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Working With Literacy-Level Adult English Language Learners

MaryAnn Cunningham Florez, Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools
Lynda Terrill, National Center for ESL Literacy Education
July, 2003

Many adult English language learners in the United States are placed in literacy-level classes. It is difficult to estimate the exact number of adult English language learners at this level across the variety of program contexts that offer adult English instruction (e.g., volunteer literacy groups, libraries, adult education programs, family literacy programs, community colleges, community-based or faith-based organizations). Furthermore, the percentage cited (55%) of beginning-level participants in state-administered adult English as a second language (ESL) programs includes those enrolled in regular beginning classes as well as those in literacy-level classes (U.S. Department of Education, 2002).

Anecdotal information, such as postings on Internet discussion lists and requests for training, suggest that teachers are not confident in their abilities to address the needs of literacy-level learners. (NIFL-ESL, 2003). Federally funded programs must demonstrate learner progress yearly, according to the National Reporting System ( . Practitioners are concerned that sufficient progress is difficult to achieve with literacy-level learners. The Mainstream English Language Training (MELT) project, which developed ESL curriculum and assessment instruments for Southeast Asian refugees in the early 80s, posited that it takes from 500-1,000 hours of instruction for adults who are literate in their native language but have had no prior English instruction to reach a level where they can satisfy their basic needs, survive on the job, and have limited social interaction in English (MELT, 1985). For adults without a literacy background, it may take longer.

Research on effective interventions with this population in the United States is limited. The American Institutes for Research and Aguirre International conducted a 6-year What Works Study for Adult ESL Literacy Students, supported by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) and the Planning and Evaluation Service. The study focuses on adult English language learners who lack literacy skills in both their native language and English. Although the final report was not available at publication of this paper, background information about this study and preliminary findings are available online (Condelli, 2001; Wrigley, 2002).

This paper describes literacy-level learners and the skills they need to develop. It discusses effective practices for literacy-level classes and gives examples of activities and techniques that support these practices.

Who are literacy-level learners?

Literacy 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 (Holt, 1995).

What skills do literacy-level learners need to develop?

At the most basic level, literacy learners need to understand that texts have a beginning, a middle, and an end; that English is read from left to right and from up to down; and that written words can represent a story, just as pictures do. They need to be ready to learn, to see patterns, and to associate symbols with objects.

Then, they need to be able to develop four key reading skills: phonological processing, vocabulary development, syntactical processing, and schema activation (Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003). Relating to these four skills, learners need to be able to do the following (Brod, 1999; Florez, 2002; Van Duzer, 1999):

  • Phonological processing. Recognize and reproduce letters and other graphic symbols related to the language; manipulate sound-symbol correspondences efficiently.
  • Vocabulary development. Develop a vocabulary bank.
  • Syntactical processing. Understand and apply grammar and usage conventions; identify and use structural and organizational features common to English.
  • Schema activation. Initiate appropriate strategies for reading comprehension (e.g., identify a purpose for reading, use pictures and graphics, predict, and skim/scan or develop a piece of writing by brainstorming, outlining, drafting, using feedback, and editing).

Preliterate learners may find two-dimensional graphic literacy-letters, maps, graphs, charts, even pictures-difficult to interpret (Hvitfeldt, 1985). All non-English speakers will be challenged to hear and replicate the sounds of English, a necessary element in the sound-symbol correspondence skills deployed in successful reading (Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003). Because of the difficulty some learners experience with these basic tasks, instructors may be tempted to spend all the classroom time working to master these skills. However, in order to apply literacy skills to real tasks, such as reading and understanding a note from a child's teacher, a work schedule, or safety stickers on a medicine bottle, instruction must balance basic skills development with the fostering of higher level comprehension skills (Brod, 1999; Van Duzer, 1999).

What are effective practices in the literacy class?

Utilize the principles of adult learning

Malcolm Knowles' (1973) principles of adult learning are applicable to planning instruction for adult English language learners: Adults are self-directed, practical, and problem solving; they have reservoirs of experience to help them learn new things; and they want to know why something needs to be learned and how it will be applicable to their lives.

Integrate the four language skills

Literacy-level classes vary because of program type (general, family, workplace, or corrections); intensity; and learner needs and goals. Yet, no matter the context, in real life, language tasks involve integrating the four skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. For example, a trip to the health clinic includes reading and filling out health forms, explaining symptoms, and understanding the doctor's response. Furthermore, research suggests that for beginning readers of a second language, oral proficiency in the target language is key to developing reading ability (Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003).

Ask learners what they want to learn

Learners have many purposes for developing English literacy. Needs assessment assures learners a voice in their instruction and keeps content relevant to their lives and goals. It also gives the teacher an opportunity to learn what skills learners bring to class and which ones they feel they need to strengthen (Brod, 1999; Shank & Terrill, 1997).

Connect to the outside world

There should be opportunities in literacy-level classes to connect learning to real-world practices. For example, class field trips to a library, post office, supermarket, or museum provide a venue to practice speaking and reading skills while the learner is engaged in real-life activities (Brod, 1999; Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks, 2000; Florez, 2002; Holt, 1995; Wrigley, 2002).

What are effective needs assessment activities for literacy learners?

Suggested activities for needs assessment with literacy-level learners include the following:

  • Ask learners to look through their textbooks or picture dictionaries and place five Post-it notes on pages with information they think is most important to learn.
  • Practice a pictorial strip story about a non-English speaker who has three specific needs for learning English (Ivan needs to learn English for work, to listen to music, and to make friends); then ask learners to brainstorm and substitute why they need to learn English.
  • Have learners complete a simplified or pictorial checklist of what they want to read or write, e.g., grocery lists, job applications, notes to child's teacher, etc. (Holt, 1995; Shank & Terrill, 1997).

What additional activities are effective with literacy-level learners?

Once learner needs are determined, there are a number of activities that provide meaningful, relevant practice:

  • 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 were 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. 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 (Brod, 1999; Florez, 2002; Holt, 1995; Moss, Shank, & Terrill, 1997; Tom, Tiller, & Bigelow, 1998; Wrigely, 2002).

What does an effective literacy lesson look like?

Following is a sample lesson that employs activities to develop the four key reading skills (phonological processing, vocabulary development, syntactical processing, schema activation):

    1. As a class, learners brainstorm vocabulary on a specific topic, such as food shopping (schema activation).
    2. Flashcard practice (whole group and pair) familiarizes learners with food vocabulary (vocabulary development).
    3. The class groups food words that begin with similar sounds, e.g., cheese, chicken, and cherries (phonological processing).
    4. Learners practice a three-line scripted dialogue ("I am going shopping." "What do you need?" "I need bread, beans, and chicken.") first as a whole group, then acted out by volunteers, and finally as pairs where learners substitute other food vocabulary (vocabulary development).
    5. Learners complete cloze worksheets, inserting words that have been deleted from the dialogue or, alternately, learners can create pair dictations of the dialogue(syntactical processing).
    6. For homework, learners create their own shopping list of five items they actually need; they can copy new food words from packages, etc. (vocabulary development; schema activation).

How can learner progress be assessed?

Learner assessment keeps both the teacher and learners informed of what has been achieved and what still needs work. Teachers can use many of the activities in this paper to assess learner progress (e.g., cloze exercises, substitution drills, and role plays). Ongoing teacher observation is also part of assessment. For learners, progress assessment provides a venue to develop self-reflection and self-evaluation skills. Learners can engage in self-assessment by completing checklists (e.g., indicating skills they feel they have improved: " X I can read the safety signs at work"). Meetings between teachers and individual learners to discuss progress are also helpful (Florez, 2002; Holt, 1995).


Literacy-level learners "may be beginning learners, but they are not beginning thinkers" (Brod, 1999, p. 5). Like all learners, they bring diverse strengths and needs to the adult ESL classroom. Teachers need to provide instruction that acknowledges and addresses these strengths and needs, engages learners in challenging and relevant topics, and provides them with tools they can use to meet their responsibilities and goals.


Adkins, M. A., Sample, B., & Birman, D. (1999). Mental health and the adult refugee: The role of the ESL teacher. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Brod, S. (1999). What non-readers or beginning readers need to know: Performance-based ESL adult literacy. Denver, CO: Spring Institute for International Studies.

Burt, M., Peyton, J. K., & Adams, R. (2003). Reading and adult English language learners: A review of the research. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL). Available in hard copy from the CAL Web site,

Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. (2000). ESL for literacy learners. Retrieved July 30, 2003, from

Condelli, L. (2001, February 15). Instructional strategies for English language learners with limited literacy skills. Paper presented at the Symposium on Adult ESL Practice in the New Millennium.

Florez, M. C. (2002). Lifeprints ESL for adults: Literacy (Teachers ed.). Syracuse, NY: New Readers Press.

Holt, G. M. (1995). Teaching low-level adult ESL learners. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Hvitfeldt, C. (1985). Picture perception and interpretation among preliterate adults. Passage: A Journal of Refugee Education 1(1), 27-30.

Knowles, M. S. (1973). The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston, TX: Gulf.

Mainstream English Language Training Project. (1985). Competency-based mainstream English language training resource package. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Moss, D., Shank C., & Terrill, L. (1997). Collaborations: English in our lives: Literacy (Teachers ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

National Reporting System for Adult Education. (1999-2001). NRS online training system . Retrieved May 24, 2003, from

NIFL-ESL. (2003). Messages posted to electronic mailing list. Archived at

Shank, C., & Terrill, L. (1997). Multilevel literacy planning and practice. Focus on Basics 1(c), 18-22.

Tom, A., Tiller, C., & Bigelow, A. (1998, September-October). So, they gave you the beginning class. Hands-on English, 8(3), 6-7.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Division of Adult Education and Literacy. (2002). State-administered adult education program enrollment by educational functioning level, ethnicity and sex: Program year 2000-2001. Washington, DC: Author.

Van Duzer, C. (1999). Reading and the adult English language learner. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Wrigley, H. S. (2002, November). What works study for adult ESL literacy students. Plenary session presented at the Fall 2002 conference of the Oregon Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Retrieved July 24, 2003, from

Additional Selected Teacher and Learner Resources

Bell, J., & Burnaby, B. (1984). A handbook for ESL literacy. Toronto, Canada: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/Hodder and Stoughton. (Available from Pippin Publishing, 1-888-889-000,

Gramer, M. F. (1994). Basic Oxford picture dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hands-on English. Published 6 times a year, for teachers and tutors of adult ESL. (Available from Hands-on English, PO Box 256, Crete, NE 68333,

Mrowicki, L. (1990). First words in English. Palatine, IL: Linmore.

Mrowicki, L. (1988). Starting to read. Palatine, IL: Linmore.

Nishio, Y. W. (1998). Longman ESL literacy (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Shapiro, N., & Adelson-Goldstein, J. (1998). Oxford picture dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shapiro, N., & Genser, C. (1994). Chalk talks. Berkeley, CA: Command Performance Language Institute.

Silliman, A., & Tom, A. (2000). Practical resources for adult ESL. Burlingame, CA: ALTA Book Centers.

The following online resources demonstrate the scope, strategies, and activities for successfully working with literacy-level learners:

Arlington Education and Employment Program. (2003). The REEP ESL Curriculum For Adults. Provides information about needs assessment, goal-setting, course and lesson planning, and offers sample lessons on health and work. (To find curriculum for literacy level-learners, go to "Resources," click on "Lesson Plans," and look for "Level 100.")

Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. ESL for Literacy Learners and ancillary materials. Defines ESL literacy and suggests appropriate

Department of Education (MA). Framework for Adult ESOL in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1999/2002). Offers basic principles for working with adult learners or

This document was produced at the Center for Applied Linguistics (4646 40th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016 202-362-0700) with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0008. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.