Issues in the Preparation and Professional Development of Practitioners Working with Adult English Language Learners - Discussion Summary - English Language Discussion List

Issues in the Preparation and Professional Development of Practitioners Working with Adult English Language Learners

November 21 and 22, and November 29 and 30

Discussion Summary

Discussion Announcement | Subscribe to the Adult English Language Acquisition Discussion List

From November 21 - 30, 2011, Dr. JoAnn (Jodi) Crandall facilitated a discussion on the LINCS Adult English Language Acquisition (ELA) Discussion List. The title of the discussion was "Issues in the Preparation and Professional Development of Practitioners Working with Adult English Language Learners." The original announcement of the discussion, including suggested resources, guiding questions, and a brief biography of Dr. Crandall, can be found at

In preparation for the discussion, subscribers were invited to look over the following resources:

Crandall, J. A. (1994). Creating a Professional Workforce in Adult ESL Literacy. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Crandall, J.A., Ingersoll, G. & Lopez, J. (2010). Adult ESL teacher credentialing and certification. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Chisman, F. P. (2011). Closing the gap: The challenge of certification and credentialing in adult education. New York: Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy.

Rodríguez, A. G. & McKay, S. (2010). Professional development for experienced teachers working with adult English language learners. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Schaetzel, K., Peyton, J. K., & Burt, M. (2007). Professional development for adult ESL practitioners: Building capacity. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Smith, C. with Gomez, R. (2011). Certifying adult education staff and faculty. New York: Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy.

Wei, R. C., Darling-Hammond, L., Andree, A., Richardson, N., Orphano, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad, Executive Summary. Dallas, TX: National Staff Development Council.

The facilitators, list moderator, and list participants explored issues in professional development for beginning and for more experienced instructors working with adults learning English. Topics discussed included the following:

  • Special needs of adult immigrant learners
  • Suggested qualities for practitioners working with adult English language learners
  • Suggested professional development topics for all practitioners
  • Challenges with providing training
  • Suggested types of professional development for all practitioners
  • Special needs of experienced practitioners
  • Uses of technology
  • Making the professional development happen

This summary provides highlights of each topic.

Special needs of adult immigrant learners:

List participants stressed that adult immigrant learners may have more obstacles to overcome in becoming proficient in English than elementary or higher education learners do: Adult learners have differing educational experiences and levels of first language literacy, and many have family and job responsibilities. Immigrants generally need to get jobs as soon as possible after arrival in the country, often before they have time to acquire enough English to function well at work and in the community. They need instruction that is highly customized, learner-centered, and inclusive of all cultural groups. Certainly, certification or credentialing of some sort is needed. Ironically, adult education ESL teaching requirements are usually more minimal than those required for teachers of children or post-secondary learners. (See Crandall, Ingersoll, & Lopez, 2008 at for statewide requirements for adult ESL instruction as of that date.)

Suggested qualities for practitioners working with adult English language learners:

Participants mentioned various qualities to look for in recruiting new teachers to be trained in teaching English as a second language to adults. One of the qualities discussed was personal experience in learning a language as an adult. Another quality was valuing diversity and respecting other cultures. Returned Peace Corps volunteers were cited as a group who fit those qualifications. A challenge with these volunteers, however, is that they are likely to have had no more than 12 weeks of instruction to prepare them to teach English to speakers of other languages; this is not enough time to learn all that is needed. Another quality was the ability to manage the classroom—to set up routines, group students, and teach content as well as language. Participants pointed out that K-12 trained ESL teachers usually had this quality; what they might be lacking is the understanding of working with adult learners. Foreign language instructors also are likely to be skilled at classroom management, and also know many strategies and activities to use in teaching a language. However, as Dr. Crandall pointed out, "teaching a second language in an environment where one is flooded with potential input and teaching a foreign language where there is limited language input available outside of class can be quite different." A fourth quality was the knowledge, experience, and interest in working with adults. Many ABE/GED instructors have this quality, and one participant mentioned success in training ABE/GED instructors to work with adult English language learners. Furthermore, as more learners enter GED or post-secondary courses, there will be a need for teachers who can teach both language and content.

Suggested topics for professional development:

Several participants described what their credentialing or training programs prepared practitioners to do. Common topics were:

  • Teach to and with learner strengths
  • Work in a multicultural environment
  • Work with adults
  • Provide learner-centered instruction
  • Know current theories in second language acquisition and apply them to practice (e.g., importance of peer-to-peer interaction, authentic materials, learner engagement, etc.)
  • Teach literacy-level learners
  • Manage a classroom (e.g., know when and how to group, the importance of routines, etc.)
  • Develop and implement principle-based/standards-based lesson units, plans, and objectives
  • Be able to identify the outcomes you want and when you have reached them
  • Differentiate instruction in a multilevel environment
  • Use both standardized and authentic and formative and summative assessments

Challenges in providing professional development:

The list of needed qualities and topics is long, and the very nature of adult ESL education can make it difficult to provide professional development to practitioners. Challenges cited during the discussion included access to teacher education programs, lack of state requirements for teaching adult English language learners, and scarce funding. In addition, full-time jobs and benefits are limited for teachers-even for those who are credentialed. Furthermore, the same diversity the practitioner finds in the classroom can be found among the teaching staff of any program, and different teachers will have different training needs. Finally, unlike K-12 education, no national standards exist for professional development of these practitioners. The TESOL standards exist, but participants indicated that while these standards may be used in some states and programs to inform the development of standards, the standards are not (yet) in wide usage in adult ESL professional development.

Suggested types of professional development for all practitioners and ways to fund it:

Many participants talked about the importance of professional learning communities (or communities of practice) for helping teachers to overcome feelings of isolation and fostering collaboration. This approach has been successful with K-12 teachers and many international English programs. When there is limited time and resources for providing professional development, it is more challenging to build the community. However, a greater chance of it being successful exists if the needs of the practitioners are taken into account, and the professional development is hands-on and practice-oriented. One participant suggested having monthly meetings focused on just one topic, such as teaching literacy-level learners.

With resources dwindling, programs and states need to be creative about providing support to teachers. This might mean emphasizing job-embedded professional development, e.g., encouraging teacher circles within programs, online study circles with reflection and application activities, peer observations with follow up conversations, and mentoring and coaching. One participant, a teacher trainer/supervisor, described how she worked with inexperienced teachers or those just not ready to be observed. Rather than observing them, she would facilitate the teachers' classes so they could observe their learners through a different lens, focusing on how learners are responding to different prompts, strategies, and activities. As the teacher trainer/supervisor pointed out, this process takes the pressure off teachers who might not be ready for observation/feedback as such but who want to know more about how to meet their learners' needs and goals.

In fact, many participants cited peer observing, coaching, and mentoring as useful types of professional development for new practitioners and for those more experienced. One participant suggested bringing together ABE/GED/content teachers with those teaching English to immigrants to share insights and engage in co-professional development, which could include observations, and co-planning and co-teaching as well. Students can benefit from having a cross-trained instructor especially in higher level ESL classes or bridge programs where students are not just learning speaking and listening skills but also higher level reading and writing skills to prepare them for post-secondary or certificate programs where language is not the focus of the instruction. One participant suggested that if more teachers in a program could teach both groups of students, this could result in the possibility of more full-time positions being created.

Portland State University's ESOL Lab School offers another way of engaging in professional development. The Lab School records and examines how students carry out activities in the classroom and how this can inform teachers. A couple of examples are demonstrated in two short papers that offer insights into student learning and teacher practice:

The value of peer-to peer interaction and the benefits of students solving problems and doing real and linguistic tasks together, without the teacher’s intervention, are explored in these articles by practitioner/researchers who work in the Lab School.

Special needs of experienced practitioners:

Teacher burnout was discussed at length. One participant asserted that professional development offered in a program is often uniform for all teachers regardless of their experience and background. It seems that by doing this, we are treating teachers as "interchangeable parts." Perhaps a better approach would be to create paths in the teaching profession -"whether it's moving from the classroom to more of a mentor-teacher role, changing the subjects taught, or taking on a specialty (such as teaching LD students)." One of the articles listed as a resource to this discussion, Rodríguez & McKay, 2010, provides descriptions of evidence-based professional development activities and strategies to help "experienced" teachers (those with five or more years of teaching) become "expert" (effective) teachers. Some of the professional development activities-in addition to coaching, mentoring, and peer observation discussed above-are engaging in action research and reflective teaching.

In action research, both research and reflection are included. Common components of action research-also called teacher, classroom, or participatory research-include identifying a challenge, determining the current status and the changes to be made, changing one or more variables, monitoring results of the changes that were made, and reflecting on results to inform improvement. A few participants discussed their experiences with action research, pointing out that the activity was and is iterative: Reflection on the results of their interventions in the classroom led to changes instruction, more questions, and more reflection, and then more changes, questions, and so on, in a cycle that aims to improve instruction in order to enhance learners' acquisition of English.

Another participant talked about a variation of action research called exploratory practice (EP), described in Allwright, D. & Hanks, J. (2009). The Developing language learner: An introduction to Exploratory Practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan. In EP, "practitioners integrate questions, data collection and analysis, and ongoing reflection into teaching without: 1) talking about 'problems' when teachers may simply be curious about what is/is not working in the classroom or 2) adding too much extra work for already busy language teachers." This framing of inquiry and reflection as curiosity and a desire to improve on what already may be working-rather than as a need to fix something that is not working-is respectful of teachers' skills and backgrounds. The participant described EP she had conducted about her sequencing of classroom activities. Through the project she discovered "there wasn't a problem, but the students did have a preference" for sequencing that she had not been aware of. The project was empowering both for her and the students. For more information including resources and activities for EP, see In addition, a 2008 issue of the journal Language Teaching Research focused on EP:

Uses of technology:

Several participants mentioned that, although face-to-face training is generally preferable to online professional development, funding, time, and geographic issues often make virtual training the only viable option. Also discussed was the use of technology in teacher training as a follow-up to face-to-face workshops through blogs, wikis, electronic discussion lists and so on. Technology can allow practitioners to extend the learning they experienced in the workshop by trying out strategies and activities in their instructional context and then discussing results with colleagues online. One list participant described using twitter with other trainers to discuss strategies for doing coaching and mentoring face-to-face.

Making the professional development happen:

Dr. Crandall suggested that the goal for all professional development is that teachers are "exploring issues in their own classrooms and sharing with one another what they are learning." She pointed out that paying for teachers' time in professional development is the biggest expense, resources remain limited, and "it remains to be seen how things will go. It seems we need giant steps, but we can only take baby steps toward our goal." As a participant asserted, "there has to be a move from the very top to make degrees and credentialing a priority, but until that happens, program administrators have to value and support their teachers through professional learning opportunities."

Collaborating between businesses and educational entities, and among educational entities themselves is one way to find the resources to provide professional development for all teachers, new, experienced, and expert. List participants explained that resources can be shared in this way, leading to better access to professional development for practitioners.

In conclusion, Dr. Crandall summed up the conversation on what practitioners need to stay engaged and effective in their teaching practice: "freedom to innovate and be creative and conditions that are respectful and professional."

Participants posted over 130 messages. All individual messages can be found in the online archives at from post ELA #7580 through ELA post # 7715.