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

Part IV: Program Design and Instructional Practice

Because of the growing demand for English as a second language (ESL) classes, qualified personnel to work with adult English language learners, and appropriate resources to support these efforts, critical issues have emerged in program design and instructional practice, professional development and teacher quality, and assessment and accountability. At the same time that changes in federal policy are calling for increased accountability for all programs receiving federal funding, programs are confronted with serving populations of adult learners that they may not have served in the past. Adult learners need to prepare for the complexities of modern life, particularly the workplace, and equip themselves with the skills necessary for success. This section focuses on the types of programs available to these learners and on specific instructional approaches.

State of the Field

Adult ESL programs serve a diverse population through a variety of funding streams, depending on learners’ status (e.g., immigrants, refugees, asylees), goals (e.g., basic or functional literacy, family literacy, workplace education, citizenship preparation), and circumstances (e.g., farm workers, displaced workers, incarcerated youth and adults). The diversity of learner populations served, program settings, systems of delivery, and instructional philosophies result in a wide range of program designs and instructional practices.

In general, the hallmark of adult ESL programs is flexibility. To be effective, programs need to offer classes that vary in terms of scheduling, location, duration, and content in order to maximize learning opportunities while accommodating the realities and constraints of adult learners’ lives.

Program Types

Adult ESL programs seldom provide only language and literacy instruction. They may also provide English language learners with access to information they need for success in their roles as parents, employees, consumers, and lifelong learners in their new land. (See descriptions of adult education for English language learners in Burt & Mathews-Aydinli, 2007; Hughes & Karp, 2006; Mathews-Aydinli, 2006; National Center for ESL Literacy Education, 1998; Taylor, 1997; Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 2003; Weinstein-Shr & Quintero, 1995; Wrigley & Guth, 1992.) The most common types of programs and classes for adult English language learners are described below.

  • Life skills or general ESL classes focus on development of general English language skills. Language skills are often developed in the context of topics or functions of daily life, such as going to the doctor, getting a job, shopping, or managing money.
  • Family 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 promote 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 for some time, there is new interest in developing EL/civics classes since a specific EL/civics initiative was enacted by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education in fiscal year 2000. Outcomes (e.g., manuals and curricula) from the seven demonstration grants awarded are available for program planning and use (
  • 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 focus on developing and improving English language skills that are directly relevant to the work setting. They may be offered at the workplace during the work day, before or after the work day, or in a mixed configuration, with the first hour of the class, for example, held during the work day and the second after work. Workplace classes may be funded by the company, by the labor union, through a grant from the U.S. government or a foundation, or through a combination of funding sources.

Instructional Formats

Given the increasing demand for adult ESL instruction, large classes and classes of learners with widely varying English language proficiency levels (multilevel classes) are not uncommon. In fact, in some parts of the country, multilevel classes are the only option for offering ESL instruction (Mathews-Aydinli & Van Horne, 2006; National Center for ESL Literacy Education, 1998; Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 2003).

Technology provides additional instructional options in the classroom, through 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 (e.g., learning word processing programs, using the web to access information, and using English through email communications). Similarly, distance learning has become an area of interest for many adult educators (National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, 2003). The Office of Vocational and Adult Education is exploring the feasibility of developing a national portal for adult learning, Strengthening Programs through Technology (U.S. Department of Education, 2005b). While computers and the internet play an increasingly larger 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 (Children’s Partnership, 2000; Terrill, 2000).

Content and Program Standards

Across instructional settings, there is a recent emphasis on the development of English language acquisition content and program standards to ensure the quality and consistency of the content and programs provided to learners. Content standards are broadly defined as what learners should know and be able to do in a certain subject or practical domain (American Institutes for Research and U.S. Department of Education, 2005; Kendall, 2001). Content standards are the foundation for designing curricula, instruction, and assessment, but they do not stipulate the types of lesson plans, activities, or teaching methodologies that should be used. In the education of adults learning English, content standards offer teachers and program administrators a shared vision of the education to be provided and offer students guideposts to follow as they make progress in learning English (Schaetzel & Young, 2007; Young & Smith, 2006). Although there are no national content standards, some states and two national adult education organizations — the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems (CASAS) and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville—have developed content standards. There are similarities across states’ content standards, but overall they reflect the unique approaches to teaching adult English language learners that have been developed by each state. The Office of Vocational and Adult Education has established a Content Standards warehouse ( to facilitate states’ development and use of content standards. The warehouse features standards from 12 states, CASAS, and University of Tennessee at Knoxville; a guide for establishing content standards; and field resources, including examples of content standards from other countries and information on how to implement them.

In addition to content standards to guide instruction and learning, program standards have been developed by the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL; 2003) to define the components of quality ESL education programs. Program indicators in nine areas (program structure, administration, and planning; curriculum and instructional materials; instruction; learner recruitment, intake, and orientation; learner retention and transition; assessment and learner gains; employment conditions and staffing; professional development and staff evaluation; and support services) can be used to review an existing program or as a guide for establishing a new program (Peyton, 2005).

Learner Transitions

Transitioning English language learners through the upper levels of ESL courses and into and through programs that will help them attain their goals, such as those leading to a 2-year associate’s degree in a vocational program, is another area of emphasis. A study of ESL services at community colleges carried out by the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy (CAAL; Chisman & Crandall, 2007) examined five community colleges that exceed national and state norms in learner gains and transitions. The study showed that these colleges had developed innovative strategies for improving services to help learners progress and attain their goals. The following three strategies were identified for increasing learner gains:

  • Deliver high-intensity programs with managed enrollment.
  • Expand learning outside the classroom.
  • Adapt curricula to learner needs.

These colleges also use the following strategies to increase learner transition rates:

  • Integrate English language learning with college preparation.
  • Co-enroll students in English and community college content classes.
  • Design VESL programs.
  • Offer the GED in Spanish.
  • Offer strong learner guidance and counseling systems.

Mathews-Aydinli (2006) highlights the importance of addressing nonacademic factors in transition-focused programs (e.g., providing counseling services and student orientation), addressing academic factors (e.g., using content-based ESL instruction), and strengthening programs through cooperation (e.g., forming a strong relationship between the ESL program and associated postsecondary education institutions).

There is some evidence that if English language learners have moved through the beginning levels of ESL classes and into a workforce training program, they are more likely to complete the program and attain their goals for learning English and participating in the workforce. A 2005 evaluation report on pilot ESL Integrated Basic Skills Training (I-BEST; vocational education) programs in the state of Washington found that ESL students were five times more likely to earn college credits and were 15 times more likely to complete workforce training than were traditional ESL students during the same amount of time (Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, 2005b).


Funding for major research efforts in adult education in the United States, including adult ESL, has not been extensive (Sticht, 2002), and the research dissemination efforts of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) ended on march 31, 2007, with the completion of the NCSALL’s federal funding. Some British organizations, such as the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Coordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre), continue to carry out research and develop review methods for the social sciences, including education. One of the EPPI-Centre’s recent reviews focused on effective strategies to widen adult participation in learning (EPPI-Centre, 2003). There is a substantial body of information about promising practices based on descriptive information (e.g., case studies, ethnographic research, and teacher research) from the field (e.g., articles in refereed professional journals, such as TESOL Quarterly, Applied Linguistics, Language Learning, and Language Testing) and on the research base in adult second language acquisition (SLA) and reading development. Recent efforts to fund major research studies that focus on adult ESL instruction or include adult ESL populations and programs will expand the somewhat limited research base that currently exists.

Learner Populations

Studies include such efforts as the Adult Reading Components Study (ARCS), conducted by NCSALL (Strucker & Davidson, 2003). This study focused on the various types of readers enrolled in U.S. adult basic education (ABE) programs, including native speakers of English and those for whom English is an additional language. Of the English language learners tested in the ARCS study, 78% were native speakers of Spanish. The study found that 80% of the native Spanish speakers had adequate or better native language literacy skills than predicted by their ESL instructors, their reading ability in Spanish was directly related to years of schooling in Spanish, and all were weak in perceiving and producing English consonant sounds. These findings may help practitioners and policymakers better understand the challenges adult English language learners experience in reading and how to design instruction to strategically meet their learning needs.

The Adult Literacy Research Consortium—a partnership of the National Institute of Child and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institutes for Literacy (NIFL), and the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE)—has funded six projects with 80 research sites in six states. Two of these projects, The Illinois Health Literacy Research Project and improving Literacy instruction for Adults, examine the literacy skills of English language learners, as well as native English speakers. Preliminary findings of the Illinois Health Literacy Research Project show that although ABE/adult secondary education (ASE) and ESL groups are all vulnerable in their health literacy knowledge, ESL learners may be especially limited in their ability to access and successfully use this knowledge, which appears to be related to their level of literacy (McCardle, 2006).

Instructional Strategies

The Adult ESL Lab School managed by Portland State University has conducted research on dyadic (interaction between pairs of students) interaction and microgenetic (individual case) studies of language development. Their recent study found that the rate of positive feedback that adult learners received from peers is associated with their course level promotion (Reigel, 2008). This research finding has important implications for classroom practice. Teachers need to find ways to incorporate and maximize positive peer feedback. Even though the core funding for the Adult ESL Lab School has ended, research studies are continuing with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

NIFL has commissioned background papers on adults with limited literacy, career pathways for adult English language learners focusing on healthcare, and uses of technology in adult English language and literacy education. When these papers are released, the field will not only know more about promising practices, but will also know how to implement them in the ESL classroom.

Second Language Acquisition

Research on SLA—how people learn to speak a language other than their native language—guides ESL teaching practices. Recent research has focused on learner motivation, opportunities for interaction, task-based learning, and focus on form in instruction.


Studies by Gardner and his colleagues support the theory that integrative motivation—the notion that the learner wants to learn a language to become part of the target community—promotes SLA (Gardner, 1993; Masgoret & Gardner, 2003). Moreover, these studies have found that integrative motivation promotes SLA regardless of the age of the learner or whether the language is being learned as a second or a foreign language. Motivation research also suggests that socially grounded factors affect students’ attitudes, effort, classroom behavior, and achievement. Therefore, teachers should encourage group cohesion in the classroom to foster a conducive learning environment, and they should cultivate opportunities outside the classroom that can foster language use outside regular class hours (Clement, Dörnyei, & Noels, 1994).

Opportunities for interaction

Another area of SLA research focuses on the role of interaction in second language learning. Interaction provides learners with opportunities to receive comprehensible input and feedback (Gass, 1997; Long, 1996; Pica, 1994) and make changes in their own linguistic output (Swain, 1995). This is because it allows learners to “notice the gap” (Schmidt & Frota, 1986, p. 311) between their command of the language they are learning and the correct, or target-like, use of the language.

Task- and problem-based learning

Task is generally defined as “an activity which requires learners to use language, with emphasis on meaning, to attain an objective” (Bygate, Skehan, & Swain, 2001, p. 11). Research suggests that interactions are most successful when tasks contain elements that are new or unfamiliar to the participants; require each learner to exchange information with his or her partner or group members; have a specific, or closed, outcome; involve details; center on a problem, especially an ethical one; and involve the use of naturally occurring conversation and narrative discourse (Ellis, 2000).

The What Works study, a study of instructional strategies used in classes for learners with limited formal education and very little English language and literacy skills (Condelli, Wrigley, & Yoon, in press), found that students learned more (as measured by changes in scores on standardized tests) in classes in which the teacher made connections between instruction and life outside the classroom than in classes in which teachers did not make such connections. Making connections with life outside the classroom often involved task-based learning. For example, one teacher conducted an activity to teach learners to order their food in English, as if they were ordering at a local fast food restaurant.

Similar to task-based learning, problem-based learning focuses on solving real, open-ended problems to which there are no fixed solutions (Ertmer, Lehman, Park, Cramer, & Grove, 2003). Because problem-based learning shifts the emphasis of the learning activity from the teacher to the students, it can help students become more autonomous learners and transfer the skills they learn in the classroom to their lives outside the classroom (James, 2006).

Focus on form

Research has examined the role of focus on the grammatical forms of language in instruction. A focus-on-form approach to language teaching draws learners’ attention to grammatical form in the context of meaning (rather than teaching grammar in isolation), and teachers’ attention to form is triggered by learners’ problems with comprehension or production (Long, 2000). A meta-analysis of research studies has found that instruction that uses a focus-on-form approach is as effective as more traditional grammar-teaching approaches (Norris & Ortega, 2001). The use of focus on form in communicative lessons can result in high levels of learner uptake—that is, learners may be more likely to incorporate new learning into their language use (Ellis, Basturkmen, & Loewen, 2001; Pica, 2008).

Literacy Development

The Center for Applied Linguistics, with support from OVAE, reviewed what is known about how adult English language learners learn to read in English and published Research on Reading Development of Adult English Language Learners: An Annotated Bibliography (Adams & Burt, 2002). This bibliography was developed to present a comprehensive view of research that was conducted on reading development among adult English language learners in the United States from 1980 to 2000 (with some additional research conducted in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United kingdom). Descriptive studies, case studies, and practitioner research were included in addition to experimental research studies, as were theoretical studies describing models of reading processes. Research on English language learners in adult education programs and in intensive English programs also was included.

From the research in this bibliography, a synthesis paper was developed, Reading and Adult English Language Learners: A Review of the Research (Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003). It summarizes research on adult English language learners reading English, offers adult ESL teachers and administrators suggestions for practice, and points to areas where further research is needed. The paper reviews the kinds of native language literacy that English language learners bring to the ESL classroom and the ways that native language literacy affects learning to read in English. Savage (1984) and Huntley (1992) describe four types of literacy in the first language that affect English literacy development and should be considered in adult ESL literacy instruction: preliterate, nonliterate, semiliterate, and non-Roman-alphabet literate. Birch (2002) adds nonalphabet literate to these types, and Birch and others (Hilferty, 1996; Strucker, 2002) add Roman-alphabet literate.

The Burt et al., (2003) paper also discusses the following four reading skills that researchers have identified as necessary for English language learners to develop in order to read fluently (see, e.g., Burt, Peyton, & Van Duzer, 2005; Coady, Mgoto, Hubbard, Graney, & Mokhtari, 1993; Davidson & Strucker, n.d.; Jones, 1996; Koda, 1999; McLeod & McLaughlin, 1986; Strucker, 1997, 2002; Tan, Moore, Dixon, & Nicholson, 1994):

  • Phonological processing: Recognizing and reproducing letters and other graphic symbols related to the language
  • Vocabulary development: Creating an ever-growing vocabulary bank
  • Syntactic processing: Understanding and applying grammar and usage conventions and identifying and using structural and organizational features common to English
  • Schema activation: initiating appropriate strategies for reading comprehension, including identifying and setting a purpose for reading, gaining meaning from context, using pictures and other graphics, predicting, and skimming and scanning.

The report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-minority Children and Youth revealed two important research findings that are relevant to all English language learners (though their focus was on children and youth; August & Shanahan, 2006). First, teaching specific reading and writing elements can be beneficial to second language learners; for example, explicit vocabulary instruction leads to improved knowledge of the words studied. Second, learners need to have sufficient knowledge of oral English while learning English literacy; instruction in the components of reading alone is not enough. Instruction must teach these reading components while fostering extensive oral English language development.

Another study focusing on literacy development is the Pathways Project, a cognitive strategies intervention developed by the University of California-Irvine Writing Project. The project involved teaching secondary school students specific thinking tools, such as activating prior knowledge or establishing a purpose, and provided teachers with instructional and curricular approaches to support the development of these thinking tools (Olson & Land, 2007). The project involved 55 teachers in all of the secondary schools in a California district where 93% of students speak English as a second language. After being taught these thinking tools, Pathway students had greater achievement in writing for 7 consecutive years and outperformed non-Pathway students in grade point averages (GPAs), standardized tests, reading assessments, high school exit exams, and community college placement tests.

Promising Practices

Some SLA research informs instructional practices that are employed in the adult ESL field. Giving students opportunities 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 (Condelli, et al., in press; Florez & Burt, 2001; Mathews-Aydinli, 2007; Moss & Ross-Feldman, 2003; National Center for ESL Literacy Education, 1998; Olson & Land, 2007; Smith, Harris, & Reder, 2005; Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 2000; Van Duzer, 2002; Wrigley, Chisman, & Ewen, 1993; Wrigley & Guth, 1992).

The following promising instructional strategies for adult ESL education have emerged from SLA and reading research:

  • Incorporate principles of adult learning, adult SLA, and ways to work with multicultural groups.
  • Begin with assessment of learners’ needs and goals (e.g., where and why they use or want to use English) to establish instructional content that is relevant to and immediately usable in their lives outside the language classroom.
  • Employ a number of different instructional approaches to match diverse learner needs, motivations, and goals, and provide opportunities for interaction, problem solving, and task-based learning.
  • Acknowledge and draw on 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 the needs of learners who may be new to this country and burdened with settlement demands or multiple jobs.
  • Use technology to expand or individualize learning inside and outside the classroom in accordance with learners’ language proficiency, preferences, and needs and to reach learners who cannot attend classes (e.g., individualized activity stations, self-access learning labs, and online courses) (Burt, 1999; Chisman & Crandall, 2007; Gaer, 1998; Hacker, 1999; Hawk, 2000; Terrill, 2000).


Because adult immigrants living in the United States need to learn English for many different reasons, there are a variety of programs designed to meet their language learning needs. SLA research shows that motivation, interaction, and task- and problem-based learning are key features of successful language learning. Instructional practices that reflect these features show promise in adult ESL instruction.

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