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ESL Methods & Approaches


ESL Instructors: CAELA staff member Sarah Young describes a speaking activity that she uses with high-beginning English language learners at the Arlington (Virginia) Education and Employment Program (REEP) where she teaches below.

The diversity of populations served, program settings, systems of delivery, and instructional philosophies result in a wide range of instructional approaches in adult ESOL education. In general, the hallmark of adult ESOL programs is flexibility. To be effective, programs need to offer classes that vary in terms of scheduling, location, duration and content—to maximize learning opportunities while accommodating the realities and constraints of adult learners’ lives. Instruction can be provided by one-to-one tutoring or in small or large groups. In response to rapid increase in adult immigrants who want and need to study English, some classes may be very large or serve learners with widely varied English language proficiency levels

There are many approaches to teaching adult ESL including: The most common contexts in which adult ESL instruction is offered include the following:


  • Lifeskills or general ESL classes focus on development of general English language skills. These classes usually address language skills development in the context of topics or functions of daily life, such as going to the doctor, getting a job, shopping, or managing money.
  • Family ESL literacy programs address the family as a whole, providing English language and literacy instruction for adults and children. Often these programs include parenting elements and information that parents can use to further their children’s literacy and general educational development. Some programs, such as Even Start, are collaborations between K–12 and adult education programs.
  • English literacy/civics (EL/civics) programs integrate English language instruction with opportunities to learn about civil rights, civic participation and responsibility, and citizenship. While instruction of this type has been offered in some programs for some time, there has been new interest in developing EL/civics classes since a specific EL/civics initiative was enacted by the U.S. Department of Education in fiscal year 2000.
  • Vocational ESL (VESL) programs prepare learners for jobs. These programs may concentrate on general pre-employment skills such as finding a job or preparing for an interview, or they may target preparation for jobs in specific fields such as horticulture or hospitality.
  • Workplace ESL classes are offered in work settings and focus on development of language that is directly relevant to that setting.
  • Technology is used in ESL programs in a range of different contexts: in the classroom, in distance education, and in extended self-study options. ESL teachers use technology both as an instructional tool (e.g., integrating multimedia packages and PowerPoint presentations into instruction) and as instructional content itself (e.g., learning word processing programs, using the Web to access information, and using English through email communications). While computers and the Internet play a growing role in adult ESL learners’ and teachers’ lives at work and at home, there are still segments of both populations that could benefit from easier access to this type of technology and the information it conveys


Giving students the opportunity to interact with the teacher and with each other, planning instruction around tasks that promote these activities, and teaching language forms in the context of meaningful learning activities are applications of second language research to the classroom environment


The following promising instructional strategies for adult ESL educators have emerged from second language acquisition and reading research:

  • incorporate principles of adult learning, adult second language acquisition, and ways to work with multicultural groups;
  • begin with an assessment of learners’ needs and goals (e.g., where and why do they use or want to use English) to establish instructional content that is relevant to and immediately usable by speakers of other languages;
  • employ a number of different approaches to language acquisition and ESL techniques that match the diverse needs, motivations, and goals of the learners and provide opportunities for interaction, problem solving, and task-based learning where learners can use English;
  • acknowledge and draw upon learners’ prior experiences and strengths with language learning;
  • include ongoing opportunities for language assessment and evaluation of learner progress in becoming proficient English language users;
  • provide courses of varied intensity and duration with flexible schedules to meet needs of learners who may be new to this country and burdened with settlement demands or multiple jobs; and
  • use technology to expand or individualize learning inside and outside the classroom in accordance with learners’ language proficiency, preferences, and needs and to potentially reach learners who cannot attend classes (e.g., individualized activity stations, self-access learning labs, and online courses. (adapted from Adult English Language Instruction in the 21st Century)


Please see the CAELA resources and links below for a variety of information about approaches, methods, and strategies for teaching adult ESL.


As an ESL instructor of high-beginning adult students, my students are always asking for more speaking practice. I’ve developed an interactive speaking activity called Hot Seat (HS) that gives students opportunities to interact in English, to practice certain grammatical structures or vocabulary, and to get to know each other. Little to no preparation or materials are required. One student sits in the “Hot Seat” chair in the front of the room. While in the HS, the student has control of the class. She is responsible for calling on students who have a question and addressing them directly, by name, rather than looking at the teacher. The audience is responsible for listening to each other to avoid repetition of questions, for asking inoffensive questions, and incorporating pre-determined themes, vocabulary, or grammar structures as much as possible. HS becomes a communication session by and for the students – I disappear into the audience and jot down each question as it is asked and the name of the student who asked the question. Although there are bound to be mistakes, my job is to write down the students' questions in the structurally correct form, while the students’ job is to use various clarification techniques if their fragmented questions or answers have not been understood. The HS student knows how to refuse to answer a question if he chooses. For students who have limited experience in the classroom, this student-led process of asking and answering, turn-taking, clarifying, and taking responsibility provides an excellent opportunity to practice classroom protocol and behaviors. (Read more)



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

Digests & Q&As

Beginning to Work with Adult English Language Learners: Some Considerations

Dialogue Journals: Interactive Writing to Develop Language and Literacy

Reflective Teaching Practice in Adult ESL

Second Language Acquisition in Adults: From Research to Practice

Teaching Low-Level Adult ESL Learners

Using Music in the Adult ESL Classroom

Working With Literacy-Level Adult English Language Learners

Teaching Multilevel Adult ESL Classes

Other CAELA Resources

Activities to Promote Interaction and Communication (Practitioner Toolkit)

Activities to Promote Reading Development (Practitioner Toolkit)

Adult English Language Instruction in the 21 st Century (in English or Spanish in pdf)

English Language and Literacy Learning: Research to Practice (Practitioner Toolkit)

Program Types and Challenges (Practitioner Toolkit)

Second Language Acquisition (CAELA resource collection)

Summaries of State Plans (State Capacity Building Updates)

What Beginning Teachers and Tutors of Adult English Language Learners Need to Know (CAELA resource collection)

What instructional practices best meet the needs of adult English language learners? (FAQs)