate learners in the AMEP

Teacher encounters with adult ESL learners acquire a new focus when those learners have minimal experience of literacy, whether in L1--first--or any other language. Such learners' needs often include: introduction and access to truly basic reading and writing skills; bilingual support; and teacher acknowledgment that this is likely to be their first experience of formal education. This paper describes the outcomes of an action research project. During 2001-2, the Adult Migrant English Program [AMEP, Australia] Research Centre funded an action research project with a class of preliterate women from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and southern Sudan. The majority of students in the project class were young women who had minimal experience of formal schooling, and whose exposure to written text, if any, had been largely confined to religious texts in Arabic, the L1 of only one student. The project class focused mainly on reading and writing. The author reports on her journal entries, organizational and pedagogical issues arising, and discusses definitions, teacher assumptions and expectations, and syllabus contruction. Changes occurred in three major areas: in teacher attitudes and approaches; in the school’s relationships with the learners’ communities; and in the general curriculum and the learning environment.


 Partnership for Reading

This Web site, part of a collaborative endeavor by the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and the U.S. Department of Education includes resources about adult reading at


Teaching Reading to Adult English Language Learners: A Reading Instruction Staff Development Program

In March 2006, The Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center (VALRC) announced a new publication available online, Teaching Reading to Adult English Language Learners: A Reading Instruction Staff Development Program. The development of the trainings and subsequent document was funded with a federal English Literacy and Civics grant from the Office of Adult Education and Literacy, Virginia Department of Education. This document was prepared by the Center for Applied Linguistics for the Adult ESOL Program, Office of Adult and Community Education, Fairfax (VA) County Public Schools. According to VALRC:

This 15-hour training will acquaint participants with the fundamental knowledge and skills required to teach reading effectively to adult, nonnative speakers of English. The content is based on research on the reading process in general, on the process of learning to read as an adult, and learning to read in another language. The training is designed to be delivered by ESL instructional specialists at the local level or by trainers from the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center, most typically in workshop settings with a practicum component. That is, between workshop sessions, participants apply what they have learned in the previous sessions to their own classroom instruction.