Adult English Language Learners with Limited Literacy

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This resource is a comprehensive yet concise review of research relevant to adult low-literacy ESL.
Resource URL:
Martha Bigelow Robin Lovrien Schwarz
Robin Lovrien Schwarz
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation: 
National Institute for Literacy
English as a second language, ESL Literacy, Limited literacy, Adult education
Number of Pages: 
Product Type: 
Literature Review
Target Audience: 
Professional Developers, Researchers, Teachers
Skill Level: 
NRS EFL 1--ESL Literacy
NRS EFL 2--ESL Low Beginning ESL
NRS EFL 3--ESL High Beginning ESL
Required Training: 

None, but as a literature review this material is best explored with colleagues in order to discuss implications for classroom practice.


Adult ELLs who lack print literacy or experience with formal education encounter a unique set of challenges in their lives and their efforts to learn English. Educators and policymakers are similarly challenged by how best to help these adults acquire English literacy. 

This resource is a comprehensive yet concise review of research relevant to adult low-literacy ESL, and it draws from multiple fields, including:

  • Language acquisition
  • Literacy development in adults and children
  • Cognition and brain functioning
  • Adult education
  • Professional development

Though research on this specific group of adult learners is sparse, available findings suggest that they need programs and classes separate from those for other beginning-level ELLs, with particular attention paid to cultural influences and their experiences (or lack thereof) with formal education. Those who teach these adults can benefit from PD opportunities that focus closely on the specific backgrounds, strengths, and needs of these learners.

Teachers, researchers, and professional developers will all benefit from this synthesis of literature with clear programmatic and classroom recommendations. This resource could easily be used in a study circle or other professional learning activity for teachers and administrators in order to learn more about the research that should undergird how we serve our adult ELLs with limited literacy.

What the Experts Say: 

There is a growing (but still limited) research base on adult ELLs with limited literacy in their first languages. What little is available is often difficult to find and even more difficult for teachers to extrapolate from and apply to their daily work. In this resource, Bigelow and Schwarz have done the digging and synthesizing for us in this comprehensive yet highly accessible report.

Key Features:

The authors begin by defining this specific group of adult learners, and they clarify how these learners are distinct from those who enter the English learning endeavor armed with alphabetic print literacy. After a brief review of the many reasons students come to our adult ESL classes without strong L1 literacy, they outline the strengths and challenges these students face as drawn from relevant research in various fields.

The section Teaching Adult ELLs Without Print Literacy Skills brings together the professional wisdom of many fields into several practical recommendations for programs and classroom teachers.

The Professional Development for Teachers section outlines the authors’ priority areas for teacher learning, such as early reading development and key lessons from the field of second language acquisition.

Researchers and developing scholars will appreciate the Questions for Research and Practice section, where the authors outline a research agenda that can move this important work forward.

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