Education for Adult English Language Learners in the United States: Trends, Research, and Promising Practices

Part VII: Future Directions for Lifelong Learning

As is true for native-born workers, success for immigrants in the U.S. workforce is related to educational attainment and literacy levels. Those with a higher level of education and better literacy skills in English earn more and are more likely to be continuously employed than those without (Greenberg, Macías, Rhodes, & Chan, 2001). The education level and literacy of parents also influences their children’s educational progress and success (Martinez & Wang, 2005). English knowledge and ability will become increasingly significant if proposed immigration reform takes place in the United States, requiring undocumented immigrants to demonstrate mastery of English. A redesigned citizenship test is set to be released in October 2008 that may have an impact on millions of lawful permanent residents whose naturalization status could be affected by their performance on the test.

The adult English as a second language (ESL) field is connected to and influenced by a variety of workforce and postsecondary education initiatives. These initiatives, in turn, are affected by a greater number of tasks in daily American life that require knowledge of computers and new technologies. Adult immigrants may depend on technology not only for these tasks but also for learning English when a traditional adult education class is not available or attendance is not feasible.

Several initiatives to address the challenges and provide needed benefits are outlined in this chapter.

Workforce Training and Instruction to Prepare for the Workplace

The National Work Readiness Credential was released in 2007 to provide a means of demonstrating workers’ capabilities (based on the Equipped for the Future standards of learning; National Institute for Literacy, 2004) to perform in entry-level positions by identifying them as “work ready” or “needs more skill development to be work ready” (National Work Readiness Council, 2007). The credential is granted with a passing score on the four modules of the National Work Readiness assessment (situational judgment, oral language, reading with understanding, and using math to solve problems), with nine related skills identified by businesses as critical for success in a global economy. These skills include the ability to

  • Speak so others can understand
  • Listen actively
  • Solve problems and make decisions
  • Cooperate with others
  • Resolve conflicts and negotiate
  • Observe critically
  • Take responsibility for learning
  • Read with understanding
  • Use math to solve problems

The National Work Readiness Credential is designed to provide clear and accurate information to learners and educators for determining what the learner’s skills and needs are and what goals they have for instruction and for aligning instruction for the needs of business. An accompanying curriculum guide, Getting Ready for the National Work Readiness Credential (National Work Readiness Council, 2007) can be used by workforce preparation trainers and instructors to guide workforce instruction in a way that is responsive to the demonstrated needs of the learners.

Instruction for Those Already Employed

Workplace instruction, vocational classes, and adult ESL classes can provide opportunities to learn workplace content, to practice the English literacy and communication skills needed for success in the workplace, and to learn cultural information. For example, for ESL participants who come from cultures where assertiveness, ambition, and speaking up on the job may not be valued, direct instruction in these areas may be necessary. Advancing in the U.S. workplace is a cross-cultural skill, which, like language and literacy, must be taught. However, there are strengths and challenges associated with each type of instructional program that must be carefully considered when selecting the most appropriate method of workforce preparation (Burt & Mathews-Aydinli, 2007).

Workforce Training and Career Pathways to Provide Opportunities for Advancement

Some adult immigrants have the necessary credentials to work but may have difficulty obtaining a job commensurate with their training and abilities (Creticos, Schultz, & Beeler, 2006). Others need training to obtain jobs that pay a living wage. Healthcare services represent one of the fastest-growing areas of employment in the United States, and significant workforce training will be required to meet the employment needs of this industry (Dohm & Shniper, 2007). Labor market research identifies labor shortages in all areas of healthcare (Chisman & Spangenberg, 2005), and an aging population will bring an even greater need for healthcare workers at all levels. Turnover among those currently employed as Certified Nursing Assistants is very high. Nonwhite racial and ethnic groups will comprise a majority of the American population later in this century, requiring greater racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity among health professionals (for more information, see Crandall, Spence, & Wrigley, in press). Another industry that holds the possibility for advancement and reports an upcoming shortage of workers is the manufacturing industry (The Manufacturing Institute/Center for Workforce Success/Jobs for the Future, 2006). The need to create career pathways in healthcare and other growing industries for immigrants will be a focus of adult and workforce education and training for the foreseeable future.

Distance Education for Those Unable to Attend Traditional Instructional Programs

Because video-based and online distance education can use an asynchronous delivery method, learners who work at more than one job and whose responsibilities conflict with the time of regular class offerings can study whenever they have time. Those with transportation or childcare problems can study without leaving their homes. Learners who need to acquire new skills expediently can progress through the materials at a rapid pace; others may need or want to move through the program at a slower pace. Creating a free and accessible web-based portal to help immigrants learn English is one of the U.S. Department of Education’s planned projects. (For more information, see

Information About Adult English Language Learner Populations

Expanded and disaggregated demographic information is needed on the adult immigrant population and labor force in the United States, adult populations who self-identify as limited English proficient, and adult populations who are enrolled in public and private English language instructional programs. Recent data show a significant number of adult immigrants with low literacy levels in English and in their native languages. On the other hand, members of generation 1.5 — U.S.-born students who speak a language other than English and are still learning English (Harklau, 2003) — and of second- and third-generation immigrant families are increasingly enrolled in K–12, adult, postsecondary, and vocational education. These learners may have some fluency in both English and another language that could benefit the healthcare, education, and national security fields, for example, if they have the education necessary to fulfill these careers. To better meet the educational and employment needs of these individuals, more information is needed about their native language backgrounds and literacy levels, English proficiency in all four language skills, educational levels, and goals. The English for Heritage Language Speakers (EHLS) project being carried out by the Center for Applied Linguistics from 2005 to 2010 aims to help speakers of critical languages develop their English proficiency to high levels, with a particular focus on language skills specific to the federal workplace (for more information, go to

Transition to Postsecondary Education and Training

Thought must be given to next steps in the educational paths of adult English language learners who have reached the higher National Reporting System educational functioning levels. For example, the types and levels of English learners who need to obtain a secondary credential, enter into postsecondary education, or advance in their employment, and how those skills will be facilitated and measured need to be considered.

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