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

Part V: Professional Development and
Teacher Quality

State of the Field

The need for qualified personnel to work with adult English language learners has risen rapidly in recent years because of the ever-increasing demand for classes (Schaetzel, Peyton, & Burt, 2007). While this demand is not new, changing immigration patterns and demographics have had an impact on professional development. As a result, new teachers are entering the field, experienced teachers are being asked to take on greater challenges, and many adult basic education (ABE) teachers are working with English language learners in classes along with native English speakers. Much of this is occurring in areas where the adult English as a second language (ESL) education infrastructure is limited or nonexistent. Professional development is crucial for these teachers (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 2000).


Research on professional development in adult education is limited, but the few studies that have been carried out shed light on the opportunities and constraints in designing and delivering professional development to teachers of adult English language learners. In addition to research studies in adult education and K–12 professional development, An Environmental Scan of Adult Numeracy Professional Development Initiatives and Practices developed by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) (Sherman, Safford-Ramus, Hector-Mason, Condelli, Olinger, & Jani, 2006) provides the first comprehensive look at what constitutes quality professional development for adult educators. This report identifies seven areas to be considered in the design and delivery of professional development for teachers of adult learners, including those learning English. The Framework for Quality Professional Development for Practitioners Working With Adult English Language Learners (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2010) also looked at research on areas to be considered in planning professional development for practitioners working with adult English language learners. The research examined for both the CAELA Network framework and the AIR environmental scan suggest that the following activities are important when planning and implementing professional development.

Examine Data to See What Types of Teachers are Needed and What They Need

In planning and designing professional development for teachers of adult English language learners, it is important to look at data to see what types of teachers are needed at which levels and what these teachers need to know to be more effective with the students they will be teaching (Sherman, Kutner, Tibbetts, & Wiedler, 2000; Smith, Hofer, Gillespie, Solomon, & Rowe, 2003). Teacher needs assessments should cover areas of strength, areas for improving instruction, individual learning preferences, and preferred approaches to professional development (Sherman et al., 2000). As a result of their study, Smith et al. (2003) recommended that teachers think about what they need to know and work closely with professional developers to design professional development activities that are most relevant to their needs.

Design Professional Development That Reflects What We Know About How Adults Learn

What is known about how adults learn most effectively should be incorporated into the design of professional development activities. Dennison and Kirk (1990) describe the cyclical nature of adult learning in their cycle of “do, review, learn, apply, do, review, learn, apply.” Through the cyclical nature of adult learning, adults build on prior learning. Teachers can build on their professional wisdom and their classroom knowledge through professional development activities.

Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, and Yoon (2001) evaluated the Eisenhower Professional Development Program, which supports professional development for math and science teachers, and identified three core factors that teachers reported as being important to their learning and to changes in classroom practice. These include the following:

  • A focus on content knowledge
  • Opportunities for active learning
  • Aligning professional development with other learning opportunities

Provide a Coherent Professional Development Program

Many researchers argue that for professional development to become a natural part of teachers’ lives and program goals, a shared vision across a broad range of practitioners is needed. A shared vision for professional development should reflect the needs and goals of teachers, tutors, program directors, and state education officers. The needs and goals of teachers, in turn, need to be incorporated into professional development offerings (Belzer, Drennon, & Smith, 2001; Belzer, 2005; Joyce & Showers, 2002; Marcinkiewicz, 2001; Senge, 1990).

Encourage Participation of Teachers Who Work Together

In designing professional development activities that are coherent, Garet et al. (2001) found that it is effective to have the collective participation of teachers from the same program or subject area. Much K–12 professional development presumes collective participation because it is delivered to a grade level, subject group of teachers, or a school. Collective participation is more challenging in an adult education setting because there are few times during a term that teachers within a subject area or an entire program meet together (Smith & Gillespie, 2007).

Increase the Time and Duration of Professional Development

To improve professional development, it is important to focus on the duration of the professional development activity (Garet et al., 2001). One-day workshops with little or no follow-up do not have a lasting impact on teaching practices (Sherman et al., 2006). In a study conducted by Garet et al. (2001), two measures of duration—time span and contact hours—were shown to have substantial influence on what they term the core features of professional development (content, active learning, and coherence). The National Center for Education Statistics (2005) reports that K–12 teachers received 25–33 hours of professional development in the 1999 –2000 school year. Few adult educators receive as many hours of professional development in one calendar year. Smith & Gillespie (2007) report that working part-time, as many adult educators do, makes participating in professional development regularly or for extended periods of time challenging.

Provide a System for Professional Development

To design and deliver professional development that is timely, based on data, and coherent, states need a system to facilitate its delivery (Belzer et al., 2001; Brancato, 2003; Senge, 1990; Smith et al., 2003). Such a system would include planning processes that begin with a needs analysis, a shared vision for programs and the practitioners working in them, involvement of administrators who can provide support and ensure that the system is sustained, use of ESL program and content standards, and teacher quality standards and credentialing paths.

In their analysis of data from the nationally representative Schools and Staffing Survey, Smith and Rowley (2005) found that K–12 schools with a stronger commitment strategy (a school organizational design that uses collaborative and participatory management strategies to improve teaching quality and student achievement) may be better able to achieve their reform goals because of increased teacher participation in content-related professional development activities. This finding indicates that when administrators support professional development activities and teachers have influence over policy and processes, the impact of professional development is greater and there is less teacher turnover.

Ensure That Teachers Have Access to Professional Development Opportunities

Smith and Gillespie (2007) chronicled many of the challenges related to making professional development accessible to teachers of adult English language learners(e.g., the part-time nature of employment and limited funding to attend professional development). One way to make professional development opportunities more accessible to practitioners is through the use of technology. If adequate attention is given to instructional design and content, online professional development can help overcome geographic and time barriers and facilitate teachers’ access to relevant, personalized, and meaningful professional development. Emerging applications include development of web-based courses and training programs that integrate face-to-face meetings with internet-based, video-based, or teleconferencing components (Mathews-Aydinli & Taylor, 2005). For example, the California Adult Literacy Professional Development Project (CALPRO) and the Virginia Department of Education offer online orientation courses for new ESL teachers. National online projects for adult ESL teacher professional development include ESL/CivicsLink, which is managed by Kentucky Education Television and offers short online courses on teaching adult ESL and civics (see for more information), and the National Reporting System training courses (see for more information). Hamline University in Minnesota offers an online graduate certificate for teachers of adult English language learners (

Promising Practices

Professional development efforts that show promise have been described in the literature (e.g., Center for Applied Linguistics, 2008; Crandall, Ingersoll, & Lopez, 2008; Farrell, 2004; Florez & Burt, 2001; Schaetzel, Peyton, & Burt, 2007; Sherman et al., 2006; Smith & Gillespie, 2007; Smith & Hofer, 2002). Key factors in these efforts include the following:

  • Building teachers’ knowledge in the areas of adult learning principles (in ESL contexts), second language acquisition processes, instructional approaches for working with second language learners, techniques for working with multicultural and multilevel groups, affective factors that influence language learning, appropriate uses of technology to support language learning, and ESL content standards
  • Ensuring that professional development is designed using data to determine which topics and delivery methods are most relevant to practitioners, and that it is implemented and evaluated so that professional development and its follow-up can have an impact on the instruction learners receive
  • Exploring professional development formats that include opportunities for the application of new ideas in instruction, collaboration among practitioners, and feedback
  • Promoting reflective practice and professional communities through efforts such as mentoring, practitioner research groups, reading circles, and peer teaching
  • Using technology-based approaches to offer professional development options that optimize financial resources, reach geographically scattered teachers and programs, and promote collaboration and community.
  • Encouraging teachers to bring theory, second language acquisition and reading research, and practice together through practitioner research or joint projects between researchers and teachers
  • Developing new models for teacher credentialing and certification based on the skills and knowledge that adult ESL teachers need to demonstrate to ensure that the United States has a qualified teacher workforce capable of working effectively with adult immigrants (see Crandall, Ingersoll, & Lopez, 2008, for discussion of credentialing and certification requirements of the 50 states and the District of Columbia).
  • Focusing on delivering professional development that meets guidelines for quality (e.g., guidelines being developed by the Association of Adult Literacy Professional Developers)
  • Focusing on professional development that is consistent with other national efforts, such as Program Standards for Adult Education ESL Programs (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 2003) and Standards for Teachers of Adult English Language Learners (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, in press)


With the demand for highly qualified practitioners increasing, more emphasis is being placed on the design and delivery of professional development for those working with adult English language learners. Building on professional development research from K–12 teaching and adapting the findings to the adult education environment is one of the current challenges in adult education. Many promising practices are emerging, including an increasing array of professional development formats to enable practitioners to enhance their knowledge and skills with current best practices of teaching and learning.

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