Guest Discussion: Helping Adult English Language Learners Who Have Learning Challenges

Hi group members,

My SME colleague, Miriam Burt and I are happy to announce plans for our upcoming guest discussion as follows:

Title:  Helping Adult English Language Learners Who Have Learning Challenges

Date: March 2 through 5, 2015

Description:  This will be a joint venture between the Adult English Language Learners and the Disabilities in Adult Education groups. The discussion will provide information and conversation on causes for learning challenges in some adult English Language Learners who may or may not have undiagnosed Learning Disabilities and how to help these learners thrive in the classroom.  

This discussion should be of particular interest to teachers of adult ELLs in non-academic ESOL programs who are primarily, but not exclusively, low or very low literate or who have experienced unusual difficulty learning.  The differentiated instructional component is aimed at teachers in ESOL settings that have mixed level classes; issues around learning challenges for ELLs apply to learners in any setting.

Guest Speakers:  

Robin Lovrien,  M.Sp.Ed: LD; Ph. D., consultant in adult ESOL; Dr. Lovrien is a lifelong ESL/ESOL teacher and specialist in learning difficulties in ELLs. Her professional work has focused on the learning difficulties of low literate adult ELLs as well as on ways to manage the adult ESOL classroom to be as inclusive for learners of varying backgrounds and abilities as possible.  Currently, Dr. Lovrien tutors non-English speaking immigrants to Downeast Maine, and continues to provide professional development to teachers in Maine and Massachusetts. 


Lauren Osowski is the ESOL Coordinator and an ESOL teacher at the Adult Learning Center in Nashua, NH as well as a member of the New Hampshire Adult Education Disabilities Committee. After receiving a BA in Sociology and Criminal Justice and working in the research field for a number of years, she began her teaching career ten years ago in Eastern Europe. In addition to teaching, Ms. Osowski has presented more than a dozen workshops for ESL teachers on topics related to all levels of English language learners. She has also completed several mini-grant projects for the state of New Hampshire, including her website, Adult Education Technology.


Alicia Broggio is currently the Professional Development Facilitator at Literacy Solutions NY. A faculty member since 2004, Alicia has taught all levels of English Language Learners. She has extensive experience with the New York State U.S. Civics For Immigrants (USCFI) curriculum. She has been a teacher trainer for the curriculum since 2006 and has trained dozens of adult educators throughout New York State. Alicia collaborated on the writing of two USCFI modules as well as writing the curriculum used by Literacy Solutions NY in its fee-based hotel and hospital vocational ESOL program  In 2009, as part of the Hudson Valley/Catskill Partnership Regional Adult Education Network (HVCP RAEN) Professional Development Project, she was asked to be a teacher coach. As a coach and mentor, she has evaluated and guided teachers in their classrooms to help them develop more effective instruction.  In the summers of 2007 and 2008, Alicia organized two highly successful family literacy programs at the Yonkers Riverfront Library. Later, she conducted a similar program for parents at several Head Start Centers. She has also been a Best Plus Test Administrator since 2005.  Alicia is pursuing a M.S. TESOL from Mercy College. She will graduate in Spring 2015.

As the date gets closer, we will send out some pre-reading selections to prepare for the guest discussion.

Now, I would like to open up this discussion thread for members to begin asking questions.  The questions will be shared with the guest speakers to help them plan their discussion content,  You can simply add your comment/question onto this message.  All comments and questions will be appreciated.

Thank you.

Rochelle Kenyon, SME - Disabilities in Adult Education


Miriam Burt, SME - Adult English Language Learners



Thank you, Rochelle, for the informative message about the upcoming event. And thank you Robin, Lauren, and Alicia for agreeing to share your time and expertise with us.

Although it's still early days, I have a question: Will you be addressing possible overlaps and divergences between promising instructional practices to use with native English speakers with emerging  literacy in English versus those to use with non-native English speakers with emerging literacy in English?

I hope that makes sense. If not, I can try to unpack it a little.

Thanks again.


SME, Adult ELL CoP

Hi Miriam,

Thanks for starting out our question thread with such an interesting question.  I will start making a list of all the ones that are submitted.  I will also go back into the other discussion strand where the idea for this guest discussion began and pull topics and questions from there.

Who else has a question to post for the speakers?


Rochelle Kenyon, SME

Disabilities in Adult Education


Thank you, Rochelle and Miriam, for setting up this important discussion. Here are two questions for the panel when the discussion begins.

1. Scenario: A teacher in a class with low literate adult ELLs recently shared with me that when the students used a keyboard and could see the letters forming words on a computer screen, they advanced faster than when they wrote by hand. In both cases they began by copying the letters from a text that the teacher prepared. By "advanced faster" the teacher meant that when the students used the keyboard, they were able to write  words and were able to identify them in a text in a shorter time than when they wrote the words by hand.  Question: Do you have any additional information about the ways keyboards/computers can be used to help low literate adult ELLs make gains? Do you see any potential problems that the teacher of these students should be aware of?

2. Do you have a list of 3 to 5 essential key guiding principles or instructional practices that are paramount for teachers of low level literate adults to be aware of and to use in the classroom?  I am sure you could provide a long list of useful tips and other teaching practices that are helpful, but which ones would be important to start with and never lose sight of?

Phil Anderson, Adult ESOL Program Specialist, Florida Department of Education


It is good to hear from you.  Thanks for submitting questions for the guest speakers.  I really like the scenario you posted.  What a good idea!

These will be added to our list.

To members of both the Disabilities and Adult English Language Learners groups, please keep these good questions coming in,

Rochelle Kenyon, SME


Hi-- A BIG thank you to Miriam, Rochelle and Phil for priming the pump, as it were, for the upcoming discussion.  I will address those questions-- as will the other women-- and any others that come up.  I have already responded re differentiation, which is a core issue in the disability discussion.   From my earliest days as a teacher at the Lab School of Washington, where everyone has a learning challenge of some kind and must learn in his or her own way, I have worked to provide differentiated instruction and to help other teachers achieve high levels of differentiation in their own classrooms.   This is a topic near and dear to me and the heart of my work over many decades.   I will discuss it further during the upcoming discussion.  


Hi Robin,

Thanks for adding your voice here.  In less than one month, your guest discussion will begin (March 2-5).  Once the speakers' outlines are ready, we can post them here within this thread.  Until then, group members can continue to post their comments and questions.


Rochelle Kenyon, SME

One of the biggest and most discouraging issues that comes up in the classroom is what to do when you, as a teacher, suspect a serious learning challenge or disability, but there are no funds to have it diagnosed.  Keeping in mind social, political, and legal issues regarding learning disabilities and adult learners, my question is not only how do we keep these students with significant learning challenges in the classroom, but how do we access resources for them without an official diagnosis so that we see better outcomes?  How do we differentiate instruction so that it is effective but not so "differentiated" that the student feels uncomfortable or "different" from his/her peers?

I'm looking forward to this discussion from the experts.  Thanks for sharing your time!


Hi Glenda,

I appreciate your submitting this message.  Your concerns and questions will be added to our overall list.  You have mentioned several important 'critical issues' within your message including what to do about students who exhibit risk factors, diagnosis of a disability, and the difference between "learning challenges" and "learning disabilities."  That should provide our members with some fascinating conversation during our guest discussion.

Miriam and I hope that members from all of our COP groups continue to submit more questions for our guest speakers.

Thanks so much.

Rochelle Kenyon, SME

Disabilities in Adult Education group


Hello group members,

This is a reminder that our guest discussion, Helping Adult English Language Learners Who Have Learning Challenges, will begin tomorrow, Monday, March 2, 2015.  If you have been procrastinating or forgetting to submit your questions for the guest speakers, you still have time to do it now.

If you have colleagues that would benefit from this critically important topic in our field, please share information about the event and advise them that they need to register to join the Community of Practice.

I am looking forward to the discussion.  You will find that the messages will all be housed within this discussion strand.

Until Monday morning,

Rochelle Kenyon, SME

Disabilities in Adult Education group


One of the aspects that I have struggled with the most as a teacher is when students make progress and then are reluctant to move into more challenging work (more vocabulary, sentence structure, writing, etc.)  It is so important that students experience initial success that they some are reluctant to move on.  I imagine it being extremely stressful to learn in the beginning and that the process of advance sometime just brings back those early insecurities.  Are there strategies that can be discussed to help students get and keep a mindset that learning will be a continual process for them (as it is for all of us)?


The following pre-reading selections may supplement the reading resources that will be shared with you by your four guest speakers.

    a.    MAESTRA! The Letters Speak.” Adult ESL Students Learning to Read for the First Time (Patsy Vinogradov) 


    b.    "Using Oral Language Skills to Build on the Emerging Literacy of Adult English Learners" (Martha Bigelow, Patsy Vinogradov) 


    c.    "Promoting Learner Engagement when Working with Adult English Language Learners" (S. Finn Miller)  


The above are all part of the LINCS Resource Collection.

The last pre-reading selection was written by our guest speaker, Robin Lovrien:

           "Taking a Closer Look at Struggling ESOL Learners" (Robin Lovrien Schwarz)


Happy reading!

Rochelle Kenyon, SME



Below, I am posting a summary of all the questions for the guest speakers that have been asked to date.

Please feel free to continue asking questions - and posting comments -  to the speakers throughout the 4-day guest discussion.

Rochelle Kenyon, Subject Matter Expert

Disabilities in Adult Education



What are  possible overlaps and divergences between promising instructional practices to use with native English speakers with emerging literacy in English versus those to use with non-native English speakers with emerging literacy in English?

Do you have any additional information about the ways keyboards/computers can be used to help low literate adult ELLs make gains? Do you see any potential problems that the teacher of these students should be aware of?

Do you have a list of 3 to 5 essential key guiding principles or instructional practices that are paramount for teachers of low level literate adults to be aware of and to use in the classroom? 

How do we keep these students with significant learning challenges in the classroom, and how do we access resources for them without an official diagnosis so that we see better outcomes?  How do we differentiate instruction so that it is effective but not so "differentiated" that the student feels uncomfortable or "different" from his/her peers?

Are there strategies that can be discussed to help students get and keep a mindset that learning will be a continual process for them (as it is for all of us)?

What are the panelists experiences in working with students from different cultures around the topic of disabilities.  How have others approached this conversation with individuals, or even in groups.  Is it right to try and change the meaning our students attach to disabilities?  If so, what is the language used to change perspectives, while also honoring their cultural perspective?

Hi all-- I have just posted my first long piece about why teachers tend to think students might have a learning disability.   At this point, I would like to pose a question:  Why would you as a teacher want a student to be diagnosed with a learning difficulty?  What do you think would happen and how would that happen?

I would really like to know people's answers to these questions so that I can address some of the core beliefs that push people to think about diagnosis etc.  


HI all-- I want to address the questions that Rochelle posted at the beginning of this conversation on Monday morning.  Several I have already hit on-- but a couple need direct answers:

I want to address the first one about possible overlapping instructional practices for those with "emerging literacy"-- This is a tricky question.  First of all, the native English speakers already speak the language they are trying to become literate in, so their challenges with understanding the meaning of things are nothing compared to those of ELLs. Similarly, their cultural orientation is not a question either-- they do not have to struggle to understand cultural implications of pictures or reading passages.    Second, a native English speaker who has no literacy is pretty rare, so either this means they are profoundly dyslexic or have some other challenge that has prevented literacy from happening or they somehow were somewhere where education was not available. 

If the first issue is the case, there could indeed be overlap--primarily in the approach to teaching them-- very slowly, very systematically, focusing on strengths and addressing challenges as needed.   Materials should be highly concrete, just because multisensory learning is helpful for those with really low literacy.   Content and materials need to be adult, not childish, and challenging in content, if not in reading level.   I would seriously doubt that a literacy-challenged native English speaker has trouble with pictures, since our culture is so full of them, and typically a person in this culture who cannot read MUST rely on pictures and images to survive.  This is not to say symbols or other visual materials are not confusing, but that will vary by individual not by the non-literacy issue.  

As with ALL adult learners who are NOT at a level of education they want or society hopes for, they could be carrying quite a bit of shame, so huge efforts must be made to guard their dignity at all costs.   This means NOT pairing them with other students who can read or can figure out how to do activities in class-- the better student did not come to class to be a tutor, and it is humiliating to most-- not all, I realize, but most-- students to have to depend on another student and reveal how little they know.  It means NOT isolating them in some part of the classroom, either.   It also means making sure they are able to have variety in their learning while still focusing on the most basic of skills, and both groups need to MASTER those basic skills before moving on to new material.    

The learning center activities the other ladies and I will be talking about tomorrow are excellent for all literacy-challenged students. Students feel competent readily, they are at the same level as other players, and they get the much needed repetition for mastering the content.  

Like the non-literate ELLS, the native English speakers need heavy focus on phonological processing skills, particularly on rhyming and hearing syllables and then on phonemic awareness in words.    And just like the ELLS, the native English speakers are easily put off and drowned in the technical language of literacy.  DO NOT use "grammarese" or technical words of any kind.  Do not assume that these students have ANY familiarity with the conventions of writing or language such as punctuation, capitals, writing on lines or in spaces.   Very likely, the non-reading native English speaker has relatively low motor skills, too and could profit from a lot of the activities mentioned in these postings for helping adults gain better fine-motor skills.   

Both groups of students need to learn the letters of the alphabet, but the native English speaker is likely to know what literacy means--and that he or she doesn't have it-- while the ELLS may not yet have any sense of the purpose and function of text. This is a HUGE difference--so presenting the alphabet will be done very differently, with native English speakers likely able to manage the whole alphabet, while the ELLS, as has been mentioned before, likely do better learning little bits and pieces of it for quite a while. 

And above all, the native English speakers who do not read MUST have a vision check and a check for visual stress syndrome (VSS) ( sometimes known as the Irlen sydrome).  This is a condition where the visual receptors in the brain react to one or more colors in the light spectrum and literally cause an allergic-like reaction in the brain when a person reads-- headaches, watery eyes, very poor concentration, great tension in the head and shoulders, a strong aversion to reading, sensitivity to bright light, a report that things move, flash, fade in and out or run off the page,  and reading errors that LOOK EXACTLY like errors caused by dyslexia.   (Of course not all persons will have all symptoms-- but pretty much ANY of these is a strong indicator of this syndrome).  The issue is VERY easily addressed using colored plastic overlays on top of reading material.  I have seen more than a few amazing turn-arounds in poor reading behavior when the overlays are used. 

I cannot stress enough how important this is to find out for persons who struggle to read.   Generally speaking, native English speakers with this syndrome can read--but not very well. Many reach a plateau where they can read only short words.   Only in one instance have I encountered an adult ELL who could not LEARN to read because of this syndrome-- the letters on the literacy alphabet book he was trying to learn from moved so much he could not be sure from day to day which letters he had seen before.   Overlays cured that problem instantly-- as they do all reading problems for which VSS is the cause. 

If the person really IS dyslexic and cannot assign sound to symbols fluently despite LOTS of instruction( the definition of dyslexia), the overlays will not do anything.   They do not cure dyslexia as some critics claim.   They merely remove yet another reading obstacle in the same way that glasses do for the very far-sighted person.   A remarkable number of poor adult readers have this problem, which has never been diagnosed.   I personally think it is CRIMINAL to subject such a person to phonics, which is the usual response of reading personnel, when the problem can so easily be taken care of (I say this with some 40 years' experience as a tutor to reading-challenged adults, too).   When the overlays do NOT help, the person reports that the page just looks the color of the overlay and nothing else changes.  This is GOOD.   You can learn more about the problems of VSS at and get overlays there and through as well.  

I do not always recommend overlay screening for ESOL readers because the emerging literate ones are not familiar enough with the way a page looks to know if the overlay is helping anything or not.   Remember that the VAST majority of ELLS who are non-literate are that way because they come from a non-( or pre-) literate CULTURE, while the vast majority of adult native English speakers who do not read are that way because they have severe reading problems that were not adequately addressed in their youth. 

Methods such as the Language Experience Approach can be great for both groups, too. 


Good morning all-- I apologize for the LONG posts -- I do get passionate about this subject, as Rochelle and Miriam both know!  I will break today's postings into little digestible chunks..

Today's topic is Learning Centers.   This is what I call stations in the classroom which learners can access at any time and which consist of games and activities that provide learners with targeted practice in language points, content or skills that they have identified as wanting or needing (in the case of those with very low literacy, I may take the step of deciding what they will practice until such time as they can express preferences in some way).  

I began advocating and developing the idea  of learning centers when I was doing a great deal of training and presenting about learning challenges.  As you have read, the seventh, and perhaps most powerful of all causes for learning failure in ELLs are pedagogically induced problems--- inadequate, misguided, insensitive, teaching, program design, curricula, materials, etc.  combined with teachers and programs who do not take the time to take the necessary steps to find out what is holding learners up from making progress.  

What I knew from my own teaching, from my extensive work with teachers and programs over almost 20 years and from my work at the Lab School, is that two things can guarantee that ALL learners learn and profit from instruction: 1) the teacher having the attitude that something will work and the learner WILL learn --and is NOT a burden or drag on the class or program  and 2) sufficiently varied opportunities to access instruction that takes into account adult and adult language learner needs.  This latter means that learners have to have choice in learning that includes active, hands-on learning, and opportunities that actually HELP them learn.  It means too that the classroom needs to be run in very NON-traditional ways, since traditional instruction is not helpful for a pretty big segment of the learner population, and, as FDR said, "If [what you are doing] is NOT working, try something else."    I knew from the Lab School that non-traditional teaching practices and very non-traditional learning opportunities result in spectacular success fore EVERY student. 

However-- and I always give credit where credit is due-- it was not until a gifted adult ed. volunteer in Poughkeepsie, NY was willing to adapt the concept of learning centers ( widely used in K-6 and which she had been using for nearly 40 years as a K-1 teacher) to adult learners and showed us all that 99% of the problems about which teachers and programs complain about adult ESOL could become moot that I really moved ahead in teaching about the idea and method.   This teacher showed that, as I mentioned in my example about using computers with students at all levels of English, if the students feel they have something to gain by being in class, they WILL come on time-- since she started using centers in 2007, she has consistently had to LIMIT how EARLY her students could arrive before class --mostly because she couldn't get there any earlier than half an hour before class was to start;  she completely eliminated the problem of the multi-level classroom, having activities for students at virtually all levels of learning.  When I observed her class, she had a couple tables of very low educates students, one of non-literate students and one of two people preparing for their GED essay writing test--and many others besides.   She also eliminated the problem of open enrollment, and students arriving weeks after the term had started. The games and activities allowed for new students to be folded into the class virtually seamlessly-- without disruption to her or the class, a feature I experienced myself while I ran my drop-in class here in Downeast Maine two years ago.    She also addressed the personal needs of students to a very high degree. At that time she had many men who were in construction. One center was a table with REAL handtools on it and the men were THRILLED to be able to learn the names of tools they worked with everyday.  And then using the tools as the base vocabulary, she expanded the activities to provide practice in gradually more difficult grammar structures.   She readily took suggestions from her students about what content or type of activity they wanted, and she learned to turn over responsibility for set-up and take-down to the students themselves, giving them real responsibility as adults and real ownership in the classroom  and its contents.  Interviews with her students confirmed that they LOVED this classroom. Several compared it highly favorably to traditional teaching-- one class had a teacher to assigned workbook pages and then sat at her desk and read while students did the workbook assignments. The students HATED that.   All said they felt it was excellent use of their time,  not time was wasted because there was always something to do , they could review vocabulary or grammar or language points at will and with other learners; they especially enjoyed the small group activity over whole class activities. 

I did an extensive study on the effect of centers on learning of adult ELLs for my doctoral thesis ( unfortunately unpublished....).   I learned almost exactly the same things as I did quantitative and qualitative studies with two classes of low-intermediate adult ELLS at a very large ESL school in Washington, DC.   The students reported that the LOVED the centers, they loved working in small groups, they felt they were improving their English more effectively than if they had just teacher-fronted classes, and they felt they could work on needs particular to themselves.   The quantitative study showed that those who used centers learned the required curriculum content needed to pass the exit test for each level far more thoroughly than did students in the two control classes.  This was the outcome I was most interested in , as I had been sure that centers provided the extensive practice and repetition adult language learners need to master new language and language skills. 

Here are the principles of centers:

1. The content is NEED driven-- it is something,as stated above, that students need or want-- it may be content they need to  master for the curriculum your school or program uses and on which they will be tested, as were students in my study, or content they have a personal need for, as did the construction guys.   Activities are designed to give practice in what the student needs, NOT to fulfill a desire to have a hands-on activity in a classroom.

2. The activities are designed to give extended practice and repetition of the vocabulary or skill or language point in question (e.g. question asking with Do; simple past tense forms of irregular verbs, pronunciation of --teen and --ty numbers for Spanish speakers;  expressions of time,  categories of some vocabulary class-- e.g. food containers,  etc.)

3. Activities are always entirely self-checking-- either because answers are provided, or because of the way a game is played (other students monitor with an answer sheet, or groups of cards in Go Fish are color coded, etc. )

4. There are activities and games with content and skills accessible to ALL levels of learner-- from those with the most basic skills to ones with advanced English skills and needs and everything in between-- AS A PARTICULAR CLASS NEEDS them.  If you have only low intermediate students, you do not need very advanced content or grammar points in the activities.  

5. Nothing is graded-- but the activities can be used for evaluation and the results/progress recorded by student and teacher (e.g. X knows the past -tense forms of 20 irregular verbs;  X can ask questions in the present tense with "Do/does"  ) To be recorded as learned, an activity must be 100% mastered. 

6.  Activities are set up to assure group interaction -- two to four players or participants.  More than that lessens the amount of repetition, English used, and involvement in a game or activity.  Solo work is discouraged unless a student truly needs or prefers it.  

7. Activities are often-- but not always- -made by students.  The quality of materials is not of great importance-- only, as Lauren noted, clarity of writing for students to read easily, and consistency of materials so the game or activity is done correctly.   Scavenging parts of commercially made materials is encouraged!!  Some commercially made materials are very useful: Blank professional quality game boards, for example, are inexpensive and last longer than teacher made ones. 

8.  Students generally teach each other how to use the games or activities AFTER the idea and basic games and activities have been presented by the teacher.  

9. Activities are tailored to a particular class or group of students as much as possible.  Some may be used with other learners, some not.  

10.  Activities MUST be used ENOUGH during class time and during a week for their benefit to be gained by students.  They should NOT be used as rewards or time fillers at the end of class or during break only.  In classrooms getting the most benefit from them, students use centers more than 50% of the time, some use them as much as 95% of the time.  The teacher who pioneered their use in adult ESOL used them that much because she could find no other activity the whole class could do together except pronunciation practice.   *


And by the way, these activities are excellent for tutoring, too!!

More later on types of activities I use



First I'd like to apologize for not posting as much as I would have liked. I am conducting a PD workshop this coming Friday and there has been a major glitch with the materials. I have spent the last few days re planning the activities with what we have on hand now. 

One of the things Robin once said which stayed with me was that we need to spend less time trying to figure out if a student has a disability, and more time just dealing with the student standing before you. That is not to say we do not try to address the student's challenges but it is important not to focus on finding a "label" for the student. Because of the absence of adult ESL, even if we find the proper "label" for the student, we will still be in the same position of needing to find ways to help this student learn.

Hi Alicia,

I am so glad that you were able to join the discussion again. Labeling is an issue we have discussed within the Disabilities in Adult Education group.  There is a discussion strand with the subject line, "Label Jars, Not People."  Check that out; you might find it interesting.

Rochelle Kenyon, SME


I don't have a lot of knowledge about how well non-literate students respond to the use of technology-- particularly computers or tablets.   I do know that one teacher tried tablets and found them extremely helpful for the low-non- literate adults because they do not require mouse coordination. I know from experience that developing mouse skills is a REAL obstacle for some older ELLs.   So many students have smart phones that it would be worth examining the skills your learners use with their phones to see how accustomed they are to communicating in some fashion with someone else.   Just as it seems fairly common to find that non-literate students know money systems pretty well, these same students may move into necessary technology fairly readily.  

I think the cost, ease of use and enormous variety of apps make tablets highly desirable for adult ESOL programs.  A great deal of work has been done in the field finding programs and apps that help students.

One other experiment I tried twice with computers may ring a bell with some of you .  A few  years ago I was asked to do a writing class for Spanish-speaking immigrant women who were going to be aides in math classrooms in grades k-2.   The aides were going to have to communicate with the parents about the math kits and lessons the students were receiving as well as report on the progress of the children.  The women ranged in education from barely three years of school to post-graduate-- a typical adult ESOL grouping as I was to find out later in Massachusetts....!   Faced with this range, I requested access to computer labs in our two class locations, and then  I put the women on computers for most of the three hours of class each day.  The college graduate read articles from the Washington Post and summarized them and asked questions to me about them;  the lowest literate practiced writing their names, the names of the children and other things-- and copied things I gave them having to do with their math assignment.   Some worked on workbook exercises, but did them on the computer.     I repeated this approach with a class I had in Massachusetts. 

Just as Lauren noted in one of her posts, as long as everyone is doing their own thing, the different level of work is unimportant.   I felt these groups were very successful-- at least the students loved them-- and in the case of the class, we had 13 computers and 15 students, so on the days we had computer class first, ALL students came EARLY to class, a response I have often cited to teachers to demonstrate that when students feel that what is happening is interesting and important to them, they will NOT be late.....It was a completely individually differentiated situation.  It was easy to find just the right lesson for students to copy or do on the computer and they worked far more willingly on corrections and work than they did in a regular class.   For the ones who had poor mouse or keyboard skills, part of the time was spent with programs targeting those skills.   There was no expensive software involved, no program to follow.  It was simplicity itself- and highly motivating.   It would be easy to do a similar thing with non-literate students giving them some of the creative apps for tablets.  

Programs that have pictures and audio would be terrific for non-literate students-- again--there are sites and apps where this can happen on touch devices, too.    As I don't currently have a home organization to provide technology to my students, I don't use it all that much-- except to recommend language learning sites to students who use smart phones a lot.   However, I am sure someone out there in the world has already done this-- I hope we hear about it soon!!





Hi Robin,

I just read through most of the postings over the last few days and have benefitted greatly from the discussion. Thanks so much, especially for information about low-literacy learners. Here's an example of the student leading the teacher (I think of funds of knowledge), in technology. A Guatemalan man who I tutor cared for my house while I was at a teacher's conference recently. I told him I planned to bring back new ways to use our phones, but I learned nothing in a 3 hour seminar. I texted Jose when I learned of a heavy snow at home and he texted back, "I am fine. All is well."  This was unusually fluent language for this man. When I got home I asked him where he learned the phrase "all is well" and he said he wasn't afraid of English anymore. His nephew showed him Google Translate, and he proceeded to show me how to download the app and how it worked. He spoke Spanish and then we saw English text and listened to both Spanish and English speakers.  Together, we explored the icons (camera, mike, scribble line) and how they worked. When my Korean girlfriend arrived, I showed her what I just learned. She said she was excited because she had "communication problems" with Spanish speakers, and she planned to translate from Korean to Spanish while working at a nail salon. When I went to my local nail salon, I showed the app to six Chinese workers who often brought their English questions to me, and they were delighted. So my student Jose has touched many people with his teaching. This is a man with three years of education in Guatemala, who labors long to write a sentence.  Now I'm thinking how right you are that ipads would be excellent learning devices for low-literacy learners.  I'm going to bring this news to Saturday's NYSTESOL Applied Linguistics Winter Conference.


Nan-- this is a terrific example of the learner, as it were, showing us that they know how to survive!   I love this example!  I love when the non-English speakers find ways to use technology to communicate.  I use Google translate when I tutor just to get a word or phrase across, but I will explore further how students can use it to communicate more fully.   I think we are just tiptoeing into the wide-open world of technology and learning in our ESOL world.



I loved Robin's article with very specific examples.  I've come across the problem of a teacher searching for a learning disability when other factors were at play not only in ESL, but also when helping relatives.  My family speaks a non-standard dialect of English and they have sometimes been flagged as learning disabled when it was simply a cultural and communication difference.  On the flip side, my best friend was not diagnosed appropriately in grade school and labeled "slow" when she actually has dyslexia.  Her mother accused her of deliberately not learning her alphabet, so she learned to cheat her way through until she got to third grade and got caught.  Eventually, she adapted and learned to read on her own, but having been labeled "slow" in a small town, she was not put in the academic track.  She had to fight to take the "advanced" courses.  Like me, she was the first one in her family to go to college, so there was no support.  It's amazing she made it through.  Her younger brother had the same problem, but by then people were becoming more informed about learning disabilities and interventions were made for him.  The mother still thought it was just a ploy by the kids to avoid doing word, but fortunately an older cousin stepped in to make sure he got the help he needed. 

All of that to say, I look forward to hearing the experts on walking the balance between assuming a learning disability when none exists and not diagnosing when appropriate, as well as any research on the effect of "labeling" on adult learners. 

Hi Glenda,

Thanks for sharing such a personal story. As you have experienced, I have had similar stories.  The risks associated with having a possible learning disability and whether or not to begin the process of diagnosis are very personal ones to consumers and their families.  From a teacher's standpoint, it is very easy to spot a student who is challenged and not progressing as well as others.  What is difficult to determine is why the student is challenged and what to do next.  Our guests this week will present information to us on this very difficult issue.

Rochelle Kenyon, SME



I'm looking forward to the discussion, beginning tomorrow!

The first question that comes to mind is about the panelists' experience working with students from different cultures around the topic of disabilities.  In my classroom experience, there were sometimes great obstacles to even using the word disability with some cultures.  These students would often explain that in their countries and cultures, persons with disabilities are kept by their families, often hidden away from the world, or left to beg on the streets.  

Clearly, our definitions of disability differed greatly.  It was often a significant undertaking just to get them to be able to broaden their definition of what a disability may look like.  I'm very interested in how others have approached this conversation with individuals, or even in groups.  Is it right to try and change the meaning our students attach to disabilities?  If so, what is the language used to change perspectives, while also honoring their cultural perspective?



Michael-- this is an extremely important question.  It fits in well with the question I just posed about why teachers want students to be diagnosed or why they, the teachers, think to go the route of "disability."  This is going to be a long answer-- the short answer is now I NEVER --never-- go the route of discussing the idea of disability with ANY student, regardless of background, UNLESS it has to do with their children in the public schools.  

When I first started looking at students who were struggling to learn, I was teaching in a university Intensive English Program ( sometimes known as an IEP) and the students were generally highly educated.  The wisdom at that point was that if one was not LD in the native language, one would not be LD in the new language, but this turned out not to be true.  Many, many people report language learning difficulties which have nothing to do with learning disabilities.   Still, some of my students certainly displayed problems resembling problems caused by dyslexia or dysgraphia or other learning problems.  Thinking, as many obviously still do, that helping the student understand he or she had a learning disability would assuage their anxiety and bad feelings about failing English or struggling so much to learn, I did indeed try to discuss the idea of "LD" with them.  These were students from all over-- students from the countries of the Arabian Gulf, South America, Asia, African, Europe.    A very few were puzzled but interested.  Most were alarmed and even hostile to what I was trying to explain and achieve-- I was trying to get them accommodation as students with disabilities in their classes.   Part of the hostility was cultural-- I will never forget a student panel I put together in Washington, DC, for a conference of people from various college student support offices- the ones who certify disabilities documentation and issue letters to the faculty requesting accommodations.  The students were all ones I had helped get accommodation-- none with a so-called official diagnosis, though each had been seen by an LD diagnostician-- a psychologist who was bilingual and had gotten accommodation on the basis of her letter.   There were four students on the panel, and to my great surprise, NONE had taken advantage of the letter they had received to give to their teachers/professors asking for accommodations.  One noted that in her country, students who had "problems" or made problems for the teacher were made to suffer for it terribly;  another reported that he had given one teacher the letter.  His accommodation was for some alterations on the testing format.  The teacher announced to the class that X needed to take a different test and would sit in front with facing the class to do that-- thereby blowing his privacy completely and humiliating him.  He would have nothing further to do with accommodation.  Another had a similar experience when his teacher asked publicly who would take notes for him- -his accommodation was to have a note-taker.   And the fourth just said if he agreed to be diagnosed by a doctor, it would mean he was sick, and his family would be humiliated.  

I also learned about that time that the notion of LD was pretty much unknown beyond the shores of the US and Canada.  This is still largely the case. While many countries recognize dyslexia when it is very severe, most still do not have a generalized understanding of Learning Disabilities.   Worse, when the notion is translated into other languages, it often -- usually, I would hazard-- translates VERY negatively.  In fact, in English is is a negative construction.  A DIS ability-- not able to do something.   So stark were the translations I got from people from various language and cultural backgrounds that for a couple of  years in the mid-90's, I did presentations with a sociologist from the Gambia, West Africa, on the pitfalls of trying to explain the notion of learning disabilities in other languages.   It comes out as "diminished, slow, retarded, moron,"  etc.     As you indicate in your post, in some cultures persons with disabilities are not just marginalized, but humiliated and beaten.   I was on a bus in Nassau, the Bahamas not too long ago and the bus driver bragged about the high graduation rate from high school. Someone-- not I-- asked about those who did not do well in school.  He proudly replied that those who got bad grades were first beaten by the teacher, then by the principal, then the police took the student home and beat him or her and then the parent beat the child.   I lived and taught for three years in West Africa, where the approach was pretty similar.   Why then, would a student WANT to be singled out as being different and unable to learn?? 

Another case taught me that lesson all over again-- one of the Sudanese lost boys-- who was assumed to have LD because he was doing so poorly in high school in the Boston area.   One teacher told me he must have LD because he could not understand exponents.   Another said the student could not ever center his work on the computer program they were working on, so he must have LD.  A third told me that he knew the student had LD because he was completely confused by the parts of a cell and the parts of the earth's layers.  This young man had had no prior formal education before being put in 9th grade, but that did not seem to register with his teachers. I worked with him over several years and he told me that he was angry and humiliated that he had been labeled LD because he understood it to mean he could not --or worse , would not-- learn.   In his culture, men can always succeed and achieve and this diagnosis was making him less than a man.  He was devastated and depressed by it and he could not understand why anyone would test to find out if he could learn.  He was determined to learn, and he knew better than anyone that his determination was the real key.     

Finally, after all these lessons and after determining for myself that there is no viable, --dare I say LEGAL-- way to diagnose a non-American born, non-native English speaker using the tools and methods we have in this country, AND after recognizing what I said in the first post-- that there is no special education for ESOL learners anyway, and having learned that telling an ESOL student that he might have something WE call a learning disability can be highly counter-productive,  I have moved away from the disability paradigm altogether.  I prefer to put emphasis on the fact that we STILL have to figure out a way to help this person learn-- after all , a learning disability, if we buy the construct, is NOT retardation.  The person can learn-- just not so well in some areas of learning.    Thus my focus in the last 8 years has been heavily on highly differentiated, personalized, interesting learning instead of focusing on the learning difficulty.   

One more story-- which I reported on in my chapter in Learning to Achieve (Published by CAL)  was about an effort in a Midwestern state to test some 25 students from adult ESOL programs who were failing badly using the current tools and methods.  The effort was a complete failure-- all the students except one were terrified, humiliated and unable to complete the testing in any useful way.  All were students with limited literacy or no literacy and while their oral skills were determined ahead of time to be adequate for the evaluation, the students were unwilling or unable to answer questions in the testing sessions. They had no notion whatsoever of the idea of testing to see if one could learn.   The one student able to navigate the testing had been in this country for many years and was a student at a community college.  He did indeed need accommodation and was pleased to get it.    It was a large lesson in a wrong approach to the problems the other students were having. 

I have worked for years to convince teachers that the LD label and approach are not useful to anyone-- and will not answer the problem the teacher sees-- how to help the student learn.   Moreover, I have learned in great detail that MANY other factors cause students to fail to learn and LOOK LD.   Therefore, what works is first trying to figure out what is REALLY holding up the student and then creating learning situations in which the student can succeed. 



H Dr. Robin,

I was not at all surprised to be totally thrilled by your first major message.  It says so much about you, your experience, and why you are so passionate about this topic.  Our readers have 3 more days to learn from you.

In 2015, all you have to do is read educational resources from England to see that in their terminology, Learning Disability refers to persons with intellectual challenges/developmental disabilities.  They use the term, Dyslexia, when referring to those we call Learning Disabled.

Rochelle Kenyon, SME


Thank you so much Rochelle for reminding me and others that even among English speakers the terms do not mean the same thing.  I was more than a little led astray years ago when I was researching how other cultures deal with language learners with problems and finally figured out that the British were talking about cognitively challenged people, not at all what we call learning disabilities in the US!!   As I noted in my own post, the word DISability indicates an inability to do something-- and thus the Brits are interpreting it quite literally, while we in the US have worked for DECADES to convince ourselves that we don't mean they can't learn--even if the term means that-- but that they have difficulty learning.   This is the problem in other languages-- it mostly means someone with cognitive challenges.... or worse.  



Rochelle and all:  As I mentioned in my response to your comment about the British understanding of the term LD, it is not so much that the TERM does not exist, it is that the concept or construct does not exist.  The notion that a person has a learning disability--difficulty learning "normally" -- is pretty much an American idea.  The idea is based on how we frame "normal" learning and intelligence.  We know from the fact that in K-12 the way of identifying a student who may have some kind of special need has been completely changed from referral and testing using intelligence and achievement tests to a long involved process known as Response to Intervention, or RTI, that our own notion of LD is very susceptible to attack and change.   This happened after decades of loud objections by educators and psychologists who focused on the many flaws in the model of testing someone's intelligence and comparing that to what he or she was supposed to have learned in school by giving an achievement test.  If the person was "behind" in any significant way in learning according to his potential to learn, then that was supposed to indicate a  learning disability. 

It doesn't take but about 3 seconds of reflection to realize that someone coming from another culture and education system probably won't have learned the same things American children are taught and not in the same order or with the same importance, so giving that person an achievement test developed on what American children have learned will show nothing accurate in terms of learning.  ( As you can imagine, I have a book-ful of stories about the travesties that have resulted from ELLS being administered these tests --and often then being declared retarded because they scored low on them).   Furthermore, different cultures have different ideas of intelligence, a topic wonderfully addressed by Robert Sternberg in his explorations of intelligence.  He has written interestingly about how wrong it is to assume that our western values of intelligence and wisdom apply to other people from other cultures.  Ceci, a researcher who is, I think, still at Cornell, showed famously how contextualized intelligence can be by demonstrating how different people perform on intelligence tests and how they have highly developed skills in areas of performance they are highly interested in.  Probably his most famous experiment was with men who were experts at trifecta betting but had relatively little education.  When he had PhDs try to do what the bettors did in betting the scholars failed miserably, but when he had the two groups take the standard intelligence tests, the scholars did well and the bettors did poorly.   He did many other similar experiments to demonstrate that we cannot test intelligence without placing the test in the context of the person being tested. 

All this is to say that our idea of learning disabilities does not translate to other cultures, not just to other languages.  Furthermore, as Michael's comment and my reply indicated, in many cultures being different or slow is viewed far more negatively than it is here, so the concept of identifying someone who is not getting school subjects well is unknown.  Even dyslexia, which is supposedly brain-based, varies hugely from culture and language to culture and language.  Enormous amounts of work went into finding ways to identify dyslexia across languages and all pretty much failed miserably as the research indicated that reading difficulties are entirely dependent on the written language the student is attempting to read.    I studied this topic rather extensively in the late 90's and early oughts and was thoroughly convinced that so much is the construct of learning disabilities a western-- American-- construct -- that it is unproductive and even damaging to try to fit an ELL who is not making progress into that paradigm.   In fact, I have taken a strong stand for years that it is unethical in the extreme to test ELLs for LD since there is no way linguistically, culturally, or educationally that a person from another culture can be expected to perform as American-born students do on our tests.  

Instead, I prefer to focus on what I was taught at the Lab School of Washington in my many years working there and training under the brilliant Sally L. Smith.   Sally-- and the Kingsbury Center people who also were part of the founding of the Lab School-- strongly believed that everyone is born with a learning prescription that is unique and that the job of the teacher and learner is to discover what that is and then let the learner get on with learning-- which ALL will do.  Sandra Fradd, who was an ESL specialist in the 80's and 90's , constantly urged teachers to find out what the student comes with and then go from there- and STOP focusing on the weaknesses and deficits.  Thus I focus on finding ways to make sure every student learns and and profits from teaching and being in the instructional setting. 





Hi Dr. Robin,

I appreciate your informative response on "The Term LD."  It speaks to your basic philosophy on educating adults.  My take-away from this matches your quote, "Stop focusing on the weaknesses and deficits."   Rather than concentrating on the medical model of finding things that are not working and then fixing them, you emphasize teaching to students' strengths and abilities.  Would you agree?

Rochelle Kenyon, SME


Dear Robin and all,

Every time I have seen you point out the term DISability, I have to smile.  One of my dogs was born deaf and attends a special training class called TDAWG - Texas Differently-Abled Work Group - that is especially for deaf, blind, deaf-and-blind, and otherwise physically challenged canines.  The animal behaviorist who runs the group refuses to call the dogs "disabled."  They are pretty amazing.  We use scents for the blind dogs and sign language and other visual cues for the deaf dogs.  The focus is on what they CAN do rather than on what they can't.

Maybe it's just because I'm an animal lover, but I can definitely see a correlation for "differently-abled" English language students.  Just to be clear, I am not comparing teaching adults to training dogs.  But, as you pointed out, we do need to find out what the limitations are (and maybe why they are there) and then find a way to work through or around those limitations using the strengths the student already has. 



PS: Here's a picture of me and Libby during TDAWG.  She's demonstrating her long-stay command. Then the TDAWG logo with "Charlie," who was born blind and deaf, running the agility course (hurdles and dog walk). 

Image removed. Image removed.

Hi Glenda,

Of course, I adored your message because I am such a pet lover too.  I was not familiar with TDAWG, but I would certainly involve myself if it was located in my local area.

I plan to copy and paste your message in the discussion strand labeled "Dogs and Disabilities" within the Disabilities in Adult Education group for others to benefit.  If you are not a member of the Disabilities group, I encourage you to join and read that entire discussion thread.  I know you will appreciate it.


Rochelle Kenyon,


Hi, Dr. Robin --

Thank you for the thoughtful post.  Your experience, across countries and continents, speaks to my own here in Washington, DC.  I couldn't agree with you more when you say that "I NEVER --never-- go the route of discussing the idea of disability with ANY student, regardless of background, UNLESS it has to do with their children in the public schools".  The one caveat I would add is, unless they bring it up to me. Then, I'm happy to be a resource, and where possible an advocate, for them to access accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  When I do have these conversations, I actually lead with the ADA - not in detail, but as a general introduction to the system of protections built into the fabric of the U.S. legal system.  I've found that this mention helps de-personalize their disability, and empowers those who need these accommodations to at least learn more about their options.  In the end, that is my goal with any student.  I will say that the students I have had these conversations have almost exclusively been ones with physical, and visible, disabilities.  A few I have suspected also had undiagnosed learning issues, but the springboard for our conversation was their physical disability.

For other students I've suspected of having a cognitively-based disability, I try to take the approach that any good employer would in helping them to maximize their abilities, in an effort to overcome other areas of weakness.  I'm not saying this to them, so much as acting on my observations of their class performance, and feedback from the student.  Another 'silent equalizer', as one colleague calls it, is technology.  With principles of universal design being used more and more, and the ever expanding reach of technology into our lives, I find that I'm regularly learning about new Apps, or online resources to support student learning.  Sometimes it's a matter of trial and error, but I try to serve as a source of those resources for these students, and give them the autonomy to try what suits them, see what works, and forget the rest.  I think this is the best path to independence for many struggling students, with and without disabilities.  In my mind and experience, that's what adult learners are seeking from education, so it's an approach I plan to stay with when addressing the needs of my students.

Again, thank you for sharing your many experiences with the subject, and for leading this important conversation.


Thank you so much Michael for reminding us about the need to bring up the ADA-- which I, too, have brought to the attention of students with physical or visual issues.   I used to find that more often I had to bring it up to the school where the student was studying because often the student or student's family did not know about disability rights and the school just ignored them.   

I was also happy that you mentioned technology as one of the equalizers.  That is so true-- and I will be discussing technology a bit more tomorrow and Thursday as per previously asked questions.  



Good morning and welcome to our discussion!

Our discussion topic is one that has been requested by our practitioners in the field.  Please take advantage of this opportunity to interact with our three guest speakers, Dr. Robin Lovrien, Lauren Osowski, and Alicia Broggio.  Miriam Burt and I welcome them and thank them for sharing their knowledge with us.

The outline for today's discussion follows:

       I.   Introduction of the topic

           a.     Why we think they have LD?

           b.     Learning Challenges are real –but are NOT LD

           c.     What REALLY has to happen when learners don’t learn?

           d.     What causes ELLS to struggle—brief overview?

           e.     Outline of topics to be covered on remaining days

     II.   Other Speakers

          a.     Comments on struggling learners

          b.     How do you respond to teachers who say they have learners with learning challenges?


To our group members, please enjoy this unique learning experience.

Rochelle Kenyon, Subject Matter Expert

Disabilities in Adult Education


On behalf of the Adult English Language Learners community of practice I would like to add my welcome to our guest speakers and to all members of this community as well as those in the Disabilities in Adult Education community as we embark on this important topic of Helping Adult English Learners who Have Learning Challenges.

I  find myself expeciallly interested in I b above "What REALLY has to happen when learners don't learn," as it seems to me to be the whole point: That the student learns.

I am looking forward to exploring that question today and throughout the week and  look forward to hearing from our experts as they address that question and other issues related to English learners who experience challenges when learning.

Miriam Burt

SME, Adult ELL CoP

Good morning LINCS Discussion list followers!  First I want to warmly thank Dr.Rochelle Kenyon and Miriam Burt, moderators of the two lists involved in this discussion, for inviting me to be a "guest speaker".  It is always an honor to be asked to lead a discussion for the LINCS groups.  Moreover, it gives me an opportunity to do the work I have been passionate about for years: advocating for learners who struggle to learn by helping their teachers understand better what is going on and how to help these learners more effectively.   I am pleased  to have Alicia and Lauren joining me, both teachers with exceptional talent and desire to do was well as possible in their classrooms and with teachers whom they are asked to coach and mentor.  

Our first topic of today is "Why we think they have LD."   As my credentials and background indicate, while I started out as an EFL teacher in West Africa, I soon became a reading specialist and LD teacher at a large school for learners with learning challenges in Washington, DC.  This work was truly seminal in my work with ELLs with learning challenges.   Over the years since I began to focus on the struggling ELLS in my work in higher ed. ESL, I have learned that we as teachers of adult language learners need to be exceedingly careful in wanting to label or otherwise think of struggling ELLS as persons with LD.  What I have recognized, however, is that as with anything in life, there are always reasons why teachers want to go that route.   Some of the reasons I have compiled from observation, experience, interviews and study are the following:

  • The most prominent reason for thinking a student has LD is that he or she is not making expected progress despite what the TEACHER thinks is appropriate instruction.   This is one of the most basic symptoms of persons with LD, for sure.  However, if you read that sentence carefully, there are two big potholes:  One is "expected progress"-- as we will need to note MANY times this week, our learners have such varied cultural, linguistic and above all educational backgrounds that it is just about impossible to make generalizations about groups of learners.  What IS expected progress?  Is it what we expect of learners of a certain English level and and education and language background?  Is it what we expect of students using a particular book or curriculum?  Is it what we expect will happen from the usual instruction we try?   You can see already that this is swampy territory.   The second pothole in the sentence is the "appropriate instruction."    Despite a GREAT DEAL of research--qualitative and quantitative-- showing that our learners a) have GREATLY varying needs and educational backgrounds, and greatly varying purposes for English, and b) that relevance and personalized learning are by far the most effective approach, teachers still use generic lessons from books about topics learners may have little knowledge of and less interest in.  This can result in disengaged learners, confusion, and lots of other problems.  Or lessons can be either way too hard or way to simple for learners, also resulting in disengagement, confusion and failure. Thus the concept of a student not making expected progress needs to be examined very closely for each individual learner. 
  • Related to the first reason are behaviors such as rarely if ever retaining a lesson or information, not making expected connections or generalizations about learning (never picking up a question pattern or some other pattern),  and other behaviors that stand out as indicating some difficulty.   Again, the learner may not have the background to understand and retain the information, may not be interested, or may be overwhelmed by the amount of information coming in.  I think of a teacher in one of my training groups who reported to us that she had an Afghan student who had never been to school. This woman seemed incapable of learning the alphabet after many weeks of practice in many, many forms.   Finally, after remembering discussions such as this one about keeping learning HIGHLY relevant, the teacher had the student practice with ONLY the letters in her name.  And that was the key.  The student could NOT understand the alphabet as an abstract list, but she understood that the letters made her name. She quickly learned those and moved on to the letters of her children's names and other words important to her.    Another teacher, using commercial ESL materials about a kitchen, was stunned to realize that her students from Burma had no idea how to use any appliances in a kitchen, having only ever cooked over wood fires.   No wonder they were not very responsive to the lesson on a kitchen.  A well-known study, which I cite often, which examined why adult ESOL learners had left their program, showed the same problem-- irrelevant topics.  The students cited a lesson on using the airport-- this was being taught to students who were either refugees or in the US illegally. WHY would they EVER want to use the airport??  So the topic can be wrong, irrelevant, uninteresting or unnecessary for students who desperately need English to function well in the US.  The students in the study did what most adult learners do when faced with something they have no interest in learning: first they tuned out, and then they dropped out. 
  • Still another reason for thinking a student has a learning difficulty is that teachers run out of ideas of how to teach a student who doesn't learn the "usual" way or at the "usual" speed. One of the GREAT difficulties of adult ESOL classes is that the students are highly individual and do not learn at the same pace,  yet the curriculum is presented at a uniform pace and the teacher is likely to move ahead when a few key learners seem to have grasped things.  We KNOW from a lot of research that a) adults learn differently one from the other, and b) adult language learners especially are likely to be highly individual in their learning needs and behaviors.   So if the teacher is not able or prepared to find ways to let the learners who need more time have more time and repetition, then soon those learners will fall behind-- and LOOK learning disabled. 
  • Other reasons for this view is that there may be an unspoken hope that the student can be taken on by someone who knows more about what to do about him or her.    That is pretty much a vain hope in adult education. As I say at EVERY training I do, there IS NO SPECIAL ED in adult education/ESOL.  Even if there WERE a way to diagnose or identify special learning needs, that student is going to be sitting RIGHT in your classroom waiting for you to help him or her find a way into learning.  This hope and belief reflects a real desire by teachers to help the student as well as a feeling that he or she (the teacher) is not going to be the one to do it.   The teacher may feel unqualified, may think there is no way to individualize for one or two students or may feel there is no time (especially for part time teachers) to find out about and plan special learning for one or two students .
  • And finally, since we are not pulling punches here, it is a GREAT inconvenience in many classrooms and programs to have students who do not advance.  It is bad for numbers, bad for morale and bad for retention of students.    Thus finding a reason for the student's lagging can be a way to get some students out of the mix and in different reports and statistics.  This situation is going to become even more acute as the standards movement gets stronger. 

So the bottom line here is to examine the situation more closely and ask yourself why you think there might be a learning problem.    We will be looking at a number of reasons why students fail to learn-- but first we need to examine our own beliefs about learning issues.  

I am going to end this first entry here-- I am going to pose a question to YOU --the audience-- in the next post. 




To address Miriam's query--- here is a brief version of I c from the outline: What REALLY has to happen when learners don't learn.

1--they must NOT be made to feel guilty about not learning

2-- they must not be ignored and put in the back row....

3--you-- the teacher-- need to start finding out more about your student to get at the root of what is holding him or her up. (Hopefully some was done at intake, where it is most useful to have this information..... see the next long post on what this involves)

4--based on what you find out, you respond to the issue if you can, AND you begin finding ways to engage the learner and make learning relevant, accessible, successful and engaging-- for ALL your learners, not just the ones you think are not making progress.  

5-- you adopt a "setting up learners for SUCCESS" attitude-- not ' setting up learners for failure' practices. 

In the next post, I will list and briefly comment on the seven factors I have identified that can--and often do-- keep learners from making progress.   In the interest of not scaring you all away with too much reading,  I will only briefly address the issues.  If you would like me to elaborate on any of them, please ask in a reply to that post. 





Thank you, Dr. Robin, for reminding us all that a student's failure in class is likely more reflective on the teacher's behavior, attitude, and skill than it is on the student. When teachers tell me that a student isn't learning (we're an adult ESL program), I ask them to clearly describe what they mean by "isn't learning". It never comes down to the student not performing tasks at an expected level. There has always been evidence that the student has learned something, usually vocabulary.

Acknowledging a student's growth in any area builds his/her self-esteem. So the grammar wasn't all that great, but look at that vocabulary! Know what I mean?

I echo what others have said earlier about the challenges of not even venturing into the mindset that a learner has a disability, but to acknowledge that there is some barrier there and provide accommodations and differentiated instruction. All learners in the room will benefit from it and no one is singled out as the "burro," as so many have referred to themselves in my classrooms.

Kat Bradley-Bennett
Longmont, CO

Hi Kat,

Thanks for joining in on our guest discussion.   I agree with your statement, that a student's failure in class is likely more reflective on the teacher's behavior, attitude, and skill than it is on the student.  I actually used a variation of this thought in training that I presented which resulted in a teacher going on the defensive.   I know that specific teacher wanted very much to learn new skills, but she absolutely denied that her method of teaching could possibly have anything to do with her students' ability to learn.

Has anyone else had this experience?

Rochelle Kenyon, SME


Over the last 25 years I have worked very hard to understand why adult language learners--particularly adult ELLS- sometimes fail to thrive in our classes--why they struggle, are confused, do not make expected progress, etc.   Coming first from an LD perspective as an LD specialist, I expected to find that those with learning issues had LD and was eager to develop a screening test of some kind to be able to really sift out the ones who likely had LD.  I had followed the research of a team of psychologists from Ohio who investigated college students who struggled in foreign language classes.  At first they were convinced that LD was at the root of the students' problems-- as I mentioned earlier, the conventional wisdom was that if you had LD in your native language, you would have it in the new language- --or the opposite-- if you did not have LD in your L1, it wouldn't be the cause of problems in your L2.   But after over 25 years of intensive research and analysis of scores of hundreds of students, those researchers changed their view and determined that there was no statistical evidence to support a crossover of LD to a new language and that the language learning problems of their subjects were just that-- language learning problems.     

Also, I began teaching in ADULT ESOL, as opposed to higher education ESL, and learned that the issues of students failing were far more severe and varied than those I had encountered in higher ed. ESOL . That is when I first began looking at EXTERNAL causes of student failure, as well as at some internal--or intrinsic-- causes.   I gradually compiled a list of factors that can cause adult ELLs to fail to learn.   These are ordered by ease of addressing the problem:

1.Vision problems and physical health: An astounding number of adult education students have inadequate vision for reading (see the extensive data from Dr. Laura Weisel).  Similarly, adult ESOL students, for whom eye exams and glasses are often a major luxury, may have significant vision problems.  Getting students' eyes checked should and can be an up-front priority for any adult ESOL program, as it is really unfortunate when a student struggles to read simply because he or she cannot see.   Students who have never had glasses ( as non-literate students may be, having not had a need for close-up acuity in vision) do not even know they cannot see.   I was very proud that at a large program I worked at in DC, vision screening was instituted as a systematic part of intake.  At that school, and in populations I have personally screened, a steady 10% of students needed significant vision correction.  

Similarly, hearing issues are far more common than we like to think.  And again, the students may not self-report because of cultural ideas about disability and what will happen to them if they do self identify, or because they think they can manage anyway.   And again, simple hearing screening takes only a few minutes and in an adult population is a MUST.   (I think of my adult friends here where I live and at my church, and I would estimate one out of five has a hearing loss significant enough to warrant a hearing device of some kind...).  Again Dr. Weisel's data is vast and powerful about how many adult learners have hearing loss-- while not so many may be in adult ESOL, if there is ANY hearing loss, it is working against functioning well in class. 

Physical health issues can also be enough of an issue to interfere with learning,  One such case is described in the articles in Focus on Basics, for which Rochelle has given links in a separate posting.   Students may feel ill, or be suffering from the effects of medications and cannot really focus.  They come to class because they must but cannot learn.

2.  Level of education-- surprisingly, this issue is asked about but may not be fully taken into account in placement or instruction.   The Sudanese student to whom I refer in an earlier post told me that he and his fellows gave interviewers various answers about how much schooling they had had depending on what the interviewer could offer them. That is, if they thought they would be taken as refugees, they gave one answer, but if they thought it didn't matter, they gave a lower estimate.   Like so many people who are refugees or have endured major upheaval in their lives for political reasons or natural disasters, these students didn't really have a way to estimate their level of learning or years in school. How do you count sporadic classes under a tree in the refugee camp?  Other students are known to come from pre-literate cultures and have experienced NO formal education at all.   Still others are highly educated, but speak little English so their level of literacy is ignored in favor of placement in a class for beginning speakers.  In all these cases, the level of education will be a significant factor in whether the student will succeed or fail.   Tomorrow we will limit the discussion almost entirely to students with no prior formal education and how they often seem to have LD.   Here, however, I ask you to be more realistic in evaluating those with more advanced education.  Just two weeks ago, I read a program audit from a large ESOL program in which the auditor noted that the completion level of the more advanced students was WAY below that of the beginning or low intermediate students.   This usually means that the advanced students are not correctly challenged and are, as I said above, placed in classes for beginning speakers, along with those who have no or very low education. Or the materials and topics are not of high interest to them-- or are actually unknown to them.  A study on adult foreign language learners showed that when students did not have any familiarity with the topic they were reading, the usual benefits of strengthened grammar and increased vocabulary were lost.   This is a recipe for disaster-- and for drop outs or disinterest.   The mis-match of education to what is happening in the ESOL classroom is one of the major reasons for students to disengage or fail to learn.    A thorough intake-- with interpreter if at all possible-- can go a long way toward finding out what education students have.  But even that will not guarantee that students from different cultures and countries will have similar educational backgrounds, been exposed to the same instruction or will learn in similar ways. 

3.  Adult language learning issues:   A great weakness in adult ESOL is not taking fully into account how adults NEED to learn languages.  Adults' ability to hear the sounds of a new language is known to diminish sharply as the person matures over age 20- --or even before that.  Some of the great voices of second language acquisition have noted that adults need far more repetition and focus on the most salient aspects of language than younger learners need.   VERY FEW class settings, in my experience and observation-- which is long and deep.....provide for or allow for sufficient repetition and practice for adult learners to actually master language structures and retain and use vocabulary.   Heide Sprucke Wrigley noted a decade ago in "What Works in Adult ESL" that interactive, meaningful activities in classes worked far better for adult language learners than book and paper focused activities.   And a report out of Canada about preparing students for workplace English found that there was almost zero transfer of preparation for the workplace from classroom-based activities, particularly worksheets.   And of course RELEVANCE of topic and learning is paramount to maximum student engagement.  (see earlier posts on this topic).

Furthermore, the long- noted and oft-discussed issue of BICS and CALP-- oral survival language learned quickly and often inaccurately versus language needed for reading and understanding directions, text. and other non-contextualized language-- is real and prominent in adult learners.  I see this EVERYDAY in the 10+ adult ESOL learners I tutor here in Maine.   What they hear and say is far from accurate and what they can read and understand often bears little relationship to what their conversational English is.  Dr. Alba Ortiz of  U Texas, whose work has been my guiding light for decades, has long said that the BICS-CALP gap is probably the greatest reason that ESL learners are suspected of having learning difficulties, particularly reading difficulties.   Teachers need to be fully aware of this gap and what it implies for reading comprehension, writing skills and general literacy skills versus oral skills of students.  

I am going to pause here as I need to go tutor some delightful 11 year-old Spanish speaking girls, whose idea of a terrific class is for me to ALLOW them to read outloud for me-- in English-- a teacher's dream, yes?? Fluency has skyrocketed in about 4 sessions!! --Then we play "instant bingo" with a set of question-and-answer cards designed to give them practice in the past tense forms of the pesky irregular verbs in English- the questions and answers are about them and their families and school.   Trying to practice what I preach about making learning relevant and interactive!  






I agree with Robin that it is so important not to underestimate the impact of the student's educational background on their "progress" in class. Students with very little formal education face a double challenge: learning English and learning the "culture of school". We must be vigilant not to assume anything when working with low/non literate students with little formal education. These are a few examples of real life situations that have happened in my classes: #1 when asked to write their name where indicated on a page, one student it wrote at the very edge because there was a line there and he didn't want to write on the line", #2 when asked to copy a short 3 sentence dialog, the student didn't not copy the sentences in the order in which they were written rendering the dialog senseless. Sadly, too many times I hear teachers say things to the class like "today we're going to work on the present continuous". To students with little or no knowledge of grammar, this in itself is like a another language. 



In addition to Alicia's comment about educational backgrounds, we as teachers need to also remember that non-literate students have no connection with the materials we see as standard items used for learning: books, pencils, notebooks, paper, etc.  Holding a pencil is an extremely difficult fine motor skill, let alone learning to take that pencil and create symbols in a pattern.  When I first started teaching this low level, I gave a few new students notepads.  I didn't know they had no prior schooling.  To my surprise, none of the students touched the notepads.  They picked up the pencils and tried to write on the notepad exactly as I had put it on the table in front of them.  Some were upside down, another was at an angle, and another was sideways.  None of the students noticed anything was wrong with them because the idea of having paper in front of them to write on was a new concept.  Similarly, when I handed these students books (they are given out as part of our program), they could not "operate" it.  When I asked them to open to page 33, they flipped one page at a time to try to find the right one. 

As teachers, we need to be mindful of these beginnings for our students.  As Alicia mentioned, learning the language is only half the battle.  For these students, learning the culture of the classroom and how to operate the materials necessary for education are additional challenges.  If students cannot learn the ways and means of the classroom, they cannot be successful with their language learning.  We need to observe the skills students are coming to class with and be prepared to start from zero.

Hello Lauren,

Welcome to our guest discussion on Helping Adult English Language Learners Who Have Learning Challenges.  We look forward to learning from your experience.

I was most interested in your comment on "culture of the classroom."  Will you or any of our group members give us more examples of what this culture might entail, please?

Thanks so much for joining us in this interesting discussion.

Rochelle Kenyon, SME


Thank you for the kind welcome, Rochelle!

In regards to the culture of the classroom, I am referring to the skills and knowledge that students learn in their first years of school.  These skills are cemented into memory and brought back to the forefront when students return to school as adult learners.  For students who were not exposed to schooling, they lack skills that a teacher might deem "common sense".  These students are often thought to have learning problems, when in fact, it is that they have not learned how to be a student.  This might include things like:

  • Knowing how to hold and flip through a book
  • Correctly copying written information - copying as a picture (exactly as it appears from where they are copying) vs. copying as text (formatting text properly and continuing on the next line where necessary)
  • Knowing when it is OK to speak in class and when to be silent, including making inappropriate or off topic comments
  • Understanding how to interact with classmates, whether it be as a partner, in a small group, or as a class
  • Having the right materials for class (pencil, paper, eraser)
  • Keeping materials organized (i.e. knowing how to put papers in a binder or folder - Are they upside down?  Are they all facing the right direction?  Do all papers need to be saved?)
  • Knowing how to sit in class (Are they facing the board/teacher?)
  • Having the right behavior according to the other students in the classroom (Are they being accepted into the classroom?  Are they doing something different from how other students do it that is causing negative attention?)

All of these situations might cause a teacher to think there is something wrong with the student.  However, the only thing "wrong" is that they have yet to learn how to be students in a classroom.  It is essential to maintain a respectful and comfortable environment for these students to learn all lessons, both English and cultural.  Through teacher and student modeling and persistence, these cultural classroom difficulties can be navigated and conquered.