ERIC Identifier: ED365169
Publication Date: 1993-09-00
Author: Wrigley, Heide Spruck
Source: Adjunct ERIC
Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC., National Clearinghouse
for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
Adult ESL Literacy: Findings from a National Study. ERIC
The 1990 Census reports that 25.5 million adults in the United States speak a
language other than English. Of those, over 5 million indicate that they speak
English "not well" or "not at all." As the National Adult Literacy Survey
(Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993) indicates, the number of
immigrants who have difficulties with English literacy is significantly higher
than the Census figures. Many immigrants have had only a few years of schooling
in their home countries, and many have not had the opportunity to develop strong
literacy skills in their native languages. Although they may have acquired some
conversational skills in English, they often lack the reading and writing skills
necessary for access to training, job mobility, or success in regular ESL
classes. When immigrants who fit this profile seek services, they are often
classified as "ESL literacy students."
Recognizing that large numbers of adults enrolled in basic literacy programs
are immigrants who speak English as a second language, Congress created the
National English Literacy Demonstration Program for Adults of Limited English
Proficiency. Under this program, the Department of Education in 1989
commissioned a two-year national study from Aguirre International in San Mateo,
California, to identify effective and innovative instructional approaches,
methods, and technologies used to provide literacy instruction for adult ESL
literacy students. This digest summarizes some of the study's findings,
including profiles of learners in the programs studied, major issues the
programs face, and funding and staffing concerns. It provides information for
educators and decision makers interested in the challenges faced by adult ESL
literacy programs and suggests directions for change. (See Wrigley, 1993b for a
description of curriculum and instruction in these programs.)
The purpose of the study was to identify
program issues and describe innovative approaches in adult ESL literacy programs
to help practitioners, policy makers, and researchers improve instructional
services for ESL learners with limited literacy skills. Aguirre staff conducted
a literature review in adult learning, second language teaching, and literacy
education; examined ESL literacy curricula; and reviewed program models across
the country. Criteria for educationally sound programs were established, and
using these criteria, 123 programs were nominated for case studies. Of these
nominations, 9 programs were chosen for further study through on-site
observations and interviews with teachers, students, and administrators. The
following is adapted from the two major products of the study: the Project
Technical Report (Guth & Wrigley, 1992) and a handbook, "Bringing Literacy
to Life," for teachers, administrators, and researchers (Wrigley & Guth,
Adult ESL literacy learners are by no
means a homogeneous group in terms of their literacy backgrounds. While most
have had only a few years of schooling, some come from literate societies, such
as Mexico and El Salvador, while others, such as the Hmong, come from
pre-literate societies where print is not common. Still others may have some
experience with reading, but may not be familiar with the Roman alphabet.
Increasingly, program staff have come to recognize that ESL literacy
learners, despite being classified as limited English proficient (LEP), bring a
wealth of experience and background knowledge to the classroom. Teachers in the
Aguirre study reported that these experiences and knowledge allow learners to
handle successfully the language and literacy demands of their everyday lives:
securing housing, enrolling their children in school, building strong families,
accessing social services, and finding jobs. As the amnesty programs have shown,
thousands of ESL learners, classified as low-literate, have successfully filled
out immigration papers and negotiated their way through the complex legalization
process (Wrigley, 1993a).
Often the extent to which immigrant adults are considered resourceful and
educated by program staff depends on the level of support they receive from
social networks--family, friends, and community groups (Fingeret, 1983). Those
adults who are part of established immigrant communities tend to fare much
better than those who do not share the language and cultural background of their
neighbors. When cut off from social support, adults who do not have the English
language and literacy skills needed to access services and voice their needs
often face difficult challenges.
Many ESL literacy programs are designed to help learners acquire the English
needed to face these challenges.
Diversity is the hallmark of ESL literacy
programs. They are found in many settings, such as within adult education
programs and community colleges, in community-based organizations, and they
increasingly appear at worksites and in union halls, libraries, prisons,
churches, and housing projects.
ESL literacy programs may include the following types of instruction: basic
literacy, general ESL, family literacy, workplace literacy, or
community-oriented literacy sometimes offered in the native language. The types
of literacy stressed often depend less on the greatest need in the community
than on the availability of funding; the growth of workplace and family literacy
programs can, at least in part, be attributed to the categorical funding that
has become available in support of these topics in recent years.
Successful ESL literacy programs share the features and practices that
characterize successful language learning programs. The curriculum is based on a
needs assessment that identifies both the educational needs of immigrant groups
in the community and the particular needs of those attending the program.
Learner needs, program goals, and funding mandates are negotiated and combined
into a coherent framework. Program mission, curriculum content, and learner
assessment are evaluated and adjusted periodically. Making principled decisions
about program goals and implementation is often easier for programs receiving
money targeted for a specific effort such as family literacy or ESL for the
homeless than it is for those that are merely adding an additional literacy
class to an existing program, because targeted efforts allow programs to begin
with a clearly articulated philosophy of literacy teaching.
FUNDING AND STAFFING CONCERNS
Funding for ESL literacy
instruction comes from federal and state sources, corporations, or foundations.
Most ESL literacy programs are dependent on short-term (1 to 3 years) funding,
which threatens their stability and continuity. Most depend on multiple funding
sources, with different components running on different schedules and requiring
their own final and interim reports. As a result, program resources are
continually strained as administrators spend most of their time either filling
out required forms or writing new proposals, and as teachers struggle to adapt
the curriculum to the requirements of the various funding sources.
Quality programs require leadership, and most of those studied depend on the
guiding light of a charismatic program director who secures funding, procures
resources, motivates staff, coordinates services, and works well with policy
makers and funders. Most programs are staffed by part-time teachers or
volunteers. Given budget constraints, administrators often must decide between
serving more students and spending money on developing a professional workforce
with access to full-time positions. While none of the programs studied had made
a commitment to hiring only full-time staff, some use a combination of full-time
staff who receive benefits, contract teachers who work full time and receive few
benefits, and part-time teachers who only teach a few hours and receive no
benefits. In some programs, directors try to create full-time positions by
offering teachers a combination of assignments. In these programs, staffing
represents a patchwork of expertise held together by a shared commitment to
There is much concern about "ESL professionalism" as state directors,
district administrators, and teachers debate who is qualified to teach ESL
(Crandall, in press). Two major positions have emerged: Some educators maintain
that adult education teachers will not be treated like professionals unless
strong prerequisites for teaching, such as a TESOL certificate or a masters
degree in ESL, are established. Others criticize the politics of requiring
credentials alone and maintain that experience in teaching and working with the
community, as well as proficiency in learners' native languages, should be of
equal importance (see Auerbach, 1992).
Despite the astounding dedication of ESL program directors and teachers, many
are close to burn-out, and some are seeking more secure jobs outside of the
literacy field. Many teachers stay in the field because they can work with other
creative teachers and are allowed a fair degree of autonomy in the classroom.
Most remain committed to literacy work because they see themselves as guides,
coaches, and facilitators who make access to literacy possible for immigrants
for whom all other doors to education have been shut.
ESL literacy learners come to classes to learn
English and strengthen their literacy skills so they can create a better life
for themselves and for their children. For many, ESL classes are the first
chance they have had to formally learn English and develop school-based
If programs are to provide quality ESL literacy services to this group,
leadership and guidance are needed within programs, as well as from the agencies
charged with supporting them. A strong staff is indispensable and should include
a director who understands both ESL and literacy issues, facilitators or aides
able to translate when misunderstandings occur, a curriculum developer who can
link curriculum and assessment, and teachers who know how to bring literacy to
life. Yet for many programs, working with a strong, knowledgeable staff is a
difficult dream to achieve without dependable funding.
The tenuous nature of the programs studied makes it clear that
administrators, teachers, learners, and other stakeholders must make their
voices heard before significant change will take place. Funders must be made
aware that short-term funding cycles offering small amounts of money strain the
resources of programs and thus are not cost-effective. Programs need support for
providing continuous services that extend from initial to advanced literacy and
for collaborating with other educational providers.
ESL practitioners cannot address the multiple needs of ESL literacy students
alone. To effect change, ESL programs and language minority communities must
work together to document the need for literacy services and provide evidence of
the success that ESL literacy programs can achieve.
Auerbach, E.R. (1992). "Making meaning, making
change: Participatory curriculum development for adult ESL literacy." Washington, DC and McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta
Crandall, J. (in press). Professionalism and professionalization of adult ESL
literacy. "TESOL Quarterly."
Fingeret, A. (1983). Social network: A new perspective on independence and
illiterate adults. "Adult Education Quarterly," 33(3), 133-146.
Guth, J.A., & Wrigley, H.S. (1992). "Adult ESL literacy: Programs and
practices." San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 348 895)
Kirsch, I., Jungeblut, A., Jenkins, L., & Kolstad, A. (1993). "Adult
literacy in America: A first look at the results of the National Adult Literacy
Survey." Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement,
National Center for Educational Statistics.
Wrigley, H.S. (1993a). "Green card English: Curriculum as politics."
Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Los Angeles, CA: University of Southern
Wrigley, H.S. (1993b). "Innovative programs and promising practices in adult
ESL literacy. ERIC Digest." Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics,
National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education.
Wrigley, H.S., & Guth, J.A. (1992). "Bringing literacy to life: Issues
and options in adult ESL." San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 348 896)