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

Executive Summary

Adult English language learners comprise a substantial proportion of the adult education population in the United States. In program year 2006–2007, 46% of participants enrolled in state-administered adult education programs were in English as a second language (ESL) classes. This percentage does not include English language learners enrolled in other types of programs, such as adult basic education (ABE) and adult secondary education (ASE).

To meet the increasing demand for English language instruction, existing adult education programs are expanding and new ones are being established. In addition to federally funded programs, services are offered by volunteer- and faith-based organizations, museums, libraries and other community centers, private language schools, and academic institutions.

This paper describes education for adult English language learners in the United States, focusing on the following topics:

  • Characteristics of the foreign-born population
  • Foreign-born adults enrolled in adult ESL programs, their access to and participation in programs, and factors that affect their participation and success
  • The types of instructional programs that serve adult English language learners
  • Professional development for teachers of this population
  • The U.S. adult education assessment and accountability system
  • Future directions in English literacy education and lifelong learning

The Foreign-Born Population in the United States

The United States has seen a steady increase in the number of foreign-born residents since the 1970s. In 2006, the number was 37,547,789—12.5% of the total U.S. population, up from 10.4% in 2000. Between 2002 and 2006, the level of immigration averaged 1.8 million per year. Hispanics and Asians are the two largest groups represented. Traditionally, the majority of immigrants have settled in a few states, the top five in 2006 being California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas. At the same time, many states have experienced recent growth in foreign-born populations, with 14 states experiencing a 30% or greater increase from 2000 to 2005.

The educational levels and English language proficiency of this population vary widely. The majority (68%) have earned at least a high school diploma in their home countries or in the United States, and 52% report speaking English "very well."

Foreign-born adults play a significant role in the U.S. civilian labor force, with the number growing 76% from 1990 to 2002, compared to a growth rate of 11% for native-born workers. Some studies indicate that immigrants have a positive effect on the overall economy of the United States. However, immigrants often earn lower wages than native-born workers. Factors affecting the income levels of the foreign-born population include level of education, length of time in the United States, immigration status, and English language proficiency.

Learner Participation in Programs and Outcomes

Many factors 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.

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. Studies in second language acquisition of school-age children suggest that it can take 2–3 years to develop social language and 5–7 years to develop academic language proficiency. One study estimates that adult immigrants may need to study 103 hours for 6 years to reach the level of English proficiency necessary for civic integration or postsecondary education.

Program Design and Instructional Practice

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.

Adult education programs seldom provide only language and literacy instruction. Rather, they may provide English language learners with access to information they need for success in their roles as parents, employees, consumers, and lifelong learners. The most common types of programs and classes for adult English language learners are life skills or general ESL classes, family literacy programs, English literacy (EL)/civics programs, vocational ESL (VESL) programs, and workplace ESL classes.

Large classes, or 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 learning English. Technology provides additional instructional options—in the classroom, through distance education, and in extended self-study. However, while computers and the internet play an increasing role in adult ESL learners’ and teachers’ lives at work and at home, there are segments of both populations that do not have easy access to technology.

Across instructional settings, there is a recent emphasis on the development of both content and program standards to ensure the quality and consistency of the content and program provided to learners. Content standards specify what learners should know and be able to do in certain subject or practical domains. Program standards specify the components of quality ESL programs.

Another area of importance is the transition of English language learners through the upper levels of ESL courses and into and through programs that will help them attain their goals, such as earning a degree or a certificate in a vocational program. 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.

Research on Adults Learning English

Funding for major research efforts in adult education in the United States, including the education of adults learning English, has not been extensive. However, there is information about promising practices based on descriptive studies (e.g., case studies, ethnographic research, and teacher research) and on the research base in adult second language acquisition and reading development. Recent efforts to fund major research studies that focus on adult ESL instruction or that include adult English language learners and programs that serve them will expand the currently limited research base.

Available research focuses on learner populations (e.g., the Adult Reading Components Study, projects funded by the Adult Literacy Research Consortium, and the Illinois Health Literacy Research Project), instructional strategies (e.g., studies of learner interaction and language development conducted at the Adult ESL Lab School at Portland State University), and second language acquisition (e.g., studies of learner motivation, opportunities for interaction, task-based learning, focus on form in instruction, and the development of English literacy). Promising instructional strategies that have emerged from this research suggest that teachers and programs need to do the following:

  • Incorporate principles of adult learning, adult second language acquisition, and working with multicultural groups into their instruction.
  • Begin with an assessment of learners’ needs and goals and include ongoing opportunities for language assessment and evaluation of learner progress.
  • Acknowledge and draw on learners’ prior experiences and strengths with language learning.
  • Employ a number of instructional approaches that match diverse learner needs, motivations, and goals and provide opportunities for interaction, problem solving, and task-based learning.
  • Provide courses of varied intensity and duration, with flexible schedules, to meet the needs of learners who may be new to this country and occupied 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.

Professional Development and Teacher Quality

The need for qualified personnel to work with adult English language learners has risen rapidly in recent years due to the ever-increasing demand for classes. In addition, changing immigration patterns and demographics have had an impact on teachers and on their professional development needs. New teachers are entering the field, experienced teachers are being asked to take on greater challenges, and many adult basic education teachers are working with English language learners in classes along with native English speakers. Much of this is occurring in areas where the adult ESL education infrastructure is limited or nonexistent. Professional development is crucial for these teachers.

Studies of professional development in adult education shed light on the factors to consider in designing and delivering professional development to teachers of adult English language learners. They identify the need to do the following:

  • Examine data to see what kinds of teachers are needed and what those teachers need.
  • Design professional development that is coherent and reflects what we know about how adults learn. Include opportunities for the application of new ideas in instruction, collaboration among practitioners, and feedback.
  • Ensure that teachers have access to professional development opportunities.
  • Encourage the participation of teachers who work together and promote reflective practice and the formation of professional communities.
  • Increase the time and duration of professional development.
  • Provide a system for professional development.
  • Use technology to offer professional development that optimizes financial resources, reaches scattered teachers and programs, and promotes collaboration and community.
  • Encourage teachers to bring theory, second language acquisition and reading research, and practice together through practitioner research or joint projects between teachers and researchers.
  • Implement systems for teacher credentialing and certification based on the skills and knowledge that teachers working with adult English language learners need to demonstrate.
  • Deliver professional development that meets national guidelines for quality and is consistent with other national efforts.

Assessment and Accountability

Learner assessment is a priority in adult education. Programs use a variety of assessment tools to place learners in classes, inform instruction, evaluate learner progress, and report outcomes of instruction. These tools include standardized tests, materials-based and teacher-made tests, portfolios, projects, and demonstrations. Needs assessment and goal-setting activities also play an important role in determining the areas on which teachers and classes need to focus.

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA; Public Law 105–220), which funds adult ESL instruction through the U.S. Department of Education, requires states to evaluate each local program’s performance according to outcome measures established under the National Reporting System (NRS), which include educational level advancement and subsequent goal achievement. States have the flexibility to choose which assessments and procedures they will use to measure these outcomes as long as the assessments are standardized and conform to accepted psychometric standards for validity and reliability. Assessments currently approved for use for NRS reporting include BEST (Basic English Skills Test) Literacy, BEST Plus, CASAS (Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems), CELSA (Combined English Language Skills Assessment), Compass ESL, REEP (Arlington Education and Employment Program) Writing Assessment, and TABE CLAS-E (TABE Complete Language Assessment System—English).

The adult ESL field faces a number of challenges in the selection, use, and development of assessments for accountability reporting:

  • Staffing issues, such as inexperienced instructors and volunteers, high teacher turnover rates, part-time and temporary employment, and limited professional development, may affect practitioners’ knowledge of assessment, its purposes, and its alignment with instruction.
  • Program administrators may not know how to use assessment data to make decisions about instruction, program, and professional development needs.
  • Students may attend class sporadically, making it difficult for teachers to align instruction and assessment and to show educational gain for accountability purposes.
  • Tests used may not align with the goals and content of instruction, or they may not document incremental changes in learning that occur over short periods of instructional time.

Recommendations for the development and use of adult ESL assessments indicate that assessments must

  • Meet standard psychometric requirements related to appropriateness, reliability, validity, standardization, bias review, and test development procedures
  • Have a clear purpose and a defined construct and be able to reliably show learner gains over specific periods of time
  • Evaluate language proficiency through learner performance
  • Be useful for all stakeholders involved in teaching and learning through timely, clear, and accessible scoring, interpretation, and reporting of results
  • Include documentation that supports the recommended number and intensity of instructional hours necessary to show learner progress
  • Be cost effective and incorporate an understanding of ESL program limitations in terms of funding, personnel, time, materials, logistics, and support
  • Be carried out within the context of a comprehensive program evaluation plan
  • Include uses of technology as appropriate
  • Be informed by a variety of perspectives, including new research on language learning processes, psychometrics, educational measurement, and curricular frameworks and instructional content areas

Future Directions for Lifelong Learning

As is true for native-born workers, success for immigrants in the United States 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. The education level and literacy of parents also influences their children’s educational progress and success. The adult education field is connected to and influenced by a variety of workforce and postsecondary education challenges and opportunities and by the tasks in daily American life that require knowledge of new technologies. Opportunities for developing needed knowledge and skills include the following:

  • Transitioning from adult education programs to workforce training and postsecondary education
  • Workforce training and instruction to prepare for the workplace
  • Training and instruction for those who are employed
  • Workforce training and career pathways to provide opportunities for advancement
  • Distance education for those unable to attend traditional instructional programs


The adult education system in the United States is committed to providing high-quality instruction for adults learning English. The emphasis on learner assessment and program accountability, professional development for practitioners, program and content standards, transitions to postsecondary and vocational education and the workplace, and uses of technology will help meet this goal. More research needs to be conducted and disseminated on how adults learn English, which instructional and assessment methods are most effective, how practitioners implement professional learning in the classroom, and how technology can best be used for learner instruction and teacher training. In addition, support for efforts in all of these areas is needed from federal, state, and local agencies and practitioners.

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