Differences in teaching adult ELLs and ABE students to read in English

Hi, all.

A topic of interest to me for the past 10-15 years has been the differences in teaching adult English language learners (ELLs) and adult native English speakers to read in English. Whether the path for the ELLs is to move from ESL through ABE to GED, or from ESL to academic classes, or from ESL to Career and Technical Education (CTE), or from ESL to the workforce, the ability to read in English is key. What kind of materials help them acquire the skills they need to be able to read fluently? Do they differ from materials used well with native English speakers?

I believe they do.

Because of this, I wonder about the value of graded readers and adapted novels and other texts. My experience is that these texts don't always serve their needs.

For example, if a text is called a "second grade" reader, the ELL might be challenged with both the language and the content. Let's look at the language first:

English language learners, especially those who are literate in their own language and especially those whose first language may be French or Spanish, may know many multisyllabic words that do not appear in book – such as excavation, extermination, enrollment, or capitulation. They might not, however, know the common phrasal and other short verb phrases that are commonly used in speaking, and so are in the book. They might not know digging out, getting rid of, signing up, or giving up. They also may be very unfamiliar with some of the more complicated grammatical structures such as the passive voice (e.g., The man was bit by the dog, vs. The man bit the dog.) A native speaker would know the phrasal verbs and the passive voice from oral language.

Just as important an issue, I think, is that of the background information inherent in readings. ELLs may not have the background schema needed to comprehend what they are reading. They may not understand the cultural context. What seems to be a straightforward text—for example, an article about a tree house or one about a family going to the Dairy Queen in a station wagon—may present the reader with difficulties in comprehension because of cultural differences. (What’s a tree house? A wagon? Who’s the Dairy Queen?)

So, here’s my question after all that preamble: Those of you who use the graded readers with ELLs, do you find there are issues such as I described with language, grammatical structures, and background information/cultural context? If so, what do you do? Are there different issues with native speakers? What are those issues?

Looking forward to your comments on this, community!


Miriam Burt, SME, Adult English Language Learners CoP





HI all,

I'm about to recommend something that means more work, and that is, write short books or even one-pagers

that explain context for those who don't have it.  Ex:  baseball.   A one page explanation of baseball, with pictures from

the web is probably fairly easy to do for those who know the game.  Also a short story with Dairy Queen and other pieces of 

cultural context might be of help.



This is a really interesting post, Miriam.  As a librarian I am frequently asked for book suggestions for ABE and ESL learners and so I struggle with the context issue. I have yet to discover really well-curated book lists that context into consideration for ESL students.  I tend to rely on several adapted novel or other adult literacy  series because they generally feature adult characters, but the setting and the language aren't always appropriate.  

If you have a list of books (however short!) that you have found address one or both of the issues you mention I would love to see it! 


Your post about the importance of making sure teachers are aware there is a difference in teaching reading to Adult ESOL students and ABE students is very timely.  In Florida we recently had a conference call with about 25 adult ESOL practitioners to discuss how the Common Core State Standards will impact the instruction of Adult ESOL.

From information shared by Susan Pimentel and others involved in the development of the CCSS, we learned that the Englsih Language Arts and Literacy (ELA-Literacy) Standards of the CCSS follow grade levels, and each level is designed to build on previous levels.  We discussed that in adult ESOL, students do not learn the language by grade levels.

With the CCSS having a strong influence to encourage adult ESOL/ABE teachers bring their adult education students to the same point of "college and career ready" in their skills and knowledge as K-12 students, do you think adult education teachers may be more likely to use the graded readers that you mention here?

We also noted that the CCSS ELA-Literacy Standards have been developed in a way that is going to "raise the bar" on reading.  The FLDOE K-12 trainings for teachers mention that the ELA-Literacy component of the CCSS has students read informational texts and requires them to search the reading passages for facts and make inferences to answer questions.  

There is a difference in books that work well for Adult ESOL emergent readers and books that work well for ABE emergent readers. As we gear up to "raise the bar" in teaching reading to Adult ESOL students, it seems that it will be even more important for teachers to know what are the differences in teaching reading to the two groups.  It is one thing to know there is a difference, but it can be frustrating to not know specifically what the differences are.  

Your work in this area is helpful, and I always enjoy reading the informational briefs put out by CAELA, and sharing them with other teachers.

Phil Anderson

Adult ESOL Program Specialist


"It is one thing to know there is a difference, but it can be frustrating to not know specifically what the differences are".

I hope that my question won't seem offensive, but

Is it possible that native adult speakers of English who did not manage to learn to read at school are generally less bright and have greater comprehension problems?

    I know that some highly intelligent students have dyslexia, but most of those (like my son) tend to overcome them, because they come to understand that English spelling inconsistencies http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.com/2009/12/reading-problems.html

pose greater problems for them and so devise their own strategies for coping with them. Isn't this much harder for native dyslexics at the lower end of the ability range?

Native literacy learners have the advantage of being able to make use of contextual clues when it comes to decoding words with tricky graphemes (treat great threat) - if they are intellectually fairly nimble. The majority of the words they try to read they already know both the meaning and pronunciation of.

L2 students are more likely not to know the meaning or pronunciation of many words. If they already know another language, or initially learned to read with the Roman alphabet before switching to logographic writing like Chinese children do, then many of the consonants may be easier for them to decode than for really poor native readers, but the variable sounds of nearly all English vowel spellings are very problematic for them when trying to decode words.

Masha Bell



First reaction:  No.


Second reaction:


How are you measuring "brightness?"

If you are correlating brightness with IQ tests, then you are up a creek with  confounding variables.

IQ does correlate with schooling & academic background (books) at home.  Reading actually provides knowledge, vocabulary, and information, it is not just an exercise in sounding out words.  IQ also correlates with economic class. 

On the other hand, I bet all of us have come across people who demonstrate brightness--their minds work faster & make more connections.

EX:  a boy I taught, extremely dyslexic, went to a special school.  His parents = solid professional class.  His occupation:  law, he is an

ass't district attorney.






Miriam, I do agree that there is definitely a difference in teaching reading to Adult ELLs and ABE students.  However, using graded readers can provide just another reading experience for ELL students.  This is a great time to talk to them about phrasal verbs in context and provide information about background experience.  I believe in blending resources when it is appropriate.  NP =) 

Hi, all.

I'm enjoying this thread on differences between teaching adult English language learners (ELLs) and native English speaking adult learners to read in English.

I like the comment just above this one that using the graded readers with ELLs provides the opportunity to discuss phrasal verbs in context and to focus on the learners' background experiences. This is true! Students do need to know phrasal verbs, and they do need to discuss their own background and the cultural content of what they are reading in English. Using the graded readers for this purpose can be good.

There is a free, brief (or, I should say, short in this case, I guess), brief  that a couple of colleagues and I wrote on this topic about 8 years ago. It is How Should Adult ESL Reading Instruction Differ from ABE Reading Instruction. The section in the brief on reading comprehension points out that when teaching adult ELLs to read in English, don’t assume they have oral vocabulary and background of a native English speaker. It also cautions against having students summarize texts and demonstrate comprehension of texts by writing short answers to teacher-developed questions right out of the gate. However, summarizing and analyzing are higher order skills needed by students.

So what do you do? Assess learner comprehension through short answers, cloze exercises, and summary writing only after pre-teaching vocabulary, previewing cultural contexts, and discussing the text.

The brief is at http://www.cal.org/adultesl/resources/briefs/how-should-adult-esl-reading-instruction-differ-from-abe-reading-instruction.php

It seems to me, that there needs to be a lot of pre-assessing and pre-teaching in teaching adult ELLs to read in English.

What do some of the rest of you think?

Miriam Burt

Subject Matter Expert, Adult English Language Community of Practice