The What Works Study for Adult ESL Literacy Students

Most research and practice in second language learning supports the theory that literacy in one language assists literacy development in another language. U.S. Department of Education statistics from 2008 showed that 44 percent of the 2.4 million students in the federally funded adult education program were English as a second language (ESL) students, and of these, about 185,000 were at the lowest ESL level, beginning literacy. The “What Works” Study for Adult ESL Literacy Students focuses on adult ESL students who lack literacy skills in their native language, as well as English communication skills. These ESL literacy students face the challenge of developing the knowledge, skills, and strategies associated with decoding, comprehending, and producing print, while they still struggle with English.

The What Works Study for Adult ESL Literacy Students study identified effective instructional practices for improving the literacy skills of low-literate adult ESL learners. Conducted in three phases over seven years, this seminal national study involved visiting more than 40 adult education programs and 75 classes across the country to interview students, teachers, and staff, and to observe classes.

One of the purposes of the What Works study was to present a profile of these adults, their backgrounds and characteristics, and paint a picture of their participation in state and federally funded adult ESL programs. However, the goal of this study was not merely descriptive: it also sought to identify “what works”—the instructional activities that help to develop and improve ESL literacy students’ English literacy skills and their ability to communicate in English. The study’s main research questions were: 

  • What are the characteristics of adult ESL literacy students? What are their English literacy and language abilities?
  • What types of class arrangements and instructional approaches do teachers of adult ESL literacy students use?
  • What classroom and instructional variables are correlated with improving adult ESL literacy students’ literacy and language development?
  • Does the relationship of class and instructional variables vary according to adult ESL literacy students’ initial literacy level, native language, age or other characteristics?
  • What student, program and instructional variables relate to class attendance and persistence of adult ESL literacy students?
  • What changes in program design, resources and instruction are needed to implement the instructional approaches most highly correlated with improved English literacy and language development?

The study design included following 495 students for nine months after they started instruction and included individual student assessments of reading, writing, speaking and listening, as well as classroom observations. It is one of the few empirical studies that has found a statistically significant relationship between instruction and literacy outcomes for adult ESL literacy students. Using statistical modeling, which included measures of student attendance and student and teacher variables, the study found instructional methods related to increases in basic reading skills, reading comprehension, and oral English skills. These methods included direct instruction, strategic use of students’ native language, and making connections between instruction and real life.

The What Works study is the first of its kind: very few research studies have examined the effectiveness of different types of instruction for ESL students, and no national study has ever been conducted that linked “educational inputs,” such as teaching strategies, with “educational outcomes” (increases in test scores) for adult ESL literacy students. In addition, the study was designed not as a traditional evaluation, but to inform improvements in instruction and program design. Since the study did find evidence about the instructional and program approaches that make a difference, it provides policymakers with information to make decisions about programs and to guide practitioners as they design and implement the education they provided to ESL literacy adults.