Authors: Trish Kerns
Marilyn Knight-Mendelson
Editor: Mary Ann Corley
 March 2004
Revised: December 2006
California Adult Literacy Professional Development Project
American Institutes for Research
2880 Gateway Oaks Drive, Suite 220
Sacramento, CA 95833
A California Department of Education Project
Additional Materials
(Available through your CALPRO Professional Development Center)
Teacher Training through Video: Lesson Planning. Longman, Inc.
Model Standards for Adult Education Programs: ESL. California Department of
Education, 1992.
Handbook for Adult Education Instructors: ESL. California Department of
Education, 1995.
Introduction 1
Who are My Students? The Adult ESL Learner 2
Before You Start Teaching: Questions to Ask about
Procedures at Your Site 3
When You Start Teaching: Six-Stage ESL Lesson Plan 5
California Model Program Standards for ESL 6
ESL Instructional Techniques: Teacher Training Through
Video 8
Assessment and Accountability 10
Implications for Adult Educators of the “SCANS” Report 11
10 Easy Things You Can Do to Integrate Workplace Basics
(SCANS Competencies) Into Your Classroom 12
General Strategies for Managing a Multi-level ESL Class 13
ESL Multi-level Model 1 14
ESL Multi-level Model 2 15
Resources for Adult Educators 16
 Frequently Asked Questions in Adult ESL Literacy:
National Center for ESL Literacy Education A-1a
 Needs Assessment – Beginning A-2a
 Needs Assessment – Intermediate A-2b 
To a new English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in an adult education program,
the task of teaching English can seem overwhelming. This ESL New Teacher
Resource Guide, developed by the California Adult Literacy Professional
Development Project (CALPRO), is designed to introduce you to the most immediate
and important aspects of teaching adult ESL in California.
A teacher new to ESL often asks such questions as, “Who will my new students be?”
“What is their English proficiency?” “What materials should I use?” “How do I
assess my students and document their progress?” Many local agencies have
procedures and practices that address these issues and will provide guidance to new
teachers. The California Department of Education (CDE) has specific requirements
and also provides certain documents to guide you.
This resource guide presents a brief overview of this information, provides
examples of the most important documents you will need, and leads you to resources
that will inform your teaching. The guide is available on the CALPRO Web site at Relevant support materials (including a teacher training video
on ESL lesson planning and selected CDE publications) are available for loan from
the CALPRO Professional Development Centers (PDCs). To locate and/or contact
your local PDC, visit the CALPRO Web site and click on “Professional Development
Centers.” Then click on PDC Locator and select your county of residence. You will be
directed to the PDC that serves your region. You can also contact the CALPRO
Office at 1-800-427-1422.
Teaching ESL can be an exciting and fulfilling experience. We hope that this guide
will make your experience more manageable and rewarding. 
Who are My Students? The Adult ESL Learner
Getting to know your ESL learners should be one of your top priorities. Here are a
few characteristics of adult learners to keep in mind.
Adult Learners may:
• Represent a wide range of educational backgrounds. They may have from little
to no formal education in their native language, to completion of university and
advanced degrees in their native languages. In addition, they may or may not
have some previous education in English and/or in the United States.
• Be goal-oriented and highly motivated. They have come to you for a specific
reason. Their goal(s) may be long or short term. They should be involved in
sharing and setting their learning goals.
• Bring different skills, interests, backgrounds, and life experiences to the
learning situation. They have rich life experiences, and the instructor should
capitalize on this diversity in the learning environment.
• Want or need immediate application. Adult learners need to apply what they
are learning. The learning tasks must be practical, have a clear purpose, and
directly relate to their everyday lives.
• Have different learning styles. Adult learners often relate to their previous
educational experiences. Some may learn by doing, others by listening, speaking,
reading, or writing. Many students learn better when there are visuals (pictures)
or realia (real things, such as articles of clothing) to use.
• Be very busy. They may work more than one job in addition to going to school
and taking care of their families. They may be tired during class and have
difficulty staying on task for long periods of time.
• Have different levels of proficiency. Student levels may differ in listening,
speaking, reading, and writing in both their first and second languages.
• Have a poor self-concept. Many people do not see themselves as learners. Some
do not think they can learn or that they know how to learn.
Excerpted from the ESOL Starter Kit, Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center.
October 2002, p. C-2
Before You Start Teaching:
Questions to Ask About Procedures At Your Site
Many types of agencies provide educational services to ESL students in California.
You may be working or volunteering for an adult school run by a local school district,
a community college, a library literacy program, a correctional facility, a county
office of education, or a community- or faith-based organization. You will want to
find out the answers to the following questions about your teaching assignment
before you start.
1. What do I need to know about my classroom? What about the school
Where is my classroom? Is it locked? If so, who will open it?
What are the security procedures?
What hours and days will the classes be held? Will I work evenings or
Is there an instructional aide to help out in the classroom?
Is the room furnished appropriately for adults?
Who is the agency contact person?
Where are the restrooms? Are they always open?
Is there a designated smoking area?
Where can I park my car?
Is there another teacher on site?
Is there access to clerical staff and audio-visual and copier equipment on
2. What routine procedures at my teaching site do I need to know?
What’s the procedure for getting paid?
How do I handle student attendance? What forms are required and to whom
do I submit them? Is there a minimum and/or maximum number of students
required for my class?
How do I request substitute teachers?
What is the instructional calendar?
How do I obtain professional development?
3. How are students registered and placed in my class?
Your agency may have a formal process to register new students. In this case,
when students enter your class, they will have completed an intake form and
possibly a placement test to determine their level of English proficiency.
Some agencies, however, require that the teacher conduct the registration 
and placement process with new students. Ask your supervisor about your
responsibilities in this area and about the forms, tests, and other resources
that are available to you.
4. What is the level of the class I will be teaching?
The California Department of Education publishes the Model Standards for
Adult Education Programs: ESL. This publication defines seven levels of
English language proficiency: Beginning Literacy, Beginning Low, Beginning
High, Intermediate Low, Intermediate High, Advanced Low, and Advanced
High. If all your students fall into just one of these levels, you will be
teaching a single-level class. This occurs most frequently in mid- or large-size
programs where there are several different levels of classes. It is common
practice in smaller programs to place students of several proficiency levels
into one class; this type of class is designated a “multi-level” class.
5. How do I assess my students’ needs?
Although it is obvious that your students come to school to learn English, they
have individual needs and goals. Your agency may conduct a survey of student
needs during the registration process, or you may be expected to administer
your own. For a few examples of ESL needs assessments, see Appendix, pages
A-2a, b.
6. What is the core curriculum and what books and materials will be
available to my students and me?
Your site supervisor or ESL Coordinator most likely will provide you with the
core curriculum for the class you will be teaching. In addition, the Model
Standards for Adult Education Programs: ESL identifies topics and language
objectives that are appropriate for each instructional level. Sample ESL
course outlines also are available on the Outreach and Technical Assistance
Network (OTAN) website at Click on OTAN for Teachers to
access materials for classroom use. Your site supervisor will provide
textbooks and other supplemental materials useful in teaching ESL. These
may include visuals, real-life objects, video programs, audio-visual equipment,
computers, etc. For a list of instructional materials appropriate for certain
topics and levels, see the Quick Search Materials. Click on “Curriculum and
Resources” on the California Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS)
Web site at 
When You Start Teaching: Six-Stage ESL Lesson Plan
How do I plan and organize my lessons?
The lesson plan format below often is used for effective instruction in adult
education classes, especially for ESL learners.
Set Objective Instructor determines what learners will be able to
do upon completion of this lesson.
Lesson Stage Definition
1. Warm-up and/or
Instructor provides an activity to focus learner
attention on the lesson objective and/or an activity
that encourages learners to use previously taught
skills/vocabulary that tie into the lesson.
2. Introduce Instructor establishes the purpose of the lesson by
stating the objective and relating it to the learner’s
own life. “After this lesson, you will be able to . . .”
3. Present Instructor presents new information and checks for
4. Practice Learners are provided opportunities to practice the
new knowledge that has been presented.
5. Evaluate Instructor provides an activity that assesses
individual learners on their attainment of the lesson
6. Apply Learners use the language/information/material/ in
a new situation. 
California Model Program Standards For ESL
The CDE publication, California Model Program Standards: ESL, provides
programmatic, instructional, and assessment standards for adult ESL programs. As a
teacher, you will be most interested in the instructional and assessment standards.
Below are lists of the instructional standards and selected assessment standards.
These provide general guidelines for teaching ESL and for evaluating your students.
Instructional Standards
1. Instructional activities integrate the four language skills
(listening, speaking, reading, and writing) to emphasize the
holistic nature of language.
2. Language tasks in the classroom consist of meaningful interchanges that enhance
students’ communicative competence.
3. Instructional activities focus on the acquisition of communication skills necessary
for students to function in real-life situations.
4. Instruction focuses on the development of the receptive skills (listening and
reading) before the development of the productive skills (speaking and writing).
5. A variety of grouping strategies (whole-group, small-group, pair work, individual
work) are used in the classroom to facilitate student-centered instruction.
6. Instructional activities are varied in order to address the different learning
styles (aural, oral, visual, kinesthetic) of the students.
7. Instructional activities integrate language and culture so that students learn
about the U.S. culture in terms of significant and subtle characteristics that
compare and contrast with those of their own cultures.
8. Learning activities develop the language necessary for students to access higher
level thought processes (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation).
9. Instructional activities require students to take active roles in the learning
process, transferring critical thinking to real problem-solving situations in
their everyday lives.
Excerpted from Model Standards for Adult Education Programs: ESL, California Department of
Education, 1992.
Selected Standards for Learner Assessment
1. Students’ placements in ESL courses are determined by a variety of assessments.
2. Instructors monitor students’ progress on a continuing basis, assessing students
on attainment of objectives identified in the course outline through use of a variety
of informal tests (applied performance procedures, observation, simulations) paper
and pencil exams, and standardized tests.
3. Assessments for moving from one level to another measure both general language
proficiency and master of specific instructional content.
Excerpts from Model Standards for Adult Education Programs: ESL, California Department of
Education, 1992.
ESL Instructional Techniques: Teacher
Training Through Video
An efficient way to familiarize yourself with instructional
strategies appropriate for the ESL class is to work with the Teacher Training
Through Video series, published by Longman, Inc. You can work on these videos with
an experienced teacher in your agency, or you can attend workshops hosted by your
local CALPRO Professional Development Center (PDC). You also can check out the
videos from your local PDC (See page 16 for PDC contact information). Below is a list
of the techniques covered in the video series, with a brief description of each. A
User’s Guide, appropriate for the professional development of ESL teachers,
accompanies each video.
Beginning Literacy shows teachers how to group pre-literate, non-literate, semiliterate, and
literate students in the same classroom to teach reading and writing skills. Various grouping
strategies and instructional approaches based on students' backgrounds, goals, interests,
and learning styles are presented as important aspects of literacy instruction.
Dialogue Drill is an outgrowth of the audio-lingual method. It is used to develop speaking
skills and pronunciation accuracy. The Dialogue places language structures in a context. The
Drills emphasize the teacher as a model that students mimic in order to practice grammar,
pronunciation, and vocabulary.
Early Production comes from the Natural Approach, which focuses on meaningful
communication rather than on the form of the language. Early Production emphasizes
comprehensible input and is characterized by activities that require one- or two-word
responses from students in the early stages of language learning.
Focused Listening presents listening skills as strategies to bridge the gap between
classroom English and the English encountered outside the classroom.
Information Gap instructs the teacher in how to develop activities that encourage students
to communicate with each other in order to close a “gap” in the information they possess.
The technique emphasizes the importance of real communication in the learning process.
Language Experience is designed for preliterate, non-literate, and semiliterate students to
learn to read what they can already say. The technique emphasizes the concept that print
represents spoken words. In this technique, students learn to recognize their own words
before approaching other kinds of reading. 
Lesson Planning demonstrates how to plan an effective ESL lesson. It focuses attention on
identifying the language skills that are the primary objective of the lesson. It also
demonstrates and provides practice in developing the six stages for an effective lesson
plan: Warm-up/Review, Introduction, Presentation, Practice, Application, and Evaluation.
Life Skills Reading provides practice in extracting information that will assist the reader
in performing crucial tasks in the workplace or in daily life, using items such as ads, bus
schedules, and employee handbooks.
Narrative Reading addresses reading in paragraph form, as in stories, textbooks or
newspapers. The technique focuses on global understanding and on the development of
reading skills.
Problem Solving helps develop communicative competence and critical thinking skills. It uses
students' concerns and problems as a subject for discussion. Students practice language
skills by making informed decisions based on a variety of solutions and their consequences.
Role Play provides students with the opportunity to deal with the unpredictable nature of
language. The technique develops students' skills choosing verbal and non-verbal
communication strategies in various contexts.
Total Physical Response (TPR) demonstrates how to conduct a lesson based on the
principle that listening naturally precedes speaking. During TPR activities, students listen
silently to commands and respond non-verbally.
Co-operative Learning is a series of four videos that instruct the teacher in how to set up
language learning activities that provide opportunities for students to interact with each
other in groups in order to build teams and promote individual accountability and positive
Contact your CALPRO Professional Development Center (PDC) to check out these videos! 
Assessment and Accountability
1. What are TOPSpro forms and am I required to complete them?
The California Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS) is responsible for
collecting certain demographic information for the California Department of
Education (CDE) via a data-collection system known as TOPSpro. Every adult
education student in every program must complete a TOPSpro form upon entering and
exiting a class. This process must continue for the entire year. You will need to find
out your agency’s procedures for obtaining, completing, and returning these forms.
More information about this data collection system is available on the CASAS Web
site at
2. How do I track students’ goals and outcomes?
The TOPSpro form also is used to record each student’s goals on entering a class
(via the TOPSpro Entry Record), as well as their educational outcomes (via the
TOPSpro Update Record). Your supervisor will tell you how to complete these forms
and will provide information about other required follow-up procedures.
3. What other measures can I use to assess my students?
Assessment is an ongoing process in adult education, and multiple assessment
measures should be used. Assessment may be formal (e.g., a written test), or informal
(e.g., teacher observation of student performance through a checklist of
competencies mastered). The assessment should reflect instructional objectives. Your
agency may provide exit tests for each level, or it may use commercially available
tests, or you may be required to create your own. CASAS also provides exit tests for
various instructional levels. Visit the CASAS Web site,, and click on
CASAS Catalog to obtain information about these tests.
4. What is CASAS testing and what are my responsibilities?
CASAS provides CDE with an electronic system for collecting data on student
learning gains via a series of pre- and post-tests. Certain funding streams require
that these tests be administered regularly to document student progress. Ask your
supervisor if your class needs to be “CASAS-tested” and what the agency’s testing
procedures are. The TOPSpro system allows you to generate reports from the results
of your class’s tests to assist you in identifying areas in which your class has
strengths or weaknesses. The TOPSpro Reports Manual available through CASAS
details each of the reports.
Implications for Adult Educators of the “SCANS” Report
What Work Requires of Schools—The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills
U.S. Department of Labor, June 1991
Seeking employment or better employment is a major motivation of California’s adult learners. The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving
Necessary Skills (SCANS) examined the demands of the workplace and whether adult students are capable of meeting those demands.
The following three foundation skills and five competencies were identified as a result of discussions and meetings among business
owners, public employers, unions, and workers in shops, plants, and stores.
The Commission ascertained that half of the people entering the workplace lack the knowledge and foundation required to find and hold a
good job. The eight requirements listed below (foundation skills and competencies) lie at the heart of successful job performance and
should be incorporated into a sound adult education instructional program.
Three-Part Foundation Skills
1. Basic Skills
ƒ reading
ƒ writing
ƒ arithmetic/mathematics
ƒ listening
ƒ speaking
2. Thinking Skills
ƒ creative thinking (creates new ideas)
ƒ decision making (chooses best alternative, based on facts)
ƒ problem solving (recognizes problem; creates and completes a
plan of action)
ƒ reasoning (uses logic to draw conclusions)
ƒ knowing how to learn (uses efficient learning techniques)
ƒ seeing things in the mind's eye (understands charts, symbols,
pictures, etc.)
3. Personal Qualities
ƒ responsibility (works hard to attain a goal)
ƒ self esteem (believes in own self-worth)
ƒ sociability (gets along well with people)
ƒ self-management (self-planning and control)
ƒ integrity and honesty (chooses the right thing to do)
Five Competencies
1. Resources (uses each wisely)
ƒ time
ƒ materials and facilities
ƒ personnel
2. Interpersonal Skills
ƒ works well with others
ƒ teaches others new skills
ƒ serves clients or customers
ƒ works with people of diverse backgrounds
ƒ acts as leader
3. Uses Information
ƒ acquires and evaluates information
ƒ organizes and maintains information
ƒ analyzes and communicates information
ƒ uses computers to do above steps
4. Works With Systems
ƒ understands how systems work (organizational, technological,
ƒ works within the system
ƒ improves and designs systems
5. Technology
ƒ selects the right technology for the task
ƒ uses technology to complete tasks
ƒ maintains and trouble shoots technology
D. Price-Machado & A. Damrau 12
10 Easy Things You Can Do To Integrate Workplace Basics
(SCANS Competencies) Into Your Classroom
The following list suggests ways to incorporate SCANS skills into your daily
instruction. The bold-faced type indicates the classroom strategy, and the list
below indicates the SCANS skill to which it corresponds.
1. Start each class with an agenda on the board.
SCANS: Information: organizing
Resources: allocating time
Interpersonal: negotiating
2. Put students in teams and assign teams classroom maintenance jobs.
SCANS: Interpersonal: working in teams, taking individual responsibility
Personal Qualities: demonstrating sociability
Systems: developing system to improve performance
3. Conclude every lesson by calling attention to the workplace relevance of the lesson and the classroom
SCANS: Systems: monitoring performance
4. Teach students how to organize their classroom materials.
SCANS: Interpersonal: teaching others
Systems: monitoring performance
5. Monitor students’ progress with checklists and weekly tests.
SCANS: Interpersonal: organizing and maintaining information
Systems: monitoring/correcting performance
6. Pay attention to classroom incidents and conflicts. Develop lessons that teach students how to deal with
these issues appropriately.
SCANS: Interpersonal: working in teams, negotiating
Thinking skills: solving problems, making decisions
Personal qualities: demonstrating sociability
7. Model appropriate workplace behavior: arrive on time, come with an organized plan, dress appropriately,
and maintain a positive attitude.
SCANS: Personal qualities: taking responsibility, managing self
Systems: understanding systems
8. Encourage students to use, fix, or make minor adjustments in equipment, such as hole punch, pencil
sharpener, overhead projector, etc.
SCANS: Technology: maintaining & troubleshooting equipment and applying technology to task
9. Designate student trainers, tutors or experts who can train new students and assist classmates as needed.
SCANS: Interpersonal: teaching others
Systems: improving or designing systems
10. Encourage self and peer revision whenever possible. Teach the appropriate language to make revisions.
SCANS: Systems: monitoring/correcting performance
Interpersonal: taking individual responsibility
Personal qualities: assessing/managing self 
General Strategies for Managing a Multi-level ESL Class
Many adult ESL classes, especially those located off the main campus site
(for example, in churches or community centers), serve the entire local
community and, hence, may have students of widely differing English
proficiencies. This situation can provide challenges to the instructor. The
following three pages offer some general strategies for addressing a “multilevel”
class, as well as two models for managing the multi-level class. Contact
your CALPRO PDC Manager for additional materials or workshops on
Managing the Multi-level ESL Class.
• First, administer a Needs Assessment to determine the number and level
of groups you will need in your class (see Appendix A-2a, b for sample
Needs Assessment forms).
• Focus your instruction. Provide a self-contained lesson, one that can be
completed within the time frame of your class on any given day.
• Plan for all groups to work on the same general topic (although each group
may have a different lesson objective).
• Begin and end your lesson with the whole group together to create a
sense of class community.
• Use a variety of teacher/student and student/student groupings (whole
group, small group, pairs, individual) to allow for adequate practice of the
lesson objective.
For more information on managing the multi-level class, visit the ESOL Starter
Kit, Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center ”Teaching Multilevel Adult ESL
ESL Multi-Level Model 1
This model is used for a traditional classroom setting and delivery mode. The
teacher may be working with a textbook or using materials s/he has created.
Groups are determined by their English proficiency level. The lesson topic
for both groups is the same, but the individual objectives for each group are
appropriate to its level. For example,
Lesson Topic: Buying Food in a Supermarket
Lesson Objective:
• Beginning Level Students will be able to name five items they buy at
the supermarket and match the words with pictures.
• Intermediate Level Students will be able to describe the location of
seven items in the supermarket and ask the prices.
Whole Class
Teacher presents
new material
Students work in groups
on previously taught
Student-directed Activity
Students work on activities related
to new material presented
Teacher-directed Instruction
Teacher reviews group work and
provides feedback
Whole Class
Application Activity
Adapted from Kentucky Educational Television’s ESL in Education: Teaching Multi-level Classes
ESL Multi-Level Model 2
This model is used in a non-traditional project-based classroom. Each group
works on its own project, and there may be several groups working
simultaneously. Groups may be determined by their English proficiency
levels, and also by their interest in specific projects, by their learning goals,
or by other appropriate criteria. The topic of the project is the same for all
groups, although each group project may have a different focus. For
General Topic:
1. Buying Food in a Supermarket
Sample Group Topics:
1. Compare pricing and nutritional information of items to be purchased in
the supermarket
2. Create a budget for weekly purchases at the supermarket
Whole Class
Group 1 Group 2
Teacher monitors both groups
Whole Group
Shares projects
Demonstrates learning
Whole Group
Application Activity
Group 1 Group 2
Adapted from Kentucky Educational Television’s ESL in Education: Teaching Multi-level Classes
Resources for Adult Educators
1. Professional Development Training and Workshops
CALPRO (California Adult Literacy Professional Development Project)
provides professional development opportunities and resources for adult
educators throughout the state. CALPRO supervises the activities of ten
Professional Development Centers (PDCs) that respond to the professional
development needs of adult education administrators and teachers at the
local level. To find out who your PDC Manager is, go to
Click on the PDC Locator and find your county. Click on
“submit” and the name of your PDC, with phone number and email, will appear.
Check the web site: for upcoming activities in
your area. Click on the name of your Professional Development Center, and
then click on Calendar to see the training opportunities that are available.
Click on the name of the workshop to register online.
2. Online Adult Education Information
OTAN—Outreach & Technical Assistance Network—houses the
largest database of adult education materials in the world.
Registration is required, but it’s free. Click on OTAN for Teachers
to access a variety of materials and other resources for classroom use.
3. Data Collection for Adult Learners
CASAS—The Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System provides
the California Department of Education with a standardized, electronic
system for collecting student demographic data and student learning gains.
4. California Distance Learning Project
CDLP - The goal of the California Distance Learning Project is to expand
learner access to adult basic education services in California through
distance learning. 
5. Professional Associations for Adult Educators
ACSA—Association of California School Administrators
CAEAA—California Adult Education Administrators’ Association
CATESOL—California Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of
Other Languages
CCAE—California Council of Adult Educators
TESOL—Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages
6. Internet Resources
ESOL Starter Kit, Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center, October
Frequently Asked Questions in Adult ESL Literacy, NCLE,
October 2003
The National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy offers
numerous publications and teacher training materials, include Study
Circle guides on a variety of topics.
The Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center
This Resource center offers useful online guides for ESL and ABE
A partnership of four literacy service innovators addressing the
challenge of creating and distributing multimedia learning materials for
the hardest-to-serve ABE and ESL adult learners.
The Study Place
Teachers can create lessons using simple forms, find ready-made online
lessons, create a class home page using a simple form, and track student
progress online. Students can learn English and Math, practice reading,
and acquire job skills. 
A gateway to electronic resources and tools for the national and
international youth and adult literacy communities. This site is jointly
sponsored by the International Literacy Institute (ILI) and the National
Center on Adult Literacy (NCAL) at the University of Pennsylvania
Graduate School of Education.
The literacy community's gateway to the world of adult education and
literacy resources on the Internet. The goal of LINCS is to bring adult
literacy-related resources and expertise to a single point of access for
users throughout the world.
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 08/04/06)
What instructional practices best meet the needs of literacy-level adult
English language learners? (FAQ#19) 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
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
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? 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
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
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 2002-2003, 1,175,531 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, 43% were enrolled in ESL programs, 39% in ABE
(adult basic education) programs, and 17% 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
Web site.
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, go to
For an article from NCLEnotes about ESL waiting lists go to
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
• National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (1995.) The Waiting Game. NCLE
Notes, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1-2.
• National Center for Education Statistics. Participation of Adults in English as a
Second Language Classes:1994-95. (1997). Washington, DC: Author.
• Tucker, J. T. Waiting Times for Adult ESL Classes and the Impact on English
Learners available at

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 American generally. The next largest group comes
from countries in Asia. The third largest group comes from Africa. Others come from
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.
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
• 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.
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
7. What are the characteristics of adult learning English in the United
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 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:
• ESL Instruction and Adults with Learning Disabilities (2000)
• Mental Health and the Adult Refugee: The Role of the ESL Teacher (1999)
• Refugees as English Language Learners: Issues and Concerns (1999)
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
Adult English Language
typically have strong
speaking and listening
often need to concentrate
on speaking and listening
skills, especially in
beginning level classes
understand one or more
varieties of spoken
English including nonstandard,
forms, (e.g., paper or
plastic?) idioms, (e.g.,
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.
give me a break) and
patterns used in U.S.
culture (e.g., Americans
say ma'am, but not
cultural patterns
may have a vocabulary
in English of 10,000-
100,000 words (Hadley,
may have a vocabulary in
English of 2,000-7,000
when beginning academic
may feel comfortable
when books, Web sites,
and class materials are
written in language
similar to spoken
may need to learn informal
spoken English to
understand some written
material(e.g., soccer?
rather than Do you like to
most likely did not finish
secondary level
level of education varies
widely from no formal
education to graduate or
professional degrees
may focus on obtaining
GED (General
Development) credential
or transitioning to
higher education
(although learners have
many other goals as
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 &
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
• 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
• 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, reallife
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
• 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
• 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:
• Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners (2004)
• Adult English Language Instruction in the 21st Century (2003)
For more information about about instructional options, see the following briefs and
• Promoting the Success of Multilevel ESL Classes: What Teachers and
Administrators Can Do (2006)
• Adolescent Learners in Adult ESL Classes (2005)
• How Should Adult ESL Reading Instruction Differ from ABE Reading
Instruction? (2005)
• Dialogue Journals: Interactive Writing to Develop Language and Literacy
• Critical Literacy for Adult English Language Learners (1999)
• Multiple Intelligences: Theory and Practice in Adult ESL (1999)
• Poetry in the Adult ESL Classroom (1999)
• Using Videos with Adult English Language Learners (1999)
• Using the World Wide Web with Adult ESL Learners (1998)
• Project-based Learning for Adult English Language Learners (1998)
• Using Multicultural Children's Literature in Adult ESL Classes (1998)
• Using Software in the Adult ESL Classroom (1998)
• Adult ESL Learners: Learning from the Australian Perspective (1998)
• Philosophies and Approaches in Adult ESL Literacy Instruction (1995)
• Teaching Low-Level Adult ESL Learners (1995)
• Teaching Multilevel Adult ESL Classes (1995)
A Research Agenda for Adult ESL (1998) also offers insights into adult ESL
For information about teaching the four language skills with adult English language
learners, see the following digests:
• How Should Adult ESL Reading Instruction Differ from ABE Reading
Instruction? (2005)
• Reading and the Adult ESL Learner (1999)
• Improving Adult ESL Learners' Speaking Skills (1999)
• Improving Adult ESL Learners' Pronunciation Skills (1998)
• Improving ESL Learners' Listening Skills (1997)
• Improving ESL Learners' Writing Skills (1997)
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, communitybased
organizations, volunteer groups, churches, and for-profit language schools.
For related digests about this topic, see:
• Native Language Literacy Instruction and Adult ESL (2000)
• Family and Intergenerational Literacy in Multilingual Communities (1998)
• Adult ESL Learners: Learning from the Australian Perspective (1998)
• Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating Workplace ESL Programs (1996)
• Transitioning Adult ESL Learners to Academic Programs (1995)
• ESL in Volunteer-Based Programs (1995)
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 individual’s age, educational background, 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 interaction in English.
For more information look at the following digests:
• Working with Literacy-Level Adult English Language Learners (2003)
• ESL Instruction and Adults with Learning Disabilities (2000)
• Native Language Literacy and Adult ESL Instruction (1999)
• 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
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:
• Online Professional Development for Adult ESL Educators (2005)
• Online Professional Development Resources for Adult ESL Educators (2005)
• Beginning to Work with Adult English Language Learners: Some
Considerations (2002)
• Current Concepts and Terms in Adult ESL (1998)
• Trends in Staff Development for Adult ESL Instructors (1998)

You may also want to visit the Web site 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:
• How Should Adult ESL Reading Instruction Differ from ABE Reading
Instruction? (2005)
• Reading and the Adult English Language Learner (1999)
• Critical Literacy for Adult English Language Learners (1999)
• Poetry in the Adult ESL Classroom (1999)

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 selfaccess,
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:
• Video-Based Distance Education for Adult English Language Learners (2003)
• Using Software in the Adult ESL Classroom (1998)
• Using the World Wide Web with Adult ESL Learners (1998)
• Using Videos with Adult English Language Learners (1999)
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,
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
• English Literacy and Civics Education (2006)
• Civics Education for Adult English Language Learners (2000)
• Citizenship Preparation for Adult ESL Learners (1997)
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
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
• principles of adult learning;
• second language acquisition;
• issues related to culture; and
• instructional approaches that support language development in adults.
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 teachercentered
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
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
• Poetry in the Adult ESL Classroom (1999);
• Project-based Learning for Adult English Language Learners (1998); and
• Using Music in the Adult ESL Class (2001).
There are several general instructional strategies to keep in mind when working with
• 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.
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
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
Other effective activities include
Dialogues with related activities. Oral dialogues can be springboards for literacyoriented
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 including:
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 Web site.
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, literacylevel
learners "may be beginning learners, but they are not beginning thinkers"
(Brod, 1999, p. 5 ERIC No. ED 433 730)
Note: Under development for completion in September 2006 is an online resource
collection Working with Literacy-level Adult English Learners. Watch the CAELA
homepage for updates.
From the ESOL Starter Kit, Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center. October 2002, p. A-44 
ESL Needs Assessment-Intermediate Level

From the ESOL Starter Kit, Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center. October 2002, p. A-45