AEIS Newsletter

AEIS News, Volume 6:1 (March 2008)

by User Not Found | 11/01/2011
In This Issue...
  • Leadership Updates
    • Letter From the Chair
    • Letter From the Editor
  • Announcements
    • U.S. Citizenship Update: The New Citizenship Test
    • CAELA Briefs
  • Articles
    • Preliminary Survey Results of ESOL Teachers in Adult Basic Education and Literacy Systems: A TESOL-Sponsored Special Project
    • Integrating Service Learning Into Your ESL Curriculum
    • Broaching Serious Subjects With Adults
    • The Four Components of Reading
    • Effective Use of Volunteers in Adult ESL
    • Collocations: Vocabulary for Conversation
    • EL Civics Task-Based Projects Poster Presentation at TESOL 2007
    • The Half-Full Glass: Teaching Despite CASAS
    • Learning Disabilities and Stressbusters
    • How to Have Fun and Influence Students With Adult ESL Materials
  • About This Member Community
    • ESOL in Adult Education Interest Section (AEIS)

Leadership Updates Letter From the Chair

Federico Salas-Isnardi. AEIS Chair 2008

Dear Adult Education Colleagues,

As the 42nd Annual TESOL Convention draws near, I would like to share with all of you a few thoughts about my year as chair of the AEIS. In 2007 we were, once again, the largest interest section in TESOL! We are also an active bunch, with AEIS being one of the two interest sections with the greatest number of members contributing to TESOL’s Resource Center during the year. Also, adult educators submitted nearly 200 proposals to present at the conference. Of those, 76 proposals were accepted including 26 poster sessions, 11 discussion groups, 19 demonstrations, a number of workshops and papers, and 4 colloquia. These are in addition to the AE Academic Session and the Federal and State Initiatives Panel. Kudos to all AEIS members who participated!

Please continue contributing. A professional organization is only as dynamic as its leaders, only as successful as its active members will it to be. If you ever thought about volunteering in your professional field, your interest section needs you. Whether you submit proposals, volunteer as a proposal reader, nominate yourself for a leadership position, or submit and evaluate resources for the Resource Center, your colleagues and the whole field of adult education will benefit from your selfless contribution.

The convention’s theme this year is “Worlds of TESOL: Building Communities of Practice, Inquiry, and Creativity.” I was considering this theme and thought true communities cannot be built by corporations or by leaders, whether elected or appointed. Communities are built by their members; communities are formed when people sharing a vision, an interest, or an identity come together to pool their resources, share their expertise, and work toward a common objective.

This is the first year the convention starts on a Thursday instead of a Wednesday and offers a full day on Saturday. The change of schedule required a number of changes to the longstanding schedules for group meetings. First of all, you will notice that the discussion groups are no longer limited to early in the morning and late in the evening; now discussion groups will also be held at noon.

The annual business meeting of the AEIS will take place on Thursday, April 3, 2008, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. We encourage all members to participate. Please help us determine what the agenda for AEIS will be for 2009, give us your input, and vote for the slate of officers for next year.

The annual Federal and State Initiatives in Adult Education panel will meet on Thursday, April 3, at 8:30 a.m. A representative of the U.S. Education Department’s Division of Adult Education and Literacy will be offering an update on the latest federal initiatives in adult education. A panel of representatives from select states will follow with news from their innovative state adult education efforts.

On Friday, April 4, between 2:00 and 4:45 p.m., the AEIS is hosting the Academic Session for Adult Education. This year we have a real treat for you as we will present a panel discussion of evidence-based education. Dr. Heide Spruck Wrigley will present some of her latest research and the results of her study will be our “empirical evidence.” Dr. Kirsten Shaetzel will tell us how research makes it to the classroom and how it is disseminated for practitioners’ use. AEIS’s own Cindy Shermeyer will talk about the teacher’s perspective and the application of new research in the class where it must combine with professional wisdom. Dr. Larry Condelli, director of the National Reporting System for Adult Education, will share the relationship of evidence-based education to accountability.

With a large number of presentations, the convention promises to keep adult educators busy.

Hope to see you in New York as we continue to build communities.

Letter From the Editor

It has been a pleasure working with each of the contributors on this issue of the AEIS newsletter. I want to thank the authors for sharing their work.

In this issue of our newsletter, I am certain you will find much to enjoy and much to think about. Most of the articles summarize or highlight sessions from the TESOL conference in Seattle. The articles are full of practical suggestions as well as thought provoking ideas. I deeply appreciate the presenters taking the extra time to share their work with the wider field, especially since so many of our members may not have a chance to attend the conferences. This reality was confirmed in the recent TESOL-sponsored survey conducted on equity issues in adult education. As co-researchers Yilin Sun and Rosie Maum write in their report included here, “Only 15% of the survey participants [i.e., adult ESL teachers] stated that they had attended between 3-5 TESOL conferences over the past 5 years, and 34% had not attended any conference sponsored by a TESOL affiliate.” (Be sure to look for the article summarizing preliminary results of this important survey.)

Fortunately, reading the articles in our AEIS newsletter offers an abundance of ideas and gives readers a good sense of the wonderful sessions offered at TESOL conferences. In addition, the news items in this issue, including updated information about the new citizenship test and abstracts of the most recent briefs from the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition, are both relevant and timely.

We always welcome newsletter articles from practitioners on topics of relevance to the field. This newsletter is a venue for sharing ideas as well as raising questions. If you have ideas to share, materials to recommend, issues to raise, or questions to pose, please consider becoming a newsletter contributor. Everyone has something to share, and writing for the AEIS newsletter can be a great professional development experience, too.

Happy reading!

Susan Finn Miller
AEIS Newsletter Editor

Announcements U.S. Citizenship Update: The New Citizenship Test

New test details released; Will go into effect beginning in October 200

Karen Hilgeman.

Last fall, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced the details of the new citizenship test. The new test, which has been many years in the making, is designed to be more meaningful for students and more standardized in the way it is given across the United States. Adjudicating officers will receive significant training on administering and assessing the new test. As the new test will be implemented beginning on October 1, 2008, teachers must soon inform and prepare their students for the coming changes

Timeline for New Test

It is very important to know which individuals will take the current test, who will take the new test, and who has a choice. This can be determined by two things: the date the student filed the Application for Naturalization (Form N-400) and when the interview with USCIS is scheduled. With these two pieces of information, it is possible to know which test the applicant will take, according to the following guidelines:

  • Applicants who apply BEFORE Oct 1, 2008, and have their interviews BEFORE Oct 1, 2008, take the current test
  • Applicants who apply BEFORE Oct 1, 2008, but have their interviews AFTER Oct 1, 2008, can choose which test they want to take
  • Applicants who apply AFTER Oct 1, 2008, will take the new test
  • Applicants who have their interviews scheduled AFTER Oct 1, 2009, will take the new test regardless of when they applied (This provision affects mainly people who get held up in the name-check process.)

Individuals who apply now will most likely be interviewed after October 1, 2008, because of increased processing times as noted at the USCIS Web site. Therefore, those individuals can pick which test they want to prepare for.

Components of New Test

The “new” test is actually more of a redesign of the current test than a complete restructuring of it. The components are the same for both tests, but there are some changes within those components. Below are the current components of the USCIS interview and tests and how they will change.

Component: Answer History/Government Questions

  • Current Test: Applicants must answer at least 6 of 10 questions from a current list of 96 questions. Each question has one correct answer.
  • New Test: Applicants must answer at least 6 of 10 questions from a new list of 100 questions. Many questions have multiple correct answers, but the applicant needs to give only one.
  • Analysis: A great deal of history and government content of the questions is staying the same. The new test still contains questions about the founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Therefore, in classrooms in which students are preparing for both tests, teachers can present the basic information and let students study the appropriate set of questions. However, approximately a quarter of the questions on the new test are about U.S. geography, landmarks, and other topics not included on the current test. Furthermore, the format of the new test questions, in which there is one question and several right answers, might be initially confusing for some students. Teachers should remind their students that they need to give only one correct answer.

Component: Pass Reading/Writing Test

  • Current Test: Applicants must read a sentence and then write a sentence when it is dictated. Currently, these sentences may be about anything.
  • New Test: Applicants must read a question aloud and write a dictated sentence that is the answer. If the applicant fails the first question and answer, he or she will get up to two additional questions and answers. Here’s an example:

Applicant reads this question aloud: Who lives in the White House?

Applicant writes this dictated sentence: The President lives in the White House.

Although USCIS will not release an official list of questions and answers, it has provided vocabulary lists for students to study. The questions that applicants will be asked to read will be made up of words from the reading vocabulary list, and the sentence that is dictated will be made up of words from the writing vocabulary list.

  • Analysis: This section is changing the most. In the past, the sentence read aloud and the sentence dictated were unrelated. That the reading and writing tasks are now a set, that is, a question and the corresponding answer, might initially be confusing for individuals who are familiar with the current test. However, the more applicants study the vocabulary lists, the more confident they are likely to feel. Teachers must provide ample practice recognizing the vocabulary as well as a lot of dictation practice at the word, phrase, and sentence levels. Because teachers can only guess at what the questions and answers will be, students need to be able to read and write the words in a variety of contexts.

Component: Discuss the N-400

  • Current test: Applicants must be able to answer questions about themselves and their families, jobs, background, and character.They must also understand the difficult vocabulary used in some of the questions. In addition, they must be knowledgeable about the Oath of Allegiance.
  • New test: No change.
  • Analysis: Preparing students to discuss their N-400 applications remains one of the most difficult yet important components of citizenship test preparation classes. The fact that this process is the same for all applicants no matter which test they take will provide a basis for citizenship preparation classes this year.

Materials for New Test

Teachers preparing their students to take the new test can get help from several sources:

  • USCIS Publications: All of the study materials that are currently available will be updated for the new test. These include Publication M-638 Learn About the United States: Quick Civics Lessons and the USCIS Civics Flashcards. USCIS will also distribute a CD of tools for teachers that will include practices such as word searches and crossword puzzles. In the future, USCIS plans to produce a study guide written at two levels.
  • Commercial Material: Many popular citizenship textbooks will be revised to reflect the content of the new test; some will be available at the TESOL convention in April 2008. In addition, because the new test covers a lot of the same content as does the current test, much of the information in current texts is still relevant.

Learn More

During this crucial transition year between the current and new test, it is essential that teachers plan and prepare to change their methods and materials for the new test. Teachers can also check the USCIS Web site,, frequently for announcements, information, and materials. In addition, teachers can find out more in the following ways:

  • Current Test Information
    This page has all of the materials for the current test including the printable flashcards, Quick Civics Lessons, and the current history/government questions.
  • New Test Information
    This page has an informational brochure and FAQs about the new test, the new history/government questions, and the new reading and writing vocabulary lists.
  • A Guide to Naturalization
    This is the definitive resource on the naturalization process from USCIS. It is a good place for teachers new to citizenship education to get started.
  • TESOL Sessions
    At the 42nd Annual TESOL Convention & Exhibit in New York City in April, look for the USCIS session on the new test or stop by the USCIS booth in the exhibitors’ area. Also, a postconvention institute called “Preparing Students to Pass the Revised U.S. Citizenship Test” will be held on Saturday, April 5. See the TESOL advance program for more information about this special session.
  • Citizenship News
    This Web site has information about citizenship education as well as links to newspaper articles about the new test and other immigration matters. Educators can view the updates at this site or sign up to get them by e-mail.

Karen Hilgeman is a professional development specialist at the Adult Learning Resource Center in Arlington Heights, IL. She provides instruction and assistance to educators in Illinois and was a presenter for the Office of Citizenship Program and Events at TESOL 2007.

CAELA Briefs

The Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA) has published three new briefs. They are available online at

Adult ESL Teacher Credentialing and Certification
This latest CAELA brief was written by JoAnn Crandall of the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Genesis Ingersoll and Jacqueline Lopez of the Center for Applied Linguistics. This brief describes efforts to professionalize the workforce of adult ESL educators, including efforts to certify and credential these teachers; discusses the qualification requirements for adult ESL teachers in the 50 states and the District of Columbia; and recommends steps for states to continue to professionalize the field. (The brief includes a chart detailing credentialing requirements for all states and Washington, DC.)

Professional Development for Adult ESL Practitioners: Building Capacity
This brief, written by Kirsten Schaetzel, Joy Kreeft Peyton, and Miriam Burt of the Center for Applied Linguistics, was published in October 2007. It is a review of the literature on professional development for teachers of adult English language learners and a description of the professional development planning, implementing, and evaluating process that CAELA uses in the 24 states where it has been working. The brief has a companion-annotated bibliography.

Workplace Instruction and Workforce Preparation for Adult Immigrants
Miriam Burt and Julie Mathews-Aydinli, of the Center for Applied Linguistics, are the authors of this brief, published in September 2007. This brief discusses the strengths and challenges of different program types (workplace, vocational, and adult ESL classes) and offers ways of meeting the challenges.

Articles Preliminary Survey Results of ESOL Teachers in Adult Basic Education and Literacy Systems: A TESOL-Sponsored Special Project

Yilin Sun,, and Rosie Maum,

The main objective of this TESOL-sponsored survey was to respond to the growing concerns of the organization’s adult education interest section (AEIS) as they relate to the inequitable workload, less-than-desirable working conditions, much needed professional development opportunities and support, and heavy reliance on part-time teachers in programs that serve adult English language learners. Previous studies in adult education have shown that such precarious employment patterns undermine the professionalism of the field because many educators have to contend with juggling several jobs, receiving low pay, and are being prevented from improving their instructional practices or keeping abreast of current research. The purpose of this article is to give a preliminary report of these working conditions and to gain a better understanding of the issues and concerns that seem to be most pervasive in the field of adult ESOL. The study’s findings will help to plan future directions for the AEIS membership and offer TESOL data to support their advocacy efforts for the field of adult ESOL.

The Study
Grounded on TESOL Standards for Adult ESOL programs, the survey provided an empirical basis on which to examine the status, professionalism, and the quality of ESOL instruction in the field. The purpose of the survey was threefold:
(a) to examine the working conditions of ESOL teachers who work within the adult basic education and literacy system;
(b) to identify areas where TESOL can take action and make plans for advocacy directed toward achieving equitable working conditions for ESOL teachers in adult education; and
(c) to use the survey’s findings to make recommendations aimed at improving employment conditions and achieving equity in the workplace for adult ESOL professionals.

A total of 1,141 ABE/ESL educators completed the survey. Among them, 1,046 were from the U.S. and Canada, 57 were from other countries worldwide, and 38 did not specify where their program was located. The majority of the survey’s participants were female (85%) and white/Caucasian (84.1%). The average age of most respondents (61.5%) ranged between 46 and 65.

Preliminary Findings
The survey investigated eight major areas of interest to ESOL professionals in adult education: educational requirements; employment status and benefits; teaching situation; workload issues; working conditions; professional development; and, ESOL as a career and advocacy issues. Following is a synopsis of the major findings in each of these categories.

Educational Requirements
Nearly 60% of the respondents indicated that their programs required a Bachelor’s degree with a TESL or other related teaching certificate to teach ESOL. The survey’s data reveal that over 80% of the respondents hold a Master’s (59.8%) or a Bachelor’s degree (20.6%), and more than half (54.3%) claim to have completed 12 or more hours of college-level or graduate-level courses in ESOL.

Employment Status and Benefits
64.5% of the educators in the study revealed that they worked part-time in the adult ESOL program where they teach. Almost half (49.1%) of the programs where the respondents work have between 0-20 teachers; 41.4% hire between 21 and 50 or more teachers. 30% of these programs have between 0-5 ESL teachers, and 25% have more than 30 ESL teachers. Less than a fourth of the ESOL teachers work on a full-time basis.

When asked about employment benefits, almost half of the respondents (48%) stated that they received none. Of those who responded positively, 54% indicated that they received medical insurance or health benefits, 41% had paid vacation, 63% received sick pay, and 58% were covered under a pension plan.
The working conditions in the respondents’ buildings varied. 90% stated that they had access to office machines (e.g., phone, photocopier, fax); 80% had a computer available for their use, and 79% had Internet access, but only for the teacher; 81% felt that they had adequate materials to use in their classroom, and 80% claimed that they worked in an adequately sized classroom with appropriate furniture. More than half of the survey participants (52%) revealed that they did not have their own desk or office space, and 61% did not have Internet access in the classroom.

Teaching Situation
The most common types of classes offered at the institutions where the respondents taught include Adult ESOL (beginning/literacy, intermediate, advanced or mixed levels), GED/adult secondary education, adult basic education, and citizenship preparation. A much smaller number of respondents (17%) indicated that their program offered family literacy classes, GED in Spanish, TOEFL preparation, and computer literacy.

Almost 70% of the responding teachers stated that state/province funding supported their program; 54% received federal/national funding, and 25.7% of the respondents’ programs depended on local city/county funding. About a third also received funding from student tuition and from private or other sources (United Way, Wal-Mart, EL Civics grants, literacy grants, Department of Defense, etc.)

Workload Issues
33.3% of the survey respondents revealed that their program considered 20-30 contact hours a week a full-time workload. For a smaller number of programs (9.8%) these contact hours exceeded 30 hours per week as the required contact hours to be considered full time. When asked whether the full-time teaching load for ESOL teachers was the same as for teachers in other disciplines, 28.5% stated that it was, but the vast majority of respondents (65.3%) claimed either that it was more than in other disciplines, or added specific comments. One teacher declared: “ESOL teachers have the same credential and academic rigor if not higher like teachers from other disciplines. However, we are discriminated. In our college, fulltime workload for foreign language instructors is 15 hours. Why should the ESOL instructors be treated differently with 20+ teaching load?” Another teacher stated: “It’s absurd that college administrators conclude that teaching 2-3 hours of Spanish or French daily is taxing on a teacher, but teaching 4-6 hours a day of ENGLISH as a SECOND language is a piece of cake.” More than 43% of the respondents claimed that the wage of their full-time colleagues who work in non-ESOL programs was more than theirs.

Working Conditions
Most of the survey participants (70.1%) indicated that their program was affiliated with a community college or a local school district; only a small percentage (4.8%) was associated with a 4-year college or university. The majority of the respondents taught classes that include adult ESOL literacy at the beginning, intermediate, advanced, or mixed level. Their primary teaching situation varied from teaching 2 to 30 students per class. A small percentage (0.4%) indicated that they taught a class of more than 50 students. Some of the respondents who chose to comment on their working conditions stated the following:

“Class size varies due to many seasonal workers and open enrollment all during the school year.”

“The enrollment of 30-40 drops off about 50% because of a variety of institutional and student variables.”

“We generally register about 70 students each semester, but between 20 and 30 attend on any given day.”

Professional Development
The survey participants identified 3 areas to be “very important” for their professional training: ESOL teaching methods and techniques (92%), access to resources and material development (80%), and effective cross-cultural communication (74%). The areas that were considered “somewhat important” for professional development included working with students with learning disabilities (54%), and Workplace ESOL (55%); 20% of the respondents felt that training in classroom management and conflict resolution was “not important”.

When asked how many hours of staff development release time they received each year, 28.4% of the teachers revealed that they had none, 27.7% received less than 10 hours a year, and 25.8% indicated that they had received between 10-20 hours of release time.

When asked what will help teachers engage in professional development, majority identified the support from min-level unit administrators are very crucial as they can offer or deny release time and fund for teachers to attend professional development workshops and events.

Only 15% of the survey participants stated that they had attended between 3-5 TESOL conventions over the past 5 years, and 34% had not attended any convention sponsored by a TESOL affiliate.

Out of frustration, an ESOL educator commented, “Why some administrators are so short sighted!? My director only cares about putting teachers in the classroom not so much on giving us time and fund to attend PD activities…”

Another said, “My working conditions are excellent and the support of administrators is totally present. Positions such as mine are few and far between.”

One of such supportive administrators made the following remarks, “I strongly believe that professional development is paramount important for ESL teachers. As an administrator for Adult ESL program, I always do my best to give my teachers release time when they present at the conferences or attend workshops. To me, teachers deserve the opportunities to grow and learn and share their best practice with other teachers. Their presentations will make our program known to the others and it’s also great for the institution. The time they take off from work and spent at professional development activities like conferences will benefit the students and program in a long run. These teachers are often far more effective and innovative in the classroom with their students than some teachers that I have who just come and fill in the class hours.”

It is encouraging to read the comment from this mid-level administrator, but it also makes us worry that there are not many mid-level administrators in the community college systems who have the same vision and commitment to faculty professional development as indicated in the study.

ESOL as a Career
35% of the respondents declared that working in adult ESOL was “definitely” their long-term career. 29.7% said it was “very likely”, and only 5.3% responded with “not at all”. Many added their personal comments. One teacher stated: “I love to remain in Adult ESOL!” Another noted: “My biggest concern is that not everyone considers ESOL teaching as a professional endeavor. Many people think that if you can speak English you can teach English. This line of reasoning is especially strong and pervasive in an overseas context. Nonetheless, if it’s used overseas or stateside, I think it is used as a pretext to deny benefits and salary to ESOL teachers. In this regards, many programs demand high standards from their teachers, but pay no benefits…”

When asked what would be the main reason for leaving the field of ESOL if they had to, 30% of the teachers indicated that it would be either because they needed more pay or wanted full-time work. Several teachers added their comments to this question:

“When my grant ends in two more years, I’ll go back to the K-8 classroom”.

“Need for full time work, benefits, higher pay, job security and desire for more status/respect”.

“Getting close to burnout!” “Burn out over the never-ending threat of loss of funding – it’s more than the job security, it’s the constant having to beg for money”.

“I’d leave only if it became boring or I thought I wasn’t doing a good job”.

“I am already retired. If I leave ESL teaching it would be because I am dead or in a nursing home!”

Advocacy Issues
The survey participants were asked to specify what kind of advocacy efforts they would most like to see TESOL address on behalf of adult ESOL teachers. Here is what some had to say:

“Opportunities for full time employment. Recognition of TESOL certificate holders as professionals with pay scale comparable to other certified teachers.”

“Promote ESOL and all adult literacy instruction as a priority, not something that will be funded if there is money left over. Our students have such potential; many are professionals in their own country and come here to be meat cutters because they don’t know the language. Advocate also for those on the other end of the extreme, who have little education even in their own first language, but are willing to work hard and learn to provide for their families.”

“Teacher Certification programs.”

“Real commitment to Professional Development for adult ESOL teachers!”

“Assessment issues… Better alignment of ESOL assessment and NRS level descriptors.”

“1. Increased funding in general; 2. Benefits for part-time teachers.”

“Show legislators and policy makers the economic and social benefits of Adult Education, including EDL and the need for professionals in the field in addition to volunteers. The field seems to have become de-professionalized because of inadequate funding.”

“Respect for the profession and the importance of immigrants and their children in American life, economically, socially, etc.”

“Awareness of and respect for Non-Native Speakers of English professionals in the TESOL field across the board!”

“Respect. Actual pay for time worked. Security. Benefits in retirement. Office space for each teacher to meet with students without getting in colleagues’ way.”

“Promote more awareness of what we do and the benefits of our work to the general public and government, so that we have more success getting money to fund our programs at the federal and state level.”

This project is a major initiative supported by TESOL to investigate the ESOL Adult Education working conditions at the international level. It should provide a vital link for TESOL to carry out its chief mission of improving the teaching of English to speakers of other languages. The empirical data collected from this project will be key in TESOL advocacy on behalf of itself, its members, and the profession over which it serves. The final report will be available soon at TESOL Matters. For more information, contact

*This TESOL-sponsored special project received strong support from the Adult Education Interest Section (AEIS) of TESOL. Our two colleagues from AEIS deserve special recognition for their great support in the development of the survey: Marilyn Gillespie, SRI International, and Dan Wan, past chair of AEIS.

Yilin Sun, the principal investigator at, Seattle Central Community College, or Rosie Maum, the co-researcher, at, Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) Adult Education Program.

Integrating Service Learning Into Your ESL Curriculum

Sara Gallow,

Because service learning combines academic instruction with community service, it gives ESL students the perfect opportunity to improve their English in a meaningful context. The three main components of service learning are as follows:

  • Service with set learning objectives that support the course content
  • Student reflection on the service being provided.
  • Service that is mutually beneficial to both the student and the community organization

It is a challenge to incorporate all of these components into an existing curriculum, especially when many of our ESL students are busy, working parents. Over the past 2 years, I have worked on incorporating service learning and volunteering in my advanced ESL classes as well as my program at a community college. For my own class, I have found it most reasonable and manageable to incorporate the service-learning component into the group project work that I had been doing. Instead of having students do Internet research to prepare a PowerPoint presentation, I now have students do one-time service projects that they then base their PowerPoint presentation on.

Examples of successful projects include

  • preparing and serving food to seniors at a local senior center for Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit organization that provides hot meals to seniors on a donation basis
  • helping out with other college volunteers at the annual career fair in the community
  • facilitating a workshop with me for other college faculty on teaching second language learners
  • reading with second graders at a nearby elementary school
  • helping out at college events
  • joining a group of college volunteers to clean up Ape Cave at Mt. St. Helens

For my class, the learning objectives for this project focus on speaking and listening skills—a priority for all students. The student reflection piece may include journaling, filling out a written evaluation, or writing thank-you notes to the organizer of the service project. The projects are mutually beneficial because the students get listening/speaking practice with native English speakers as well as gain insight into American culture, and the organization gets needed work done.

In my opinion, these one-time service projects have been so successful for several reasons.

  • Students are not overwhelmed by the English because they are working in a group. They feel comfortable making that community contact.
  • Students have several choices of projects, so they do something that interests them.
  • Projects are offered at different times of the day, including during class time. Because students are able to miss part of a class to complete their projects, students with even the busiest schedules are still able to participate.
  • The group presentations allow the students to teach and learn from each other. For example, one student decided to volunteer at Loaves and Fishes after her classmates’ presentation on their service project.

This past quarter, one of my students who joined me in the faculty workshop wrote in his journal,

The project was a good occasion to develop conversation abilities and I think it is really helpful for ESL students. The meeting between ESL students and the teachers was a very good idea and offered me the possibility to exchange ideas and share experiences to let them know what our needs are in this learning process. The presentation has the role to focus on what is important to remember from this meeting and also to develop our abilities with power point.

We are also promoting service learning and volunteering in the whole program in several ways. We began by designing a volunteering brochure for ESL students explaining the benefits of volunteering, providing examples of opportunities, and including student stories. We also created an ESL volunteering handbook with the help of my advanced ESL class. Students interviewed local organizations and summarized the information in a chart for the handbook.

In order to promote Make a Difference Day in October 2006, we put together a volunteering fair. Nonprofit organizations that use volunteers spoke about their work and recruited volunteers. So that it would be an interactive event for students of all levels, students were given “passports” with a question to ask each organization. After asking the questions at each booth, students entered their passports in a drawing. Two winners received gift cards to the college bookstore. Print resources were gathered and a web page was created for teachers to use to prep their students for the fair. The most significant outcome of the fair was that one of our beginning classes read to children at a nearby elementary school later that quarter.

Another project was the seminar entitled “Fridays in the Community,” for intermediate/advanced students. Every week, we went to different organizations, learned about their mission, and did a short service project at each. At Share House homeless shelters, students were so moved that students later collected over 566 pairs of socks as well as toiletries and clothing. Share House needed socks more than any other item because caseworkers give a pair to each homeless person that they meet.
If you are interested in adding a service-learning component, some questions to consider include

  • What are your course objectives? What English skills do you want to focus on?
  • In your personal life, how are you already connected to your community?
  • What organizations are already in your community?
  • What connections are already in place—at your school, etc.?
  • At your school, can someone support you as you begin to set up these projects? Is there a volunteer coordinator or service-learning manager?
  • How can you get buy-in from your students?

Service learning has been one of the most rewarding changes I have made in my curriculum because students tell me again and again how much they enjoyed the experience even though they felt nervous or scared in the beginning. They are happy to be given the opportunity to get connected to their community and make a difference.

Sara Gallow teaches English as a second language to refugees and immigrants at Clark College in Vancouver, WA. She also coordinates EL civics projects and activities for the program.

Broaching Serious Subjects With Adults

Peggy Marcy,

I have taught adult noncredit ESL off and on for 15 years. I was fortunate that when I started teaching, my boss constantly reminded me that I was teaching adults, not children. She often mentioned that my classes would include doctors, engineers, and lawyers along with homemakers and the unemployed. She taught me to not talk down to my students, but to change my words and add more pauses. She hated walking into pre-level-one adult classes run like a kindergarten. She insisted that her instructors teach English that is relevant to adults.

With that kind of encouragement, I have never been shy about bringing serious subjects into the ESL classroom. Because these learners are adults, they have the emotional maturity necessary to deal with adult topics. Adult learners may be lacking the vocabulary necessary to express themselves completely, but they are not lacking in opinions or in the desire to communicate. Therefore, when my colleague, Margaret Teske, and I wanted to write a listening and speaking textbook, we knew that we wanted to include challenging and interesting adult-oriented issues. The topics mentioned in this article all come from our textbooks, Step Up 1 & 2: Listening, Speaking, and Critical Thinking (Teske & Marcy, 2007a, 2007b).

Potential Problems
Let us look first at potential problems. What could go wrong with serious subjects such as cancer or single parenting?

Overwhelming or Empowering?
One thing that could go wrong is that teachers might lower an adult’s self-esteem instead of empowering learners. I know that when I was studying Japanese, I was surprised at the powerlessness I felt as an adult with the vocabulary of a 5-year-old.

Krashen’s (2004) comprehension hypothesis talks about “input (i) + 1.” Input is the content of a lesson, that is, the language, grammar, and vocabulary. The “+ 1” suggests that learning occurs when the content is slightly above the student’s current level; therefore, the content is comprehensible to the learner. On the other hand, i + 4 will prevent the student from learning because the input is too far above the current level and thus incomprehensible.

So, when presenting serious subjects to adult ESL students, teachers need to find a way to bring the level of the content down to “+ 1”, only slightly above where adult learners currently are.

Cultural Sensitivities
Another potential problem is that teachers may inadvertently increase tension between individuals from different cultures or between teacher and students. Some subjects just should not be approached in certain classrooms; however, most subjects can be used in most classes. The key is to present the information as factually as possible without advancing one opinion or another. Also, it is helpful to first discuss concepts such as how to appropriately react to troubling conversations or how to disagree without offending. I also like to have alternative assignments available for anyone who may be uncomfortable with the subject matter.

Strategies for Broaching Serious Subjects
Here are four strategies for handling serious subjects in adult noncredit ESL classrooms.

Appropriate and Relevant Vocabulary
The first guideline is to teach the appropriate and relevant vocabulary. This is one of the ways to reduce the content from “i + 4” to “i + 1.” Let’s use the topic of cancer as an example. Almost everyone knows someone who has had cancer. Students already have personal information that teachers can build upon. Learner interest and motivation is there because the information is relevant to life outside of the classroom. Adults probably have learned various healthcare terms such as headache and sore throat, but it is unlikely that they are familiar with the specific vocabulary related to cancer.

Words such as tumor, benign, and vomit do not appear in the most frequently used 2,000 words in English. Many instructors would back away from teaching these words in an intermediate ESL class, but with some key words like these, adult learners will be able to express themselves more completely on the issue of cancer. Students may choose to use the word harmless instead of benign, but at least they have that option.

Bloom’s Taxonomy
The second strategy is to provide plenty of scaffolding. My coauthor and I chose to focus onBloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, Englehart, Furst, & Krathwohl, 1956). Therefore, for each topic, we start with knowledge, comprehension, and application. Stopping at this point may leave students feeling frustrated because they have increased knowledge in English about the serious topic but may not feel confident enough to use it in the real world. Contrary to popular opinion, being able to “apply” the information in the classroom does not necessarily lead to “applying” it outside of the classroom.

It is important when covering serious topics to continue into the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. These extra steps will enable more thorough acquisition and inspire greater confidence in the learner.

In-Class Practice
The third strategy is to offer significant amounts of in-class practice. For me, in-class practice goes beyond simple application and into analysis and synthesis. I want my students to analyze (appraise, calculate, categorize, compare, criticize, differentiate, experiment); synthesize (arrange, assemble, create, design, formulate, organize, plan); and evaluate (assess, defend, judge, rate, support, and value) in the classroom.

For example, when dealing with serious illnesses in Step Up 1, students are asked to differentiate responses to complaints and to create their own expression of sympathy, encouragement, or neutrality and use it in the appropriate complaint category (Teske & Marcy, 2007a, p. 138). Previously, they had been taught the necessary vocabulary and phrases and listened to and read numerous examples. At the end of each chapter, students are asked to complete a self-evaluation that gives them focused reflection on what they have learned.

In 1985, Merrill Swain presented the comprehensible output hypothesis, also known as the pushed output hypothesis. The basic premise is that a student does not truly acquire the language until he or she produces the language. Most learners are more than willing to accept language input, but they need teacher encouragement (a gentle push) to use the language as output. With serious subjects, it is extremely important to provide safe opportunities for the students to use the language as output. Letting learners practice over and over in a variety of ways in the classroom will directly impact how thoroughly they acquire the language.

Self-evaluation can also be less intimidating than peer or teacher evaluation. According to Mark Prensky (2001), encouraging students to take the time for focused self-reflection “is, in many ways, the process of ‘learning from experience.’ In our twitch-speed world, there is less and less time and opportunity for reflection, and this development concerns many people” (p. 5). So after students have done a lot of practicing, teachers can ask them to assess themselves by, for example, asking them to write two things they have learned during the lesson. Learners will need a gentle push toward focused self-reflection just as they do toward output.

Out-of-Class Activities
The fourth strategy is to encourage out-of-class activities. This is likely to be much easier to do with credit ESL classes than it is for noncredit classes. However, my coauthor and I have found that the more we ask for out-of-class assignments, the more the assignments get done. Part of the motivation is the social pressure felt by students who did not do the work from those who complete the assignment. Also, as learners become more accustomed to producing the relevant language, they become less fearful and more confident in practicing what they have learned outside the class.

Without the instructor pushing the learner to interact in English out of class, it will seldom happen, if at all.

I encourage teachers to use these strategies for any topic. However, the more serious the topic, the more important these strategies become. The first task for teachers who have an interest in presenting serious topics is to choose which topic they want to share with students, then do the prep work necessary. I suspect teachers will find adults are eager to learn about the subject. Once the language is taught, teachers will find adult learners have much to say on the matter. Frequently the biggest problem will be limiting the discussion and debate so the class can move forward in a timely manner. That is a problem I love to have.

Bloom, B., Englehart, M., Furst, E., & Krathwohl, D. (Eds.). (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay.
Krashen, S. (2004). Applying the Comprehension Hypothesis: Some Suggestions. Retrieved May 23, 2007, from
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II: Do They Really Think Differently? Retrieved May 23, 2007, from,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part2.pdf
Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In S. Gass & C. Madden (Eds.), Input in second language acquisition (pp. 235-253). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
Teske, M., & Marcy, P. (2007a). Step Up 1: Listening, Speaking, and Critical Thinking. Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning.
Teske, M., & Marcy, P. (2007b). Step Up 2: Listening, Speaking, and Critical Thinking. Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning.

Peggy Marcy supervises the Language Learning Center at Mount San Antonio College, Walnut, CA; teaches CALL at California State University, San Bernardino CA; and is coauthor of listening and speaking textbooks, Step Up 1 & 2.

The Four Components of Reading

Nancy Krygowski,, and Allegra Elson,


Our reading class for pre- and low-literate nonnative speakers of English started with a request: Somali-Bantu women enrolled in a family literacy program run by the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council told their instructor they wanted to learn how to read. Eager to help, and excited by their perceived need, the family literacy instructor enlisted the help of an experienced ESL instructor and an experienced ABE instructor with a special interest in reading instruction. What ensued was an ongoing, evolving teaching experiment centered on adapting research-proven methods of teaching reading to native-born speakers of English for work with literacy-level ESOL learners.

Our class began over 18 months ago with mainly preliterate Somali-Bantu refugee women. Now, the class is composed of students from a variety of ethnic groups and native language literacy proficiency—preliterate, nonliterate, and semiliterate—but our goal remains the same: to teach a low-level reading class that also meets our students’ English language speaking and listening needs.

In an attempt to create a predictable and safe learning environment for our students—many of whom have never attended school—and to teach how classroom learning works, we’ve designed a class that follows a similar structure each day. A few principles guide our work. Because research has shown that effective reading instruction for native English speakers should be systematic and explicit and should address the four components of reading—alphabetics/word recognition, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension—we use these components to structure each day’s lesson. Second, because we want our students to understand that reading communicates ideas, we focus our lessons on preparing to read and reading whole stories. (Though it is not specifically created for ESOL use, we’ve chosen New Readers Press’s Talk of the Block series as our main text.) Finally, we want to provide students with listening and speaking opportunities in addition to teaching specific grammatical and syntactical lessons to improve reading, listening, and speaking skills.

In this article we explain the basic structure of a class and how it differs from instruction for native speakers and give examples of activities we’ve used successfully. Our hope is that other instructors will be able to implement a similar structure in their ESOL basic literacy classes to further explore the possible connections between ESOL and ABE reading instruction.

The Four Components of Reading

Teaching reading skills to adults is a slow, arduous process because the process of reading itself is complex. A student must be able to process the written letter, connect letter to sound, put sounds together into words, process words that don’t follow phonological patterns, string together words to form sentences, and then make connections between series of sentences. It’s a lot of brainwork. Our lessons attempt to isolate and develop these skills.

Part One: Alphabetics/Word Recognition

Phonemic Awareness

Alphabetics/word recognition work refers to phonemic awareness (the ability to differentiate between and manipulate basic sounds in English), word analysis (the ability to understand the written letter/sound correspondence and to recognize patterns of sounds, like the short vowel pattern of consonant-vowel-consonant), and high-frequency sight-word recognition. Phonemic awareness activities are aural activities designed to focus a learner’s attention on sounds in isolation from the graphic symbol. Examples of these activities include auditory blending—blending individual sounds into words (/b/ /a/ /t/ = bat); auditory segmenting—breaking a word into individual sounds (just = /j/ /u/ /s//t/); and phonemic manipulation—adding, deleting or changing the order of phonemes to create a new word (change the /a/ in tap to /o/).

Though we tried, we were unable to successfully engage our students in these activities. Language barriers prevented us from explaining the reasoning behind the activities (something ABE students are able to understand), and modeling the work didn’t help. The work didn’t feel like reading instruction to our students, so we decided to focus this segment of our lesson on what pre- and low-literate students are most lacking in: the connection between graphic letters and their sounds.

Word Analysis

To set the tone for our class work, we begin each day with an alphabet lesson. We write the sentences, The name of the letter is and The sound of the letter is, on the board and proceed through the alphabet. This activity reinforces the sometimes confusing concept that letters have names and sounds and provides an opportunity for drill.

It’s important to make sure that students are making a singular sound with consonants. We always advise students to make “small mouths” for these sounds. For example, /b/ should be formed with a mostly closed mouth to avoid the sound /bŭh/ (which is composed of two sounds, /b/ and /ŭ/). Vowel sounds require more open mouths. Giving mouth descriptions and modeling mouth formations helps with this instruction.

Next, we take exercises designed for phoneme awareness and use these as word analysis activities emphasizing the sound-symbol connection. We segment words into sounds by saying a word and asking the students to first make beginning, middle, and end sounds and then give the corresponding letters, which we write on the board. We build words one letter at a time by blending beginning, middle, and end sounds. We create new words by changing a beginning, middle, or end letter in an existing word and asking students to decode the new word.

We allow students to make mistakes with this work. For example, if we are segmenting a word and students give the wrong vowel, we write it down. When we recheck the word by sounding it out, students get into lively debates over letters and sounds. Overall, they have much success with this work and enjoy it.

For word analysis, we use words mainly from stories we’ve read or are preparing to read, though we also supplement with words students have in their working vocabulary and with some new vocabulary words. It’s important to make sure the words for these activities “sound out” based on phonics patterns we’ve studied (in our case, short vowel patterns, consonant blends, and digraphs).

Word Families

Another kind of word analysis involves word families, groups of words that share the same middle and end sounds. We choose a word family based on a pattern in the story we’re preparing to read. We introduce the pattern (-ack, -un, -ell) and the list of words for word analysis and also for vocabulary development. We play picture/word-matching games, have students work individually to match pictures to words on worksheets, read sentences containing the words, and eventually have students match sentences to pictures. Occasionally, we’ll create a small supplemental story using a word family. We introduce new word families approximately twice a month. Alphabet and word analysis work generally takes up about 30 to 40 minutes of our class.

Part Two: Sight Words and Vocabulary

Sight Words

The last step in alphabetics and word recognition is teaching sight words (common, high-frequency words that often don't follow simple phonics patterns, such as the, was, and said). Knowing common sight words helps speed up reading, which helps learners make meaning from the text. Though sight words are common words for ABE learners, ESL students may not know them or understand the words’ syntactical or grammatical function.

Teaching sight words involves memorization; the words need to be imprinted on the brain like a picture. Using index cards, we teach about five sight words from the story we will read. We tell the students the word and use the word many times in context to show its meaning or function. Next, we drill the cards to encourage memorization. Low-literacy ESL students have less tolerance for repetitive drills, perhaps because we are less able to communicate the importance that imprinting words has on the reading process. We spend only about 10 to 15 minutes on this kind of work.


Vocabulary learning in a reading skills class is similar to sight-word learning; we stress imprinting the word on the student’s mind through repetition. The vocabulary we teach also comes from the story we are preparing to read. We think of vocabulary not only as the words students are unfamiliar with but also as words students know but won’t recognize in print because they are beyond their ability to decode, such as teacher, school, son, and daughter. We teach these words by using picture cards, asking questions that relate to students’ lives, giving many sample sentences, and doing picture/word-matching exercises.

Part Three: ESL Activities

Though all of our work is focused on teaching reading skills, we also create ESL activities that, in addition to helping with an upcoming story, will improve our students’ communication and life skills. These ESL lessons are often connected to speech patterns (and are often traditional beginning ESL lessons, like introductions, days of the week, the verbs to be or to have, or formulaic chunks, like May I speak to . . .). We also use this segment of our lesson to address gaps in our students’ knowledge. For example, we’ve taught how to read store hours and work schedules that use abbreviated days of the week and a hyphen to mean through or to, in addition to simple conversations for use when shopping. ESL instruction involves simple texts we create, and the emphasis is on communication, not on reading as decoding. Often, an ESL activity will be the main lesson or reading for the day, and we may devote 30 minutes to it.

Part Four: Comprehension

The goal of reading is comprehension, and all word analysis, vocabulary, sight-word, and ESL activities are designed to aid understanding of the story we will read. We read and then reread a story many times to aid comprehension.

Reading for Accuracy

Reading for accuracy refers to students working through a text on their own, practicing the decoding, vocabulary, and English language lessons we’ve done in preparation. But before students read, we use the story’s accompanying picture and the title to do more prereading work. To activate schema we ask basic who/what/when/where/why questions, and we also ask them to think about the title and picture of the story to help them predict the story’s plot. By this point, students are very eager to read. We encourage them to read alone (though some choose to work together), and we help them individually by reminding them of vocabulary or sight words or by urging them to sound out words. Nearly all of our learners choose to read out loud, which helps us monitor their accuracy.

After they’ve completed reading on their own, we read together, each student taking a sentence. At significant plot points or at a paragraph’s end, we ask simple questions to model how a reader should self-monitor comprehension. Skilled readers know to check comprehension as they read. However, for low-literacy students this skill needs to be taught through modeling. If students answer incorrectly, we guide them to locate the correct information in the text. Reading a 14- to 18-sentence story in this manner generally takes 15 to 20 minutes.

Reading for Fluency

Next we read for fluency, the ability to read smoothly with correct rhythm, intonation, and expression. After students have read for accuracy and after we’ve monitored comprehension, the instructor reads the story sentence-by-sentence and students repeat. Our goals are to quicken the reading speed and mimic normal speech fluency, which is about chunking language together, not reading individual words however, beginning ESOL readers have difficulty with pace and are often more interested in word accuracy. We spend only 5 to 10 minutes on fluency.

Evaluating Comprehension/Writing

The final part of the comprehension lesson involves written comprehension. The Talk of the Block stories include yes/no or written comprehension questions. Though we use both, we favor written questions and will create our own if none are provided. Written comprehension questions not only give us a chance to check understanding but also give our learners an opportunity to practice forming letters and writing in complete sentences. For our higher level students, we emphasize simple grammar and syntax corrections that reinforce English language lessons we’ve done in class. For lower level students, we use the written questions to model compete sentences and for writing practice.


We are seeing some small gains. Students are developing, albeit slowly, the skills needed to decode text and are self-correcting as they read. Nearly all of them understand the idea of getting information from text. In addition, students are coming early to read on their own, staying late to work on comprehension questions, and asking for and completing homework. Though we’re committed to creating predictable, structured lessons, we are always evaluating our work and making adjustments. We invite you to explore these ideas with us and pass on comments and suggestions.

Resources Consulted

Burt, M., Peyton, J. K., & Van Duzer, C. (2005). How Should Adult ESL Reading Instruction Differ from ABE Reading Instruction? Washington, DC: Center for Adult English Language Acquisition. Retrieved January 20, 2008, from

Hager, A. (2001). Techniques for teaching beginning-level reading to adults. Focus on Basics 5(A). Retrieved January 20, 2008, from

Kruidenier, J. (2002). Research-based principles for adult basic education reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy. Retrieved January 20, 2008, from

Nancy Krygowski, who holds master’s degrees in creative writing and in teaching writing from the University of New Hampshire and the University of Pittsburgh, is a full-time ABE/GED instructor with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council.

Allegra Elson, who holds a master’s degree in Italian language/literature from the University of Pittsburgh and a TESOL certificate from Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY, is a full-time ESL instructor with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council.

Effective Use of Volunteers in Adult ESL

Holly Dilatush,

Many adult education programs use volunteers; many others have considered the possibility. Some programs have policies and procedures in place, others just “wing it” as prospective volunteers approach them.

Have you ever been a volunteer in an adult ed classroom? What motivated you? What makes a “good” volunteer? What keeps a volunteer motivated? What keeps a volunteer’s experience meaningful? Here is some feedback regarding the volunteers at Charlottesville City Schools Adult Learning Center.

From volunteers:
"Volunteering with ESL students at the ALC has changed my life!”

“I am enjoying his class a lot. He is a skilled and effective teacher and he seems to have a really good relationship with the students.

From teachers:
“She is great, jumped right in and was a huge help. She is someone you may want to use in other classrooms.”

“I want more volunteers like her!”

From adult learners:
“Wow! He really helped me. He pushed me to practice more. I am writing in my journal almost every day now because of his help.”

“My tutor is so patient and kind.”

“I’m so surprised that these busy people try to help me! And for no money. It is great.”

“When they [volunteers] come, we can practice our English more, but especially we can listen until we understand. It is so hard at the store, at the bank, but here the teachers and the volunteers really, really try to speak clearly, to repeat, to help us to understand English. I really appreciate the volunteers. And many of them are students, too!”

Our Program
The Charlottesville City Schools Adult Learning Center’s journey with volunteers began prior to 2001 with a no-formal-policies-in-place volunteer group of five or fewer volunteers. We now have:

  • 57-plus active volunteers
  • a formal volunteer program with policies and procedures in place
  • a paid part-time volunteer coordinator
  • a volunteer handbook drafted, edited, updated (using Publisher)
  • several community partnerships
  • a volunteer orientation offered on an ongoing basis
  • routine volunteer-recognition events
  • greatly enhanced community awareness
  • volunteer program evaluations and professional development activities
  • national recognition as an exemplary volunteer program

Our program’s goal is to place a minimum of one volunteer per classroom, so the bulk of our volunteers work closely with teachers. Others assist with special one-time projects, including massive data-entry tasks for our Web site, festivals, graduation ceremonies, health and educational fair events, general maintenance of hallway/classroom displays, and small-group pull-out reinforcement/review/conversation practice (preplanned/organized by teachers).

Benefits of Volunteer Program
Below is a list of benefits noted by the Charlottesville City Schools Adult Learning Center and believed to be attributable, at least in part, to its volunteer program:

  • Improved student retention
  • Increased community awareness of adult education needs/population
  • Positive student response
  • Increased funding. Our program was selected as one of 10 programs nationally and awarded a $3,000 stipend in recognition of our exemplary volunteer program with the agreement that we would share what we have learned with other programs.
  • Paid teachers being enabled to provide a more meaningful learning experience, particularly in multilevel classrooms
  • Increased networking opportunities that have led to surprising discoveries
  • Improved staff morale
  • Hiring of a few volunteers to our staff as preproven teachers

Things to Think About
Priority considerations to ensuring a valued, valuable volunteer program:

  • Plan, plan, plan: Involve all staff in the planning process, including existing volunteers if you have them, and solicit some adult learner feedback, too. After a close-to-final draft plan is ready, DIAT [Do It Again Thoughtfully]! Implementing a volunteer program is not a course of action to undertake lightly.
  • Budgeting: A long-term investment will be necessary. It is much harder to rebuild a volunteer program and attract community support than it is to develop one thoughtfully from inception.
  • Roles: Clarify roles and responsibilities of volunteer coordinator, staff and teachers, and prospective volunteers.
  • Volunteer Manual/Handbook: Create a volunteer manual/handbook and internal policies and procedures.
  • Community Outreach and Recruitment: Use your existing community partnerships and build more! (See Appendix A.)
  • Volunteer Training and Development: Determine what type of orientation and training you will be able to provide. Research other options available locally and online. There are several FREE online options. (See Appendix B.) As is feasible, invite volunteers to participate in professional development opportunities organized for staff.
  • Volunteer recognition: There are many schools of thought on this. Ponder, plan, and collect feedback on various options. Talk to other programs; join a local volunteer forum. (Useful reference:
  • Reevaluate Regularly: Seek feedback from volunteers, staff, students, and other programs in your area (not necessarily adult education).
  • Document Response: Quotes and comments from volunteers, learners, and teachers/staff are wonderful to use when handwriting personal thank-you notes, for sharing with prospective volunteers, for volunteer appreciation events.

Use your students (adult learners) as volunteers, too!

What Do Our Volunteers Do?

Adult learners at our center help with varied projects and gain confidence, learn vocabulary, learn job skills, and get real-world English practice, too.

Possible projects:

  • preparing index cards for games and study activities
  • creating and maintaining bulletin boards and hallway displays
  • creating display signs for annual Festival of Cultures and other events
  • distributing catalogs and promotional flyers to local business establishments (practicing introductions, polite requests)
  • providing feedback on and review of our center’s Web site and informational, promotional flyers
  • preparing for and cleaning up after our thrice-yearly potluck events
  • straightening up (and soliciting donations for) our book-swap shelves
  • other tasks as they come to mind

Future goals and plans that our volunteer program is considering include the following:

  • Develop an online orientation using a Moodle interactive course management system. Prospective volunteers could log in; review the entire volunteer handbook; download an application; complete a series of surveys, questionnaires, and discussion prompts; and review various materials we would prepare. This orientation would be done before a face-to-face meeting and should free up a considerable amount of the volunteer coordinator’s time and avoid some scheduling hassles.
  • Develop a short video of various classrooms with volunteers in action, to use as part of orientation.
  • Expand the Volunteer of the Month program. Have adult learners plan, schedule, conduct, and write up interviews with volunteers, and then create a “spotlight” hallway display honoring individual volunteers.
  • Improve program evaluation.
  • Revise system for volunteer recognitions and appreciation events.
  • Continue to develop and improve community partnerships.

We wish to acknowledge all the many varied resources that have helped our volunteer program grow, including but not limited to

  • Valley Volunteer Forum, VA
  • Catholic Charities ESL Volunteer program, Fairfax, VA
  • United Way organization
  • Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch (1997) (authors, Volunteer Management)
  • ProLiteracy America and the other exemplary programs that received stipend awards and shared their expertise
    Thank you!

Sharing Knowledge
The Charlottesville City Schools Adult Learning Center would be pleased to share additional details, including

  • copies of our volunteer handbook (created in Publisher and available as a PDF file and/or as text-only)
  • feedback received from various evaluations
  • samples of flyers and other promotional materials
  • various data management forms
  • public service announcements
  • news/info letters
  • policies and procedures

Simply e-mail your specific request to Cherry Stewart at (Cherry is the current volunteer coordinator for Charlottesville City Schools Adult Learning Center) or to Holly at

McCurley, S., & Lynch, R. (1997). Volunteer management: Mobilizing all the resources of the community. Downers Grove, IL: Heritage Arts.

Holly Dilatush is currently pursuing her master’s degree in adult education and training (University of Phoenix Online) and launching a pilot distance-learning program with students from Dakar, Senegal. From 2000 to 2007, she was employed with the Charlottesville City Schools Adult Learning Center, Charlottesville, VA, where she taught and also worked as volunteer coordinator. From 2004 to 2005 she was a visiting professor of English at Catholic University of Korea in Seoul, Korea.

Collocations: Vocabulary for Conversation

Carole Adams,, and Rachel Adams Goertel,

Corpus linguistics has come into its own and every language conference around the world is now focusing on chunking and what it means to the classroom teacher. Researchers advance the concept that vocabulary words no more exist in isolation than does a country; they are bound to their neighbors.

Before 1999, chunking and collocations were not the educational buzz words they are today. The publication of the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English by Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad, and Finegan (1999) provided a colossal tool to accompany the theory that chunking was the way to present English to language learners. However, this theory has been slow to make its way into the classroom.

This article is a follow-up to a demonstration, Words to Accelerate Vocabulary Acquisition, (Adams & Adams, 2005) and a poster, Vocabulary Valise (Adams & Adams, 2007), presented at the TESOL conventions in San Antonio, Texas, and Seattle, Washington, in 2005 and 2007. The authors have taken one aspect of language teaching—vocabulary—and examined it in light of research reflected in works such as the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber et al., 1999). The goal is to illustrate how to select not just high-frequency words but also word partnerships that are used in reading and writing as well as everyday speech in which it is so important for students to function.

In the past, a popular approach to teaching vocabulary has been to cluster the new vocabulary words around a subject such as house, school, oroccupation. Therefore, teachers focused on the easy-to-learn aspect of vocabulary, nouns, with emphasis on words such as books, hall, classroom, anddesk. However, as many educators know, this approach to teaching and learning is far from applicable in everyday communication. If teachers want their students to be able to understand what is said to them and respond in an appropriate manner, a different approach is needed: one based on recent research.

Vocabulary and communication can be packaged and delivered much more effectively and efficiently if instructors begin to examine frequency patterns, words already “clustered,” and homophones, and capitalize on words in tandem such as phrasal verbs. Vocabulary encompasses more than single words and so should the teaching of it. As Conrad, Biber, and Leech (2002) pointed out, “Traditionally, both in theory and in pedagogical practice, grammar has been separate from vocabulary as if they were two totally independent aspects of language and language learning” (p. 4). This does not have to be the case. The separation is artificial. Why separate vocabulary from the grammar in which it is embedded? It is senseless and requires learning twice, first the vocabulary and then the grammar. Pair them instead!

An important question to ask is, “Can teaching vocabulary help our students communicate better?” Looking at the following excerpt, you might answer, “No.”

Speaker A: So it was just, you know.
Speaker B: Yeah.
(Biber et al., 1999, p. 346)

Communication drives language. It is clear there is complete communication between the two speakers in this dialogue. It is also clear to any ESL teacher that the communication is in the speakers’ first language. Students might know every word in the interchange, but they do not understand what the communication entails. Vocabulary is not the barrier. This dialogue makes it is clear that context is essential and, given the choice, one should work with vocabulary that is embedded in the grammar and not teach single vocabulary words but rather companion words and word partnerships.

In the following sections, two approaches to teaching vocabulary—the use of collocations and the use of phrasal verbs—are described.


Collocations are simply word pairs, partnerships, words that have hung out together for so long in spoken English that substituting a synonym would jar a listener. For example, foreseeable is too strongly linked with the word future to be replaced with a synonym; a native speaker would not say “in your foreseeable life ahead.” When a native speaker utters foreseeable, the word future is so closely associated with foreseeable that replacing it with a substitute would be interpreted as an anomaly or the act of a nonnative speaker. An advanced ESL student asked, “Do you think he had an ulterior reasonfor doing that?” The question was jarring because a listener expects the word motive, not reason, to follow ulterior. Although the word reason is a perfectly good synonym, the word motive has too strong of an association with ulterior to be replaced.

Words that are commonly seen together

forseeable future
ulterior motive

The synonyms wide and broad have their own set of word associations so that exchanging the words closely associated with each does not work. Wide apart and wide eyed work, as does broad daylight, but one cannot exchange the nouns and say broad apart or broad eyed anymore than one can say wide daylight. The use of these closely associated words is second nature for native speakers, but for ESL students it is a stumbling block.

Broad Daylight Wide apart

Another challenge for ESL students is collocations involving certain verbs, especially do and make. Looking at the associations, one can see that do must go with one set of words and make with the other.

Do homework Make a mistake
some cleaning a good impression
somebody a favor a decision
the right thing

Package nouns present similar problems for language learners. Both a couple and a pair mean two—a concept easily understood by any beginning language learner—but each takes an entirely different group of nouns, complicating usage because of the close word association between the noun and the quantifying term. Understanding this, any teacher can help students by calling attention to the use of a pair of with items of clothes.

A pair of arms A couple of days
eyes boys
glasses examples
gloves balloons
pants hours

A similar dilemma is presented with that and to clauses because each takes a different set of verbs. To help students, one can call attention to the fact that mental verbs (think, guess, know, believe) are followed by that clauses, not to clauses.

One set of verbs with
say + that clauses want + to clauses
think like
know seem

When one is trying to decide what to teach, looking at corpus research to see frequency patterns is very valuable. Choosing those with high-frequency use ensures students will soon meet these words on the street, be able to recognize them, and be able to respond appropriately. Examining patterns of lexical bundles can provide rich material for oral practice. Some of the most common four-word bundles in conversation fall into three patterns:

Pattern 1: Personal pronoun + verb phrase
I don't know what/why/if/how/whether
but I don't know...oh I don't know
I thought it was...I think it was... I don't think so
It's going to be... I was going to... I'm not going to

Pattern 2: Extended verb phrases
have a look at...
know what I mean...
going to be a... going to have a/to...was going to say

Pattern 3: Question fragments
do you want to/me/a...
are we going to... are you going to...
do you know what...
what are you doing...
what do you mean/think/want...

(Biber et al., 1999, pp. 446-447)

One way to teach these common patterns in the classroom is to have the students make a grid by folding 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper in half widthwise, folding it again, and then folding it one more time. There will be eight rows. Have the students number them. The teacher can either dictate or write words from one of the three patterns above on the blackboard, leaving part to be filled in by the students. The students complete the sentences themselves. They can wrap around the back of the paper if they want long sentences. They then can incorporate the sentences in a skit for oral practice.

1 don't know if
2 don't know what
3 don't know why
4 don't know how
5 don't know whether

For help and very practical material, see Michael Lewis’s (2002) Teaching Collocations.

Phrasal Verbs

Another aspect of chunking is the phrasal verb. Phrasal verbs are verb complexes consisting of a verb and one or more particles acting as a complete syntactic and semantic unit, such as ask for, beat up, or kick out. One approach to teaching phrasal verbs is to brainstorm with students. Have them advance any preposition they have heard the verb linked to and consider its meaning. For example, with turn you might come up with the following word bank:

turn against (revolt) turn against the leader
turn away (reject) turn away customers
turn back (return) turn back home
turn down (refuse) turned down for a job
(reduce) turn down the heat
turn in (go to bed) turn in for the night
(submit) turn in homework
turn into (enter) turn into the parking lot
(change) turn into a monster
turn off (extinguish) turn off the lights
(exit) turn off the road
(disgusted) his leer turned me off
turn on (attack) his dog turned on me
(initiate) turn on the charm
(increase) turn on the heat
turn out (outcome) it turned out sad
(extinguish) turn out the lights
(show up) the turnout was enormous
(produced) turned out 1,000 cars a day
turn to (alter direction) turn to the west
(seek help) she turned to her husband
turn up (appear) turn up drunk
(raise) turn up his collar
(discover) the money turned up

Instructors can teach phrasal verbs and then teach them again as adjectives or as nouns:

Phrasal verb: The car ran down the boy.
Adjective: It's a rundown neighborhood.

Phrasal verb: Turn out the light.
Noun: The turnout was huge.

Similar banks of phrasal verbs can be created with get, put, and go to produce even a longer list of particles and meanings. Excellent examples can be found in John Flower’s (1993) Phrasal Verb Organizer with Mini-Dictionary. (See additional recommended resources for teachers in Appendix A.)

Another activity that might be used is “Multiple Meanings.” The teacher scatters prepositions and verbs on the blackboard. The students pair up appropriate verbs and particles and write sentences using the same phrasal verb but with a different meaning. For example, a student could use work out in three different ways:

solve a problem,
exercise, and
be all right in the end.

The student (or team) with the most multiple meanings wins.

The traditional teaching of vocabulary involves separating out words from their grammar and use. However, memorization of word lists is laborious, monotonous, and rarely results in improved conversational skills. Students are given a step up not by viewing vocabulary word-by-word or as a-list-to-be-taught but rather, as Michael Lewis (2002) who introduced the authors to all this would say, “in chunks.”


Adams, R., & Adams, C. (2007, March) Vocabulary valise. Poster session at the TESOL Convention & Exhibit, Seattle, WA.
Adams, R., & Adams, C. (2005, March) Words to accelerate vocabulary acquisition. A demonstration at the TESOL Convention & Exhibit, San Antonio, TX.
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex, England: Pearson Education Limited.
Conrad, S., Biber, D., & Leech, G. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English workbook. Essex, England: Pearson Education Limited.
Lewis, M. (2002). Teaching collocations. Sussex, England: Language Teaching Publications

Appendix A
Recommended Teacher Resources

Flower, J. (1993). Phrasal verb organizer with mini-dictionary. Sussex, England: Language Teaching Publications.
Flower, J., & Berman, M. (1995). American vocabulary program 1 lower intermediate. Sussex, England: Language Teaching Publications.
Flower, J., & Berman, M. (1995). American vocabulary program 1 intermediate. Sussex, England: Language Teaching Publications.
Flower, J., & Berman, M. (1995). American vocabulary program 1 upper intermediate. Sussex, England: Language Teaching Publications.
Hill, J., & Lewis, M. (1997). LTP dictionary of selected collocations. Sussex, England: Language Teaching Publications.
Lewis, M., & Hill, J. (1992). Practical techniques for language teaching. Sussex, England: Language Teaching Publications.
Lewis, M. (2002). Teaching collocations. Sussex, England: Language Teaching Publications.
McCarthy, M. (1990). Vocabulary. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Carole Adams has taught ESL in the Rochester (NY) City School District for 20 years and has been an online instructor with Columbia University’s Business English for employees of Companies Abroad.

Rachel Adams Goertel earned her MA in TESOL from the School for International Training. She teaches English and ESL for the Elmira City (NY) School District and Mansfield University, Mansfield, PA.


EL Civics Task-Based Projects Poster Presentation at TESOL 2007

Sophia Shang,

This poster display provides samples of projects produced in English language (EL) Civics class to contribute to the community. Students introduced their countries and cultures at events sponsored by Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Public Library. These activities enhanced cultural awareness and increased self-esteem.

Two levels of EL Civics courses are offered at the college for immigrant and refugee students in the Adult Basic Skills Program. At the beginning level, students learn what the community has to offer them, and at the intermediate level, the focus is on how to give back to the community. At the beginning of each quarter, students brainstorm and decide on the major project for the quarter, based on an upcoming college event and what English skills they are interested in improving.

Sample projects include recipe books, culturegrams, translations of a college resource brochure or resource material for school parent-teacher conferences, reading aloud children’s books to children, and poster displays. Making posters is the most popular project, and the most time consuming. It seems to be the most rewarding because students learn many things: how to narrow the topic, make an outline, find pictures and clipart on the Internet, copy and paste in Word, surf the internet for cultural information, work with the media resources specialist, and so on. If there is time, students learn how to give a presentation with a visual aid. Students have not only improved their English skills but also gained other useful skills. Both students and community members learn about different cultures and perspectives of the world we live in.

For sample poster projects and culturegrams, go to ESL 43/53 (EL Civics course) at

For poster instructions and various handouts, go to Whatcom Community College faculty/staff directory and find Sophia Shang or

Sophia Shang is currently an ESL instructor in the Adult Basic Skills Program at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, WA. She has taught in Japan, Taiwan, and Illinois.

The Half-Full Glass: Teaching Despite CASAS

Planaria Price,

Looking dispassionately at the content of the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS), one can see that it is yet another incarnation of “survival English.” The reality is that we must teach language and culture together. Since the demise of Dick and Jane in native speaker reading and the audiolingual method in ESL, second language acquisition research has finally proven what teachers have always intuited: there is a necessary link between learning a language and living a language. Basically, the process of learning English as a second language should empower our students to be self-motivated, to quickly comprehend real English, and then to get on successfully with their lives, whatever their goals or aspirations.

Swimming through the jargon of the CASAS competencies and the SCANS (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, i.e., the skills determined to be needed to succeed in the world of work), one can find reality. If we teach our students how to understand English and culture so that they can succeed in their daily lives, they will become fluent in English much more quickly and comfortably.

In my poster sessions in Seattle and at CATESOL (California TESOL), I proposed a technique to get students motivated to learn outside of the classroom and a technique to teach them observational and critical thinking skills.

Wanting to be pragmatic and positive, I created what I call “Reading Projects,” which contain some unique techniques that enable teachers and students to benefit from this fait accompli of CASAS. When these simple weekly topics are implemented, the student learns, and achieving those needed benchmarks becomes automatic. The student, the teacher, and the school budget are all winners.

I am reproducing exactly what I give to my intermediate and advanced students. Please feel free to modify these ideas to suit the needs of your class and your own teaching style.

Reading Project Guidelines

The purpose of these Reading Projects is to teach you to learn how to use your eyes to read English ALL THE TIME. We humans learn by observation. Put your projects in your reading journal and turn them into me every Friday.

At the beginning of EACH class meet in groups of two to four and share your reading project. You will get one point for each week you turn in your journal. After you get six points you will be rewarded with a brand-new book.

Now look at this example of the first reading project. Remember these are only suggestions to help you learn to read English and get you in the habit of observing. Do the project for the week, or all the projects each week, or choose your own.

FIRST WEEK: Read three signs that you see on the streets; these signs should not be names of things but rather should be signs that give information. Write what you see in a small notebook (your journal) or on 3 x 5 cards and "translate" them into an English you can understand. For example, if you see a sign that says "ped x-ing," explain what information that sign is trying to communicate to you. If you see a sign that says "Tow-Away Zone," explain exactly what it means. Be sure that you are always conscious of the context (the whole situation). That will help you guess the meanings of what you see.

SECOND WEEK: Read an advertisement in the paper or magazine, or on a billboard. Explain what you think it means. Be sure to pay attention to the artwork or photographs; they are an important part of the advertisement.

THIRD WEEK: Go to a large “American” supermarket and read labels on the food; check the names of the vegetables and fruit. Make a list of all the new vocabulary you find. The supermarket is really like a picture dictionary. Use it often to learn.

FOURTH WEEK: Carefully read the label of something you are about to eat. Do you understand what the ingredients are? Do you really want to put it in your mouth? Was it worth the price? What’s the main ingredient? Are there preservatives? Be sure to check the serving size, calories, fats, and carbohydrates.

FIFTH WEEK: Find a partner and talk about your favorite food. Write a recipe for your favorite food and exchange it with your partner.

SIXTH WEEK: Carefully look at your phone bill or cable bill, utility bill, or credit card bill. Do you understand what you are paying for?

SEVENTH WEEK: Read some advertisements in the classified section of the newspaper and try to figure out the abbreviations.

EIGHTH WEEK: While you are on the bus, walking on the street, or driving, look at the cars’ license plates. Look for the “vanity” license plates and try to figure out the meanings. For example, gr8 1; RU1; BABYMD.

NINTH WEEK: Look at the label on a bottle of aspirin or cough medicine or any medicine you have in the house. Can you “translate” all the information into simple English?

TENTH WEEK: Look at the TV guide of your newspaper and see if any television programs are of interest to you. Can you understand all the symbols that are used, such as cc, TVG, TV14?

ELEVENTH WEEK: Read a children's book. You will be amazed at how much vocabulary you will learn and how much information you will find about American culture.

TWELFTH WEEK: Read a headline in the newspaper and paraphrase it (put the headline into other words).

Planaria Price has taught adult ESL for 35 years at Evans Community Adult School in Los Angeles. She is the author of four texts: Open Sesame, Eureka!, Achieving Competency (University of Michigan Press), and Realistically Speaking. Her fifth text, America 101: Survival Tips for the New Arrival (University of Michigan Press), will be available at the end of 2008. She has been a frequent mentor teacher for MATESOL programs at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles and has given numerous workshops to schools and at conferences.


Learning Disabilities and Stressbusters

Ellen Lewin,

Learning Disabilities
Where should I start with this topic? One of my own children has a hidden disability that doesn’t qualify for special services but that has a long list of symptoms and a big effect on her grades, interpersonal relationships, and life in general. However, I became fascinated with the concept of learning disabilities long before my daughter was diagnosed 6 years ago. Too many mainstream teachers have labeled my ESL students learning disabled (LD) when they have had trouble with general studies. Conversely, too many have said, “No, it’s an ESL issue, not a learning disability,” when I’ve asked for help in assessing students who just could not seem to successfully progress in college. As I grew frustrated with these stereotypical categories, I hunted for answers.

How could students come every day, turn in homework, answer questions during class discussions, and speak as if they knew the material, and then fail every exam? How did students who had been in the United States since second or third grade, and were graduates of the K-12 system, arrive in my ESL classroom with new immigrants and not be able to read a sentence aloud to me? It didn’t make sense. What could I do? Where could I go? I am very lucky that there is a tremendous Office for Students with Disabilities at my college, Minneapolis Community & Technical College, and a team of three counselors there to assist me. The disability specialists armed me with ideas on where to get more information. I also searched the Web and talked to a relative who has a master’s in special education.

Then I started examining my students’ records and talking to them about their experiences. I began to learn more about the caveats of learning disabilities and what qualifies for special services and accommodations in a college setting in Minnesota. In a conversation with one student, I discovered the possible reason why this student who excelled in class failed every test. I found out just by accident when discussing her favorite book in Spanish,Paula by Isabel Allende. I asked the student why she liked the book. “Because I was like her daughter, teacher. I was in a coma for 7 weeks, and my mother sat by my side and thought I would never wake up.” I was shocked at this response. Did my student not see that this experience could have had an effect on her learning? “No, teacher, it was 7 years ago. How can that affect me now?” We had a long discussion about brain injuries and the services our government guarantees to students to help them succeed. I walked her to the college’s special services unit. At first, she didn’t understand that she qualified for services and that perhaps her brain didn’t function as it did previous to the accident, no matter how many years had passed since that horrible accident. After securing documentation regarding her brain injury, she qualified for extra time on tests. She started passing each test and, in the end, passed the class. Now in California, this student knows how to seek accommodations and advocate for herself.

Back in my office, I discovered another student who, for all intents and purposes, was a native English speaker born in this country, had 13 years of K-12 education, and was embarrassed to be in my ESL classes. After asking him key questions, I discovered he was pulled out of classes in high school for special help in reading and, indeed, had had an individualized education program but didn’t want to tell anyone in college for fear of being different. After obtaining documentation and assistance from the special services unit, I began to read exams out loud to him to see if he could pass a test that way. He did. But I could not have given him that accommodation without the documentation from high school.

My saddest case was a young student who told everyone on campus that I thought she was crazy, because in her culture it is taboo to consider that someone might learn differently or have difficulty learning via the standardized method of instruction. How could I help her? I couldn’t. She would not talk to special services for testing referral and insisted she was “just fine.” She did fail my class and eventually dropped out of school when she was unsuccessful in other classes as well. Not every story ends in success.

My search for ideas and knowledge is not yet over, but I am grateful to have found the helpful people in my learning disabilities office. I’ve attended learning disabilities sessions at the past three TESOL conventions, and I was gifted with a magnificent slide presentation that a professor (Eve Nichols, 2007) at a neighboring institution created. Luckily for me, she gave me permission to share the presentation in Seattle, and share I did. I put together a very small handout and promised everyone who e-mailed me that I would send the 69 PowerPoint slides to all who asked. Those slides have gone around the globe. They have a wealth of information about different types of learning disabilities and tips for teaching in many areas, including math. Even if one can’t diagnose or address every issue for every learner, the ideas can be helpful in any English classroom.

At the start of each semester, I always initiate a class discussion about disabilities. First we start with the physical ones, because often they are easiest to see. We talk about the students with canes, guide dogs, and wheelchairs and the types of assistance they can get. Then we talk about hidden disabilities. These can include people with chronic migraines, depression, or AIDS who are on heavy medication at times and need a different setting or time limit for exams. I write on the syllabus that students should speak with me about their situations, which has been successful in many cases. I emphasize that I want to see them succeed. I point out that in this great country we care about everyone, and everyone is not the same. Sometimes a student might not be achieving in the ESL classroom because of issues such as time, exhaustion, or outside obligations. However, for the students with hidden learning disabilities, the information on my poster and in this short summary might give hope.

Understanding Learning Disabilities
and Adult English Language Learners

Five to twenty percent of the population is LD (Gadbow & Dubois, 1998; Gerber & Reiff, 1994). There are over 20 identified learning disabilities. The following guidelines and suggestions are drawn from Nichols (2007).


  • Poor/limited academic background
  • Emotional problems
  • Poor motivation or attendance
  • Socio-economic problems
  • Visual/hearing problems
  • ESL (However, ESL can highlight learning disability compensation in first language)
  • Physical problems
  • Stress/trauma


  • Inconsistent
  • Permanent
  • Patterned
  • Present in average to above-average intelligence


  • Is student always prepared for class?
  • Does student discuss material/seem to discuss material/seem to “know it” and then fail exams?
  • Does student ask good questions, listen to answers, and then forget?
  • Do you have a feeling that something isn’t right (e.g., grades don’t match student’s ability)?


  • Invite student to visit you outside class
  • Talk to the student about his/her past (e.g., injuries or illnesses that may cause lasting changes)
  • Ask about prior problems in school and whether the student had received special education services in the past. (Some students may be reluctant to share this information.)


  • Educate the student about disability rights
  • Recognize that being LD is considered taboo in some cultures
  • See learning disability services/specialists in your school or community


  • Explain concepts concretely with examples
  • Never assume student understands
  • Use multiple modalities for instructions/directions
  • Never use ALL CAPS
  • Present processes and sequences one at a time
  • Allow spellcheckers
  • Seek out books on tape or read aloud
  • Let students tape-record class
  • Paraphrase
  • Help students learn to organize and plan their studies
  • Start projects early and repeat/model steps
  • Provide structured sequences between tasks
  • Teach steps in a process
  • Slow down
  • Provide opportunities for “overlearning” to encourage mastery
  • Use different colors in presentations
  • Connect information to the real world
  • Use good eye contact
  • Be flexible
  • Ask for student feedback on a regular basis
  • Simplify language but not content
  • Model problem-solving techniques
  • Keep the classroom calm/distraction-free
  • Show and tell


  • It’s simple
  • It’s easy
  • It’s hard
  • “everyone” or “anyone”
  • You didn’t study hard enough
  • Why don’t you get this?
  • We’ve already gone over this “x” times


  • You cannot “fix” a learning disability
  • Be patient
  • Don’t rely on just words to explain
  • Be supportive and positive
  • Focus on learning, not just the final product
  • Give your students and yourself time
  • Encourage independence, not dependence
  • Find experts in your school/community to help you
  • Form partnerships with learning disability specialists/your students

Have I stressed you out about learning disabilities yet? Let me close by sharing stressbusters gathered during a 7:30 a.m. poster session in San Antonio in 2005. It was my first TESOL convention, and even though I was exhausted, this was a session I could not miss. A group of tired teachers gathered to share how they keep themselves going when the job doesn’t fit into a nice 8-hour day. Here are our tips:

1. Keep Your Sense of Humor

  • Remember that no one is in teaching for the money!

2. Make Music

  • Sing, both in and out of class
  • Join a musical group
  • Dance around your house
  • Play a favorite instrument

3. Chill

  • Watch reality television shows
  • Read trashy novels or magazines
  • Work crossword puzzles
  • Play video or computer games

4. Exercise!

  • Tai chi
  • Yoga
  • Walk
  • Jog
  • Dance

5. Give Yourself Permission to not Be Perfect

  • Learn to say “no”

6. Vent!

  • Vent only once a day and to different people
  • Be mindful of negative energy; avoid it

7. Write!

  • Keep a journal
  • Write a letter, rip it up, and throw it away

8. Connect With Peers

  • Network
  • Ask for help and ideas

9. Center Yourself When Class Starts

  • Let students be more independent
  • Teach students independence

10. Leave When You Are Supposed to

  • Make and take “me” time

11. Dwell on the Positive

  • Find a moment each day that brings you peace

12. Communicate With Your Bosses and Community

  • Be active in the organization
  • Educate your bosses

Write to Me!
I can send you a 69-slide PowerPoint presentation with more information and teaching tips! Contact me at

Gadbow, N. F., & DuBois, D. A. (1998). Adult learners with special needs. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Gerber, P. J., & Reiff, H. (Eds.). (1994). Learning disabilities in adulthood: Persisting problems and evolving issues. Stoneham, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Nichols, E. (2007, January)Working with students with learning disabilities. Presentation made to TRIO Job Accommodations Network, St. Paul, MN.

Ellen Lewin teaches at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, MN. When she arrived in 1986, no ESL programming existed at her college; the department has since grown to 15 faculty members.


How to Have Fun and Influence Students With Adult ESL Materials

Marilyn McLaughlin,

Adult ESL teachers just want to have fun, whether playing games, surfing the net, chatting about real life, playacting, listening to CDs, watching movies, and so on, or so it seemed among the more than 30 enthusiastic educators who gathered early one morning at the TESOL convention in Seattle to share their ideas, opinions, and questions during a 45-minute discussion session on adult ESL teaching/learning materials. Many suggestions were made during the discussion; others appeared on written lists collected at the end of the session.

Perhaps because in my opening remarks I (the discussion facilitator) made suggestions on classroom materials to promote listening and inspire speaking, our group conversation veered in that direction, and ideas on more traditional print materials appeared mainly on the written lists. After first mentioningImpact Issues from the Impact Series (Longman), a book/CD of 30 varied discussion topics with stimulating questions asking for personal opinions (no right answers!), I recommended Cathy’s Cards—Instant Conversation in the Classroom (Alta), a boxed set of 270 cue cards. This suggestion was strongly seconded by two other teachers when another participant noted that she used the Avery Business Cards Web site to make her own cards.

Immediately others in the group began to recommend their favorite Web sites. Check out their suggestions to see if they would be useful in your classes:

Internet TESL Journal:
Boggle’s World:
ESL Images:
The Discovery Channel:
National Geographic:
Audio/Visual Web site:

“Google crossword puzzles to find hundreds of them,” noted one educator. Bingo was also a favorite, heartily seconded by me. Bingo can be used to review numbers, irregular verb forms, holiday and other vocabulary, and so on. Check The Great Big Bingo Book (Pro Lingua) for lots of possibilities; my favorite right now is Gestures Bingo—played in silence!

Several instructors listed among their favorite adult ESL resources the realia that they like to use with their classes, including telephones for such activities as making appointments and leaving messages, money for number/counting practice and opening a “store” with real or pictured items, and advertising flyers for shopping activities. One teacher uses clips from TV and movies to illustrate lessons and vocabulary; her students often bring them in. Realia can even be published; a good example is the survival indoor and outdoor signs with activities, published by PCT Education Publications.

When the discussion turned to movies, the film that I recommended was Spellbound, the Oscar-winning documentary on the 1999 National Spelling Bee Competition highlighting eight middle-school-age children and their families—immigrant, native, rich, middle-class, poor, Caucasian, Black, Asian, Hispanic. The film not only is very engaging in itself but also leads to discussion and writing on immigration, child-rearing, and competition plus, of course, lessons on vocabulary and spelling. Consider ending the unit with a class spelling bee! Other recommended films were Mr. Bean (good for beginning students with its slapstick visuals), Spanglish, Tortilla Soup (on family cultures), Sarah Plain and Tall, To Kill a Mockingbird, and An Inconvenient Truth (though difficult to understand due to the language, it has a timely and universal theme with many graphics).

Crossroads Café, the video series with student books and reproducible masters, was noted by two attendees. The software titles Rosetta Stone and Achieve 3000/Teenbiz (also its Web site) were also mentioned.

The 45 minutes sped by and were filled with numerous suggestions by participants, and their written lists contained many more suggestions, especially in the area of traditional print materials. The list of recommended readers included Picture Stories and More Picture Stories (Alta) and Easy True Stories(Pearson). Check other books in the True Story series by Sandra Heyer for students beginning to read in English (and possibly in any language at all); the series on 16 Extraordinary American Women/African Americans/Hispanic Americans.(Walch); the three levels of the What a Life! series of readers (Pearson/Longman) for better readers; and Reader’s Choice (Michigan), “a great upper intermediate reading skills text.” One discussion attendee said that “I love and use my own textbooks, intermediate-advanced cultural readers” entitled Open Sesame, Eureka!, Achieving Competency in English (Michigan), andRealistically Speaking (custom published). She also noted that she has built a great library of Scholastic Books to build “a real love of reading with my students.” And don’t forget newspapers, both those created especially for students and regular ones.

To combine reading with listening to voices from outside the classroom, another teacher said that she uses Smart Readers, books with tapes/CDs that she checks out at the public library. For combining reading and writing, Weaving It Together, Books 1-4 (Thomson) came well recommended. One educator listed the “book of our students’ writings,” entitled Life’s Voyages, as a top resource, “good for writing [from Language Experience Approach to formed essays] reading.”

Three multilevel basal or core series came recommended. Perhaps most inclusive and traditional in teaching the basic skill areas is the Stand Out—Standards-Based English series (Thomson/Heinle) to help adults to gain confidence in their English as workers, parents, and citizens. Each of the five levels has three levels of pacing for each book with accompanying workbooks and online activities. Also from Thomson/Heinle, the four-level English in Actionseries includes workbooks and CDs and is suitable for secondary as well as adult students with many cooperative tasks for a class. American Streamline(Oxford), which with its three levels is probably best for younger adults, emphasizes oral communication, including CDs with a variety of voices, but workbooks provide written practice.

For those wanting or needing to concentrate on grammar, more than one participant recommended Grammar in Use, both basic and intermediate levels, by Murphy (Cambridge). Another teacher said that her “favorite resource is the activity book that is a supplement to the Azar series—full of fun games, etc.” This book—for teachers—can be used with all levels of Betty Azar’s grammar series and is a great resource even for teachers who are not using the Azar student books.

To teach pronunciation it is hard to avoid mentioning Judy Gilbert’s Clear Speech (Cambridge). For more basic instruction, use her Clear Speech from the Startand, for real beginners, look at two books from Pro Lingua, Pronunciation Card Games and From Sound to Sentence.

One teacher suggested buying a book on basic drawing “so that you can draw things recognizably.” In my classes, though, I find that guessing what in the world the teacher is trying to draw on the board this time produces laughs and comments, thus lowering the affective filter and stimulating verbal communication! The same teacher also suggested 5-Minute Activities, one of the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers, and, for use at the end of the year/term/week/class, Recipes for Tired Teachers (Alta).

Thanks to all who contributed ideas and suggestions to our discussion, especially Val Callet, Rebecca Carter, Larissa Chuprina, Lorraine Hopping Egan, Jeanne Hodgson, Linda Jehle, Sharon Libby, Planaria Price, Diana Siemer, Barbara Silas, Diane Snell, and Alba Vosburgh.

I will be leading a similar discussion on adult ESL materials at the TESOL convention in New York City in April 2008. All are welcome!

Marilyn McLaughlin teaches ESL to adults and coordinates the volunteer tutors for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, OH. In 2001-02 she served as chair of TESOL's Adult Education Interest Section and is now on the Rules and Regulations Committee of TESOL.

About This Member Community ESOL in Adult Education Interest Section (AEIS)

The ESOL in Adult Education Interest Section serves the interest of adult students in ESL programs, their teachers, and administrators. It brings together the knowledge, concepts, and skills of both English as a second language and adult learning and instruction.

Your 2007-2008 Steering Committee

Chair Federico Salas-Isnardi
Chair-Elect Donna Kinerney
Associate Chair Kirsten Schaetzel
Past Chair Mary Ann Florez
Members at Large Philip Less
Cindy Shermeyer
Yilin Sun
Newsletter Editor Susan Finn Miller
Web Mistress Beth Wallace

Web site:
Discussion e-list: Visit to subscribe to AEIS-L, the discussion e-list. Subscribers can visit to access the e-list.