Using Adult ESL Content Standards

The authors define content standards and then divide the paper into guiding questions that teachers need to consider when including standards into their teaching practice.

K. Schaetzel
S. Young
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA)
Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL)
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

In this brief, the authors define content standards and then divide the paper into guiding questions that teachers need to consider when including standards into their teaching practice. Each question (What are students’ needs and goals? What are the components of a standards-based lesson? What are standards-based materials? What are standards-based assessments?) comprises a section of the paper. Within each of these sections, the authors provide the research base, guidance, and practical examples or materials that can support a teacher’s efforts. Furthermore, there is a section for program administrators that addresses how to support teachers’ efforts when developing curriculum and teaching practices that incorporate content standards.

Required Training

None but reader will need further information to fully implement suggestions

What the experts say

As states are developing content-standards for Adult ESL programs, teachers are not always clear on how those standards relate to their classroom practices.  Many are overwhelmed by what seems to be an additional layer to their work.  This resource serves to demystify the place of content standards in instruction.  The authors provide a very clear rationale for the place of content standards in adult ESL.  They delineate clear steps on how to connect content standards to curriculum, objectives, specific learner needs, and assessment.  With concrete examples, they show how content standards can be met in many different ways using authentic materials and drawing on students’ context and experiences. While actual content-based instruction is more prevalent in k-1 education and higher education (with the exception of EL Civics and sheltered math classes for English language learners), this process should allow teachers to implement instruction with consistently high standards, ideally through the use of contextualized and communicative teaching practices.

This brief is a companion to the earlier briefs, Using the ESL Program Standards to Evaluate and Improve Adult ESL Programs (Peyton, 2005) andUnderstanding Adult ESL Content Standards (Young & Smith, 2006). As the title suggests, this brief may contain the most practical advice of the three.

The succinct discussion of the background of the standards movement in adult ESL helps readers understand the movement’s two strands—the standards movement in k-12 education and the shift (in the 1980s) from grammar-based to communicative and content-based adult ESL instruction. Furthermore, this section describes the challenges that faced the field when—absent the traditional grammar-based instruction and embracing the communicative methodology—some teachers did not know how and what to teach. 

The main section of Using Adult ESL Content Standards explicates what teachers need to consider when “incorporating standards into their lesson planning, classroom activities, and assessment.” (p. 2) A series of questions guides this discussion. The careful response to each question—including examples and citations—may encourage teachers to understand what the standards initiative is all about and empower them to try to purposefully integrate content standards into their own planning and practice.

Using Adult ESL Content Standards is valuable to the field of adult ESL both because of its cogent (and brief) discussion of the background on content standards and because of its practical and specific discussion of what teachers and administrators need to do to integrate content standards within the program and classroom. This brief alone is not sufficient to make that happen, but it is a promising starting place.  For example, in an initial professional development activity, teachers and administrators could read and discuss this article (in a jigsaw activity) and then decide on pairs or groups to investigate different elements (e.g., lesson-planning, performance-based assessment). After that, in professional development workshops teachers and administrators could share results—what worked, what was challenging—in an ongoing cycle that helps institutionalize content standards within the program.

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