English language learners are the largest subgroup of adults enrolled in adult education programs. Although often treated as a monolithic category, their instructional needs vary dramatically. Some are highly literate in a first language and hence may need little practice in recognizing or spelling words or even basic comprehension skills. Many have lived in the United States for a long time and speak English well but have low or intermediate reading and writing skills in English. Others are recent immigrants who lack basic literacy skills in any language. And still other learners, referred to as generation 1.5, were born in the United States or came to the country as young children but lack the English literacy skills required for work and higher education. Some English learners—for example, those living in neighborhoods with concentrations of non-English-speaking residents—may be challenged by the lack of opportunities to use and be exposed to English.
All the principles of effective literacy instruction discussed previously in this booklet apply to English language learners as well. However, instruction will need to target the particular skill development needs of each learner. For example, learners who can read fluently in their native language often can use some of their first-language literacy skills to facilitate learning English. For these learners, instruction will be most effective if tailored to the level of literacy they have developed in their native language. A particular challenge to address with English learners is developing both spoken language skills and literacy skills at the same time.
Learning a second language as an adult can be difficult, and it differs from language learning at younger ages in two important ways: It usually is learned through explicit instruction more than through implicit learning; and instruction is usually tied more closely to reading.
Experiences in second-language instruction with young language learners, high school students, and college students suggest several principles that may also be effective with adult language learners, though more study of them is needed:
• Differentiate instruction for adults who vary in English language and literacy skills, first language proficiency, educational background, and familiarity with U.S. culture.
• Integrate grammatical instruction with the use of language to communicate for specific purposes, with the amount of emphasis on each depending on the assessed needs of the learner.
• Develop vocabulary and content knowledge to foster reading comprehension and learning.
• Provide opportunities to practice understanding and using language in varied contexts, including outside the classroom.
• Provide materials and tasks that are relevant to learners’ real-world activities.
• Provide frequent and explicit feedback.
• Match instruction to the learner’s existing level of knowledge and skill.
• Leverage knowledge of the learner’s first language to develop skill in English.
• Offer writing instruction in both traditional and digital media.
• Provide instruction in many modes, including speaking, reading, writing, and visual presentations.
Priorities for Research on English Language Learners
To improve instruction for the large and rapidly growing population of adolescents and adults who will learn English through adult literacy programs and classes in the United States, future research should:
• identify effective instructional practices for different groups of language learners to help teachers and tutors differentiate instructional approaches;
• examine the relationship between first language skills and the development of spoken and written English skills and identify skills and strategies that transfer between the two languages;
• find ways to provide effective language instruction directed toward multiple literacy modes (speaking, reading, writing, visual presentations) and also toward facility with communications technologies;
• identify ways to integrate classroom instruction with informal learning opportunities provided by day-to-day interactions and through the use of technology. Stronger links to informal learning would encourage the extended practice required to develop fluency in reading and writing; and
• develop and evaluate approaches to instruction that explicitly develop language and literacy skills in the context of academic and career education.