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Education for Adult English Language Learners in the United States: Trends, Research, and Promising Practices

This resource reviews research that identifies best practices and trends pertaining to teaching adult English language learners (some research is not based in ESL studies).
Author(s): 
K. Schaetzel
S. Young
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation: 
Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA)
Published: 
2008
Resource Type: 
Product
Number of Pages: 
44
Product Type: 
Required Training: 

None

Abstract: 

This resource reviews research that identifies best practices and trends pertaining to teaching adult English language learners (some research is not based in ESL studies).  The resource consists of eight sections and an excellent list of resources. The following are the most pertinent to practitioners and administrators:

  • The foreign-born population in the U.S. (covers the demographics of the target population, including residential information, literacy ability, income and employment, time in the U.S.)
  • Participation of foreign-born adults in adult education programs and outcomes (covers issues of funding, administration, factors related to learner participation, length of time and intensity of instruction, and educational outcomes)
  • Program design and instructional practice (delineates types of programs, program standards, transitioning learners through different levels of courses, research on different instructional strategies and literacy development and promising practices)
  • Professional development and teacher quality (includes on overview of the available research, how to implement data-based professional development opportunities, and promising practices)
  • Assessment and accountability (deals with types of assessments available to programs, description of the NRS levels, the CAL 2006 study examining the status of the adult ESL assessment, and promising practices)
  • Future directions for lifelong learning (covers workplace preparation and additional training programs, distance education, and arenas for further research and development).
What the Experts Say: 

As this paper mentions, there is an increasing demand for adult English language instruction in the United States and a significant portion of that demand is in areas of the country where practitioners, programs, and government agencies, may have less experience with immigrants and adult immigrant education.  Practitioners, administrators and teachers, will find this a comprehensive and perhaps exhaustive review of English Language Learners in the US.  It covers every conceivable base except one (to be covered later). This paper can provide such people with a short introduction to several of the complex issues (above) related to providing appropriate and effective adult ESL instruction.

The review begins with an excellent executive summary that the busy administrator or policy maker can use, as most will not have time for the extensive review that follows.

For practitioners, program administrators, researchers, and others who may want more in-depth information about specific topics (e.g., second language acquisition, focus on form, promising practices in professional development) the extensive bibliography offers many leads. So, Education for Adult English Language Learners in the United States; Trends, Research, and Promising Practices serves as both an overview of the complex field of adult ESL and as a jumping off point for further research.

The review itself contains the latest demographic information about the foreign born population of the United States. Policy makers will find the section on contributions of immigrants to the economy useful.

It brings forward some very significant information about the previous educational levels of immigrants into the US (they are higher than we think) and points out the importance of this information for teachers.

The authors also highlight one more critical factor – the time it takes to become fluent in a language.  This has very important implications for evaluation of programs and the progress that can be expected of various learners.  This again is highlighted in the section of learner assessment and the technical difficulties of assessing progress.

Time is also a key element when examining the average time learners actually spend in programs (72 hours).  Time and intensity of instruction are discussed at length with excellent research data included.  Practitioners need to know that time and intensity are the most important factors in student progress.

The study also points out that those children who arrive early in life learn faster than their parents, which can be a source of considerable disruption in families.

There is a useful analysis of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy pertaining to the foreign born and an excellent section on income and employment.

The section on program design and instructional practice is effective in bringing together research information on programs that work and promising practices – unfortunately none are cheap!

Research stresses the importance of content standards.  The strategies identified to increase learner gains are well documented by the research, but practitioners and administrators may find these daunting given the current state of available funding.  It makes sense to integrate community college preparation and English Language Learning, but few community colleges may have the resources needed to be successful in this.

In terms of teaching strategy, the list of useful information is extensive with good sections on the importance of keeping up motivation by making sure that learners integrate into the community.  They also stress interaction with other learners as a way of improving language skills.  Problem based learning is stressed.

What impressed me was that grammar should be taught in the context of meaning.  This section needs to be highlighted and printed in large type!

There is a brief section of the difficulties of teaching various levels of previous literacy from the non-literate and those who have an extensive educational experience in their own language.  The difficulty of teaching those from a language background that is non-alphabetic is also addressed briefly.

I would really like to see this section also expanded to address the various cultural attitudes to teacher-student expectations, which vary widely by culture and to the implications for cultural content of teaching material.

There is a section on teacher training and the availability of on-line opportunities.  This really needs to be addressed as a topic in and of itself.  The suggestions are good, but just how they can be implemented in really a state and national issue.  The current patchwork of training is not really addressed.

The assessment section is good and should be highlighted.  Again this is a state issue with national implications.  However, teachers must realize the limitations of the current standardized tools in measuring progress in ELL instruction.  Tests have not been validated, or standardized on the new populations of East African or Asian immigrants that now are making up a large proportion of foreign born in need of ELL instruction.  There is also the issue of the possible disconnect between the explicit workplace skills needed by these adult learners and the more generic content and vocabulary reflected in the tests used.

For practitioners, program administrators, researchers, and others who may want more in-depth information about specific topics (e.g., second language acquisition, focus on form, promising practices in professional development) the extensive bibliography offers many leads. So, Education for Adult English Language Learners in the United States; Trends, Research, and Promising Practices serves as both an overview of the complex field of adult ESL and as a jumping off point for further research.

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