The Why


As It Is Today

Throughout the United States today adult immigrants are largely under-served as quality language services remain a privilege for merely a portion of those entering the United States from foreign soil.  Adult English language learners present a unique category of learners as they represent diverse backgrounds (Eyring, 2014, Ludwig, 2016) and arrive from nearly every country in the world (Ludwig, 2016).  Inside the United States Adult English Language Learners (ELLs) are highly motivated to assimilate quickly into surrounding culture and secure a job (Ludwig, 2016).  Specifically, those adults who are enrolled in noncredit public and private programs span in age from teenage to elder adult (Eyring, 2014, Mathews-Aydinli, 2008) and experience diversity in religion, cultural and educational background, learning ability, participation level, literacy level, and motivations for learning.  Motivations for learning are widely spanned as students strive for better employment opportunities, as well as to pass citizenship or GED examinations.  Additional motivating factors for learning English could also include a desire to build friends, better one’s self, speak with grandchildren, learn personal finance techniques, obtain health information, or even prepare for college or university degree programs.  Many of these individuals are dedicated learners and enter the United States as refugees who have left their homes because of negative circumstances.  Therefore, these same individuals may prove both fragile and sometimes even unable to learn inside a classroom environment (Eyring, 2014).

A limitation encountered by adult English learners is the vastness in student expectations (Grover, Miller, Swearingen, & Wood, 2014).  Many students bring fixed ideas regarding education from their home country and may discontinue class attendance should they feel a lack of improvement.  Students may be unfamiliar with the types of materials and textbooks utilized, and gravitate toward subjects which prove personally appealing.  Home and work responsibilities result in imperfect attendance, while learning itself is approached in an experience-centered manner as adults present a stockpile of prior knowledge and are found to frequently link new information (Ludwig, 2016).

Yet another limitation inside the ESL classroom is limited teacher competence.  Specifically, instruction takes both commitment and flexibility (Ludwig, 2016).  In a study of twenty-five ESL teacher candidates, many of the teachers observed confessed to being uncertain on how to distinguish between culturally-appropriate behavior which no doubt varies between cultures, and that of misbehavior (Chin-yin, Indiatsi, & Wong, 2016).  Language levels among immigrants also presents a plethora of stages (Grover, et al., 2014) as students may know only an oral language which is not yet written (preliterate), have a written language but not understand it (nonliterate), or even have lived in a host country for an extended time yet still encounter limited reading and writing skills (semiliterates) (Eyring, 2014).

In addition, funding for ESL classes is often scarce and classes are created multi-level with varying student attendance (Finn, 2015).  Achievement proves inconsistent and drop-out rates remain an issue (Mathews-Aydinli, 2008).  In a survey of first-generation adult Latinos, only twenty-three percent admitted to being able to carry well a conversation in English.  Seventy-one percent of Mexican immigrants, forty-four percent of South American immigrants, and thirty-five percent of immigrants from Puerto Rico admitted to speaking English only a little or not at all in the United States (Hakimzadeh & Cohn, 2007).  In New York City alone, waiting lists to enter adult education and literacy classes can extend to two years in length.  Occasionally, numbers will be submitted as in a lottery system and those individuals with numbers selected are given admittance into an ESL class (McLendon, 2010).

Currently across the United States, adult education programs are serving only 1.8 million of the available 93 million individuals who could benefit from such services.  Of those currently enrolled in adult education, forty percent are ELLs.  Waiting lists for language services are a reality in most states as classes are being held in public schools, community colleges, community based organizations, faith-based organizations, universities, and libraries (National Council, 2014).

Empowering Immigrant Adults through Leadership and Community

Upon entering the English classroom, many adults may come with only little knowledge upon which to build and represent varying native language literacy skills (Ludwig, 2016).  For example, in a study conducted of sixty advanced-level ESL adult students, Lee (2016) discovered participants in her EFL class to represent prior learning experiences which were predominantly teacher-centered.  Inside such classrooms, only little interaction was encountered between students and teachers.  Upon interviewing forty participants, twenty-two students identified having learned some English words and pronunciation in their native country, while the remaining eighteen students did not.  Furthermore, in prior learning experiences students were merely expected to mimic a teacher’s pronunciation rather than being taught an emphasis upon real-world conversations and proper intonation, stress, and accents in speaking.

Because of such wide variety in student skills and experience, it is nearly impossible to expect educators to best tailor learning for each individual student.  Instead it becomes essential for immigrant adults to assume personal responsibility for needed learning and make choices which are most appropriately aligned with personal interest and need.  It is with this interest in mind which in part motivates classrooms to cultivate attitudes of leadership.

As students are given opportunity to lead within a classroom, adult learners are able to become equipped with skills necessary for self-directed action within and away from the English classroom.

Inside the classroom, self-directed learning fosters skills within students which are directly applicable to advancing language knowledge outside the classroom.  Rather than relying upon teacher-directed methods of learning, adult students may actively assume a role in both establishing personal goals as well as determining how they will reach such goals (Grover, et al., 2014?).  Also as adults discover personal meaning and value within learning material, as well as are given opportunity to choose, motivation may be expected to increase (Kirk, n.d.).  Therefore as the ability to be self-directed is nurtured, adults may be aided in taking ownership of personal learning (Grover, et al., 2014).

Inside the classroom, one’s experience may also be improved through the creation of a positive community.  Individuals experience a fundamental need to feel connected and related to others, and benefit from a learning environment in which sense of belonging is established (Kirk, n.d.).  Ferrante (2015) defines community for students as, “a place of comfort and commonality, a place where the anxiety stakes are low and the acceptance rate is high, a sense which, when fostered in the classroom, is transferable beyond those literal and figurative walls and can lead to personal and lifelong enrichment.”  A positive learning community avails learners a space in which they can expect to feel comfortable, safe, and engaged with relevant materials.  Upon entering one’s class students should understand the environment to be inclusive and respectful as a teacher not only imparts knowledge but also learns from students (How to Create a Positive Learning Environment, 2015) in a respectful manner.

In one study completed by Schwietzer (2015), mixed grade settings throughout Oregon were discovered to perform highly on state measures despite facing the same hurdles as other schools across the state (  This alternative method for instruction is built upon a foundation in which mixed ages are utilized for academic and social reasons.  Inside these classrooms a sense of community and accountability are built upon to nurture social skills not replicated in single-grade groupings (Schwietzer, 2015).  Finn (2015) further discovered that even small changes made within a classroom hold potential for creating a community which focuses upon the emotional needs of students in a positive manner.

Today it is critical for developing educators to continue challenging personal assumptions regarding one’s role in the ESL classroom (Light, 2006).  Creating classrooms in which positive community is experienced can prove challenging, however, educators continue embracing the task because of a belief in the inherent worth of students.  Students are indeed worthy of one’s best effort exerted into building a positive community despite obstacles encountered along the journey (Martinsen, 2009).


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