Findings in ESL: A Quick Reference to Findings of CAAL Research on ESL Programs at Community Colleges

F. Chisman
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy (CAAL)
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This 22-page document concisely summarizes the findings from a study examining the nature and effectiveness of adult education English as a second language (ESL) programs offered at community colleges.  The author provides demographic background on ESL students at this setting, their success rate, and factors that were found to inhibit their success in transitioning or persisting in ESL and other academic coursework at a community college. Chisman also includes a description of strategies and program designs that support an ESL student’s success at a community college.  He then goes on to discuss four significant factors that are not being attended to yet are necessary to increase the performance of an ESL student in this setting—only eight percent of the already small number of ESL students that enroll in noncredit community college ESL classes transition on to postsecondary studies.  These four general factors are:  student services, faculty, strategic planning, and assessment.  Within each of these sections he identifies reasons for their lack of attention and changes that could be effected within these categories.  This study also identified imperatives for change and the barriers for implementing those changes.  Each of these issues—funding, clarification of program goals, establishing a peer learning component, and necessary research—is discussed and suggestions are made based on successful programs or the literature.

For more detailed information on this project access the full report at: (Note: This report has not been reviewed by LINCS Expert Reviewers.)

What the experts say

This is a really good summary of the CAAL research. This summary makes the key findings of four lengthy research reports accessible to practitioners of adult ESL.  It reports the stark realities of student performance in non-credit ESL at community colleges and suggests evidence-based reasons for the chronically low levels of persistence and low rates of improvement and transition to post-secondary education. There is a much-needed emphasis on the effectiveness of authentic projects and experiences.  Teacher qualifications and status are also shown to be key in improving outcomes.

One of the summary’s most useful features is its section on concrete strategies that ESL programs are currently using to improve performance. As the resource points out, ESL programs are largely isolated from each other. The strategies outlined in this section, including high intensity instruction, learning outside the classroom, managed enrollment, and increasing transitions, provide valuable, actionable information for these isolated and busy practitioners who may not otherwise take the time to read four long reports. In this way, the resource is tremendously valuable to the field. Practitioners will find the section on programs’ unmet needs and barriers familiar and compelling, particularly the asserted need for comprehensive strategic planning and the focus on assessment. As written, this summary can serve as a guidepost for program managers, funders, and teachers alike as they seek to improve their programs and their practice.

Instructional technology is dealt with in a rather summary fashion. The point being that most programs do not have the information they need to make informed choices when buying proprietary software.  However, the usefulness of integrating technology into ESL programs is not really dealt with in depth.  Their approach looks only at online versus classroom instruction.  Nor is the need for motivation and self-direction to succeed online among a population that, as pointed out, only 8% of community college ESL students’ transition successfully into credit granting degree programs.  However, this would need more longitudinal research, which the author encourages programs to follow in the future indicating that such research costs less than anticipated.

Administrators will be more interested in a very explicit set of suggestions to improve programs and outcomes.  However, many of these do call for significant investment in ESL programs that strapped community colleges may not be able to afford, especially instruction in native language literacy where so many languages are now involved.

Other points of interest:

  • The section on unmet needs applies equally to all adult education programs and will be recognized by all teachers of adults as the current state of the art.
  • The need for student supplemental services has been documented in previous research and still seems a distant goal; ESL teachers are frequently adjunct and part-time.
  • The need for research data on best practices and strategic planning in programs are well explained.  Also the dire need for reliable and valid tests in the field is elucidated.  I was rather surprised that CASAS, which is used in California and nationwide, was not mentioned.
  • The cost of making the necessary improvements is, as usual, the bane of adult ESL programs in Community Colleges and other adult settings.  Charging fees is specifically not allowed in programs receiving federal ABE/GED money although suggested by the author.
  • The need for clear goals and high expectations are well taken.  The lack of information sharing and professional development are also not new, but need to be stressed.
  • There should be more on the importance of previous education and mother tongue literacy, a really important variable impacting the speed of learning a new language.
Methods the resource used to collect and
analyze the data for the research:

This research study collected data from a literature review, field studies, interviews, and secondary data. For more detailed information on methods, please access the full report at: (Note: This report has not been reviewed by LINCS Expert Reviewers.)