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One of the purposes of the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA) is to provide useful information for states, programs, and practitioners who work with adult immigrants learning English as a second language (ESL). The following set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) was developed to respond to questions and concerns about adult English language learners and adult ESL education. (Last updated 08/23/07)

What are factors to consider when planning for, setting up, and evaluating a workplace program for immigrant workers?(FAQ#20) is the newest FAQ.

  1. What is English as a second language (ESL)?
  2. How many adults in the United States are studying English?
  3. How many more adults would like to enroll in ESL programs?
  4. From what countries do immigrants come?
  5. Where do adult English language learners live?
  6. What languages do adult immigrants speak?
  7. What are the characteristics of adults learning English in the United States?
  8. How do adult English language learners differ from adult basic education (ABE) learners?
  9. What instructional practices best meet the needs of adult English language learners?
  10. What types of ESL programs are available for adults?
  11. How long does it take to an adult to learn English?
  12. How can I find out more about teaching English as a second language?
  13. How can I find out what ESL programs are in my geographic area?
  14. What does the research say about how to teach reading to adults learning English as a second language?
  15. How can I incorporate technology in my instructional practice?
  16. How can I identify adult English language learners who might have learning disabilities?
  17. How can I integrate language skill development with civics content in the adult ESL classroom?
  18. What do beginning adult ESL teachers, tutors, and volunteers need to know?
  19. What instructional practices best meet the needs of literacy-level adult English language learners?
  20. What are factors to consider when planning for, setting up, and evaluating a workplace program for immigrant workers?NEW


For more FAQs on adult English language learners and adult ESL instruction, see the Frequently Asked Questions in the Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners.


1. What is English as a second language (ESL)?

Adult ESL, or English as a second language, is the term used to describe English language instruction for adults who are nonnative speakers of English. (Adult English for speakers of other languages, or adult ESOL, is alternately used in various parts of the United States.)

Adult ESL is used to describe various types of instructional services for adults who do not speak English. See question ten below for some examples.

One way of looking at adult ESL is through some of the related definitions set forward in Title II Adult and Family Literacy Act, section 203 of the Workforce Investment Act (1998). With these, we can see some of the criteria (for adult education, limited English proficient individuals, and English literacy programs) that guide definition of federally funded adult ESL services and the individuals eligible for them.

According to the act:

The term "adult education" means services or instruction below the postsecondary level for individuals who have attained 16 years of age;
i) lack sufficient mastery of basic education skills to enable them to function effectively in society;
ii) do not have a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent, and have not achieved an equivalent level of education; or
iii) are unable to speak, read, or write the English language.

The term "individual of limited English proficiency" means an adult or out-of-school youth who has limited ability in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language, and- whose native language is a language other than English, or
who lives in a family or community environment where a language other than English is the dominant language.

The term "English literacy program" indicates a program of instruction designed to help individuals of limited English proficiency achieve competence in the English language.

Unlike general adult education, adult ESL instruction targets English language and literacy proficiency needs rather than broader educational needs. Instruction may be offered to highly educated, credentialed learners, those who are not who are not educated or literate in their native languages, and to all English language learners who fall between the two.

2. How many adults are studying English in the US?

Almost half of the adults in federally funded adult education programs are learning English. In 2004-2005, 2,581,281 adults were enrolled in adult education programs that received funding through the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) Enrollment and Participation in the State-Administered Adult Education Program. Of these, 44.3% were enrolled in ESL programs, 39.4% in ABE (adult basic education) programs, and 16.3% in ASE programs (adult secondary education for 16- to 20-year-olds no longer in the K-12 school system). University and college students, as well as the many adults served in programs not receiving federal funding, are not included in this number. For more information about the learners in federally funded adult education programs, see Enrollment and Participation in the the State-Administered Adult Education Program on the OVAE website.

3. How many more adults would like to enroll in ESL programs?

Waiting lists for class space attest to the overwhelming demand for ESL instruction. Some immigrants who want to learn English may have to wait for months or years to get into ESL classes. In large cities across the country, ESL programs frequently have waiting lists for classroom space. Some rural areas have no available classes.

The exact number of adults on waiting lists is hard to establish, because no national system exists for keeping track. Some programs have even stopped keeping such lists, because the wait has become so long.

To download a copy of the report, Waiting Times for Adult ESL Classes and the Impact on English Learners (June 2006) by Dr. James Thomas Tucker, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Education Fund, click here.

To download a copy of the report, Lost in Translation (November 2006) by Tara Colton and published by the Center for an Urban Future and the Scuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, click here. This report discusses issues in providing English language instruction in New York State.

For an article from NCLEnotes about ESL waiting lists click here.

A June 1997 statistical brief published by the National Center for Education Statistics about the 1995 National Household Education Survey, reports that nearly 3 million adults expressed interest in ESL classes but were not participating for a variety of reasons.

More generally in adult education, a survey by the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education (NCSDAE), Adult Student Waiting List Survey (updated January 24, 2006), says, "40 of 43 states reporting confirmed students on waiting lists in their states." (p.1) To read the survey report click here. To view the survey data click here.


4. From what countries do adult immigrants come?

The foreign-born population in the United States comes from all over the world. The largest group of immigrants comes from Mexico and other Latin American countries.In 2000, more than one-quarter of the foreign-born population came from Mexico, and over half from Latin America generally. The next largest group comes from countries in Asia. The third largest group comes from Africa. Others come from Europe.

For more information on immigration to the United States, see The New Neighbors: A User's Guide to Data on Immigrants in U.S. Communities published in 2003 by Randolph Capps, Jeffrey S. Passel, Dan Perez-Lopez, and Michael E. Fix.

In November 2006 the U.S. Census Bureau compiled demographic information by state in America Speaks: A Demographic Profile of Foreign-Language Speakers for the United States: 2000.

More information is also available from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Table 10. Persons Obtaining Legal Permit Resident Status by Broad Class or Admission and Region and Country of Birth: Fiscal Year 2006. Further information may be found from the DHS immigration statistics webpage.

5. Where do adult English language learners live?

Most foreign-born residents live in six states -- California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas -- states that have experience establishing and maintaining programs for adult English language learners. Other states have experienced recent and rapid growth in their immigrant populations. The following states had an increase of more than 125% of foreign-born residents from 1990 to 2000:

  • North Carolina 274%
  • Georgia 233%
  • Nevada 202%
  • Arkansas 196%
  • Utah 171%
  • Tennessee 169%
  • Nebraska 165%
  • Colorado 160%
  • Arizona 136%
  • Kentucky 135%

For more information about immigration trends, see "Adult Non-Native English Speakers in the United States" in the Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners and The Dispersal of Immigrants in the 1990s. Immigrant Families and Workers: Facts and Perspectives Series, Brief No. 2 by Randolph Capps, Michael E. Fix, Jeffrey S. Passel. Also of interest may be Mexican Immigration to the United States:The Latest Estimates by Jeffrey Passel.

6. What languages do adult immigrants speak?

The majority of individuals who speak a language other than English at home speak Spanish (60%). The number of Spanish speakers is more than 10 times the number of individuals who speak the second most prevalent language, Chinese. The remaining eight of the top 10 languages spoken are (in this order) French, German, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Italian, Korean, Russian, and Polish.

For more information see "Adult Non-Native English Speakers in the United States" in the Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners and America Speaks: A Demographic Profile of Foreign-Language Speakers for the United States: 2000.

7. What are the characteristics of adult learning English in the United States?

The population of adult English language learners is diverse, and characteristics of learners vary from location to location and program to program. These adults may range in age from 16-year-olds who are not attending high school to adults in their 90s. English language learners also differ in terms of their educational background, length of time in the United States, the native language they speak, their personal experiences in their home country and in the United States, and their socioeconomic status. Learners may be permanent residents, naturalized citizens, legal immigrants, refugees and asylees, or undocumented immigrants. One program or class may include members with such diverse backgrounds as the following:

  • Learners whose native language does not yet have a writing system (e.g., Somali Bantu refugees)
  • Learners who have had limited access to education and literacy in their native countries because of political, social, economic, ethnic, and religious strife
  • Well-educated people with secondary, post-secondary, and graduate degrees, who have enrolled in adult education because they need to learn English. These might include lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, college professors, artists, and musicians.

Like native English speakers in adult education programs, English language learners often have a strong desire to work hard; learn more; and meet goals that serve themselves, their families, and their communities. For more information about learner characteristics, see "Adult Non-Native English Speakers in the United States" in the Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners.

For information about specific learner groups within the larger adult English language learner population, see the following digests:

To learn about research questions in this area that still need to be explored, see "Adult ESL Learners" in A Research Agenda for Adult ESL (1998).

8. How do adult English language learners differ from adult basic education (ABE) learners?

Like adult native English speakers, adults learning English enroll in programs for a number of different reasons, including the following:

  • Improve their English language skills
  • Address personal, family, and social needs
  • Meet work demands and pursue better employment
  • Pursue further education opportunities

At the same time, English language learners differ from ABE learners in a number of ways that affect instruction, as shown in the chart below.

Adult Basic Education Learners Adult English Language Learners
typically have strong speaking and listening skills often need to concentrate on speaking and listening skills, especially in beginning level classes
understand one or more varieties of spoken English including non-standard, elliptical forms, (e.g., paper or plastic?) idioms, (e.g., give me a break) and patterns used in U.S. culture (e.g., Americans say ma'am, but not madam) may be familiar with Standard English or a variety of English spoken in homeland, but not be familiar with elliptical forms, idioms, or U.S. cultural patterns
may have a vocabulary in English of 10,000-100,000 words (Hadley, 1993) may have a vocabulary in English of 2,000-7,000 when beginning academic studies
may feel comfortable when books, websites, and class materials are written in language similar to spoken language may need to learn informal spoken English to understand some written material(e.g., soccer? rather than Do you like to play...)
most likely did not finish secondary level education level of education varies widely from no formal education to graduate or professional degrees
may focus on obtaining GED (General Educational Development) credential or transitioning to higher education (although learners have many other goals as well) may focus on learning basic conversational English first before working to obtain the GED credential or going on to or continuing higher education. Some may also focus on passing the U.S. citizenship test)

Reference: Hadley, A.O. (1993). Teaching language in context. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Although adult English language learners share many of the same goals as native English speaking learners (work advancement, family concerns, high school diploma, academic study), their first need is to learn sufficient English to function day to day in U.S. society. Unlike many learners in ABE programs, most adult English language learners may not have the oral English language skills they need to reach their goals. (For more information about the relationship between oral and written skills in English language learners, see How Should Adult ESL Reading Instruction Differ from ABE Reading Instruction?

For more information about learner differences that affect instruction, see How Should Adult ESL Reading Instruction Differ from ABE Reading Instruction?

9. What instructional practices best meet the needs of adult English language learners?

Teaching English language learners in adult education programs is not the same as teaching native English speakers, who have already participated in the K-12 education system in the United States and, for some reason, still need or want additional education as adults. Teachers, program directors, and state administrators need to know the differences between teaching these two populations, so that they can serve the adults in their programs appropriately.

The following are guidelines for teachers who are new to working with adults learning English.

  • Respect the knowledge, skills, and experience of the learners in your program. Adult English language learners come to class to learn English, not because they are deficient in cognitive skills. Making overgeneralizations about learners is disrespectful and counter-productive (e.g., "My students can't understand that because they are from {name of country}" or "because they can't read and write in their own language!").
  • Where possible, build on learners' knowledge, skills, and experience in instruction.
  • In most cases, adult English language learners do not come to class with negative feelings about past education. They are excited about and committed to learning English.
  • Don't be surprised if learners are very proficient with English in some skills and not at all in others. For example, teachers new to adult ESL education may find it unusual to work with a learner who does not exhibit oral communicative proficiency at all (speaking and listening), but who can write excellent paragraphs, read a newspaper like the Washington Post, and understand conditional clauses.
  • Conducting needs assessments early in the program will help the teacher and other program staff design instruction that addresses learners' expressed, real-life needs. (For more information about needs assessment, see the digest Needs Assessment for Adult English Language Learners and "Needs Assessment and Learner Self-Assessment" in the Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners.)
  • Although learners (and the teacher) may be more familiar with traditional teacher-led classes, interactive, communicative activities and classes give learners the opportunity to use the language they need to acquire.
  • Grammar instruction has an important place in adult ESL education, but grammar exercises need to be embedded in the content of the class and real-life contexts and not presented in isolation or memorized by learners as rules. For example, if learners are working on how to use prepositions appropriately, they might practice giving directions to someone or describing where different foods can be found in the supermarket (e.g.,the tomatoes are next to the onions) rather than just reading a grammar book, completing exercises, and taking a quiz.
  • Depending on learners' native languages and other factors (e.g., amount of time spent in school, exposure to print, experience with focusing on language structures), language components that might seem easy to learn, such as using the correct personal pronouns, or distinguishing between definite and indefinite articles, may take a long time for learners to use appropriately.
  • Learning English involves four basic skills--reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Speaking and listening are often the most important skills that English language learners need to learn to meet their immediate needs.
  • Learners' proficiency in all four skills should be assessed so that the teacher and learners understand their strengths and learning challenges. Many adult English language learners demonstrate proficiency in one or more of the four skills.
  • The amount and type of work on pronunciation that is needed depends on the learner's native language and where he or she lives in the United States. Speaking with an accent in English does not necessarily mean that the learner will have difficulty communicating or being understood in English. For example, a Spanish speaker from El Salvador may say "begetable" instead of "vegetable;" for example, "My favorite begetable is lettuce." This deviation from standard pronunciation will not stop listeners from understanding, and it may take several years for the learner to change the /b/ to a /v/ in certain words.
  • For more tips on what adult ESL teachers need to know about adult English language learners, see What Beginning Teachers and Tutors of Adult English Language Learners Need to Know, one of CAELA's online resource collections, and Beginning to Work with Adult English Language Learners: Some Considerations.

For more information about working with adult English language learners see the following documents:

For more information about about instructional options, see the following briefs and digests:

A Research Agenda for Adult ESL (1998) also offers insights into adult ESL instruction.

For information about teaching the four language skills with adult English language learners, see the following digests:

10. What types of ESL programs are available for adults?
Adult ESL programs vary in scope and content. Some programs, especially those for recent arrivals including refugees, emphasize survival or life skills in the curriculum and focus on improving listening and speaking abilities (oral proficiency). Others stress vocational or work-related topics, citizenship and civics education, family literacy, or academic or GED preparation. Learners who lack literacy skills in their native language and those who are new to the Roman alphabet may be placed in classes that focus on developing basic literacy skills. Classes are provided by local educational agencies, community colleges, local businesses and unions, community-based organizations, volunteer groups, churches, and for-profit language schools. For related digests about this topic, see:

Adult ESL professionals at the Center for Applied Linguistics have published books and issue papers on this topic, including:

  • Immigrant Learners and Their Families: Literacy to Connect the Generations
  • Making Meaning, Making Change: Participatory Curriculum Development for Adult ESL Literacy
  • Learning to Work in a New Land: A Review and Sourcebook for Vocational and Workplace ESL

For information about how to purchase these books, see The CALStore

A Research Agenda for Adult ESL (1998) also addresses these issues in a section on program design and instructional content and practices.

11. How long does it take an adult to learn English?

The amount of time it takes an adult to learn English varies from person to person and depends on such factors as the individuals's age, educational bacground, level of literacy in the native language, and opportunities to interact with native English speakers. However, it is generally accepted that it takes from 5-7 years to go from not knowing any English at all to being able to accomplish most communication tasks including academic tasks (Collier, 1989). Research done for the Mainstream English Language Training (MELT) project (1985) indicates that it would take from 500-1000 hours of instruction for an adult who is literate in her native language, but has had no prior English instruction, to reach a level where she can satisfy her basic needs, survive on the job, and have limited social interation in English.

For more information look at the following digests:


  • Collier, V.P. (1989). How Long? A Synthesies of Research on Academic Achievement in a Second language. TESOL Quarterly, 23, (3), 509-31.
  • Competency-based Mainstream English Language Training Resource Package. (1985). Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration, Office of Refugee Resettlement.

12. How can I find out more about teaching English as a second language (ESL)?

The majority of teaching jobs in adult ESL are part-time. Staff development opportunities vary considerably from program to program. It is a demanding and creative field that is growing as the demand for English language instruction continues. You do not need to speak a language other than English to teach ESL, although it is helpful to have some experience as a language learner and to know something about other cultures.

To find out more about preparing for this profession or to learn about options for furthering your professional development, see the following briefs, bibliographies, and digests:


You may also want to visit the website of TESOL --the international professional organization for teachers of English as a second and foreign language.

13. How can I find out what ESL programs are in my geographic area?

The National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) has created America's Literacy Directory, a searchable, online database of literacy and education programs (including adult ESL programs) across the United States. You can search by program focus, as well as location (zip code and/or city and state).

14. What does the research say about how to teach reading to adults learning English as a second language?

Currently, there is limited research available on how adults learn to read in a second language. Much of what is known about reading comes from first language reading research with children (both native and non-native English speakers) and native English speaking adults. While this information can be very helpful to teachers in conceptualizing reading and the reading process, English as a second language (ESL) teachers need to consider how it may or may not apply to adults learning to read in a second language.

In 2000, adult ESL professionals at the Center for Applied Linguistics compiled an annotated bibliography that can provide a starting point for those interested in research and theory related to adults learning to read in a second language. In 2001, Rebecca Adams and Miriam Burt compiled Research on Reading Development of Adult English Language Learners: An Annotated Bibliography, which was developed to present a comprehensive view of the research that has been conducted on reading development among adult English language learners in the United States (and other English speaking countries) in the last 20 years. In 2003, Miriam Burt, Joy Kreeft Peyton, and Rebecca Adams wrote Reading and Adult English Language Learners: A Review of the Research. (For information about how to purchase a hard copy of this book, go to The CALStore.)

For suggestions on how to teach reading to adults learning English, see the following briefs, digests and Q & As:


Also see Teaching Reading to Adult English Language Learners: A Reading Instruction Staff Development Program available online from the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center (VALRC) and CAELA's online resource collection, Reading and Adult English Language Learners.

15. How can I incorporate technology in my instructional practice?

Incorporating technology in adult ESL instruction is no longer just a question of whether or not to do it. As a field, we are quickly moving to the question of "How?" (Gaer, 1998).

Using technology in the classroom can take a variety of forms. It may involve incorporating the viewing of a videocassette or television program in a lesson on intercultural interactions or asking learners to create audio recordings of a dialogue between an employer and an employee discussing a grievance. It may mean having learners work individually or in groups on a software program or participate in project-based activities that utilize sites on the World Wide Web. Technology is involved in all these examples. Choosing among the range of options and integrating the choice effectively becomes the challenge.

It is important to seriously consider your objectives in incorporating technology in your teaching. You may want to bring authenticity or variety to the language and content that you are teaching. You may want to better motivate your learners, tapping into their interest in things like current videos, software programs, or computers in general. You may want to address diverse learning styles by taking advantage of the different modalities of audio, video and text that technology can offer. You may even want to create activities or materials that learners can self-access, either on-site or from home. Various forms of technology can address such goals. As with any instructional tool, you need to decide what your purposes and goals are first, and then which forms of technology will best serve them.

For more detailed information on using specific technologies with adult English language learners, see the following digests:

Using technology such as computers and the Internet can present both benefits and difficulties for adult ESL teachers and learners. You need to consider a variety of points related to your learners, learning objectives, and your teaching situation when you think about incorporating technology of any form. For a more complete discussion of the benefits and challenges, see Benefits and Challenges in Using Computers and the Internet with Adult English Learners. Also of interest may be Evaluating Software Programs, which offers guiding questions for choosing software programs to use with adult English language learners.

16. How can I identify adult English language learners who might have learning disabilities?

Identifying adult language learners who might have learning disabilities is a complex task. Before labeling or testing an adult ESL learner, teachers should look for other reasons for lack of expected progress.

For instance, refugees or other immigrants might have experienced stress or trauma that cause difficulty in concentration or memory. Both Mental Health and the Adult Refugee: The Role of the ESL Teacher and Refugees as English Language Learners: Issues and Concerns give specific information about particular needs of refugees. Allene Grognet's article, Elderly Refugees and Language Learning (ERIC No. ED416 721, available from the ERIC database offers pertinent information about age and acculturation issues that also can play a significant role in an adult's success in an ESL classroom. Such disparate reasons as limited access to education in the native country, different alphabet or educational culture, or heavy work load can contribute to problems an adult ESL learner may have in making progress in learning English.

If, over several months, a learner does not make progress and the teacher or volunteer has been able to rule out other causes, it may be that the learner does have a specific learning disability.

While there is not a great deal of learning disabilities information available specifically targeted for adults learning English, you can find some suggestions by searching our online resource collection on adult ESL and learning disabilities.

Several publications offer practical advice for teachers:

ESL Instruction and Adults with Learning Disabilities (2000)

Learning Disabilities in Adult ESL: Case Studies and Directions (1996)

Hatt, P. & Nichols. E. (1995) Links in learning. West Hill, Ontario: MESE Consulting, Ltd.

Shewcraft, D. F. & Witkop, E. (1998). Do my ESOL students have learning disabilities? Pittsfield, MA: Western MA YALD Project.

17. How can I integrate language skill development with civics content in the adult ESL classroom?

For years, topics such as U.S. history and government, civic participation, and citizenship test preparation have been included along with English language and literacy development in curriculum and practice in adult immigrant education. Now that designated monies are being provided to states and individual program there is even more interest in finding techniques, materials, and lesson ideas that will help practitioners combine language skills development and civics content.

Because adult immigrants and refugees often express interest in American culture, government, and history, integrating language skills and content can be easy and natural as well as useful for classroom community-building. While the complexity of the language varies from level to level, and specific language skills might be more applicable at certain levels, significant content can be imparted at all levels at the same time learners are acquiring English.

A wide variety of approaches and methods have proven effective for integrating civics content in English classes. Civics content lends itself to such beginning-level activities as games, songs, alphabetizing, language experience stories, and strip stories. For higher levels, using the library and the World Wide Web and working on contact assignments within the community can provide integrated lessons that address several language skills at once. For all levels and for multilevel classes, small group work, paired activities, and field trips can promote skills and content acquisition. Project-based learning, with its emphasis on integrating speaking, listening, reading, and writing, problem-solving, and using English in authentic contexts, is a particularly promising approach.

For more in depth information, see CAELA's online annotated resource collection on civics education. Included in the collection are separate lists of resources for citizenship and promoting cultural understanding, as well as the following briefs and digests:

For suggestions on classroom activities that combine language skills and civics content, visit CAELA's collection Activities for Integrating Civics in Adult English Language Learning. There you will find ideas for using music to integrate language learning and civics, as well as activities for African-American History Month.

18. What do beginning adult ESL teachers, tutors and volunteers need to know?

Although many ESL teachers have studied in undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs, many others have had little or no training or experience in working with adult English language learners. To effectively teach English to adult language learners, teachers, tutors, and volunteers new to the field need to understand:

Principles of Adult Learning

Educator Malcolm Knowles' ideas of how adults learn are the basis for much learning theory. Knowles said:

  • Adults are self-directed in their learning.
  • Adults are reservoirs of experience that serve as resources as they learn.
  • Adults are practical, problem-solving-oriented learners.
  • Adults want their learning to be immediately applicable to their lives.
  • Adults want to know why something needs to be learned.

In short, all adult learners need adult-appropriate content, materials, and activities that speak to their needs and interests and allow them to demonstrate their knowledge and abilities. English language learners may differ from other adult learners to the extent that culture, language, and experience play roles in the learning. For example, many adult learners have been accustomed to teacher-centered classrooms where they were not encouraged to participate. It may take time for learners to become comfortable with the more learner-centered ESL class where their participation is expected and encouraged.

For more information on Knowles' ideas, consult:

Knowles, M. S. (1990) The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (4th edition) Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing. "Malcolm Knowles: Apostle of Andragogy" provides a brief biography of the educator and his ideas.

Second Language Acquisition

Although more research needs to be done, evidence shows that learning a second language, especially as an adult, is not the same as learning one's first language. To effectively assist adult English language learners, teachers need to be aware of the complex interactions between cognitive, affective, and linguistic issues that are going on within the learners. An Annotated Bibliography of Second Language Acquisition in Adult English Language Learners describes documents related to second language acquisition adult ESL learners. Other useful documents include:

Burt, M., Peyton, J.K., & Adams, R. (2003). Reading and Adult English Language Learners. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Bygate, M., Skehan, P., & Swain, M. (2001). Introduction. In Researching Pedagogic Tasks: Second Language Learning, Teaching, and Testing (pp.1-20). Harlow, England: Pearson.

Florez M. & Burt, M. (2001). Beginning to Work With Adult English Language Learners: Some Considerations.

Gass, S. M. (1997). Input, Interaction, and the Second Language Learner. Mahwah, N.J. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Krashen, S. (1981). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. New York: Pergamon Press.

Issues Related to Culture

Language and culture are closely related, so learning English also involves cultural learning. Teachers need to provide pertinent cultural information as well as a safe, comfortable environment where learners feel free to discuss issues related to the community outside the classroom. Some adult learners may be unfamiliar with class situations that involve men and women of diverse cultures, languages, age, and socioeconmic status. However--for both learners and teachers--this complex mix of learners can provide great opportunities for sharing and learning. CAELA's Online Resources for Promoting Cultural Understanding in the Adult ESL Classroom offers links to many resources teachers can consult as they seek to promote cultural understanding, tolerance, and cross-cultural communication in their adult ESL classrooms.

Instructional Approaches That Support Language Development in Adults

The only experience some new teachers have had with language learning is their own experience with high school or college language courses. Adult ESL tends to be communicative, process-oriented, and lifeskills oriented. Foreign language instruction is often grammar or text-based. For background information, the digest, Philosophies and Approaches in Adult ESL Literacy may prove helpful.

FAQ # 9 (above)identifies several digests that explain specific instructional approaches and techniques including

There are several general instructional stategies to keep in mind when working with adults:

  • Get to know your students and their needs.
  • Use visuals to support your instruction.
  • Model tasks before asking your learners to do them.
  • Foster a safe classroom environment .
  • Watch both your teacher talk and your writing.
  • Use scaffolding techniques to support tasks
  • Bring authentic materials to the classroom.
  • Don't overload learners.
  • Balance variety and routine in your activities

Other Resources

Novice teachers, tutors, and volunteers can learn from colleagues by signing up for the Adult English Language Learners discussion list or by reading the archives from that list.

To see how an experienced program serves adult English language learners, look at the Arlington Education and Employment Program's (REEP) newest ESL Curriculum for Adults online.

Also see the the CAELA online resource collection, What Beginning Teachers and Tutors of Adult English Language Learners Need to Know for more resources and information.

19. What instructional practices best meet the needs of literacy-level adult English language learners?

Some teachers—especially those new to teaching adult English language learners—express concern about teaching learners who aren’t literate in their native language or never went to school. In many ways, this concern is unwarranted. Having or not having had access to formal education does not correlate to cognitive functioning, interest, and energy. Most literacy-level learners will need explicit instruction in basic literacy skills (e.g., phonological  processing, vocabulary development, syntactical processing). However, these learners bring an array of lifeskills knowledge (often including some oral proficiency and knowledge of American culture) problem-solving skills, and enthusiasm to the process.  

Some confusion also lies with deciding who the literacy-level learners are. Some educators and texts talk about low-level literacy students or use the term  illiterates when talking about adult immigrants who can not read or write. The first term, while descriptive, has a mildly negative connotation.  The second term has an even stronger negative connotation.

So, before examining promising instructional practices, it may be helpful to examine what individuals may attend literacy- or beginning-level adult ESL classes.

Literacy-level  learners are generally those with 6 or fewer years of education in their native countries who need focused instruction on learning to read and write English. The population participating in literacy-level classes is diverse: These classes may include men and women with different native languages, ages, length of time in country, life and language learning goals, and access to previous education (Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks, 2000; Shank & Terrill, 1997). Literacy learners also have a wide range of oral skills in English. (For a more detailed description of the varieties of first language literacy and effects on second language literacy, see Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003.) The learners are further differentiated by their experiences. Many have experienced trauma related to events in their native countries and to resettlement in the United States, and this trauma may affect the speed and facility with which they learn English (Adkins, Sample, & Birman, 1999).

The following learners might attend the same literacy class:


Preliterate (The native language does not yet have a writing system.) Wanankhucha, a Bantu from Somalia, entered the class as a recent refugee. She knows her native Af-Maay only orally, as a written form of the language is just now being developed. Furthermore, as a refugee, Wanankhucha shows evidence of trauma.
Nonliterate (The native language has a written form, but the learner has no literacy.) Trang is a young, single mother from rural Vietnam who grew up without access to education. Here in the United States, she lacks many of the educational and cultural supports earlier Vietnamese refugees enjoyed.
Semiliterate (The learner has minimal literacy in native language.) Roberto attended a rural school in El Salvador for 3 years. Although he wanted to continue, his family needed him to work on the family farm.
Nonalphabet literate (The learner is literate in a language that is not alphabetic.) Xian is a retired minor bureaucrat from China. He is highly literate in the Mandarin script, but he is unfamiliar with any alphabet, including Roman.
Non-Roman alphabet literate (The learner is literate in an alphabetic language other than Roman.) Khalil comes from Jordan. He completed 2 years of secondary school and is literate in Arabic.
Roman-alphabet literate (The learner is literate in a language that is written in the Roman alphabet). Alex is a senior from Russia. As a young man, he studied French. Even though he was a professional (engineer) in his own country, he does not want to move to a higher level class.
Others who may benefit from a literacy-level class are individuals with learning disabilities or individuals who, because of age, physical or mental health issues, or family situations, find that the slow and repetitive pace of such a class better meets their needs and goals  [Excerpted from Working With Literacy-Level Adult English Language Learners (Florez & Terrill, 2003)]

So, understanding that in many programs the literacy-level class may be quite diverse, the general information about teaching adult English language learners in FAQ #18 and the instructional practices described in FAQ#9 are appropriate for literacy-level learners and classes as well. 

As in other adult ESL classes, conducting learner needs assessment (initial and throughout the course) is an essential element of  classroom practice.  For more information on learner needs assessment, see these publications

Needs Assessment for Adult ESL Learners
Needs Assessment and Learner Self-Evaluation” from the Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners
Working With Literacy-Level Adult English Language Learners

The REEP ESL Curriculum for Adults from the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP) includes an extensive section on learner needs assessment and goal-setting.

Other effective activities include
Dialogues with related activities. Oral dialogues can be springboards for literacy-oriented activities such as cloze or substitution where learners supply the missing words in written dialogue or exercise where learners substitute different vocabulary words in structured dialogues, sentence strips, role plays, or dictations.

Vocabulary-building activities. For literacy-level learners, matching pictures to words is key for vocabulary development. Flash cards, concentration games, labeling, vocabulary journals, picture dictionaries, and bingo activities can be used to practice vocabulary.

Class surveys One type of class survey requires learners to ask the other students one or two questions, such as "What month were you born? or "What is your last name?" and record the answers on a form. The class can debrief the answers to make a chart or graph. If learner names are gathered, the list can be used for alphabetizing practice. A second kind of survey asks learners to find "someone who likes soccer" or "someone who comes from Bolivia." To find the information, learners need to ask questions such as "Do you like soccer?" and record the information on a form. Class surveys are useful for community building as well as for practicing the four language skills, reading, writing, listening, and speaking. 

Language Experience Approach (LEA). The teacher records text that learners generate from a shared picture or event, drawing out vocabulary that is relevant to the learners. Other activities based on the learner-generated text follow, such as vocabulary development, phonics exercises, choral reading, or dictation.

For more information on LEAs, see the digest Language Experience Approach and Adult Learners and “Language Experience Approach Revisited : The Use of Personal Narratives in Adult L2 Literacy Instruction”  (Adrian J. Wurr in The Reading Matrix, Vol.2, No.1, 2002)

Phonics exercises. Exercises such as minimal pairs (e.g., hat/cat, pan/fan) or identifying initial word sounds are important components of literacy-level lessons. Relating such exercises to the vocabulary being taught in a lesson contextualizes the learning and makes it relevant. Be sure to use actual words, rather than nonsense syllables (Burt, Peyton, & Van Duzer, 2005).  Whenever possible, use authentic materials (flyers, schedules, advertisements, bills) to connect literacy development to real-world tasks.

Dictations of students' names, phone numbers, and addresses. These activities can provide interesting, meaningful content while developing encoding skills. Tactile actvities such as drawing the letters in sand with the fingers, coloring letters, or manipulating plastic cutouts of letters may offer some variety).

Many CAELA publications offer teachers information about learner background, philosophies, methods and activities that will help them work effectively with literacy-level adult English language learners. Many of these and other resources are gathered in online resource collection Working With Literacy-Level Adult English Language Learners. Other resources include:

Beginning- and Literacy-Level Adult ESL Learners
How Should Adult ESL Reading Instruction Differ from ABE Reading Instruction?
Native Language Literacy and Adult ESL Learners
Mental Health and the Adult Refugee: The Role of the ESL Teacher
Picture Stories for ESL Health Literacy
Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners
Project-based Learning for Adult English Language Learners
Reading and Adult English Language Learners: A Review of the Research
Social Identity and the Adult ESL Classroom
Teaching Low-Level Adult ESL Learners
Teaching Multilevel Adult ESL Classes
Trauma and the Adult English Language Learner
Valuing Diversity in the Multicultural Classroom
Working With Literacy-Level Adult English Language Learners

For other CAELA resources, see the ESL Resources section on the CAELA website.

Other resources include
ESL for literacy learners (Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks, 2000).
Framework for Adult ESOL in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1999/2002).
Hands-On English (Adult ESL practitioner newsletter, published six times a year, Anna Silliman is the editor)
Making it Real: Teaching Pre-Literate Adult Refugee Students (Crodyon, Tacoma Community House Training Project, 2006)
Multilevel literacy planning and practice. Focus on Basics 1(c), 18-22. (Shank & Terrill, 1997)
The REEP ESL Curriculum For Adults.

Adult ESL instructors also need to decide what classroom materials are appropriate for literacy-level adult ESL learners.  For a list of possible materials, see Teaching Low-Level Adult ESL Learners.

Finally, instructors should keep in mind what Shirley Brod said in What non-readers or beginning readers need to know: Performance-based ESL adult literacy, literacy-level learners "may be beginning learners, but they are not beginning thinkers" (Brod, 1999, p. 5 ERIC No. ED 433 730)

20. What are factors to consider when planning for, setting up, and evaluating a workplace program for immigrant workers?

As immigrants join the workforce, especially in areas experiencing new and rapid growth of immigrant populations (e.g., Georgia, Nebraska, and South Carolina), teachers, program administrators, and employers are asking for help. Some  information can  be found by reviewing CAELA’s previous and current writings about this topic. The following guidance is adapted from Grognet (1996), Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating Workplace ESL Programs, and from Burt and Mathews-Aydinli, Workplace Instruction and Workforce Preparation for Adult Immigrants.
There are three venues in which workplace preparation for immigrant adults takes place -- workplace-based programs, vocational ESL programs, and adult ESL programs. Each has its strengths and challenges, but each makes an important contribution to the options available to immigrants entering or in the workforce. (See Burt, 2007, for a description of each of these program types.)

To maximize effectiveness of learning in each of these programs, whether conducted as pre-employment training or on the job, six interrelated activities are suggested.

  • Conduct a needs analysis of the language, cultural knowledge, and specific skills needed to perform successfully in a specific workplace or occupation. The needs analysis leads to the development of objectives for the program.


  • Develop a curriculum based on the objectives, which identifies tasks and skills for verbal interaction and for reading and writing on the job. The curriculum should prioritize these tasks and skills and the order and ways they will be learned.


  • Plan instruction by gathering texts and other materials (including materials that learners will use in the workplace) and determine classroom activities and opportunities available for learners to develop knowledge and skills and to put their skills in practice outside the classroom.


  • Determine instructional strategies that include a variety of activities that focus on the objectives, keep the class learner-centered, and include as much pair and group work as possible. Strategies for assessment should also be determined when planning instruction.


  • Evaluate the program on both a formative and summative basis.


  • Collaborate with other programs and instructional staff (e.g., adult ESL program and vocational ESL program staff) to provide all of the services needed so that adult immigrants have access to and the opportunity  to be successful in workforce preparation programs that provide them with the skills and credentials needed to obtain work that pays a living wage.

Additional Resources

CAELA Briefs

English that Works: Preparing Adult English Language Learners for Success in the Workforce and Community (Brigitte Marshall)

Improving ESL Learners' Listening Skills: At the Workplace and Beyond (Carol Van Duzer)

Integrating Employment Skills into Adult ESL Instruction (Allene Grognet)

Issues in Improving Immigrant Workers' English Language Skills (Miriam Burt)

Other CAELA Resources

Senior Scenarios: What Would You Do? (excerpted from A Guide for Providers: Engaging Immigrant Seniors in Community Service and Employment Programs written by CAELA staff members and published by Senior Service America and the Center for Applied Linguistics. Nine scenarios examine issues that may occur in work situations.

Summary of Online Discussion on Adult ESL and Workplace Education, April 16-20, 2007

Interview with workplace ESL expert Miriam Burt on current and continuing issues in immigrant workplace education.

Other Resources

Other available resources range from lessons and curricula to research studies and reflect the complexity of the topic and the variety of views and approaches to immigrant education.

ABC Canada. (1999). Success stories in workplace basic education for small business. Don Mills, Ontario, Canada: Author. 
Building basics: ESOL toolkit for general construction, landscaping, painting, and plumbing(created by the Virginia Adult Literacy Resource Center)

Capps, R., Fix, M., Passel, J.S., Ost, J., & Perez-Lopez. (2003, November). A profile of the low-wage immigrant workforce. Washington, DC: Urban Institute

Chenven, L. (2004). Getting to work: A report on how workers with limited English skills can prepare for good jobs. AFL-CIO Working for America Institute.

Grieco, E. (2004a). Fact sheet #4. The foreign born in the U.S. labor force: Numbers and trends. Migration Policy Institute.

Grieco, E. (2004b). Fact sheet #5: What kind of work do immigrants do? Occupation and industry of foreign-born workers in the US. Migration Policy Institute.

Mikulecky, L. (1997). Too little time and too many goals. Focus on Basics, I(D) 10-13.

Monti, M. (2004). Workplace instructional development with authentic materials. Harrisburg, PA: Fieldnotes for ABLE Staff, 2004 Edition

Steps to employment in Ontario: ESL materials to orient newcomers to employment in Ontario. Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Sawyer, P. & Tondre, B. (2003). Tennessee ESOL in the workplace: A training manual for ESOL supervisors and instructors.

Tondre-El Zorkani, B. (rev., February 2006). Charting a course: Responding to the industry-related instructional needs of the limited English proficient: A summary report of finding in response to education rider 82. Houston, TX: Texas Learns.

Wrigley, H. S., Richer, E., Martinson, K., Kubo, H., & Strawn, J. (2003). The language of opportunity: Expanding employment prospects for adults with limited English skills. The Center for Law and Social Policy, the National Institute for Literacy, and the National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium


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