How should adult ESL reading instruction differ from ABE reading instruction?

This article provides a research based rationale to identify which general teaching reading strategies work for all learners and which of those strategies do not work for English Language Learners.

Burt, M.
Peyton, J.
Van Duzer, C.
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA)
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This article provides a research based rationale to identify which general teaching reading strategies work for all learners and which of those strategies do not work for English Language Learners (ELL) - for example, why teaching semantic vocabulary sets works for native speakers but not for ELL). Using these comparisons, the authors offer concrete suggestions for teaching reading to non-native speakers of English. The authors contrast two research survey pieces based in studies on teaching of reading; one focuses on adult native speakers of English (Kruidenier, 2002), the other on non-native English speakers (Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003). The authors cover the following topic areas: vocabulary, alphabetics and word analysis, fluency, and comprehension. Within each of these areas they compare strategies appropriate for teaching reading to ABE learners and teaching reading to (ELL), identifying similarities and differences between the two bodies of research. The importance of this work is the teasing apart of good practice for teaching reading to adults and the teaching of reading to non-native speakers, highlighting learners in ABE classes; the authors draw on ELL reading studies based on learners in non-post secondary classes, thereby using a comparison group equivalent to the ABE population.

What the experts say

The Brief does what its title promises: it explains how adult ESL reading instruction should differ from adult basic education reading instruction. It divides reading for ESL speakers into four areas: vocabulary, alphabetic and word analysis, fluency, and comprehension. It does a very good, succinct job of explaining the meaning of each of the four areas, which methods are appropriate to use with ESL readers, and which techniques commonly used to teach native speakers of English to read are NOT suitable for teaching reading to ESL speakers and why (i.e. stressing the commonalities and differences between ESL and ABE). This is its most useful feature.

A weakness of this article is that some of the authors' suggestions seem to be based in professional wisdom without fully acknowledging that controversy exists (e.g. pre-teaching vocabulary, choral reading, avoiding semantic sets). Readers should be aware of this controversy and should further explore alternative points of view.

While, like most reading materials, the Brief is no substitute for training, it would be useful in reading packets that accompany training on teaching ESL reading. It would also be useful to teachers who have both native and non-native speakers of English in their ABE reading classes, which is a fairly common phenomena, and for experienced teachers of reading to native speakers who are contemplating teaching reading to ESL students because it explains why some techniques aren't useful for both populations.

Underlying research articles cited:

Burt, M., Peyton, J.K., & Adams, R. (2003). Reading and adult English language learners: A review of the research. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. The authors review research on adult English language learner reading research and draws principles from the research.

Eskey, D. (2005). Reading in a second language. In E. Hinkel (Ed.),Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 563-580). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Folse, K.S. (2004) Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.
The author reviews research on second language learning vocabulary acquisition and draws principles from the research.

Kruidenier, J. (2002). Researched-based principles for adult basic education reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy. The author reviews research on adult basic education reading research and draws principles from the research.Nation, I.M.P. (2000) Learning vocabulary in lexical sets: Dangers and guidelines. Tesol Journal 9(2), 6-10.


Methods the resource used to collect and analyze the data for the research: The Reading Research Working Group surveyed two bodies of literature, 1) adult literacy and reading instruction and 2) reading development among non-native speakers of English. From these bodies of work they compared and contrasted good practice, differentiating between two sets of learners found in the ABE population.

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