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

Part III: Participation of Foreign-Born Adults in Adult Education Programs

This section describes the funding for and structure of adult education programs, factors that influence the participation of English language learners in these programs, and outcomes of their participation.

Federal Funding for Adult Education

Under the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, the federal government provided $564,079,550 in grants to states for program year 2004–2005 for adult education programs. Nationally, this amount represented approximately 26% of the total amount spent in states and local communities to support adult education and literacy (U.S. Department of Education, 2007a). From the federal monies that states receive, each state awards 82.5% to adult basic education providers and keeps 17.5% for program improvement activities and administrative expenses (U.S. Department of Education, 2005a).

Program Administration

Although the majority of federally funded adult basic education programs are administered by local school districts, community-based organizations, and community colleges, the sites where these services are provided vary considerably. In fiscal year 2003, these sites included public schools, adult learning centers, community centers, adult correctional facilities, faith-based facilities, workplaces, community colleges, libraries, and learners’ homes (U.S. Department of Education, 2005b).

Adult Learner Participation in Programs

In program year 2006 –2007, there were 1,101,082 adults of all ages, nationalities, native languages, and English proficiency levels enrolled in federally funded, state-administered English as a second language (ESL) programs in the United States (46% of adults enrolled in these programs. The five states with the highest number of English language learners enrolled in these programs were California (414,568), Florida (117,773), New York (77,327), Illinois (70,001), and Texas (59,174) (U.S. Department of Education, 2008b). Of those enrolled,

  • 48% were enrolled in literacy or beginning-level ESL classes
  • 3% were age 16–18 years, 19% were 19–24, 56% were 25–44, 17% were 45–59, and 5% were 60 or older (U.S. Department of Education, 2008b)

According to the National Household Education Survey of 2005, 1% of the 211,607 adults surveyed reported taking an ESL class within the previous 12 months (O’Donnell, 2006). Most of these classes were held in public schools, adult learning centers (46%), and postsecondary schools (37%). The average number of ESL classroom instructional hours per learner was 72.

In a related study, combined data from the National Household Education Surveys of 2001 and 2005 found that an average of 54% of adults surveyed (between the ages of 16 and 64) reported participating in at least one formal learning activity during the 12 months prior to the survey. Adults with no high school credential (4.4%) were more likely to be enrolled in ESL classes than those with a general Educational Development (GED) certificate (0.4%), a high school diploma (0.9%), some college (1%), or a bachelor’s degree or higher (0.6%) (Kienzl, 2008).

Factors Related to Learner Participation in Programs

Many factors can have an impact on learner participation in adult education programs. Learner factors include work schedules, family responsibilities, opportunities to learn and use English outside of an instructional setting, marital and family status, and personal motivation. Program factors include availability of classes, class schedules and locations, instructional setting, type of entry into the program (open or managed enrollment), length of courses and frequency of classes, and training and expertise of the teachers (National Center for ESL Literacy Education, 2003; Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 2003).

An important program factor is availability of classes. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conducted a study to examine the wait times associated with popular adult ESL programs across the country (Tucker, 2006). Among 176 adult ESL providers surveyed, 57% reported that their wait list was from a few weeks to more than 3 years. In some parts of the country, such as New York City, waiting lists have been abolished, because the wait has become too long. Rather than put students on waiting lists, some programs place students in available classes that may not meet the students’ specific goals or are not the appropriate instructional level, in the hope that space in a suitable class will open up.

Length of Time and Intensity of Instruction for Adults to Acquire a Second Language

There is limited research on the length of time it takes adults to acquire a second language (e.g., Collier, 1989; Competency-based Mainstream English Language Training Resource Package, 1985). Extrapolating from the studies of children’s language acquisition cited below, it appears that it can take several years. For example, studies suggest that school-age children need 2–3 years to develop social language (conversational skills) and 5–7 years to acquire the academic language proficiency needed to reach parity with native English speakers (Cummins,1991; Thomas & Collier, 1997). Moreover, school-age children usually attend school 5 days a week for approximately 6 hours a day, which is considerably more hours of instruction than adult education programs provide. Therefore, when considering factors that affect gains in English language proficiency and other educational outcomes, it is important to keep in mind the amount of time that may be required for adults to reach the goals that are set.

McHugh, Gelatt, & Fix (2007) examined the number of instructional hours needed for the approximately 5.8 million adult lawful permanent residents currently in the United States to reach a level of proficiency necessary for civic integration or to begin postsecondary education. They found that an estimated 103 hours of study per person per year for 6 years would be necessary (600 million hours of English language instruction per year for 6 years for over 5 million immigrants). This number of instructional hours is comparable to the number provided to immigrants in other countries, such as Australia and Germany). However, the costs of implementing such a plan would be significant.

The Center for Applied Linguistics examined the National Reporting System (NRS) educational level gain of 6,599 adult English language learners, as measured by the oral proficiency assessment BEST Plus (Young, 2007). This descriptive study found that the more hours of instruction received and the higher the intensity of instruction, the greater the rate of gain across the six NRS educational functioning levels. The effect of instructional hours was particularly strong for students who pretested at the Beginning ESL Literacy level (21% difference in gain between those with the least number and those with the greatest number of instructional hours) and the Advanced ESL level (16% difference). There was also a general trend toward greater NRS level gain for students with high levels of instructional intensity than for those with low intensity. Intensity of instruction had the greatest effect on students in the Beginning ESL Literacy, Low intermediate, and Advanced ESL levels.

Transition from noncredit to academic studies is another measure of progress in English language development. A 7-year longitudinal study of 38,095 noncredit and 6,666 credit ESL students at the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) examined students’ rate of persistence and advancement in academic coursework from the noncredit ESL program through the credit ESL program and beyond (Spurling, Seymour, & Chisman, 2008). Sixty-seven percent of CCSF’s noncredit ESL students began at the lowest NRS levels (Beginning ESL Literacy and Low Beginning). Of these noncredit participants, 44% advanced only one level within the six NRS educational functioning levels. The students most likely to advance were those with the most instructional hours; on average, students who advanced a level had received 100 instructional hours. Students age 16–19 years were more likely to advance than other students and were more likely to transition to credit programs. Most of the transition students had reached the NRS intermediate level prior to leaving the noncredit ESL program. According to the report, those students who transitioned from noncredit ESL to credit ESL and beyond performed as well as or better than those students who began in credit ESL or other credit programs at the college.

Educational Outcomes

In program year 2006–2007, 39% of students enrolled in ESL classes advanced to the next proficiency level. Table 3 gives information on the percentage of students making gains at each ESL level in the NRS (

Table 3. State-Administered Adult Education Programs. Educational Gains by Educational Functioning Levels. English Literacy. 2006–2007 Program Year.


Number Enrolled

Percentage Completing Level

ESL Beginning Literacy



ESL Beginning Low



ESL Beginning High



ESL Intermediate Low



ESL Intermediate



ESL Advanced






Source. U.S. Department of Education, 2008b.

The NRS also collects information about learner outcomes beyond educational functioning levels, including information about obtaining and retaining employment, earning a high school degree or equivalency diploma, and entering a postsecondary education program. At the time of this report, the U.S. Department of Education did not disaggregate ESL student data from general adult education data for these additional outcomes, although it is safe to assume that many of the learners who got and kept jobs, and at least some of those who achieved their GED, were English language learners. Outcomes for general adult education for program year 2006–2007 are provided below:

  • 19% of the 2,408,525 learners enrolled in adult basic education (ABE, adult secondary education [ASE], and ESL) entered postsecondary education or training at the conclusion of instruction
  • 31% of all students entered the workforce
  • 34% of all students retained employment
  • 44% of these 2.5 million students were English language learners
  • 44% (1,070,341) were Hispanic (U.S. Department of Education, 2008b)


Because a variety of adult English language learners enroll in a diversity of programs across the United States, no one program model has proven to be consistently effective in serving these learners. English language acquisition rates are affected by both personal and program-related factors, such as availability of classes, learner motivation, and learner attendance and persistence. There are different ways to measure and track English language ability and progress; the assessments that are used to measure progress through the NRS are discussed in chapter VI of this publication.

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