ERIC Identifier: ED407882
Publication Date: 1997-05-00
Author: Weddel, Kathleen Santopietro - Van Duzer, Carol
Source: Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education
Washington DC., National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
Needs Assessment for Adult ESL Learners. ERIC Digest.
Assessment of literacy needs from the learner's perspective is an important
part of an instructional program. Learners come to adult English as a second
language (ESL) literacy programs for diverse reasons. Although they may say they
just want to "learn English," they frequently have very specific learning goals
and needs: for example, to be able to read to their children, to get a job, or
to become a citizen. If their needs are not met, they are more likely to drop
out than to voice their dissatisfaction (Grant & Shank, 1993). The needs
assessment process can be used as the basis for developing curricula and
classroom practice that are responsive to these needs.
Although learner needs assessment encompasses both what learners know and can
do (learner proficiencies) and what they want to learn and be able to do, this
digest focuses on ways to determine what learners want or believe they need to
learn. Many of the activities described can also include or lead to assessment
of proficiencies, and many of the sources cited include both types of
assessment. (See Burt & Keenan, 1995, for a discussion of assessment of what
learners know.) WHAT IS NEEDS ASSESSMENT? The word "assess" comes from the Latin
term "assidere," which means to "sit beside." Process-minded and
participatory-oriented adult educators "sit beside" learners to learn about
their proficiencies and backgrounds, educational goals, and expected outcomes,
immersing themselves in the lives and views of their students (Auerbach, 1994).
A needs assessment for use with adult learners of English is a tool that
examines, from the perspective of the learner, what kinds of English, native
language, and literacy skills the learner already believes he or she has; the
literacy contexts in which the learner lives and works; what the learner wants
and needs to know to function in those contexts; what the learner expects to
gain from the instructional program; and what might need to be done in the
native language or with the aid of an interpreter. The needs assessment focuses
and builds on learners' accomplishments and abilities rather than on deficits,
allowing learners to articulate and display what they already know and can do
(Auerbach, 1994; Holt, 1994).
Needs assessment is a continual process and takes place throughout the
instructional program (Burnaby, 1989; Savage, 1993), thus influencing student
placement, materials selection, curriculum design, and teaching approaches
(Wrigley & Guth, 1992). As Burnaby (1989) noted, "The curriculum content and
learning experiences to take place in class should be negotiated between
learners, teacher, and coordinator at the beginning of the project and
renegotiated regularly during the project" (p. 20). At the beginning of the
program, needs assessment might be used to determine appropriate program types
and course content; during the program, it assures that learner and program
goals are being met and allows for necessary program changes; at the end of the
program, it can be used for assessing progress and planning future directions
for the learners and the program.
WHY IS NEEDS ASSESSMENT IMPORTANT?
A needs assessment
serves a number of purposes:
*It aids administrators, teachers, and tutors with learner placement and in
developing materials, curricula, skills assessments, teaching approaches, and
*It assures a flexible, responsive curriculum rather than a fixed, linear
curriculum determined ahead of time by instructors.
*It provides information to the instructor and learner about what the learner
brings to the course (if done at the beginning), what has been accomplished (if
done during the course), and what the learner wants and needs to know next.
Factors that contribute to learner attrition in adult literacy programs
include inappropriate placement and instructional materials and approaches that
are not relevant to learners' needs and lives (Brod, 1995). When learners know
that educators understand and want to address their needs and interests, they
are motivated to continue in a program and to learn.
Needs assessments with ESL learners, as
well as with those in adult basic education programs, can take a variety of
forms, including survey questionnaires on which learners check areas of interest
or need, open-ended interviews, or informal observations of performance. In
order for needs assessment to be effective, tools and activities should be
appropriate for the particular learner or groups of learners. For example,
reading texts in English might be translated into the learners' native
languages, read aloud by the teacher or an aide (in English or the native
language), or represented pictorially. Types of needs assessment tools and
"Survey questionnaires." Many types of questionnaires have been designed to
determine learners' literacy needs. Frequently they consist of a list of topics,
skills, or language and literacy uses. The learners indicate what they already
know or want to know by checking in the appropriate column or box, or they may
be asked to use a scale to rank the importance of each item. For beginning
learners who do not read English, pictures depicting different literacy contexts
(such as using a telephone, buying groceries, driving a car, and using
transportation) can be shown, and learners can mark the contexts that apply to
them. For example, using transportation could be represented by pictures of a
bus, a subway, and a taxi. The list of questionnaire items can be prepared ahead
of time by the teacher or generated by the students themselves through class
"Learner-compiled inventories of language and literacy use." A more
open-ended way to get the same information that surveys offer is to have
learners keep lists of ways they use language and literacy and to update them
periodically (McGrail & Schwartz, 1993).
"Learner interviews." Interviews with learners, either one-on-one or in small
groups, in their native language or in English, can provide valuable information
about what learners know, what their interests are, and the ways they use or
hope to use literacy.
"Review of reading materials." An instructor can spread out a range of
reading materials on the table (e.g., newspapers, magazines, children's books,
comics, and greeting cards, and ask learners which they would like to read and
whether they would like to work in class on any of them. A similar activity can
be done with different types of writing.
"Class discussions." Showing pictures of adults in various contexts, the
teacher can ask, "What literacy skills does this person want to develop?" and
have learners generate a list. The teacher then asks, "Why do you want to
develop literacy skills?" Learners might be more willing to express their
desires if they move from the impersonal to the personal in this way (Auerbach,
"Personal or dialogue journals." Learners' journals--where they write freely
about their activities, experiences, and plans--can be a rich source of
information about their literacy needs (Peyton, 1993).
"Timelines." Learners can prepare their own personal timelines, in writing or
pictorially, that indicate major events in their lives as well as future goals.
Discussion can then focus on how progress towards those goals can be met through
the class (Santopietro, 1991).
NEEDS ASSESSMENT IN ONE ADULT ESL PROGRAM
Education and Employment Program (REEP) in Arlington, Virginia periodically
conducts a program-wide needs assessment to determine the interests and goals of
ESL learners in the community. The director and program coordinators collaborate
with community agencies, schools, and employers to identify ways in which the
REEP program can prepare learners for the economic, civic, and family
opportunities available in the community. This information is then used for
program planning purposes, such as developing courses, curricula, and materials,
and preparing needs assessment tools. Learner interviews and a placement test
assessing general language proficiency are used to place learners in an
instructional level. Once they are in the classroom, learners participate in a
continual needs assessment process to plan what they want to learn and how they
want to learn it.
In-class needs assessment is most successful when learners understand its
purpose and are comfortable with each other. Because of this, the first
curriculum unit in every new class is called "Getting Started" (Arlington
Education and Employment Program, 1994). It enables learners to get to know one
another through the needs assessment process as they acknowledge shared concerns
and begin to build a community in the classroom (Van Duzer, 1995). For several
days, some class time may be spent discussing where they use English, what they
do with it, what problems they have encountered, and why they feel they need to
improve their language skills and knowledge. Through this process, both the
learners and the teacher become aware of the goals and needs represented in the
class. A variety of level-appropriate techniques, like those mentioned above,
are used to come to a consensus on the class instructional plan and to develop
individual learning plans. Learners select from both program-established
curricular units and from their identified needs. The needs assessment process
serves as both a learning and information-gathering process as learners use
critical thinking, negotiation, and problem-solving skills to reach this plan.
Once the class instructional plan is selected, ways are discussed to meet
individual learner needs apart from the whole class such as through small
in-class focus groups, working with a volunteer, time in the program's computer
learning lab, assistance obtaining self-study materials, or referral to other
programs. The class plan is revisited each time a unit is completed to remind
the learners where they have been and where they are going and to enable the
teacher to make changes or adjustments to content or instruction as new needs
Needs assessment can take many forms and can be
carried out at different times during the instructional process. Whatever the
focus and format, the basic purpose is to determine what learners want and need
to learn. When curriculum content, materials, and teaching approaches match
learners' perceived and actual needs, learner motivation and success are
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