Adult education English language courses (ESOL) offer a unique set of challenges that are different from those presented by the typical intensive programs at state universities and private language schools. The major differences include the type of students involved, methodology, number of contact hours, books and other teaching materials, along with the goals of the programs.

Student body

The number of non-native speakers in the United States has been increasing. They come from all over the world and have varying levels of education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 60 million people in the U.S. spoke a language other than English at home in 2011, with nearly a quarter (22.4 percent) speaking little to no English at all.

There are fundamental differences between ESOL and intensive ESL students. The typical ESL students are here on student visas and have financial support from their sponsors to complete their intensive programs in a set amount of time; the majority of ESOL students are already in country on immigrant or resident visas and may already have full citizenship.

ESL students in intensive programs are college-bound and are taking ESL full-time — 20 or more hours per week in order to pass the TOEFL or similar test to gain entry to a college or university. Their time in ESL courses is limited.

In most cases, the maximum time allowed is one year, so they are highly motivated to finish ESL and pass the placement test. If they take longer than the allotted time, they may lose their financial aid. Most will return to their home countries after finishing their degrees.

In contrast, ESOL students will remain in the community. Some may get additional training after finishing their English studies, but the goal is to continue working and get promoted or find a better job. ESOL students may leave the program from time to time because of work or family business and may regress. Instructors should be prepared to teach and reteach salient points.

Most ESOL programs are free, so the students are not relying on a limited source of funding such as financial aid or support from family in the home country. The goal of adult ESOL is to make non-native speakers active members of the communities they live in. See the ACTFL standards relating to communities:

  • Communities: Communicate and interact with cultural competence in order to participate in multilingual communities at home and around the world
  • School and global communities: Learners use the language both within and beyond the classroom to interact and collaborate in their community and the globalized world.
  • Lifelong learning: Learners set goals and reflect on their progress in using languages for enjoyment, enrichment, and advancement.

Research has shown recent immigrants may have conversational ability but may be unable to read and write, causing additional difficulties since students' ability in L1 reading has an effect on L2 reading skill development. In addition, the resources underlying L2 semantic and morphosyntactic processing as well as L1 semantic processing appear to contribute to L2 reading.

Academic language is crucial. It takes longer to acquire than conversational language, and those who do not learn academic English are more likely to fall behind, making early literacy critical for success.

Reading ability is tied to both the learners' home language and the new language. Some students will be literate in a non-Latin alphabetic L1 such as Arabic or an idiographic language such as Chinese.

ESOL courses and methodology

Many adult education learners will need instruction in basic literacy. Literacy involves all the skills of language, not just the recitation of the alphabet.

Students learn to recognize whole words in a meaningful context while learning phonetic skills. They approach the script on both a whole word (and sight word) and a phonological level. The two subskills of phonetic decoding and sight word recognition work together, and learners should be encouraged to apply both strategies.

The alphabet can be taught along with whole words "sight words" that are in daily use in the classroom. These large language units are learned as cognitive wholes via visual and auditory channels, according to "Teaching Adults: An ESL Resource Book."

High-frequency words relevant to the learners' activities make good sight words. These words include pronouns, greetings, official words used in applications, warning signs and professions. These are words students recognize instantly without having to stop to figure them out.

Other strategies include recognizing word patterns, related words such as important/importance, context and bound morphemes such as un as in unusual and -ly as in slowly.

Prereading exercises would include conversational exchanges involving the sight words. If using a textbook or a picture dictionary, the instructor can go over the meanings of the target word and play an audio if available. Some texts have a video component on DVD or online that would make a good warm-up exercise. These prereading exercises will help to prepare learners.

According to Beth Crumpler, teachers should:

"Access prior knowledge, or build prior knowledge if students do not have the knowledge. Implement text to life, text to self and text to text methods to access prior knowledge. Discuss the pictures in the book through a picture walk of the text. Have students make predictions to practice guessing what happens in the book."

Remember that repetition works well for ESOL learners who may not be proficient in note taking and often do not have time to study at home. Vocabulary and grammar need to be recycled constantly.

For example, simple past can be introduced in a dialogue, a formal grammar presentation, a reading and in question and answers before the official lesson as in, “Where did you go yesterday?" or "Did you ride the bus today?" Also, targeted structures can be practiced in conversations based on a theme from the lesson or a current event. The instructor provides corrections by modeling the correct forms and the students learn to self-correct.

Negotiated interaction provides feedback that encourages the learners to modify their output and ask for repetition and clarification so they can make their output more comprehensible.

The instructor should play an audio of the reading passage or dialogue if one is available; otherwise he should read it aloud and then allow students to read aloud. This process will allow weaker students additional time to process the reading and give the instructor an ideas of the learners' pronunciation abilities.

Adult ed and multilevel sections

The adult education classroom presents a unique challenge to the ESL teacher used to the standard model of a group of students working through a book at the same pace. Students learn at different rates and employ various strategies; they may also acquire different skills, resulting in a group that has some members who will understand; others will just repeat without understanding, while some may just sit and watch.

Classes may be mixed level with students of varying abilities. The point is to establish a language-rich environment that provides plenty of input and allows student output and participation.

The teacher of an adult ESOL class should be prepared to help students become good learners since much of the work will be individual or small group assignments. They should be encouraged to review former lessons to reinforce vocabulary, structures and semantic/cultural topics. At the same time, they preview coming lessons both in the book and on audio files if available.

If they do these activities, the new material will be somewhat familiar by the time the class begins to study it. Here are sample exercises where the target audience is adult learners who are immigrants or residents.

Activity 1

Show a printed advertisement.

  • Lower levels: Look at the advertisement. What is the product? What does it do? Do you want to buy one?
  • Middle levels: Do exercise one; then look at the advertisement. Describe the product. Do you need or want it? Why or why not? Describe a similar product.
  • Higher levels: Do exercise two. Write your own advertisement for the product. Are you convinced by the printed advertisement? Role-play calling the company for more information. Write a telephone script.

Activity 2

Read, or play audio or video of a vacation commercial. (Adapted from Cheryl Pavlik's "Speak Up"):

"Are you planning a vacation? How about a quiet island in the Pacific Ocean? Palm Island is a great place for a vacation. You can hike in the mountains, swim and relax on the beach, and eat in wonderful restaurants. Palm Island is only one hour from Malibu by plane, but it seems like another world. Contact your travel agent to get more information about beautiful Palm Island or call 1-800-Palm-Isle. Hotel-airline packages are available from $299."

  • Lower levels: The item presented is a _______ (a) weather report (b) sports report (c) travel advertisement.
  • Middle levels: Do exercise 1. What activities are available? How can you get to Palm Island? Where do you leave from? How long does it take to get to Palm Island? How much does it cost?
  • Higher levels: Do exercise 2. How do you arrange your trip? Is it a campsite or a full service resort? Would you like to go? Why? Suggest other activities not listed in the commercial. Write (or make an oral presentation) a summary of your last trip, or set up a vacation plan for your class. Try to "sell" it to them.

Other possibilities for presentation via audio are weather reports, sports reports, or even an excerpt from a cooking show.

Grammar instruction

Grammar should be introduced in a topical-interactive mode that replicates situations where students use the forms to meet real needs. When possible, you should try to incorporate grammar instruction into real-life contexts rather than present it in isolation.

Even if the students are in the same level low intermediate, for example the typical adult education students in that level will have varying abilities.

Activity 3

A picture or set of visuals can create a situation for the learner to acquire new vocabulary and grammatical forms without resorting to translation or repetition since the learners can listen and give short answers at first. In the following exercise, the teacher uses a picture dictionary as a prompt showing typical grocery items.

Students can role-play shopping for the ingredients to cook a meal or a dessert.

"We need some milk."

"How much?"

"Two quarts."

"Do we need apples?"

"Yes, six should be enough."

Although ESL instruction has changed greatly in a short period of time, one thing that has remained the same is the need for effective lessons that help students develop skills they can use outside the classroom (9).

Program goals

Most students in adult education programs are trying to find work or advance in their current positions. They are older than traditional college students. By attending ESOL programs and advancing through the levels, these students improve their possibilities of promotion or furthering their education since many will want to get their GED, vocational degree or college degree.

ESOL learners need to understand the target culture. These standards are for those studying foreign languages, but they apply equally well to those in English-speaking countries who need to learn a new culture as well as a new language:

  • Standard 2.1: Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the culture studied.
  • Standard 2.2: Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the products and perspectives of the culture studied.

Cross-cultural communication is a vital part of any language program. Culture and language work together as students become integrated into the new society.