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Are We Helping Our ABE/ESL Students Transition Effectively?

Have you modified the way that you help ABE/ESL adults transition into college as well as function both in everyday life and in the workplace, based on funding and other requirements imposed on students in our changing world?

I recently reviewed a resource which should soon appear in our LINCS Resource Center, “Teaching Writing to Adult English Language Learners: Lessons from the Field,” by J. Peyton and K. Schaetzel, from the Center for Applied Linguistics, Georgetown University (11/2016).

This article presents the results of a survey and follow-up interviews with adult English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors to identify the writing instruction they deliver, the text types they teach, and the time they devote to writing. Although the interviews were directed to ESL instruction, I find that the same practices may well apply to how we teach basic writing to our ABE adult learners. What do you think? Do we need to redirect our instruction in the ways recommended by this survey?

From the LINCS Review Abstract

The ability to write texts for academic and professional purposes (i.e., academic writing) is key to the success of adults in U.S. society—in school, on tests needed to progress through learning and into work, and in the workforce. This article presents the findings of a survey of adult ESL about the writing instruction they deliver, the text types they teach, the time they devote to writing and the importance of writing in student placement decisions. Based on the results, the authors identified the following misalignments between the skills needed in the workplace and what is taught in Adult ESL Classes:

  • Types of Writing

    • What’s needed: Argumentative/persuasive and technical/informative texts.
    • What’s taught: Narrative, imaginary, descriptive texts
  • Length of assignments
    • What’s needed: A paragraph to a 10-page paper
    • What’s taught: A paragraph or less
  • Feedback
    • What’s needed: Feedback on overall ideas and their presentation
    • What’s taught: Error correction
  • Modality for writing
    • What’s needed: Word processing
    • What’s taught: Handwriting”

Please share your reactions to the findings and comment on how you are addressing (or not) the "needed" items listed. What pros and cons do you perceive in implementing those needs among ABE and ESL students in your program? Do you believe that students should be using additional technology to write better beyond just word processing? Leecy


Lisa Brickman's picture

I once asked one of my a teacher from my program's ABE/HSE program about the ESL students she has taught and the writing needs they have in her class.  I asked her, "If you could select one writing skill that ESL students could possess before entering your class what would it be?"  She thought carefully about my question and replied, "They need to know how to format an essay."  I found this to be an interesting observation.  Essay writing on the TASK exam requires an understanding of paragraphing, spacing, and margins.

Since then I specifically teach my ESL students how to use loose leaf paper.  Holes go on the left, and writing is within the 'red margin lines,' and don't write on the last bottom line. I teach them to fold the right margin on the red line to create a barrier that is not to be passed.

Since the objective is to learn to format an essay which includes indenting paragraphs, word spacing, proper use of right margin. I begin with copying sentences, then paragraphs, then short 3 paragraph texts, until a complete 5 paragraph essay. I use realia from the community such as newspapers, magazines, or flyers in our community center as well as sentences I create based on the work and experiences they have in my class.  

It's my desire to make these students comfortable with the format and the orthography of standard American English. I have adults who never held a pen or pencil before being in my class.

Students who did not have previous experience in primary or secondary schools in their home countries are responding well to this method. So far I've helped about 5 adults who were illiterate in their native languages to develop reading and writing skills in standard American academic English.

Leecy's picture

Lisa, you list a number of activities that evidently work well with your beginning ESL readers. Do you have them use word processing at all? I wonder if that would be helpful or not.

I was intrigued by the answer that you received from the ESL writing teacher. I wonder how others here react to that.

Formatting an essay is an organizational skill and a rather arbitrary one. Thought processes vary greatly among different cultures. In the US, we like and demand a linear process that goes from A to Z, with rules to define stops along the way. How could we help students who think is spirals or netting formats to think linearly?

I wonder how others here might respond that excellent question: "If you could select one writing skill that ESL [or ABE] students could possess before entering your class what would it be?"  Leecy


rwessel51's picture

Because of personal responsibilities I can't ignore, I'm on hiatus from tutoring, but this is an important topic, so I'll put in my 2 cents.

When I was tutoring, the most important skills -- writing and otherwise -- I wished learners had possessed when they came in to the program were (1) a hunger to learn new things, and (2) a readiness to go out and find answers on their own. To paraphrase someone whose name I forget, the more you know, the more you can know. Writing is not knowing how to format a document according to conventions. Writing is not knowing the mechanics of using a word processor. Writing is the content: having ideas to compare and contrast; having questions to wrestle with. The more information you have to begin with, information gained from actively seeking information, the better the content of your writing will be. The content is the what; the formatting, the how. And if you understand the what, the how will follow.

Leecy's picture
Robert, thank you so much for dropping into this discussion. You mentioned two skills that you wish learners would bring to the table prior to tutoring them in writing: (1) a hunger to learn new things, and (2) a readiness to go out and find answers on their own.
Given that most or our adult learners do not bring those skills to initiate writing development, should we address those right off the bat over teaching the skills that the article describes as missing from our instruction? Hmmmm... I wonder how we might do that. Would we have them write about what they hunger to learn or about their frustrations in finding answers on their own to solve daily problems? What would you and others here suggest?
Kat Bradley-Bennett's picture


I so appreciate this page and the Peyton-Schaetzel article link. Many adult ESL instructors only think about the next instructional level for their students, without looking at their long-term goals and aspiration. I deliberately added Transitioning to the curriculum for the EDU134 Teaching Adult ESL because I believe that the field is better served by teachers who are able to see the forest for the trees, as it were.

Your breakdown of what's needed vs. what is actually happening in the field is revealing and I plan to use this research with the TESL and ABEA students in my class!


Leecy's picture

Hi, Kat. It's good to hear from you! I'm delighted that you have added transitioning to EDU 134, one of the course requirements for ABE Certification in CO. ! Well done. How did you add that aspect into the course? Your practice may well introduce a model to be followed, not only for ESL but ABE/ASE instructors as well. ! Thanks. Leecy

Kat Bradley-Bennett's picture


It is nice to hear from you, too! I miss adult ed in many, many ways, especially all the wonderful people I was connected to! I guess I am still connected to you all... kind of on the periphery -- training teachers for adult ed in Colorado.

Everyone in EDU134 is or wants to be teaching in adult ESL.

For my transitioning unit, I assign the following:

We look at the CASAS Skill Level Descriptors for ELLs. Students are assigned a level and they list out 5-10 strategies to help learners progress to the next level.

PP 71-78 in Part IV from The Practitioner's Toolkit (Center for Applied Linguistics)

Supporting Adult English Language Learners' Transitions to Postsecondary Education (CAELA Brief) 

We look at the Wilson Model for learning transfer to reinforce goal-setting, learner readiness, and aligning curriculum to learner needs and goals.

Finally, students look at Colorado's Key Industries. If they are currently teaching, they select one student whose career goals they know, find that industry and come up with classroom strategies to help that student advance towards that career goal. If they are not teaching, I provide a made-up student profile.

We only have a week to cover it all, but they seem to really enjoy getting into the Key Industries and coming up with strategies.

I have recenly begun teaching EDU131 (Adult Learning Theory) as an online course. I hope to include transitioning in that course as well.

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hello colleagues, The authors of this article Joy Kreeft Peyton and Kirsten Schaetzel and their colleague Rebeca Fernandez facilitated an informative webinar and a follow up discussion about their research here in our community in March. Some members will want to check out that earlier, wonderfully rich discussion.

I'm pleased to announce that this fall each of these distinguished scholars will be presenting a webinar and facilitating a follow up discussion on further implications of their study for teaching writing to English learners. The focus will be on practical teaching strategies. You can mark your calendar for the following upcoming LINCS events.






Webinar: Monday, October 22 at 1:00 ET  

Follow up Discussion October 23 & 24

Joy Kreeft Peyton

Using Graphic Organizers

to Develop Academic Writing

Webinar: Tuesday, November 13 at 1:00 ET

Follow up Discussion November 14 & 15

Kirsten Schaetzel

Using Writing Test Prompts

to Develop Academic Writing

Webinar: Friday, December 7 at 1:00 ET

Follow up Discussion December 10 & 11

Rebeca Fernandez

Writing as a Basis for Reading

Stay tuned for the details on how to register for the webinars in the coming days. The discussions will take place in the English Language Acquisition, Reading and Writing and Professional Development Communities here on LINCS.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hello colleagues, I wanted to provide a link to Fernandez, Peyton and Schaetzel's 2017 article in the COABE Journal in which they report the findings of their survey research, "A Survey of Writing Instruction in Adult ESL Programs: Are Teaching Practices Meeting Adult Learner Needs." I'm sure many members will want to read this important work.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP