Working with Adult English Language Learners with Limited Literacy: Research, Practice, and Professional Development

M. Burt
J. K. Peyton
K. Schaetzel
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL)
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This brief addresses how teachers can help facilitate English language learners (ELL) acquire formal literacy skills and then addresses models for and the benefits of professional development. The resource begins by briefly exploring types of native language literacy and what impact this has on second language literacy acquisition. It next takes up the knowledge and skills learners need and effective instructional strategies for developing literacy skills. Lastly, the authors present models (e.g., study circles) and resources (e.g., effective lesson planning, information for trainers) for teacher training.

Required Training

None, but further training is strongly suggested to enhance knowledge and implementation.

What the experts say

The article makes reference to an extensive research base in linguistics and to a lesser extent in reading. The research is reputable and published in excellent journals. This brief is intended mostly for policymakers and administrators. It is of most value as a general overview of the very broad topic of research, practice, and professional development related to teaching literacy-level adult English language learners rather than a hands-on guide for teachers, teacher trainers and program administrators.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of this brief is that, along with the broad outline (e.g., characteristics of the population, knowledge and skill needs of learners, instructional strategies, and professional development for teachers of learners with limited literacy), there are many high quality citations from which teachers, trainers, researchers, or others can find the specific information most relevant to them. For example, teachers and program administrators can find many pertinent references to the Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners while trainers can find what they need by accessing the CAELA Guide for Adult ESL Trainers. Researchers will find citations to some of the most complete and relevant research in adult ESL and policymakers may benefit from accessing a variety of the resources cited.

Points to Consider:

  • The needs of non-literate learners are briefly discussed but the focus of the brief is learners with limited literacy. Non-literate learners should be considered as a distinct from limited literacy learners.
  • Research on U. S. programs and classes with non-literate adult ELLs is scarce; however, there is a rapidly growing body of research on non-literate adults in literacy settings from which the field must begin to consider. See suggestions below for research not included in this brief.
  • There is little differentiation between first-language (L1) reading process and the second-language (L2) reading process. When applying L1 reading research and theory to L2 reading practice caution should be used as there is not enough evidence to support whether the two processes relate.
  • There is no real evidence to suggest that recognition of shapes is a good or necessary exercise for preliterate adults. It is an exercise often used with small children to help attention and visual discrimination skills. However, no reading research really supports this suggestion beyond the one study cited. Learners need to know that oral language can be written down and is primarily intended to transfer meaning. Using non-verbal material detracts from this.

Reviewer Suggestions for further reading on this topic (Note: These resources have not been reviewed by LINCS experts):

  • Bernhardt, E. (2003). Challenges to reading research from a multilingual world. Reading Research Quarterly, (1), 112-17.
  • Castro-Caldas A., & Reis A. (2003) The knowledge of orthography is a revolution in the brain. Reading and Writing, 16 (1-2), 81-97.
  • Fitzgerald, J. (2003). Multilingual reading theory. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(1), 118-122.
  • Segalowitz, N., Trofimovich, P., Gatbonton, E., & Solovskaya, A. (2008). Feeling affect in a second language: The role of word recognition automaticity. The Mental Lexicon, 3(1), 47-71.
  • There is a variety of data related to teaching adult ESL from the ESOL Lab School Web site at
  • Some of the information from the years of the NCSALL/Portland State/Portland Community College study is available also from Focus on Basics 8(A),November 2005 issue available at