Real World Research: Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Research for Adult ESL

This paper discusses the importance of qualitative and quantitative research and how they can inform the adult ESL field.

L. Condelli
H. S. Wrigley
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
American Institutes for Research (AIR)
Literacy Work
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This paper discusses the importance of qualitative and quantitative research and how they can inform the adult ESL field; the authors contextualize this discussion by using the real-life example of the above the What Works Study for Adult ESL Literacy Students  research project.   This resource, written for teachers and practitioners, includes a comprehensive summary of research studies and findings on topics such as Oral Communication Skills,Connecting Literacy Learning to Real World Tasks, and Improving ESL Literacy through a Focus on Reading.  The literature review culminates in a section on Identifying Effective Literacy Interventions which finds that there is not enough research to support conclusive findings. However, the authors do identify interventions that appear to support improved language and literacy skills for low-language and beginning level literacy adults. Furthermore, the report contains key points on what was found to be effective instructional methods and an example of an observation protocol.  Lastly, it has an extensive bibliography.  For more information on the What Works Study visit the following link (Note: this resource has not been reviewed by LINCS Experts):

What the experts say

This resource argues for combining qualitative and quantitative research so that findings will be more relevant and meaningful to teachers who are under pressure to apply evidence-based principles in their classrooms. Citing theWhat Works Study, the authors describe their method for the study and summarize and expand on their findings. The authors define many realities about instruction, the state of teaching, and challenges of learners. Because the ESL world is so familiar to them, their work has credibility and authenticity. It should be noted that this review has some extremely useful information for the field and also some notable omissions. 


  • The authors provide an excellent argument for the combination of both quantitative and qualitative research design.  The inclusion of both types of research is persuasively presented.
  • This paper is easy to read so teachers who may shy away from papers like this will not find it daunting.  For teachers, there are many ideas to consider and apply to a classroom setting.The information is practical in the sections where discussion centers on the specific topics from the What Works Study: oral skills and literacy; connecting literacy to real-world tasks; integrating computers; using native language; and focusing on reading.
  • The review of the literature and the conclusions drawn bring together the adult education, linguistics and reading field in a way that is not always attempted by current researchers who tend to limit themselves to their own particular field.
  • The study was nine months in length which gave them time to measure progress and provide more in-depth information about the classes they studied.
  • The rubric they provide for classroom observation, based instructional strategies, is a useful way to document what happens in classes.
  • They present some finding that should make us rethink the strategies we use in ESL.  On average 60% of instructional time was spent on language acquisition strategies, 25% on developing literacy skills, and 15% on comprehension of what was read.
  • They also provide a useful model for a literacy intervention for Adult ESL learners.
  • The emphasis on bringing real life into the classroom cannot be emphasized enough.
  • A valuable point to note is that language learners have to attain a certain level of achievement of language competency for certain reading strategies or online instruction to be effective.
  • The paper provides a survey of major studies and findings in literacy acquisition, providing a clear picture of how research is examined and used to generate further findings.  The Bibliography is seven pages long and very comprehensive. However some cautions should be noted:
    • This is a paper which highlights the minimal amount of available adult ESL research. Many studies are cited which inform the reader about the scope and type of work being conducted.  However, it should be noted that research cited on child second language learning does not necessarily translate into adult fields where adult ESL classrooms contain learners with more than 15 different languages. 
    • Some of the studies reviewed that involve technology are dated.  Technology and instructional design have changed dramatically since then.   
    • Some cites on workforce literacy are dated. 
  • The authors set a future agenda by offering hypotheses for further study.  This could inspire more advanced and meaningful work in literacy acquisition.

Items not covered and cautions

  • It is worth noting that at the end of the study when retests were done the study population had decreased to 47%. They did not note this in the text only in the table provided.
  • The authors do not acknowledge the inherent problems with the tests used to measure adult ESL achievement. 
    • Current tests including CASAS have not been validated, or standardized on the new populations of East African or Asian immigrants that now make up a large proportion of foreign born in need of ELL instruction.  Consequently, we do not know whether the tests we use are valid measures of progress for second language learners.
    • Adult ESL learners do not stay in class long enough to get accurate pre-post measures as they themselves found out with only 47% of their sample taking the post-test.
  • The authors do not offer appropriate examples of contextualized learning (learning activities that relate to the actual tasks that learners encounter in their life, for example workplace memos or safety information specific to a worksite).  Instead they offer general life skills topics (such as fruit, p.25 ) or limericks like “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”  An additional cultural note: the last example would not be thought funny in a predominantly Moslem East African population.

Suggested Readings (Note: These have not been reviewed by LINCS Experts.)

Mikulecky, L. (2001). Education in the workplace. In Kaestle, C., Campbell, A, Finn, J., Johnson, S. and Mikulecky, L. (Eds.), Adult literacy and education in America, (pp. 109-146 and 191-224). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Mikulecky, L. (2000). What will be the demands of literacy in the workplace in the next millennium. Reading Research Quarterly, 35(3), 378-84.

Mikulecky, L & Kirkley, J. (1999). Literacy Instruction for the 21st Century Workplace, Peabody Journal of Education, 73(4), 290-316.

Mikulecky, L. & Kirkley, J. (1998). Changing workplaces, changing classes: The new role of technology in workplace literacy. In Reinking, D., McKenna, M., Labbo, L. & Kieffer, R. (Eds.), The handbook of literacy and technology: Transformations in a post-typographic world (pp. 303-320). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Mikulecky, L. & Lloyd, P. (1997). Evaluation of workplace literacy programs: A profile of effective instructional practices. Journal of Literacy Research, 29(4), 555-585.

Methods the resource used to collect and analyze the data for the research This study employed a mixed methods research design. It was a longitudinal research project using qualitative (ethnographic observations, interviews) and quantitative (observations, student attendance, student & teacher variables, growth modeling, reading assessment) methodologies. An extensive survey of existing research literature on ABE and adult ESL literacy interventions is used to support the second portion of this report.