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Adult ESL Practice in the New Millennium

Nearly 4 million adults were enrolled in adult education classes in the United States in 1999. Of those, 47% (or 1,695,516 adults) enrolled in English as a second language (ESL) programs that received funding from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE). Given this large population of English language learners, the need to examine the quality and structures of adult ESL instruction and to improve our programs and teaching strategies is timely and necessary.

To address this need, a panel discussion was held February 15, 2001, at the Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC. The event was sponsored by the National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

This document is based on the proceedings of the panel discussion. It examines the following pertinent issues in adult ESL education in the United States.

  1. The Learner Population in Adult ESL Programs
    Ronald Pugsley
    Division Director of Adult Education and Literacy
    Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), U.S. Department of Education

    U.S. Department of Education English Literacy/Civics Education Projects
    Rebecca Moak
    Division of Adult Education and Literacy
    Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), U.S. Department of Education

    Rights of Immigrant Adults in the U.S. Workforce
    Jin Sook Lee
    Executive Director, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance
    Washington, DC

    Instructional Strategies for English Language Learners With Limited Literacy Skills
    Larry Condelli
    Pelavin Research Institute, American Institutes for Research Washington, DC

    English Language Learners With Learning Disabilities
    Cathy Shank
    Special Projects Coordinator, ABE Staff Development
    West Virginia Adult Basic Education
    Dunbar, WV

  2. Professional Development and Working Conditions of Adult Education Teachers
    Marilyn Gillespie
    NCSALL Analysis Team Member, SRI International
    Arlington, VA
Concluding Remarks
Joy Kreeft Peyton
Director, National Center for ESL Literacy Education
Vice President, Center for Applied Linguistics
Washington, DC

Additional Resources


Miriam Burt, Associate Director of NCLE, organized and moderated the panel discussion. Joy Kreeft Peyton, Director of NCLE, developed this publication. Lynn Fischer, Publications Assistant, copyedited the manuscript. MaryAnn Cunningham Florez, Assistant Director of NCLE, prepared it for the Web.

We are grateful to David Red, Adult and Community Education, Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia, and Ujwala Samant, Rutgers University, New Jersey, for their helpful comments on previous drafts of the manuscript.

The preparation of this document was supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0008, with the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Library of Education. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

The National Center for ESL Literacy Education (NCLE) was operated by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL)through August, 2004. .

I. The Learner Population in Adult ESL Programs
    Ronald Pugsley
    Office of Vocational and Adult Education
    U.S. Department of Education

Learner enrollment patternsAlmost half of those enrolled in adult education programs in the United States are English language learners, and this rate is increasing every year. This map of the United States shows how this population is distributed across the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The 5 states with the highest concentration of English language learners (enrollments of 50,000 or above) are California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas (shown in red on the map). These states have been the focus of our attention for a number of years, and they have put into place structures and processes for working with English language learners.

The 12 states and the District of Columbia with ESL enrollments of 10,000 to 50,000 (shown in yellow) have experienced a significant influx of immigrants since 1994. This is also true for the majority of the states (33), which have ESL enrollments of less than 10,000 (shown in blue).

The map shows that ESL enrollments are no longer confined to the "Big Five" states but are truly national in distribution and impact. We are clearly becoming a multinational society, and states are developing responsive programs and services.What the map doesn't show, and what calls for further consideration, is the question of how funding for OVAE's English Literacy/Civics Education Projects (EL/Civics Education) should be structured. Should this program make funds available through the state grants program, through direct discretionary grants, or through both? There are local pockets of English language learners that are not always distributed across an entire state. These represent geographical aid situations, for which a discretionary grants program is most appropriate. Also, in a discretionary grants program, the federal government is able to work with agencies like United Way that operate across states. Many of these agencies that do not have the capability or capacity to apply for grants under the state grants program are funded under the discretionary grants program. We need to administer the EL/Civics Education grants through both funding streams.

Importance of federal efforts to promote adult literacy acquisition

Two studies point out how critical the federal government's adult literacy programs are: Benchmarking Adult Literacy in America: An International Comparative Study (Tuijnman, 2000), and the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993).

(1) Benchmarking Adult Literacy in America: An International Comparative Study, conducted between 1994 and 1998, was commissioned by OVAE (U.S. Department of Education) to determine how the United States compares with other countries on 10 major indicators of literacy. It examined literacy proficiency in nationally representative samples of the population between 16 and 65 years old in the United States and 21 other countries.

For the purposes of the study, literacy was defined as "the ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities, at home, at work, and in the community-to achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential" (Tuijnman, 2000, p. 9). The findings confirm that low literacy is an important issue in all of the countries studied. On the whole, American adults are at an average level of prose literacy performance, behind the Nordic countries and the Netherlands but on par with Australia, Canada, and Germany.

However, these average performance results mask the fact that in the United States there are large numbers of people at both the lowest and the highest levels of literacy. Americans at the top 25 percentile of the population distribution have a high average level of literacy compared with adults in all other nations surveyed.

The challenge raised by this study is that all American citizens must have access to literacy- and learning-rich environments in their homes, their communities, and at work. Literacy is a factor in crime prevention, health care provision, and the administration of justice, as well as in education and work.

There are some stunning outcomes in this study. The section on "Poor literacy proficiency among adults aged 45-65" (Tuijnman, 2000, p. 21) shows that by this measure, 20% of Americans (compared with 12% of Swedes, the highest performing country) scored at Level 1 on the prose scale, demonstrating "only rudimentary prose literacy skills, which makes it difficult to cope with the rising demands for literacy skills at work and in everyday life" (p. 21).The section on "Poor literacy proficiency among the second-language foreign-born population" (p. 22) shows that more than half (64%) of the individuals with immigrant backgrounds who speak a language other than English performed at Level 1 on the prose scale of the National Adult Literacy Survey (see below).

The study summary makes clear the importance of the literacy issue for this country: "With one in every five adults aged 45-65 at Level 1, there can be no denying that the United States has a literacy issue to deal with. Even if it is true that the magnitude of the problem is worse in the majority of the countries surveyed, the issue nevertheless carries such importance that it must be addressed. That a disproportionate number of those with the lowest skills are second-language foreign-born does not make the challenge any easier" (p. 24).

(2) The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), conducted between 1989 and 1992, examined literacy levels in the U.S. population. In the NALS, Levels 1 and 2 represent the lowest levels of literacy. In the United States, 23% of the population studied measured at Level 1: "able to perform simple, routine tasks involving brief and uncomplicated texts and documents" (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993, p. xiv), and 27.3% at Level 2: "generally able to locate information in text, make low-level inferences using printed materials, and integrate easily identifiable pieces of information, and to perform quantitative tasks that involve a single operation" (pp. xiv-xv). Therefore, over half of the population studied has low English literacy skills. Furthermore, over half of those scoring at Levels 1 and 2 were immigrant adults, and 64% of those with a native language other than English scored at Level 1.


Kirsch, I. S., Jungeblut, A., Jenkins, L., & Kolstad, A. (1993). Adult literacy in America: A first look at the findings of the National Adult Literacy Survey. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Tuijnman, A. (2000, September). Benchmarking adult literacy in America: An international comparative study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Division of Adult Education and Literacy. (2000). State-administered adult education programs 1999 enrollment. Washington, DC: Author.

These two studies, Benchmarking Adult Literacy in America: An International Comparative Study and National Adult Literacy Survey, raise important policy questions about the necessity-and our resolve-to develop interventions that provide access to ESL services and raise the literacy levels of adults in this country who are not native English speakers. The studies also point to the importance of the new EL/Civics Education projects, discussed below, that focus on assimilation and authentic ways to teach language and critical thinking.

II. U.S. Department of Education English Literacy/Civics (EL/Civics) Education Projects
    Rebecca Moak
    Division of Adult Education and Literacy, OVAE
    U.S. Department of Education

In Fiscal Year (FY) 1999, through the Consolidated Appropriations Act (Public Law 105-243), OVAE had $7 million (through the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, AEFLA, National Leadership Activities) to provide "integrated English literacy and civics education services to immigrants and other limited English proficient populations." With this money, OVAE has provided funding for 12 English Literacy/Civics (EL/Civics) Education Demonstration Projects, located in seven states: California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Although many of these discretionary grant projects (begun in Summer, 2000) are taking place in the Northeast, some are distributed among the South, the Midwest, and the West Coast. Organizations running these projects include national organizations, local education agencies (LEAs), community-based organizations (CBOs), a resource center that is building curriculum, and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), which is developing national professional development on-line training.

In FY 2000, Congress appropriated funds through section 1000(a)(4) of the Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 106-113), which reserved $25.5 million in funds for Fiscal Year 2000 state grants under the Adult Education and Familly Literacy Act (AEFLA) for this grant program. The law directs that half of these funds be allocated to states with "the largest absolute need for these services" and half to states "with the largest recent growth in need for the services," "based on the best available data." Thirty-two states were funded under this allocation.

For FY 2001, working within the state grant category, members of the Appropriations Committee nearly tripled FY 2000's set-aside for EL/Civics which totaled $70 million. EL/Civics funds were distributed to states as follows: 65% to states with the largest numbers of immigrants and 35% to states with the largest recent increases in immigrant population. Every state, regardless of its immigrant population, received a minimum of $60,000 in new funding for EL/Civics projects.

What is English literacy/civics education?

The EL/Civics Education program is interested in building not only language skills, but also language skills connected to content knowledge. For adult English language learners, civics education is a broad term that includes

  • instruction in and guidance on becoming active participants in their new communities;
  • instruction in U.S. history and culture, including lessons on diversity and multiculturalism; and
  • instruction in how to gain U.S. citizenship (citizenship education).

Citizenship education is a subset of civics education. Its goal is to help adult immigrants learn enough procedural information, content, and English to complete the naturalization process, pass the citizenship exam, and become U.S. citizens. Encouraging civic participation may also be a part of civics education: that is, helping members of a community interact effectively with the social, political, and educational structures around them. The goal of civic participation education, then, is to help learners understand how and why to become informed participants in their communities.

A key element of civic participation education for adult English language learners is that their learning has real-life applications. One of its purposes is for learners to become active in community life, for example, by collaborating with each other to fight for a community improvement, learning about and participating in the American electoral system, or joining the local Parent Teacher Association (PTA) (Terrill, 2000).

Therefore, civics education is not confined to the citizenship/naturalization process, although this is one aspect of it. We are not trying to simply teach adults how to respond to the 100 Questions so that they can pass the citizenship test. We are asking broader questions: What do adults need to know and be able to do to live in the United States? In what contexts do they need English language proficiency--in their communities, with their families, or on the job?

Particularly when we look at the states that immigrants are beginning to move to (shown in blue on the map), we find that teachers are not prepared to work with these learners, because they have not had English language learners in their classes before.

The demonstration projects in the EL/Civics Education program should provide models for program planning, integrated curriculum development, and effective instruction. One such project, located in Wheaton, Maryland, is described below.

The Southeast Asian Citizenship Collaborative Project
National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies
Wheaton, Maryland

The Southeast Asian Citizenship Collaborative Project is run by the National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies (NAVASA) and eight of its affiliates. The goal of the project is to provide educational services to two groups of Southeast Asian refugees who have (or have had) limited access to education in English:

Through an English literacy and civics education distance-learning course on the Internet, classes will be broadcast electronically, and video-based classes and interactive Web pages will be posted. Along with English and civics, the curriculum develops competence with computer technology.Reference

Terrill, L. (2000). Civics education for adult English language learners. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

As mentioned above, one context in which English language learners need to be successful is in the workplace. Jin Sook Lee describes two efforts of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance to promote this success.

III. Rights of Immigrant Adults in the U.S. Workforce
     Jin Sook Lee
     Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance

The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) is one of six constituency groups within the AFL-CIO and the first and only organization of Asian Pacific American trade unionists. This alliance is committed to mobilizing the Asian Pacific American community to support worker rights, civil rights, and immigrant rights, and to building alliances between labor and communities.APALA has been involved in two specific initiatives related to immigrant workers:

  • the recent change in the AFL-CIO's position on immigration, and

  • the President's Executive Order on Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency.

Initiative One: AFL-CIO's Statement on Immigration Policy

On February 16, 2000, the AFL-CIO Executive Council passed an historic resolution calling for changes in U.S. immigration policy, which includes the restoration of safety net benefits to legal immigrants, a new amnesty program for immigrants, and replacement of the current I-9 employer sanctions.

APALA welcomed and supported this shift. At our founding convention in 1992, we were the first constituency group to pass a resolution calling for the repeal of employer sanctions. This resolution was rooted in our understanding that labor rights and immigrants are intrinsically linked, although labor laws and immigration laws often clash.

The shift in the AFL-CIO's policy on immigration was in many ways due to the increasing role of immigrants in building and strengthening the labor movement in this country. It became clear that as immigrant workers began to organize to have a voice at work and to challenge their employers concerning the exploitation they had endured, those employers utilized immigration laws to undermine workers' rights to a living wage, safe working conditions, dignity and respect, and freedom from discrimination and harassment.

Immediately following the resolution, the AFL-CIO conducted four regional forums, where a panel of national union leaders heard testimonies from immigrant workers and community leaders who addressed the challenges faced by immigrant workers in the workplace.

Problems that immigrant workers face in the workplace include the following:

  • Discrimination, exploitation, and abuse
  • Lack of worker knowledge of workplace rights
  • Employers' interference with workers' freedom to choose a union (When workers have begun to organize or to join a union, their employers have responded with threats, intimidation, discipline, and other tactics to discourage them.)
  • Fear of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and other government agencies (As a result of their fear of the INS, many immigrant workers are afraid to assert their rights. In many cases the INS and employers work in cooperative partnerships to identify and deport undocumented workers. This usually happens when workers start organizing, as in the case of workers at the Holiday Inn Express in Minneapolis (see American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, 2000)

The passing of this historic resolution has energized local unions as they work with communities, immigrants, and religious allies to develop strategies to protect workplace rights and to defend immigrant workers from employer abuse.

Although labor and immigrant rights groups have joined together to advocate for changes in U.S. immigration policy, the biggest challenge is to push for legislation that will truly bring about changes so that immigrant workers can have a voice at work. Both labor and immigrant rights groups will continue to work on this until there are definitive changes in the immigration policies of this country.

Initiative Two: Executive Order 13166

On August 11, 2000, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13166, calling for improved access to services for persons with limited English proficiency. The Executive Order contained two major initiatives:

  1. The first was designed to better implement and enforce an existing requirement under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal assistance from discriminating against employees based on race, color, and national origin. Federal policy and many court decisions have established that Title VI covers limited English proficiency due to race and national origin. Thus, the law requires that individuals who are limited English proficient be provided equal opportunities to benefit from services that are normally provided in English.

  2. The Executive Order set forth a new obligation requiring all federal agencies to meet the same standards as federal financial assistance recipients in providing meaningful access for limited English proficient individuals to federally funded programs. Thus, each federal agency had to develop a plan for providing access to limited English proficient individuals by December 11, 2000.

APALA and other Asian Pacific American organizations met with representatives from various agencies to discuss concerns regarding this Executive Order. These are some of the recommendations that were made: ¤ In defining "meaningful access," agencies should not only consider translation of written documents into languages other than English. Many limited English proficient individuals are not literate in their native languages and require oral information, which can be delivered through other means of communication and outreach.

  • Agencies should work in partnership with community organizations to determine what are considered to be "vital" documents. Community organizations should be involved in the development of written translations and oral information dissemination and in other outreach efforts.
  • Federal agencies should provide certified interpreters for limited English proficient individuals instead of relying on family members of the individuals to interpret.
  • Agencies should develop and implement mechanisms of accountability and enforcement that will ensure compliance with the Executive Order at local and federal levels.

As is the case with changes in immigration policy, it is unclear where this Executive Order stands in the list of priorities for the new administration. However, immigrant rights communities will continue to work on this issue.


American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. (2000). Building understanding, creating change: Definding the rights of immigrant workers. Washington, DC: Author.

As stated by Ronald Pugsley (above), a critical need in the adult ESL field is effective instruction for adults with limited literacy. A major study funded by the U.S. Department of Education seeks to identify and document effective instructional strategies with this population of learners.

IV. Instructional Strategies for English Language Learners With Limited Literacy Skills
      Larry Condelli
      Pelavin Research Institute, American Institutes for Research

The American Institutes for Research and Aguirre International are conducting a 6-year "What Works Study for Adult ESL Literacy Students," supported by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) and the Planning and Evaluation Service.

The study focuses on adult English language learners who lack literacy skills in both their native language and English. These are the learners that we see at the lowest levels in our ESL programs. They face the challenge of developing basic skills for decoding, comprehending, and producing print while they are learning English. Roughly 32% of adults enrolled in ESL programs are at this level (Fitzgerald, 1995).

Study purpose and designThe purposes of the study are to document the key features of instruction with these English literacy learners and to determine the outcomes of instruction. The study's primary research questions are

  • What combination of ESL acquisition and literacy development instruction most highly correlates with improved English reading, writing, and speaking of ESL literacy students?
  • What combination of ESL acquisition and literacy development instruction most highly correlates with improving the functional literacy skills of ESL literacy students, such as filling out forms or writing a check?
  • Does the correlation of either instructional emphasis (ESL acquisition or literacy development) with outcomes vary according to students' initial literacy level, native language, or age?
  • Do other classroom and instructional variables correlate with improving students' language and literacy development?

To answer these questions, we had to determine how to measure the English literacy skills of this population. This was challenging, because some English literacy learners in the study had not attended school in their home countries, and it was therefore difficult to find appropriate assessments to use with them.

We reviewed the research literature, interviewed teachers, observed classes, and conducted a survey of federally funded ESL programs in California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and Texas. The classes selected for the study were those specifically designed for low-literate students learning English.

Overview of the Study

Study findings

Summary of findings on instructional features for the 1999 cohort.

Classroom observations were conducted in 41 classes for 1 year in 1999 (the first year of the study). The classes were located in Arizona, California, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Texas, and Washington. Field staff observed each class an average of nine times over a 6- to 9-month period, wrote a running narrative about classroom activities, and then coded the narrative.

Students were assessed three times during the year: the initial class visit and then 3 months and 9 months after that. Assessments were administered individually. Both the instructions and the interviews were conducted in the learner's native language by a bilingual staff member (e.g., in Spanish) or through a translator (e.g., Hmong or Vietnamese).

We began with 350 students in the first-year cohort and ended with 298. If students left the program, we did everything we could to keep track of them. The on-site field worker obtained contact information for the students, came to class and got to know them, interviewed them a number of times, and checked to see if they planned to remain in the program. Even so, we lost contact with many students who moved to other cities or returned to Mexico.

Classroom activities

Instruction was conceptualized according to two basic sets of activities found in ESL literacy classes:

  1. One set of activities includes basic literacy activities, such as learning the alphabet and engaging in simple reading and writing tasks.

  2. Another focuses on second language acquisition, which includes learning the vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and rules of English.


In classes at this level, a combination of these activities are typically used: It is rare to find only literacy activities or only second language acquisition activities. In 9 of the 41 classes observed, half of the class time or less was spent focusing on literacy development. For the rest of the observed instructional time, teachers focused primarily on second language acquisition. That is, even though classes had low-literate students, only in 9 of the 41 classes was a lot of time spent on specific literacy development.

One interpretation of these findings is that the teachers were responding to the needs of the learners in their classes. While these learners need basic literacy instruction, they also have an immediate need to use English to function in the world-to talk with their children's teachers and with their doctors, to shop for groceries, and to work. As a result, we saw a combination of these activities in class, with learners working on worksheets, working in groups to solve problems, and doing project-based activities.

When we reviewed the coded activities, we found that we could place the classes into the following four basic categories (See Findings of the Study for more information):

  1. Oral communication reinforced with reading and writing. This was the most common type of class. It focused on how to say a word or a phrase, showing it in a text format with learners copying it. These classes stressed practice in listening, speaking, dialogues, oral reading, copying from the board, and spelling.
  2. Speaking, listening, and grammar. These classes focused mainly on oral language and listening, with an emphasis on grammar. There was little reading and writing.
  3. Basic literacy development. Students in these classes spent most of the time reading aloud and silently, learning the alphabet, learning phonics, copying from the board, practicing writing by filling in blanks, practicing writing the alphabet, and writing about their first day in the United States or about their children.
  4. High variety. In these classes, the teachers varied their activities often, incorporating reading, writing, and speaking, with some grammar and vocabulary development. No one type of activity predominated.


Instructional featuresIn the classroom observations, we coded the specific instructional activities to determine the following:

  1. What are the teachers doing to facilitate learning? Are they sharing the goals of the lesson with the learners? Are they using authentic materials or textbook materials? Are they responding to the questions that the learners ask?

  2. What are the learners doing? Are they engaged in the activities? Are they paying attention? Do they appear to be involved?

After every observation, each class was rated on a one-to-four scale on 20 dimensions, which we subjected to a factor analysis. We found four basic categories of instructional strategies (See Findings of the Study for more information):

  1. Time, practice, and variety. Teachers didn't rush from one thing to another but rather spent time going over a concept or skill to make sure the learners understood what they were being taught.
  2. Learner-centered. Teachers responded to what the learners wanted to know and be able to do.
  3. Connection to the outside world. Teachers brought to class authentic materials, such as magazines, newspapers, and grocery items, and connected classroom learning with learners' lives outside the classroom.
  4. Offering choices and promoting thinking. Teachers gave learners a chance to choose study topics and materials that were compelling and challenging.

Almost all of the activities that we observed were controlled and guided: drills, worksheets, and teacher-constructed activities. There were few critical literacy and project-based learning activities with this group of learners. Teachers seemed to feel that it was too difficult for the learners to do these things, because their English proficiency was so low.

The Pelavin Research Institute and the U.S. Department of Education will release project reports in Winter 2001/2002.


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

Another critical need in the field of adult ESL education is the identification and effective instruction of learners with learning disabilities, as discussed below.

V. English Language Learners With Learning Disabilities
    Cathy Shank
    ABE Staff Development, West Virginia Adult Basic Education

View the slides on which this talk is based.

Hard, reliable statistics on the number of individuals in the United States with learning disabilities are difficult to find, and numbers vary from source to source (see Vogel, S. A., 1998a and Vogel, S.A., 1998b). Some estimates indicate that about 5-10% of individuals (children and adults) in the general population are considered to have learning disabilities (see for example, Hatt & Nichols, 1995; Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1987). Other estimates are more like 17% (National Institutes for Health's & National Institute for Child Health and Human Development's study [as cited in U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Division of Adult Education and Literacy, 2000]).

In the adult education population, estimates are much higher, ranging from 40% (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General's study [cited in U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Division of Adult Education and Literacy, 2000)] to as high as 50-80% (U.S. Department of Labor Research and Evaluation's report, 1991 [cited in Allender, 1998; and Schwarz & Terrill, 2000.)

Causes of learning disabilities

Learning disabilities often occur in individuals with average or above average intelligence, and they continue throughout one's life. That is, we don't grow out of them as we mature from childhood to adulthood (National Institutes of Health & National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, 1993, September).

Learning disabilities can affect individuals' lives in different ways. Some may be affected in only one area. Others may have learned to accommodate for and work with their learning disability, so that it has limited effects on their work. English language learners with a learning disability may have gone through school in their native country without any noticeable problem. The problem may have appeared only when they started learning and working in a new language-English.

Learning disabilities may be accompanied by other difficulties, for example, attention deficit disorder, economic difficulties, or cultural deficits. As a result, it is sometimes hard to distinguish a learning disability from other issues.Possible causes of learning disabilities include the following:

  • genetic defects
  • endocrine gland dysfunction
  • prenatal malnutrition
  • maternal substance abuse
  • birth trauma
  • exposure to toxins
  • high fevers in early childhood
  • chronic illnesses (e.g., ear infections)
  • lead poisoning oxygen deprivation
  • accidents (e.g., head injuries)


Many of the possible causes of learning disabilities are also common factors in low-income families. Therefore, individuals who grow up in low-income environments are more likely to have a learning disability (National Institutes of Health and National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, 1993; U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Division of Adult Education and Literacy, 2000).

In West Virginia, we are working to determine how to screen for and identify learning disabilities in adult basic education (ABE) learners and provide accommodations for those disabilities that comply with learners' legal rights. We need to establish screening systems in adult education programs, hire competent professionals to work in these programs, and identify or develop formal assessments and adequate testing situations in order to document disabilities.

The challenge in identifying, documenting, and responding to learning disabilities is greater with English language learners than with native English speakers.

First, there are no appropriate screening instruments for adults learning English. A few assessments are being pilot tested in Spanish (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Division of Adult Education and Literacy, 2000), and some of these appear to be successful. However, even if we could translate these instruments into the other languages spoken in the United States, they would not necessarily be valid. In addition, we do not have trained bilingual, bicultural assessment specialists to conduct the assessments.

Second, the staffing demands, costs, and time necessary to carry out such assessments in multiple languages (including psychological tests, IQ screening, and determining the language to be used in the assessment) are prohibitive. Even if we do find ways to address the needs of Spanish speakers, the adult ESL population is made up of speakers of many other languages as well.

Finally, there is strong cultural resistance in many countries to the idea of being labeled "learning disabled." To be learning disabled in the United States is gradually becoming more accepted; political figures, actors, athletes, and singers are standing up to say, "I'm learning disabled and proud of it." However, this is not happening in other countries.

In working with English language learners with learning disabilities, we need to help them become aware of their strengths and weaknesses. We need to help learners in our programs get educational or job accommodations so that they can manage better in the classroom and at work. ESL teachers need training so that they know effective strategies for delivering instruction, not only for learning disabled ESL learners, but for all of their students.

However, we need to realize that there can be many different reasons why a learner is not making progress. Factors other than a learning disability may be in effect: lack of educational opportunities in the home country because of rural location, life in a society that is nonliterate, or educational and personal disruption because of war. Interference from the native language and stress are also factors. These factors have a strong impact on the ability to study and learn, and teachers need to be aware that the problem may not be simply a learning disability.

Need for documentation of learning disabilities

There is a strong push in ABE education to screen and document learners seeking General Educational Development (GED) certificates or higher education opportunities so they can have access to the services they are legally entitled to. Often, students with learning disabilities may be capable of meeting the requirements but need support and special accommodations, which documentation of the disability will provide under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Documentation for adult ESL students with learning disabilities is also important. Unfortunately, it is not always obtained because (1) the student is never referred for psychological testing, possibly because the language interference is considered to be the cause of any learning problems, and the learning disability remains unrecognized. Or, (2) because of the language interference, the student is unable to be formally assessed using English-based instruments.

We need to focus on teacher training in the area of learning disabilities, so that teachers can begin to identify possible learning disabilities in their students and are familiar with techniques to help these learners achieve their potential.


Allender, S. C. (1998). Adult ESL learners with special needs: Learning from the Australian perspective. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Hatt, P., & Nichols, E. (1995). Links in learning: A manual linking second language learning, literacy and learning disabilities. West Hill, Ontario, Canada: MESE Consulting Ltd.

Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities. (1987). Learning disabilities: A report to the U.S. Congress. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health.

National Institutes of Health and the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (1993, September).Learning disabilities: Decade of the brain. Information booklet. Available:

Payne, N. (n.d.). Learning disabilities and special learning needs: Where do we go from here? LD Online Newsletter. Available:

Schwarz, R., & Terrill, L. (2000). ESL instruction and adults with learning disabilities. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Vogel, S. A. (1998a). Adults with learning disabilities. In S. A. Vogel & S. Reder (Eds.), Learning disabilities, literacy, and adult education (pp. 5-28). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Vogel, S. A. (1998b). How many adults really have learning disabilities?. International Dyslexia Association 49th Annual Conference Commemorative Booklet.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Division of Adult Education and Literacy. (2000). Learning disabilities and Spanish speaking adult populations: The beginning of a process. Report on the April 10-11, 2000 Conference in San Antonio, Texas. Washington, DC: Author.

Finally, teachers working in adult ESL programs need adequate preparation and acceptable working conditions in order to be effective. The following paper addresses these issues.

VI. Professional Development and Working Conditions of Adult Education Teachers
    Marilyn Gillespie
    Analysis Team Member
    National Center for Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL)
    SRI International

The National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) is completing a final analysis of data collected during a 4-year study on the outcomes of adult education teachers participating in staff development. A final report on the study will be published in Winter 2001. Cristine Smith, Deputy Director of NCSALL, is the research director for the study, and Judy Hofer is the research coordinator.

The primary focus of the study is on the outcomes of teacher participation in three different models of professional development:

  1. a multi-session workshop model,

    a mentor-teacher model, and

  2. a practitioner research model.


Researchers sought to understand what the outcomes are for practitioners (and indirectly, programs and students) who participated in one of the three different models of staff development, and what the important factors are that influenced these outcomes.

The findings of the study are based on data collected from questionnaires completed by more than 95 teachers from Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts, who each participated in up to 18 hours of staff development based on one of the three models. In-depth, face-to-face interviews were conducted before and after the staff development and 1 year later with 18 of the teachers. We also interviewed the directors of these teachers' programs and visited their classrooms to gain insight into their working conditions.

As the study progressed, researchers became increasingly aware that they could not hope to understand outcomes if they did not first understand the realities of the teachers' working lives. Five outstanding factors were identified as having a major influence on the teachers' ability to do their jobs well. These factors applied to teachers of adult basic education (ABE) as well as to teachers of English language learners. (See Smith, Hofer, & Gillespie, 2000, for a more detailed discussion of these aspects.)

  1. Access to adequate facilities. About one third of the 95 teachers in the study identified program facilities as one of their top three concerns. Approximately 39% did not have their own classroom. Thirty-three percent did not have a desk or a permanent place to leave materials. Twenty percent did not have access to a computer. Some teachers worked in classrooms that were inadequately heated or cooled or did not have appropriate furniture.
  2. Access to professional development and teaching resources. Teachers in the study expressed an interest in using teaching methods that were different from the way they had been taught, particularly methods that would be specifically appropriate for adult learners. The majority of the teachers did not have a background in adult learning; most were or had been K-12 teachers. Fifty-seven percent had never taken a graduate or undergraduate course related to teaching adults. In addition, many had had very little staff development-23% had attended no staff development workshops the previous year. Many were paid for only a few hours of staff development a year, mostly in the form of stand-alone workshops and conferences.
  3. Access to colleagues and program directors. The teachers we studied expressed concern about isolation from colleagues. Although the majority of programs (71%) had staff meetings, opportunities for teachers to meet with others in their programs to talk about teaching rather than administrative issues were relatively rare. Teachers felt this impeded their ability to implement what they had learned in collaboration with other teachers, administrators, and professional developers. It was also found that program directors rarely visited classrooms with the intent of collaborating for improved instruction.
    One teacher involved in the study reported an exception: Teachers in an ESL program in the Boston area met for lunch once a week, on paid professional development time, to talk about teaching, what they had learned, what they could apply in their contexts, and how they could overcome program obstacles to make changes in their classes. The teacher who had participated in this program-based practice said it was the most effective staff development she had experienced.
  4. Access to decision making. Many teachers reported that they had considerable freedom concerning what they did in their classes. Other than test selection, they made their own decisions on curricula, materials, and instructional strategies. But they did not have the authority to make decisions in the larger program, they did not have a vehicle through which they could collectively talk to the program director, and they often were not held accountable within the context of the larger program. Many teachers said that while they appreciated the autonomy to carry out their instruction, at the same time they wanted stronger connections to program directors. They wanted to be observed, supervised, and advised. They also wanted to have opportunities to be involved with a program director and to give input into program operations.
  5. Access to a "real job." The teachers expressed a desire for jobs that provide a livable wage and benefits. Many expressed concern that they were paid only for the amount of time they actually spent in the classroom. They were not paid to prepare for their classes, follow up with students, meet with colleagues in the program, contribute to program improvement through staff development sessions on site or outside of the program, or to find and share ways to apply what they had learned. This limited their ability to create and implement changes in the classroom.

The preliminary results of this study highlight the fact that improved staff development alone may not bring about change within classrooms. System reform cannot succeed unless it focuses on creating the conditions in which teachers can teach well. Those working in the area of staff development need to listen to what teachers say about their working conditions, and they need to understand these five factors, which can support or hinder teachers' ability to deliver quality instruction.


Smith, C., Hofer, J., & Gillespie, M. (2000, April). The working conditions of adult literacy teachers. Focus on Basics, 4(D) 1, 3-7. Cambridge, MA: National Center for Adult Learning and Literacy.

Concluding Remarks
    Joy Kreeft Peyton
    National Center for ESL Literacy Education at the
    Center for Applied Linguistics

As can be seen from the papers presented in this symposium, there is a lot of activity in adult ESL instruction and research. It is exciting to learn about some of the major initiatives underway and to know that we in the field are making a concerted effort to address the needs of the adult English language learners in this country.

The EL/Civics Education projects strive to integrate content knowledge and community involvement with the development of language proficiency, and we will learn a great deal about effective program structures and instructional strategies as the twelve funded projects release their reports.

The work of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) and the AFL-CIO is revitalizing and strengthening the labor movement in the United States and is focusing specifically on the immigrant population among our workforce. If these efforts are combined with the work of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and immigrant rights groups, we should be able to move toward a numerically sufficient and competent workforce that is drawn from both U.S.-born and immigrant populations.

The "What Works" study will provide detailed descriptions of the patterns and processes of classroom instruction, particularly those classes serving adult learners with limited literacy in both their native language and English. The study will also provide recommendations concerning needed assessments of learner progress that match the instructional approaches being used and processes for tracking learners within and beyond programs to ensure that they are making progress and meeting their goals.

West Virginia Adult Basic Education and OVAE are working to understand the population of adult English language learners with special learning needs. Their objectives are to develop effective identification and assessment instruments followed by responsive programs and instructional strategies.

The National Center for the Study of Adult Language and Literacy (NCSALL) is attempting to improve the working conditions of adult education teachers. This includes the development of communities of practice, where teachers work together in teams to integrate standards, curricula, and learner outcomes.

The staff of the National Center for ESL Literacy Education (NCLE) look forward to working with these projects and with others, as we all strive-through research, dissemination, and practice-to effectively serve the adult English language learners in programs across the United States.

Additional Resources
Read the following publications for more information on the topics discussed in this document.

English Language Civics

National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (2001). Activities for Integrating Civics Into Adult English Language Learning. Washington, DC: Author. Available: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Civics Education for English Language Learners: An Annotated Bibliography. Washington, DC: Author. (Contact CAELA directly for copies.)National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (due Winter, 2002).

Civics Education for Adult English Language Learners (Online Resource Collection) Washington, DC: Author.

Nixon, T., & Keenan, F. (1998). Citizenship Preparation for Adult ESL Learners. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Terrill, L. (2000). Civics Education for Adult English Language Learners. Washington, DC: Author.

Teacher Professional Development

Burt, M., & Keenan, F. (1998). Trends in Staff Development for Adult ESL Instructors. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Crandall, J. (1994). Creating a Professional Workforce in Adult ESL Literacy. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Drennon, C. (1994). Adult Literacy Practitioners as Researchers. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Florez, M. C. (2001). Reflective Teaching Practice in Adult ESL Settings. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Florez, M. C., & Burt, M. (2001). Beginning to Work with Adult English Language Learners: Some Considerations. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Hawk, W. (2000). Online Professional Development for Adult ESL Educators. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Addressing Special Issues

Adkins, M. A., Sample, B., & Birman, D. (1999). Mental Health and the Adult Refugee: The Role of the ESL Teacher. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Allender, S. C. (1998). Adult ESL learners with special needs: Learning from the Australian perspective. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Isserlis, J. (2000). Trauma and the Adult English Language Learner. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (2001).

Learning Disabilities and Adult English Language Learners: An Annotated Bibliography. Washington, DC: Author. (Contact CAELA directly for copies.) National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (2001).

Learning Disabilities and Adult ESL (Online Resouce Collection)

ESL instruction and adults with learning disabilities. Washington, DC: Author.Schwarz, R., & Terrill, L. (2000). ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Instructional Strategies

Workplace ESL

Burt, M. (1995).

Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating Workplace ESL Programs. ERIC Q & A. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Grognet, A. (1997). Integrating Employment Skills into Adult ESL Instruction. ERIC Q & A. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (1996-97).

Issues in Vocational and Workplace ESL Instruction. Issue Paper Series. Washington, DC: Various Authors.

General Adult ESL Information

Florez, M.C. (1998). Current Concepts and Terms in Adult ESL. ERIC Q & A. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

National Center for ESL Literacy Education. Statistics and Data Related to Adult English Language Learners. Washington, DC: Author. National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

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