Does research evidence affect policy and practice?

Hello Colleagues,

In the LINCS CoP English Language Acquisition group Paul Rogers has asked, "if there were evidence / research to prove that using smart phones etc. could enhance learning, then what? Would teachers and administrators change their policies?" This question deserves a discussion thread of its own, so here it is. Please join in.

I would like to unpack Paul's question with several related questions. I'll join in with some answers from my perspective, but first I want to hear from others, from you! Don't feel you have to answer all these questions, and especially not all of them in in one reply. You can reply separately about those that interest you.

1. Good research evidence in our field. Do we have some good research, and research evidence, that adult basic skills (including ESOL/ESL) teachers and administrators can use to improve practices and programs? If so, what are some good examples?

2. Research in our field compared with other fields. How does the research evidence in the adult basic skills (i.e. adult basic education or adult literacy) field compare with research evidence in K-12 education; higher education; and in other fields, for example in medicine, which our field has sometime been compared with?

3. Research that could influence decision-making. As a field, where do we have sufficient research evidence to make decisions about improving programs and practices? Where do we have some evidence? For which topics, questions, or program decision areas is there little or no evidence, and where research evidence is very much needed?

4. Under what circumstances do practitioners or policy makers use research evidence to make decisions? Where we do have adequate evidence, under what conditions or circumstances do teachers and administrators at the program/school and state levels use it in making decisions to implement new models and practices? When do policy makers at local, state and national levels use research evidence in making decisions?

5. Obstacles to using research evidence. Where teachers and administrators do not use existing research evidence, why not? Is it difficult to find relevant research evidence? Is it difficult to understand studies, to interpret their findings and recommendations when they are available? If so, what would make that easier? Do practitioners despair, even if when they know what research evidence suggests as good or best practices, that the funds and professional development support to help make that happen is lacking?

6. Overcoming the obstacles. What are good examples of how practitioners at local and state levels have been able to overcome these obstacles?

7. Other related questions. What questions would you like to add to this discussion?

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS Program Management and Integrating Technology groups.


Hello Colleagues,

On July 11th I posted this question, "Does research evidence affect policy and practice?" I broke it down into the seven sub-questions below. So far, over 90 people have looked at the post, but no one has replied to any of the questions. I am not sure why. Perhaps the 90+ are all practitioners who, while they may be interested in the questions, don't feel they have enough experience with adult education research to answer most of them. If this describes you, then let's hear your answers to question 5. Perhaps some who looked at these questions thought, "great questions...I'll set this aside until I have time to give a thoughtful answer." If that's what you were thinking, how about now? But perhaps there are other reasons, so I'll add another question: "What are the obstacles for you in answering these questions?"


1. Good research evidence in our field. Do we have some good research, and research evidence, that adult basic skills (including ESOL/ESL) teachers and administrators can use to improve practices and programs? If so, what are some good examples?

2. Research in our field compared with other fields. How does the research evidence in the adult basic skills (i.e. adult basic education or adult literacy) field compare with research evidence in K-12 education; higher education; and in other fields, for example in medicine, which our field has sometime been compared with?

3. Research that could influence decision-making. As a field, where do we have sufficient research evidence to make decisions about improving programs and practices? Where do we have some evidence? For which topics, questions, or program decision areas is there little or no evidence, and where research evidence is very much needed?

4. Under what circumstances do practitioners or policy makers use research evidence to make decisions? Where we do have adequate evidence, under what conditions or circumstances do teachers and administrators at the program/school and state levels use it in making decisions to implement new models and practices? When do policy makers at local, state and national levels use research evidence in making decisions?

5. Obstacles to using research evidence. Where teachers and administrators do not use existing research evidence, why not? Is it difficult to find relevant research evidence? Is it difficult to understand studies, to interpret their findings and recommendations when they are available? If so, what would make that easier? Do practitioners despair, even if when they know what research evidence suggests as good or best practices, that the funds and professional development support to help make that happen is lacking?

6. Overcoming the obstacles. What are good examples of how practitioners at local and state levels have been able to overcome these obstacles?

7. Other related questions. What questions would you like to add to this discussion?


David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP, Integratign Technology and Program Management groups

Some of my thoughts on David’s questions. I’d be happy to have folks refute or confirm what I’ve said and continue this discussion.

1. The two research based initiatives that come to  mind are STAR and ANI. But I’m not sure if the research they are based on is from K-12 or adult ed. I have a feeling it may be K-12. Other research, at least to the best of my knowledge, is scant. Most is done on K-12 and postsecondary.

2. Research in adult ed, at least according to some, is not up to the “gold standard”. We have anecdotal information and research that has been done but has often been pooh poohed because it wasn’t “rigorous” research. CSAL has been working to add to our research base but I’m not sure if their results have been released yet. The money seems to be available for studies done in K-12 and postsecondary but not so much in adult ed. Comparing research in medicine to research in adult ed makes me twitchy. Big pharma spends big bucks to fund medical research so of course those studies can measure up to the gold standard.

3. Again, STAR and ANI seem to be two research based initiatives that could make positive impacts on programs.  I think we have some evidence for the success of IETs and other type of career pathways programs. Not that I’m biased (OK, I am) but I think writing is an area in which we could use more research with adult learners.

5. One mind set that sometimes has to be overcome is “I’ve been doing it this way for 10 years and it works just fine.” I think PD is another issue. It’s one thing to tell teachers to use evidence based teaching but another to give them the support they need to do that. Many adult ed teachers are part time and often work another job so don’t have the time to read research reports and try to interpret them. Unless the research has been done with adult learners, some practitioners discount it as not being appropriate.

6. I think that states who implement things like STAR and ANI are making big steps to implementing research based practices in the classroom. These initiatives offer extended training with lots of opportunities to apply what is being learned to the classroom and ongoing support. Unfortunately, budget issues often put the kabosh on extended, embedded PD .

Thanks, Di for getting us started.

I believe that STAR research was based on both K-12 and Adult Basic Education research. This publication, Research-Based Principles for Adult Basic Education Reading Instruction, by John Kruidenier, Ed.D. and Produced by RMC Research Corporation, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, will give you a fuller answer for what research influenced the development of STAR.

The report describes it as follows:

Most of the principles derived from the ABE reading instruction research are "emerging principles" because they are based on a relatively small body of experimental research. There is much more research focusing on children, as demonstrated in the report of the National Reading Panel. The small size of the ABE reading instruction research base precludes establishing more than just a few principles based solidly on large numbers of research studies that have been replicated. Some of the topic areas reviewed contain no or very few research studies. This does not necessarily suggest that the quality of ABE reading instruction research is poorer than K-12 reading instruction research or other bodies of research, only that there is less of it.

Perhaps someone else could tell us about the research that has been used by the Adult Numeracy Initiative (ANI).

It would be great to hear from many others who have examples of how research evidence has affected practice or policy in their program, or in their state, or what are the obstacles and challenges in finding or using research for this kind of decision making.

David J. Rosen



Hi David,

Four years ago I was a new corrections educator, new the world of adult ed. I was just coming off an online MA TESOL program (APU) and was really in the midset for researching best practices, both for corrections and for adult ed. However, I found that much research was behind pay walls. I no longer had access to my university library, so I couldn't do research that way. I have gained access to my state's library, but the resources are still limited.

So as someone trying to find research, I could see abstracts but no articles. I finally gave up.

I have found bits and pieces here and there, and I still search, but there is a lot more blog-type and anecdotal writing than research that is accessible.

Thanks Michelle.

I have experienced the difficulty you describe, that the research findings that I am looking for are in an article in a prohibitively expensive journal, not accessible for free to those outside an academic community. Sometimes I have found that some of these journals are available online to me as a patron of my public library. That may not be true everywhere, however. Has anyone else experienced this challenge? If so, how have you overcome it?

A related question, has anyone found an up-to-date database of adult basic skills (including ESL/ESL} research articles? If not, what do you do? What are the go-to-databases or journals that you do use, or do you just use a web search engine like Google or Google Scholar? If so, do you find the research that answers your questions?

David J. Rosen


A few favorite resources that I use to access research articles at no cost are:


Google Scholar

Research Gate

Also, if you live near a state university, sometimes it is possible to get a library card there. It may not grant you electronic access to journals, but you can read print editions and check out research reports.

For us, I'd say the research with the biggest impact on our programs is based on institutional data- enrollment trends, reasons students drop, teacher observations, MSGs, etc.  Basically, what we've found there (at least for our ELA learners) is that students who progress, on average, attend more hours of class, which is no shocker-so we mostly focus on how we can keep students engaged.  If there's big-scale research around best practices for that component, I'd love to read that!  

We're fortunate that we're able to send instructors to regional conferences for COABE, CAEPA, and TESOL- so we access current research that way.  COABE has a useful website for teachers with a section called research to practice- and we see links between good teaching and student engagement.  We don't have consistent access to publications- as another poster noted-the cost/relevance balance doesn't always work out.    

I've only been here for a couple of years, but in my time, our larger institution has also sponsored book clubs related to our field (education, leadership) but those seem to fizzle out after a few meetings.  They seem to do better at the director level in actually finishing books meant to guide reflective educational leadership.  They read Brené Brown this year.     

One of the other issues with research in education is just how difficult it is to isolate variables in order to identify effective practices. The best research on that point could probably be done in a corrections facility since the day-to-day environment is so consistent for all learners.  But even then- there's a slew of factors related to their prior individual experiences that impact students' learning.  And how generalizable is that population to other adult learners?  I'd say that generalizability piece is a challenge with any educational research.  What works in one context may not be that effective in another, so it's important to go back to that institutional data that can help you determine if the practice you implemented based on those articles you read are working for your program.

Thanks, Rachel.

There is research on adult basic skills learner retention (from the perspective of the program's goal to retain students), sometimes referred to as learner persistence (from the adult learner's point of view.) Both perspectives have a lot to offer practitioners.  For example, you might look at the NCSALL-sponsored studies on adult learner persistence at .

Anyone else have studies to recommend on adult learner retention or persistence?

David J. Rosen


Rachel mentioned COABE. That is probably where I find the majority of my research-related materials. I was lucky enough to attend COABE conference this year, and was thrilled to see that so many of the presentations were research-based. 


Rachael - 

I worry about the emphasis on randomized control studies and the mindset that study of useful instructional practices needs to align with RTC format in order to be considered "research".  Your observation about variables being an issue in educational research underlies my point of view here. I think empirical qualitative research (interviews and observations) combined with data about learner characteristics, enrollment, and persistence can support an interpretive approach to researching what works.  Research findings should certainly inform what teachers do, but teachers need to add their own knowledge about their students and available resources and constraints to make the findings relevant for their own classrooms.

The research in adult education was a widely publicized and researched in the 90s up until maybe 2008. When researching for my graduate studies, I was challenged in finding more recent research that supported different levels of adult education as it related to teaching, whether as volunteers, tutors, or classroom teachers.  However, when I began to look at other fields as it related to adults, literacy, and education, the amount of research was overwhelming.  I read another post about the NCSALL reports, which were quite helpful in gaining a solid foundation in the history and need for adult education research and what was researched at that time, and I agree that the reports in NCSALL are definitely relevant and provides a great backdrop to adult education. 

Additionally, i the research on K-12 and K-16 was also overwhelming.  What was also interesting was how material used in K-12 was equated with some practices on teaching adults.  Although an argument could be made to this effect, I think that research on how adult learn outweighs the K-12 materials used to teach the adult learner. 

As an instructional designer, adult education and adult education principles are discussed in the literature as well.  However, the discussions are primarily based on the idea that the learner has certain capabilities, such as a higher level of learning with the ability to interpret the learning. this can be challenging for the low-level learner or the learner whose primary language is not English. I also looked at research in the medical field and found some interesting and good research articles on literacy as it related to medicine and teaching using virtual intelligence.  I thought these were great, but again, the learning level was much higher.

I would suspect that the research on adult education as it relates to learning and understanding the adult learner remains stagnant, hence the continued fight for funding, services, and programs.

Thanks Corlis,

There are several researchers and practitioners in the Open Door Collective's Health and ABE, and Digital Inclusion, Issues groups who are interested in digital literacy skills for health-related purposes, including for example:  searching online for health information, digital health literacy, using online patient portals to communicate with one's physician or health care team, and possibly also in personal health data collection transmitted by patients to their health care team as part of a treatment process. As one of those ODC members who are interested in health-related digital literacy, I would appreciate looking at the research articles you mentioned on literacy related to medicine and teaching using virtual intelligence (Artificial intelligence? Virtual Reality? Something else?)


David J. Rosen



Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective, Corlis. You point out a particular need for research with low-level English learners as well as the need for more research on health literacy topics. I wanted to share some resources that may be of interest to you and other members related to these needs.


Some members will be aware of the important research that has been conducted since 2006 by international scholars and practitioners through LESLLA (Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults). The proceedings from LESLLA's annual meetings are archived on the site. LESLLA's focus is on adult learners who have no or limited formal schooling.

By the way, the next LESLLA conference takes place next month in Pittsburgh, PA, August 28-30, 2019. Members can check out the details about the upcoming conference in this announcement.


I and others have mentioned the valuable work of NCSALL. I wanted to point out that health literacy was a major focus for the NSCALL researchers, and Dr. Rima Rudd from Harvard University oversaw the development of a number of reports and training materials for practitioners. Some members may be interested in checking out the following study circles.

Skills for Disease Prevention and Screening

Skills for Chronic Disease Management

Skills for Health Care Access and Navigation

This has been a valuable discussion thus far. I look forward to learning more!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs

Hello colleagues, Thanks for raising this important issue, Paul and David. Most of us in adult basic education realize that, unfortunately, there is little research in our field. Diana mentioned the research on adult reading being conducted by the researchers at Georgia State as one example of current research, which has been informative-- with more yet to come.

Some of us who have been around for awhile remember the valuable work of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL). NCSALL conducted research and published many reports and other resources beginning in @ 1997 through 2008. This substantive work is archived online on the NCSALL site. Though some things are likely dated, much still has relevance today.

For instance, Rachel asked about research related to motivation and persistence, and this was one of the main areas of NCSALL research. There are several research reports as well as a study circle on the topic of persistence on the site.

The researchers published the Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy featuring research reports and reviews of research each year for seven years. These scholarly research articles are also all archived on the site.

NCSALL was unique in that there was a strong focus on bringing research and practice together to support the work being done daily by practitioners. Toward that end, they also published 34 volumes of Focus on Basics with articles that both summarized research for practitioners and highlighted the practical implications for adult literacy teachers and learners.

You can find all 34 volumes of Focus on Basics (FOB) online. You may want to check out some articles for personal enrichment; some would be useful to discuss during staff meetings. 

Here are a few articles from FOB that may pique your interest:

There's Reading ... And Then There's Reading by Victoria Purcell-Gates

Less Teaching and More Learning by Susan Gaer

Accommodating Math Students with Disabilities by Rochelle Kenyon

Beginning ESOL Learners' Advice to Their Teachers by MaryAnn Cunningham Florez (This article is one of my all time favorites!)

Powerful Motivation by Will Summers

More Curriculum Structure: A Response to "Turbulence" by John Strucker

The work of NCSALL is still valuable, and it attests to the importance of funding additional research. There are so many unanswered questions that research could help to answer about how to support adult learners most effectively. Conducting research is costly, but in my view it is essential. We can all advocate for more resources to support the research we need.

Looking forward to hearing other members' thoughts!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching and Learning CoPs

Hi Susan,

I certainly do remember NCSALL as I was part of the Practitioner Research and Dissemination Network for the state of Maine. NCSALL built a network of practitioners from several New England states and southern states. We got to meet many of the researchers for NCSALL and tried some of their suggestions as a practitioner research project in our classrooms. Many of the resources you shared are still valuable today. The Focus on Basics issues were wonderful and as your shared, can still be accessed today. Please take time to preview these resources as you won't be disappointed.



Thanks, David and others, for raising this important question.  A few comments: 

  •  In the area of work-related basic education (which includes workplace basic education for incumbent workers and job readiness education and career pathway education for new workers or job changers) there has been lots of information collected since at least the 1980s.  This information has helped define the basic skills needs of US adults overall, particular populations (e.g., incarcerated individuals, limited-English-speakers, et al), and particular industries and employers. Information (in the form of evaluations) was collected about various program models and components (e.g., how to build partnerships with industries, how to develop customized curricula and assessments, and , how to organize career pathway systems), and how to create workforce learning systems for states and communities.  This work was supported by federal (e.g., USDOE's National Workplace Literacy Program, National Institute for Literacy), state, labor, employer, and private foundation sources), and these models have been disseminated via professional development opportunities and various on-line resource centers (including earlier and current versions of LINCS and others like the late-great ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Ed at Ohio State University.  Various national policy advocacy organizations and networks promoted this work.  (Examples of this work can be viewed in the Open Door Collective's January 2019 "An Archive of Work-Related Basic Skills Resources" at . (This document will be updated in the coming month.)  
  • So it is fair to say that, at least in the "work-related" segment of the adult basic skills field, a good amount of research has been conducted.  While this research might not fully meet all of the requirements of "rigorous, evidence-based research," it nonetheless contains valuable tools and lessons that adult educators, policy makers, and other stakeholders (e.g., employers, labor unions, and organizations serving various segments of the workforce) can learn from and use. (Let's not "let the perfect be the enemy of the good.").  
  • The answer to the question of "Does our field use this research?" is "Yes and No."  Some states used the above evidence to create very good systems of workplace basic education and career pathway services for various populations of adult learners and industries.  In some cases, those systems have continued while others have faded.  These efforts require leadership, resources, and expertise from a number of stakeholders to respond to evolving opportunities and challenges.  This kind of dialogue is vital.                                                                          Paul Jurmo  (



Thanks Susan and Pam for your thoughts about the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. For some, including me, its valuable research in adult basic skills has been an inspiration for a new national effort to build an evidence-based system for adult basic skills education. Known as E-BAES, the first national open meeting of this effort, organized by the Open Door Collective, was held at the COABE Annual conference in New Orleans early this spring, with a room generously provided by COABE. A second national open meeting will be held at the ProLiteracy Conference in late September in San Diego, with a room generously provided by ProLiteracy. A third meeting may be held in October at the AAACE conference in St. Louis. An E-BAES Task Force has been formed, organized by the Open Door Collective, that is preparing a draft E-BAES framework to present  to the field for comments and questions at the ProLiteracy Conference. The Task Force and its sub- groups have begun meeting, and will be drafting the framework. For more information about this, contact the Task Force Co-chairs, Margaret Patterson <> or Eric Nesheim, <> .

Pam, you may have seen the earlier post in this thread from Dianna Baycich in which she mentioned the Adult Numeracy Initiative (ANI) She wrote, "The two research based initiatives that come to mind are STAR and ANI. But I’m not sure if the research they are based on is from K-12 or adult ed. I have a feeling it may be K-12."  Do you know if ANI was was research-based and, if so, if any of the research was focused on adult numeracy?


David J. Rosen


According to the TERC website, "TERC partnered with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) to implement a nationwide, revised version of a year-long adult numeracy professional development model for practitioners. This initiative builds on TERC’s TIAN project and the successful pilot of Adult Numeracy Instruction - PD created by the University of Tennessee, MPR Associates, Rutgers University, and TERC. To date, TERC’s Adult Numeracy Center staff has led ANI institutes in CT, IN, WI, and mentored a cadre of national trainers. Funder: OCTAE".

Additionally this website on OCTAE initiatives: links to a document that states that the "The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel", was used in determining its applicability to adult education.

I'm glad you asked about the research base of the ANI professional development program. ANI is certainly based on research with adult learners of math/numeracy, some of which I worked on myself. Relevant research was done with US ABE/HSE learners, with community college developmental math learners, and also with workers who are learning on the job. A larger body of research on adult numeracy has been done overseas, particularly in Europe and Australia, where such research work is way better supported with funding than in the US. Of course, research with middle school and high school students may be informative as well. ANI is well aligned with the findings of the body of adult numeracy research, both in how adults learn math and in how adult educators improve their underlying knowledge and instructional practice.

One good source for accessing adult numeracy research from the US and elsewhere is the Adults Learning Mathematics (ALM) group ( There is a journal: "Adults Learning Mathematics: An International Journal"  (I am currently a co-editor) and an annual conference with published Conference Proceedings. Both of these resources are freely available on the ALM website and are worth exploring. Brooke Istas and I just returned from the 2019 conference; in July 2020, the conference will be held in Vancouver, Canada.

Lynda Ginsburg ( or

Thank you, David, for passing along information about E-BAES. If anyone would like to be added to our registry to receive more information on E-BAES as it comes available, please go to The Open Door Collective truly appreciates the hard work of the 30 E-BAES taskforce members on the framework this summer, and we look forward to sharing the results this fall. If anyone is planning to attend the ProLiteracy conference in San Diego, the E-BAES meeting will be September 26 at 11:15 AM in Ballroom B. All are welcome.

NCSALL did implement and disseminate research, but it also experimented with ways to help practitioners engage with research findings. The Practitioner Research and Dissemination Network that Pam mentioned was part of that effort. What we learned was that practitioners need training that builds their understanding of how to access, understand, and use research findings and tools to adapt research findings to their classroom teaching. NCSALL’s research reports, research reviews, training designs, and practitioner-friendly research materials are all up at

The field needs at least one national research and development center that has enough funding to pursue research and scholarship on ABE, ESOL, ASE, and transition programs and populations. It must be connected to practitioners, and practitioners should participate in its research, scholarship, and dissemination.

Proving, with rigorous research, that our services have an impact on participants that is large enough to justify our funding, or an increase in our funding, is very difficult. A national R&D center could be a credible voice saying that our programs are designed based on the best available empirical evidence and the knowledge of experienced practitioners.

As David mentioned, ODC is trying to help the field come up with a proposal for a new national R&D center and a plan to get funding for it. I hope practitioners and state and national leaders support this effort.



Thank you for these guiding questions. I will respond to question #1.  LINCS is my main go-to place to start looking for anything related to my work as a state specialist for adult ESOL in Florida. Below is a partial list of other sources where I have found research publications as well as articles that cite research findings that have been helpful in my work. I use them for my own growth in knowledge about what works best for adult English language learners, and to share with teachers in local programs.

- The American Institutes for Research (Heide Spruck Wrigley and Larry Condelli), in particular, these three studies: "What Works," "Sam and Pat," and "TELL" (Transitioning Adult English Language Learners).

- The Center for Applied Linguistics (Miriam Burt, Joy Kreeft Peyton, Sharon McKay, Kristen Schaetzel, and others). The Center for Applied Linguistics had a "Center for Adult English Language Acquisition" for a time that published briefs on adult ESL instruction and they can be found by an internet search.

- LESLLA (Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults) has a large repository of research on emerging literacy ESL instruction for adults. The work of Patsy Egan and Edwidge Crevecoeur Bryant have been helpful to me in that particular area.

- Research publications by NCSALL (National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy of Harvard University) have been of great help to me. It is regretful that it was closed several years ago. Harvard has other centers that have done research on adult education, including the Center on the Developing Child, that published an article titled "Building Core Capabilities for Life: The Science Behind the Skills Adults Need to Succeed in Parenting and the Workplace." Another Harvard professor, Catherine Snow, referenced the differences in second language acquisition of children and adults, ("Looking Closely at Second Language Learning: An Interview with Shattuck Professor Catherine Snow). 

- Erik Jacobsen, Professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, has research that I have found helpful. ( 

- The National Center for Educational Statistics ( has articles I have found useful in my work.

Finally, I have enjoyed reading many manuscripts and dissertations of doctoral students from all over. From time to time I do internet searches related to adult ESL and usually find something right away. Especially interesting are those written by students at Hamline University, Minnesota.






David, Phil and all: Years ago in this discussion group, called NIFL at the time, I was involved in a debate on whether an English Only method was better than a Bilingual method - for Beginning students. Because I was defending and explaining my use of bilingual instruction I decided to research the question on Google. I found nothing. The issue was hardly discussed or debated and it was "officially" assumed that the English Only method was not only the best but was the only method allowed in most adult beginning ESL classes. 

At the present time the question is nearly moot because classes for beginners have been cut and also many beginners have a wide variety of lessons and courses available online for free, which includes interactive blingual websites. But still I wonder if attention is paid to the question when research is conducted. At the same time I would ask what the reason for research would be. As an undergraduate Psychology major, it was always necessary to begin a research paper with: "Statement of the Problem", which I think is still good practice.


Hello Paul,

I am surprised that you found nothing in your Google search a few years ago about bilingual instruction. Perhaps things are different now. I just did a quick Google search using "adult bilingual approach" as the search term, and there are quite a few resources listed. (See below for just a few.) However, the most recent was 2013, and many of them are by the same (well-respected, but now retired) author, Dr. Elsa Auerbach. There may be little if any adult bilingual education research taking place now and, I have to say from my own experience, there are few publicly-funded adult bilingual programs. (I would love to learn that I am wrong about that!) In the K-12 arena, at least in Boston, Massachusetts, the needle appears to have moved toward more classes with a bilingual approach. I wonder if that's a trend that others here are seeing in K-12 where they live.

I believe that if there were some preliminary evidence that a bilingual adult English literacy program was successful with a well-defined first-language population, and defined level, it would be very helpful to have an experimental design study answer this question: "Under what circumstances, with what population(s), and at what level(s) does an adult bilingual approach demonstrate English language learning (and possibly also first language reading and writing) results that are equal to or better than results of an ESL approach?" Of course, as you and I have discussed, an adult bilingual approach is not always possible when English language classes are provided to participants from many different first language groups. Nevertheless, under some circumstances, often because reading and writing are taught in a language in which the learner is already a fluent speaker, a transitional bilingual approach or a fully bilingual approach could prove to be effective, possibly more effective than an English immersion approach, for some populations, under some circumstances. To my knowledge this question, however, has never been rigorously researched in the U.S. Depending on the answer, this could advance bilingual adult education policy. Of course, if solid experimental design research found that the outcomes were not as successful as an ESL approach, this might not help to advance adult bilingual policy.

For those who may not be familiar with experimental design research, it is rigorous research typically with a matched control group and experimental group. The experimental group receives the "treatment" being studied. In this case that would be a group receiving a bilingual approach. The research question might focus on how a bilingual approach compares with an ESL approach, or both bilingual and ESL approaches might be considered treatments, and a control group whose recipients receive no English language instruction might be needed. That description is probably an over-simplification. I should also say that because these studies are usually expensive, and because there are very few dollars available specifically for adult basics skills research, and because there are so many important competing questions that need to be answered, at present I don't foresee this study being a priority. That doesn't mean, incidentally that there has been much adult ESL experimental design research. To put a fine point on that, there is no category at all for adult education research in the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse. Early on there was an adult education topic category, but my understanding is that there were no experimental design studies in adult basic skills education (including ESL/ESOL) that met the What Works Clearinghouse criteria, and after a few years the category was removed.

Results of my Quick Google search on July 27, 2019 for "adult bilingual approach"

Meeting the challenge of adult education: A bilingual approach to literacy and career development

AG Huerta-Macias - Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 2003 -

Huerta-Macias addresses the instructional needs of Latino adults who come to the
classroom with varying degrees of bilingualism and who seek to improve their language and
literacy in English and simultaneously develop occupational skills or general knowledge. He …

Toward a social-contextual approach to family literacy

ER Auerbach - Harvard Educational Review, 1989 -

… practices in the home, and, further, in the case of bilingual families, lack of underн … face
school with rigidity and approach literacy with fear?" (1986, p. 108) … work, and
bilingualism as relevant for their students. Students have developed …

[BOOK] Adult ESL/literacy from the community to the community: A guidebook for participatory literacy training

E Auerbach, B Barahona, J Midy, F Vaquerano… - 2013 -

… Minority Language Affairs (OBEMLA) of the US Department of Education as the Bilingual
Community Literacy … We believe that the starting point for working with adult learners is respecting
their … This means breaking away from the traditional approach in which the teacher knows …

Adult English Language Learners with Limited Literacy.

M Bigelow, RL Schwarz - National Institute for Literacy, 2010 - ERIC

… The positive effects of language and literacy transfer are leveraged in instructional approaches
that include use … native language(s) are beneficial for second language literacy development and
that bilingual programs tend … Adult English Language Learners with Limited Literacy …

[PDF] The Freirean approach to adult literacy education

D Spener - REPORT NO PUB DATE CONTRACT, 1992 - Citeseer

… for them a priori and gives them the knowledge to solve those problems: 82 Approaches to Adult …
by Nina Wallerstein in her book Language and Culture in Conflict (1983); the approach taken
by … 1987) in work- ing with Hmong refugees in Canada; and a bilingual model devel …

·  [PDF]

“We thought they had forgotten us”: Research, policy, and practice in the education of Latino immigrant adults

MM Lukes - Journal of Latinos and Education, 2009 - Taylor & Francis

… Some misguided teachers who embrace the “more is better” approach go to such extremes … English
and the native language year after year with three goals: bilingualism/biliteracy, grade … to coming
to basic literacy in Spanish underscored the importance of a bilingual model this …

Reexamining English only in the ESL classroom

ER Auerbach - TESOL quarterly, 1993 - Wiley Online Library

… of students in adult ESL classes come from precisely the groups shown to benefit most from a
bilingual approach—subordinated mi … and to related (but perhaps less direct) research to ascertain
the effectiveness of native language and bilingual approaches to adult ESL …

[BOOK] Making Meaning, Making Change. Participatory Curriculum Development for Adult ESL Literacy. Language in Education: Theory & Practice 78.

ER Auerbach - 1992 - ERIC

… Our project was a collaboration between the Bilingual/ESL Graduate Studies Program at UMass
/Boston … As curriculum theorists point out, every approach to curriculum development reflects a
certain view of … Project by trying to get a sense of the range of approaches and models …

[BOOK] Bringing Literacy to Life. Issues and Options in Adult ESL Literacy.

HS Wrigley, GJA Guth - 1992 - ERIC

… Working Group Dr. Elsa Auerbach, Assistant Professor, Bilingual/ESL Graduate Program,
University of Massachusetts, Boston … for teaching literacy in the native language, such as whole
language approaches, the Language Experience Approach, and Freirean …


David J. Rosen

Thanks for this, David - Actually I think I did mention Elsa Auerbach's  research and maybe a few others. But at that time...10 years ago or more....there were no comparative studies. In other words - there was no "experiment' that compared two groups of equal populations at the same time. For example, you would have to create two groups of adults who are relatively equal or alike in many differnet attributes: age, sex, level of English knowledge, etc. Then group 1 would get, say, one month of EO (English Only) instruction on the aphabet, numbers, parts of the body, etc....and the other group would get bilingual instruction. At the end of one month you would then test them and do a statistical analysis of the results. Well, I found no research like this.

Basically, I am not a big fan of research. For one thing, the students' attitude toward the class and toward learning English is important. And there are other "intangibles" which cannot be tested. Plus the term "results" has to be defined.

To give an example, let us look at the Dual Immersion method of teaching English to elementary school children. I visited a school that taught with a DI model and learned that the program lasted from the first grade to the fifth. 90% of the children were from low-income Latino families. There were three tracks, EO, DI, and "regular" bilingual classes.

The test scores for the DI stdudents in all subjects were normal for three years, but in the in the 4th and 5th grades the scores for DI kids went up abruptly in all subjects. Actually the DI students' test scores were right behind the "best" school which was located in an affluent neighborhood. I was quite amazed and naturally thought how the Di model could be applied to adults. Unfortunately, due to politics, the school was closed down a few years after my visit. this point the discussion on bilingual vs EO methods for beginners is moot because apparently cutbacks have caused the elimination of classes for beginners, at least where I live. 



Hello Paul,

My quick Google search just now for an experimental design study in the U.S. comparing an adult bilingual with a monolingual or English only language acquisition approach still, sadly, produced no results. If there were such a study, and if it showed that under certain circumstances, with certain adult immigrant populations in the U.S., a bilingual approach had far better results, let's say in participants' listening, speaking, reading and writing skills, would that study have an impact on policy? It might. It would depend on many things, for example the quality of the study, whether there were other studies that had the same or similar findings, whether public policy makers were aware of the study, and perhaps most important, whether or not there was a pubic will to address the challenge of English language learning.

There have been times in the U.S. when the public will has been greater to address the need for adult basic skills, including English language learning. In the mid-1980's and 1990's, for example, there was a massive national public media campaign called "Project Literacy U.S." , the PLUS campaign. Major television, print news and film media companies were involved, and American awareness of our national adult low-literacy problem grew phenomenally. At the same time, there were national and state legislators who took leadership to respond to the challenge they had become aware of. As one of many people who had conversations with legislators, at the state and national level, my experience was that when there is a will to address a problem, policy makers will ask what the evidence is, from research, that the solutions proposed will be effective. Of course, they don't always use that research and, when they do, if there is new or other research that shows that the approach may not be effective, they may decide to use a different approach in their proposed legislation. I would not suggest that having solid research would guarantee good public policy, but I have seen in my own state and nationally, that under the right circumstances it can be helpful. I have also seen legislators, when they cannot get answers to basic questions such as: how great is the need, what percentage of the population in need are we addressing now with public funds, what evidence do we have about the effectiveness of the different approaches that are being used, and other questions like this, turn away from addressing the adult basic skills challenge to other challenges for which there is good research evidence on the problem and on promising solutions.

When the time comes when the public will, and the will of public policy makers, is again focused on adult basic skills, including increasing the English language skills of immigrants, advocates for helping adults who need these skills can benefit from evidence-based findings, from research, to present to policy makers who want to meet the challenge.

Is this the time? In a few parts of the country, at the city and state level, there have been significant budget increases in adult basic skills education. New York City, for example, and now very likely my Massachusetts, have recently seen budget increases or will soon see significant increases for the coming fiscal year. There may be other cities or states where this is also the case. From my own experience another key ingredient, at the state and city level, is whether or not the state or city is experiencing an increase or decrease in revenue. When there is an increase, if advocates are ready with data about the need in the state or city or town, are unified in what they are asking for, and have data to support the effectiveness of the solution they propose, among the many problems that legislators are faced with adult basic skills (including English language learning) can get attention. Even when the times may not look auspicious, they may change, and being ready with good research at your fingertips; a well-organized city, state or national adult basic skills advocacy effort; and a public media campaign will be useful.

David J. Rosen

In 1973, the first episode of School House Rock appeared during children's normal cartoon time. These 3 minute, animated, musical videos centered mostly on literacy nuggets. I bet that most people over 40 will immediately recognize their song explaining conjunctions and their function using a train yard to help kids make the connection (see what I did there?) Image removed.

At that time, very few people had access to the technology tools to express these creative educational pieces. Today, we have young learners and adults holding more technology power in their hands than Steven Spielberg had when making his first technology thriller. We also have an increasing number of youth and adults that feel bored, listless, and lacking any projects they can feel productive in. It seems to me that the time is ripe to utilize our learners and the technology available nationwide to create short (say 3-5 minutes), entertaining literacy lessons that engage people in song and playful learning. It would be ideal if educators were involved in these productions, but I know so very few educators with tons of surplus time on their hands. However, I think many educators could help learners come up with literacy fundamentals that a learner could really do a deep dive on and get creative juices going to produce some entertaining learning opportunities digitally. Learners could work alone or in teams and while they work to produce these short pieces, they start learning all about the production and performance trades and how there is so much more going on behind just the actors getting up and reciting some lines. 

This effort would not only increase our access to creative literacy learning opportunities, we would be helping our learners build technology skills that are directly applicable to the global environment that is continually exploring new ways to entertain the masses and produce more content for our voracious consumption. 

Heck, we could even just start with cherry picking the themes from School House Rock videos and seeing what our learners might do to modernize or localize those same songs into their community or life settings.

I know money always helps, but we have a massive educational workforce available in the form of our learners that we really are not utilizing as fully as we might. We all know how much more we learn about something when we need to try to teach it to others. Why deprive our learners of that same opportunity to dive into having fun with key concepts that will help them in life in many ways?

Thank you again, Paul, for raising these important questions. And thanks to you, David, for searching out these resources. Since I am aware that some of these resources are freely accessible, I wanted to provide the links for those who may be interested. The first two on the list below, by Auerbach and by Wrigley & Guth, were among the most influential in my own practice as a novice teacher. These works are still important to me.

Making Meaning, Making Change by Elsa Auerbach

Bringing Literacy to Life by Heide Wrigley and Gloria Guth 

Adult English Language Learners with Limited Literacy by Martha Bigelow and Robin Lovrien Schwarz

A shorter version of Spener's article on A Freirian Approach to Adult Literacy

Regarding the efficacy of bilingual education, the research evidence has been increasing. Kate Mencken, Professor of Linguistics at Queen's College of the City University of New York, has compiled an impressive list of research studies and thought pieces on the topic.

David mentioned the What Works Clearinghouse, and there was research conducted by Larry Condelli, Heide Spruck Wrigley, Kwang Yoon, Stephanie MCronen, and Mary Seburn and published in 2010. The “What Works” Study for Adult ESL Literacy Students showed that adult English learners achieved greater gains on standardized assessments when the teacher judiciously drew upon the primary language in class. Let me be clear that this was not bilingual instruction, but rather the teacher would encourage students to use bilingual dictionaries and help each other with translation and in other ways in class. At the American Institutes for Research (AIR) link above, you'll find some additional articles related to research in adult basic education.

Let's keep this valuable discussion going!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs

Thanks Phil. These are terrific examples of adult ESL/ESOL research. I appreciate seeing which studies experienced adult basic skills teachers and administrators like you have found valuable. I also appreciate -- as will the many hard-working graduate students who read your comments -- that you read doctoral students' manuscripts and dissertations!

I wonder if you can point to how any of the examples you have given might have affected your own practice, or the practice of adult basic skills (including ESL/ESOL) programs in Florida. As you know, I am interested in how research has actually affected policy and practice!

David J. Rosen


Several of the posts in this strand reminded me of an interesting article describing how research impacts teacher practice re technology integration in postsecondary settings.

Price, L., & Kirkwood, A. (2013). Using technology for teaching and learning in higher education: a critical review of the role of evidence in informing practice. Higher Education Research & Development, 0(0), 1–16.

The study suggested that teachers might not view all research articles as equally relevant. They may rely more on each other or professional development presentations for information. Price and Kirkwood found that much available educational research is based on measuring exit behaviors and assessment results, but that instructors were more apt to change instructional practice in response to descriptive findings gleaned from qualitative studies.

Contact me if you'd like to see the article (& don't have access to research published in journals). I can email it to you. I don't think I can attach it here.