March 2015
AEIS Newsletter



In our last newsletter, we reported that the U.S. federal adult education legislation, Workforce Investment Act, was pending. It was indeed signed by President Barack Obama on 22 July 2014 with a new name, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Please see a summary. Along with the new name, you will find new directions, including renewed focus on regional collaboration, the goal of applying one set of accountability metrics, and a strengthening of alignment between labor market information and economic development as we help Americans get back to work and train to stay at work.

As a member of San Diego Adult Education Regional Consortium for California’s AB 86 since May 2014, I have seen the spirit of WIOA in action. I have been involved in a number of committees and discussions to identify ways to strengthen regional collaboration and avoid duplication of efforts. At our meetings, representatives from various agencies from San Diego County sit side by side to present their organizations’ mission and goals as well as to discuss ways to enhance transitions from education to career pathways. We’ve heard from adult education administrators from K–12 and community colleges, librarians, literacy coordinators, workforce development managers, industry experts, and accountability specialists.

Where does English language instruction fit into all of this? Learners and workers must have the English skills to be ready for training and their careers. And accountability systems must include assessments that align with the English requirements found in the trainings and on the job. In other words, we need to share best practices as we screen learners and place them in the trainings and courses best matched to their language abilities. In addition, curriculum must be developed to ensure the language instruction is targeted for vocational training and career. And finally, evaluation and research on the role of English instruction in WIOA initiatives need to be coordinated.

We are curious to hear about your experience with national and regional legislation in the United States as well as in other countries. Are you part of a regional consortium that is being directed by national policy to enhance English language instruction for career pathways? Join us for discussion on the TESOL AEIS listserv


U.S. Department of Labor. (2014, July 22). The workforce innovation and opportunity act: Overview. Retrieved from

Ingrid Greenberg, ESL associate professor at Continuing Education, San Diego Community College District, currently teaches advanced ESL transition-to-college. She has a passion for developing programs and curricula to help students reach their academic, workplace, and civic goals. She developed an adult education writing curriculum that incorporated the process approach and genre analysis for her master’s in linguistics from San Diego State University (SDSU). She is currently pursuing a second MA in learning design & technology at SDSU, where her team recently surveyed college students’ online and print reading preferences and habits. Some of Ingrid’s favorite hashtags: #TESOL, #CATESOL, #ESL, #English, #Writing, #leadership, #edtech, #seriousgames, #FIFAcom. Connect with Ingrid at and



The program in which I teach primarily serves adults who have had fewer than 6 years of education in their native language. The majority have had no previous education at all. They come to our program needing both basic English communication skills and basic reading skills. The English language, being the phonetically complicated language that it is, doesn’t lend itself well to teaching basic reading skills and communication skills at the same time. If a teacher focuses solely on phonics, students may spend a lot of time working with words that aren’t very useful to them, as in “The pup dug in the mud.” However, if a teacher focuses solely on authentic language, students may never learn decoding skills to be able to read. Consider Table 1.

Table 1. Phonics + Authentic Language = Balanced Literacy

Systematic Phonics Instruction

Whole (Authentic) Language Instruction

A reading instruction methodology that focuses on letter sounds and patterns.

A reading instruction methodology that focuses on meaning.

Examples of phonics instruction:

Reinforce alphabet letter names and sounds until students have a solid understanding.

Explain long and short vowels and common rules for vowel sounds

Practice spelling groups of words that follow similar phonetic patterns.

Model sounding out words.

Teach students to use the letter sounds to figure out new words.

Examples of whole language instruction:

Use authentic reading materials that students might encounter in everyday life tasks.

Concentrate on vocabulary that students will use in real life interactions.

Have students read texts that they create based on shared experiences.

Emphasize reading comprehension.

Teach students to use context clues and meaning to figure out new words.

Phonics + Authentic Language = BALANCED LITERACY

Phonics vs. whole language has been debated widely in elementary education reading instruction circles for many years, and the consensus now is that the most effective teachers find ways to incorporate both aspects of reading instruction, known as “balanced literacy” (Reyhner, 2008). Adult English learners with limited literacy skills can benefit from instruction based on the same formula.

Figure 1 is a tool I’ve developed to help outline my weekly lessons using the principles of balanced literacy. You can create a similar planning tool with a basic word processing program, or download my template here.

Figure 1. Balanced Literacy Weekly Lesson 

The weekly plan combines both phonics instruction and authentic language practice. There is a systematic plan for introducing, repeating, and recycling phonics instruction. After a phonics lesson, students spend the main chunk of the lesson time using authentic language in interactive activities, followed by reading based on that same vocabulary.

When planning lessons with a balanced literacy approach, it is helpful to keep in mind these “4 Rs”: Routine, Repetition, Recycling, and Ready to read:


Emergent readers learn best when there is a predictable lesson structure. Routine helps students understand what to expect during class and gives them a framework for organizing new knowledge. For example, in the weekly lesson plan in Figure 1, activities are organized into a predictable structure so that students can learn what to expect during class from day to day and from week to week.


Low level learners need a great deal of repetition to progress. Build plenty of repetition into weekly lesson plans, but keep variety high to maintain interest. For example, in the weekly lesson plan (Figure 1), introductory activities are similar every day. A variety of spelling activities are repeated each day with the same group of words. Phonics principles are repeated every week, reviewing the same skills. There is a checklist activity to follow up on learning personal addresses each day. If the student hasn’t mastered the task, the checklist in the Notes section helps me know who to check back with repeatedly through the week.


Recycling refers to introducing a skill, then coming back to review it once a week. For example, in the weekly lesson plan (Figure 1), phonics activities are recycled every week. Every Monday, the class reviews letter names and sounds. Every Tuesday, the class reviews sounding out three-letter words. Every Wednesday, the class reviews digraphs (sh, ch, th) and blends (bl, cl, fl). In this manner, students are always circling back to review and solidify basic foundation skills for reading.

Ready to Read

Emergent readers progress most quickly when their reading practice consists of words and phrases that they already understand how to use in spoken language (Bigelow & Schwarz, p. 16). This pattern is followed in the weekly lesson plan (Figure 1), where 20 to 30 minutes of interactive speaking and listening activities are planned before students read. When the students come to the reading practice portion of the lesson, they are already familiar with the meanings of the words. As a result, they can use whole language strategies (using the meaning and context to guess words) as well as phonics strategies (using letter sounds to figure out a new word) in their individual reading practice.

Many of the resources I’ve created for balanced literacy lessons are available for teachers to use at Regardless of the phonics system or whole language curriculum you choose, keeping in mind the 4 Rs—Routine, Repetition, Recycling, and Ready to read—can help in building lessons to effectively and efficiently teach adult language learners with limited literacy skills.


Bigelow, M. & Schwarz, R. (2010). Adult English language learners with limited literacy. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy. Retrieved from

Reyhner, J. (2008). The reading wars: Phonics versus whole language. Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University. Retrieved from

Jennifer Christenson teaches and coordinates the Humanitarian Center English Program, a unique workplace literacy project in Salt Lake City, Utah. She has taught adult literacy students since 2000, and has authored a curriculum and books for adult literacy students available at


In January 2013, a beautiful young Saudi girl named Amal Barzanji entered my room, smiled at me, and sat down in my level 3 grammar class. I quickly realized that she was not in the right class, because she understood everything that I said that first day. The next day, Amal’s schedule was corrected, and she moved to a higher grammar class. I recall my disappointment when this motivated and interesting student changed classes. In the months to come, I would often hear the other teachers compliment Amal and her academic ability, so I was curious about her, but I hadn’t had her as a student yet, so she would remain like a perfectly wrapped birthday gift that I would not open for several months.

In July 2013, Amal finally became my student in my advanced reading class, and it was then that I quickly realized several things: 1) She was extremely bright, 2) she really wanted to improve her English, 3) she was creative and fun, and 4) she and I shared many similar qualities. In late August 2013, Amal approached me to ask for my help in applying to graduate programs in Florida, saying “I want to be an English teacher.” Amal accepted an invitation to enter the master’s program for TESOL at the University of Central Florida. At the time of this writing, Amal is going through the application process again as she strives to be accepted into a TESOL PhD program for fall 2015.

In November 2014, Amal and I presented together at the Bay Area Regional TESOL conference in Clearwater, Florida, on a topic near and dear to both of us: "Arabic Speakers: Understanding the Cultural Transfer." So many participants at the conference were intrigued by Amal’s journey, first as an English learner and now as an English teacher, that I decided to interview her in the hopes of enlightening everyone about the many complex issues facing Arabic-speaking students in ESOL classrooms today. The following transcript is from the conversation that we had on 11 December 2014.

Rebecca: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start with an easy question. Why do you want to be an English teacher?

Amal: English was my favorite subject in school, and it was the only class where I was very active and motivated. My passion for English started when I was a student at a private elementary school in Saudi Arabia. My English teacher was Egyptian, and she was quite knowledgeable and seasoned. I remember one time, I had written, “I love English” on one of my papers, and my teacher wrote next to it, “English loves you, too.” Therefore, the reason behind my passion for English was a teacher. A lot of students in my country lack the motivation towards learning English and that is why most of them struggle with English, in my opinion. I believe that the teacher’s role in motivating their students towards learning is invaluable; thus, we are in great need for inspirational teachers to make the change we always dream of, which is to have better education and accordingly better output.

Rebecca: What are the differences between the teaching styles in the US and in Saudi Arabia?

Amal: I would say that friendliness and flexibility are the most salient differences I have noticed between the teaching styles in the US and in Saudi Arabia. However, I had very friendly and flexible teachers back home. Thus, I think these differences are due to the authority the ESL teachers have in the US. In Saudi Arabia, EFL teachers do not have the authority to make a change in the curriculum; instead, they have to follow the rigid instructions that are imposed by their supervisors. I truly believe that no one knows the students’ needs better than their own teachers.

Rebecca: What was the hardest thing about learning English?

Amal: To me, the hardest thing about learning English is speaking. I learned English in my country where there was no focus on the speaking skills. Speaking was one of the most neglected skills in teaching English there; in addition to that, the EFL setting offers rare opportunities where students can practice their L2 (second language). Therefore, one of my goals when I go back home is to intensify the conversational classes and focus more on the authentic speaking activities.

Rebecca: What continues to be a challenge as far as the English language?

Amal: In my opinion, writing and speaking will continue to be challenging skills for me in my career and my graduate studies as well.

Rebecca: What have you liked and disliked about your experiences as an English language learner here?

Amal: I have had wonderful learning experiences here as an MA student and a language student. I have really liked how teachers are so helpful, knowledgeable, and understanding. I have enjoyed most of my classes here. Indeed, there were only a few classes where I felt bored, and honestly I don’t remember anything that I disliked.

Rebecca: What advice do you have for ESL teachers as far as the gender issues with the Saudi students in the classroom?

Amal: Truthfully, I have not encountered any situation where gender was an issue especially with the Saudi students, and it maybe was due to the flexibility of the ESL teachers here. Thus, my advice for ESL teachers is to be flexible, and do not pair up the students with the other sex if they don’t prefer that. As a student in the MA TESOL program at UCF [University of Central Florida], I have noticed that my professors often ask if any student has gender issues before a particular project gets started.

Rebecca: Teachers of Saudi students typically state that their students have poor reading skills. What methods or strategies do you recommend for these teachers?

Amal: I would recommend that they train them to read different types of texts, and focus on developing their micro and macro reading skills. They should give enough concentration on applying bottom up and top down processing, especially under timed conditions, because generally speaking, Saudi students are not accustomed to timed reading. Most importantly, they have to consider the cultural issues and background while selecting the reading passages. Furthermore, they have to consider the positive and negative language transfer from Arabic to English that is most of the time attributed to this difficulty. I would also recommend that teachers ask their students to read in their L1 (first language) as well since there has been much research on the benefits of reinforcing the L1 reading skills on the second language acquisition (SLA).

Rebecca: How do you think their Saudi culture affects the learning experience for the English learner?

Amal: In my opinion, culture plays a fundamental role in how the Saudi students learn. I have read many articles on how the culture affects the Arabic students’ writing in English in which they use inappropriate terms to express themselves or sometimes to convey their message. Moreover, culture would be so important to consider in the reading classes as well since many studies have revealed that students get motivated when they read about topics that relate to their culture.

Rebecca: What is the biggest misconception that English teachers have here about the Saudi student in their classroom?

Amal: It is really hard for me to answer this question since I have never heard about any misconceptions about Saudi students from my own teachers. But, from what I have heard that some teachers think that Saudi students are not as diligent as their peers: Frankly, I think it depends on the goals of the students as well as their age.

Rebecca: What goals do you have as far as the continuation of your education and your eventual career?

Amal: My goals are to gain as much knowledge as I can in order to be eligible for my teaching career in the future. Also, I want to conduct research on the areas that are critical in SLA especially for Arabic-speaking ELLs.

Rebecca: I know you are in the application process for PhD programs as well as finishing up your master’s at UCF. What else is on your agenda?

Amal: Well, I’m a wife and a mother of a 3-year-old, so I stay pretty busy. Also, I want to attend the international TESOL convention in March in Toronto. Oh, and of course, I want to present again with my dear teacher (Rebecca), hopefully at the Sunshine State Conference in May. Look for us there.

Rebecca: I definitely will look for you [laughs]. Thank you again.

Rebecca Sandy has been an educator for more than 24 years in Tampa, Florida, including 5 years with the adult ESL population. Amal Barzanji is a former EFL teacher in Saudi Arabia, an ELL in Florida for 2 years, and a current graduate student in the MATESOL program at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando, Florida.


As an instructor from New York working abroad for the Intensive English Program (IEP) at the American University of Kuwait in Kuwait, I have the opportunity to work with a diverse background of young adult learners. The majority of my students is very motivated and works very diligently to achieve their course goals.

One of the main challenges that my native Arabic speaking students face is learning and retaining new vocabulary terms. Most of the time, students only memorize new vocabulary terms for the exam, and then the terms are deleted from their memories and never used again. They might come across these words again later in the semester or another unit, and they have absolutely no recollection of the words. So, how can we help these students?

I searched on the Internet for fresh ways to help my students learn and retain new vocabulary. I did not just want my students to recall words for their tests, but I wanted to help them build their vocabulary banks so that they could expand their use of the English language. That is when I came across and decided to adapt Marzano’s six-step process (Marzano, 2004) to teach vocabulary to ESL students in the IEP program in Kuwait.

In the remainder of this article, I will go through the six steps of Marzano’s process and explain how I adapt it for use with my students in the IEP classroom.

Marzano’ six steps include the following:

  1. The teacher provides a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  2. Students restate the explanation of the new term in their own words.
  3. Students create a nonlinguistic representation of the term.
  4. Students periodically engage in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the vocabulary term.
  5. Periodically, students are asked to discuss terms with one another.
  6. Periodically, students are involved in games that allow them to play with the terms.

Step 1: Explain the New Word

The first step is for the teacher to explain a new word—going beyond reciting its definition. I explain the word beyond its definition by relating it to the students’ personal lives or to their culture.

Step 2: Students Restate or Explain

The second step is for students to restate or explain the new word in their own words. I have my students explain to their partner the meaning of the word using their own words, and then I have them write an original sentence demonstrating understanding of that word. For example, one word we had this semester was “function,” so I explained the meaning of function, which is defined as a job or purpose. Then I explained that the function of a student is to complete his or her homework assignments. When students hear the instructor give an example using the term, it elicits ideas and questions from them, and the students start analyzing the vocabulary term.

With partners, my students used the vocabulary term function in sentences such as, “The function for the printer is to print” and “The brain has a lot of function.” This activity is versatile; another activity I incorporate after students create sentences with these words is to have them peer check for grammar errors. Because students are working in pairs, I monitor their word use by walking around, listening to their conversations, and having them write down their explanation, example, or sentence. Then, I ask them to share aloud with the whole class at the end of the activity.

If I detect an error, I do not point it out directly, because that would likely cause discouragement, but instead I ask a guiding question, such as, “Omar, are you sure the function of the human brain is to pump blood?” I try to guide my students so that they can detect their own errors and self-correct.

Step 3: Nonlinguistic Representations

The third step is for students to create a nonlinguistic representation of the word. My students do this while writing their sentences (step 2). I have them draw a little picture that is related to the vocabulary term after each sentence they write. Sometimes, this is assigned as homework, and students enjoy searching for images online that are related to the vocabulary term (as an alternative to drawing an image themselves, especially for those uncomfortable with drawing). The initial reaction I get at first from some of my students is a shocked look, and a few are worried because they tell me they are not great at drawing. I reassure them and let them know that it is not an art competition, and I am not grading or judging their drawing skills. They are simply creating a picture to represent what the word means to them. I explain to them that the purpose of this step is to help them remember the word through pictures or visualization. This activity has been one of my students’ favorites, and it really does help them retain the words. During a test, some of my students have mentioned that they remember the vocabulary because of the pictures they drew during the homework or class work assignment.

Step 4: Activities to Deepen Knowledge

The fourth step is for students to engage in activities to deepen their knowledge of the new word. I adapt the fourth step by having my students use certain words in sentences during the week. Students can get  points towards extra credit for using the words outside the classroom. They do this by recording their sentences by writing them down or recording their conversations and sharing it in class during the week.

Step 5: Discuss the Word

The fifth step is for students to discuss the new word. In our textbook, we usually have 10 words for the first half of the unit and another 10 words for the second half. I have my students create dialogues or write stories and share them with other groups to adapt the fifth step.

Step 6: Games

Finally, the sixth step in Marzano’s six-step process is to involve students periodically in games that allow them to play with terms. I adapt this step with my students by setting them up into two teams to participate in vocabulary races. I read the meaning out loud, and a student from each team races to the board to write the vocabulary term using correct spelling. I have the students participate in a vocabulary race after each unit is completed so that students have the chance to review new vocabulary learned from each individual unit.

By engaging students in such activities, they are enjoying learning and are more likely to retain vocabulary words learned in the classroom. Through implementation of a systematic and principled approach to teaching and learning vocabulary, learners see vocabulary as a very important element in language learning and reading (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002; Bormuth, 1966). When using Marzano’s six-step process along with the prescribed textbook activities given for new vocabulary, my IEP students have demonstrated a greater retention of the vocabulary words than when they learn vocabulary terms with their regular textbook activities alone. From my conversations with my students, I understand that learning a second language can be frustrating for most students, and it is important that we, as instructors, implement creative and engaging methods to help foster student learning so that our students stay motivated. Applying Marzano’s process to learn vocabulary with my ESL classroom has been a positive experience, and I plan to continue to use this strategy.


Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Bormuth, J. R. (1966). Readability: A new approach. Reading Research Quarterly, 1(3), 79–132.

Marzano, R. J. (2004). Building background knowledge for academic achievement: Research on what works in schools. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Reena Mathew is originally from Queens, New York, and presently works for the Intensive English Program at the American University of Kuwait, in Kuwait located in the Middle East. She has a master’s degree in TESOL education in addition to her bachelor of science in biology from Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, New York. She has been an ESL teacher for 5 years and most of her teaching experience is in the Middle East region. She is interested in research that applies western teaching methodologies to ESL students in the Middle East.


For 14 school years, each new class in Advanced ESL has gone home with a cookbook that is by and for them. What started as an opening English warm-up exercise has become an annual project. This ESL class, taught by ESL instructor Dr. Ellie Fisher, is popular. The students are willing to do the hard work she requests of them. The cookbook that they get to hold in their hands is tangible proof that they are valued for who they are and what they bring.

In an interview with me on an afternoon in November 2014, Dr. Fisher said,

Cuisine is symbolic in its representation of our times, culture, and traditions. In a talking exercise about memories to start class, students always spoke of food they missed. The students took seriously that what they missed the most, the food of their native countries, is representative of their homes. Food is the scent and aroma of pride: pride in one’s culture and traditions. Everything is decided at the table. It is the central focus of our lives, and that is why it is so memorable.

Working in the position as chief psychologist in 1992 for Contra Costa County, Dr. Fisher was contacted by the director of a local adult school. She was asked to counsel staff at the local ESL education facility that had suffered a tragic loss. A phone call put Dr. Fisher in touch with the ESL community, and she was touched by the individuals with whom she came into contact. She also found herself another career.

After receiving her TESOL certificate from University of California, Berkeley, she accepted a position teaching at the Acalanes Adult School. That was more than 20 years ago. She has been assembling “Cookbook of International Cuisine” for 14 years. What started small is now more than 100 pages. The cookbook project is integrated as part of the ESL class for the entire year. Students come to class to talk, learn grammar, write, and work on their contribution to the year’s cookbook. “It is a wonderful exercise in English, and the students have to convert amounts,” reported Dr. Fisher. The cookbook takes many hours, often because the students find it difficult to write the recipes. How much is “one spoon”? Students are shown examples of recipes from previous years’ cookbooks.

Encouraging the students to give recipes is an exercise in patience, persistence, and repetition. “I make announcements of the students that have given me recipes and of the students that I am still waiting on.” Dr. Fisher helps each student write ingredient names and amounts as well as recipe names in English. Along with working with the students to write the recipes of the food they miss and remember, Dr. Fisher formats and assembles the recipes into a book. The recipes are categorized (appetizers, desserts, etc.) and arranged one per page. Dr. Fisher adds a message to the year’s students at the beginning of the cookbook.

For 14 school years, each new class has had a cookbook that is a product of its effort. Every contributor (students and staff, family and friends) is given a copy of all the recipes assembled. Each recipe is credited to the originator along with the name of the country of origin. The collecting of recipes is a unifying exercise and experience for the year. Students’ attendance is strong throughout the school year. In June, when the cookbooks are distributed, students search the cookbook for their recipes. Much discussion is generated through comparing and sharing. Dr. Fisher makes use of her years of professional experience, both as a psychologist and an ESL instructor, to help her students acclimate to life in America.

Elizabeth Gibb, MA Ed. Ms Gibb received her Adult Education Teaching Credential in the state of California in 1999.  Originally teaching in the field of art, subbing in an ESL class introduced Ms Gibb to the world of the adult English language learner. ELL-U provided the opportunity to learn about second language acquisition.  She currently teaches an ESL class in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Jenifer Vanek

Jerome Johnston

In the United States, there are about two million adults enrolled in adult basic education (ABE) classes. In the 2010–11 program year, 40% of those adults were ELLs (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). To increase access for adults who live far from adult schools or who have job or family responsibilities that make it difficult to attend class in a brick-and-mortar school, providers are increasingly offering the option of studying online at home or in a location that is more convenient for the student.

For the most part, distance education for adults in ABE or ESOL programs is built around a single commercial curriculum product such as USA Learns, Rosetta Stone, or SkillsTutor. A teacher provides an initial assessment of student needs and makes assignments in the curriculum. The curriculum product provides the instruction. As the student completes the assignments, the teacher monitors the student's performance and provides feedback and counseling. The online exercises are focused on presenting new concepts in manageable chunks and testing for mastery.

However, because we live in a highly technological world, there are demands on learners to use digital technology for everyday tasks at work, in daily life, and at school. Given the demands of ubiquitous technology, today’s online distance learning (DL) instruction cannot be limited to the academic content found in a typical online DL curriculum. To make the most of technology available to support language learning and to build learner capacity with technology, distance instruction must be actively facilitated by teachers to provide students with opportunities to use a variety of online technologies to learn and solve problems.

Project IDEAL Instructional Strategies Project

The Project IDEAL Support Center ( is a research, policy, and professional development center housed at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. It provides member states with assistance in developing distance education programs for adult learners. Many ABE programs working within the consortium of states working with Project IDEAL report that their ELL distance students achieve as well or better than their classroom counterparts. Using standardized measures of achievement (BEST Oral Interview, BEST Literacy, BEST Plus, and CASAS), ELL distance students in three states—North Carolina, Ohio, and Indiana—outperformed their classroom-based counterparts (Project IDEAL Support Center; 2006, Fall–2007, Winter; p. 3). In 2013, the center convened a study group of DL coordinators to explore the state of DL practice and describe the practices used by distance teachers who achieved better-than-usual outcomes.

First, members of the study group identified teachers who had moved beyond use of one singular curriculum product for online instruction by adding activities delivered through a variety of learning technologies and modes of communication. Through interviews, the group found that innovative teachers had integrated supplemental online tools to support collaboration, supplemental instruction, or the development of digital literacy skills critical to use of technology in daily life or successful transition to postsecondary education and the workforce. Spelled out simply, this is what characterizes innovative English language instruction at a distance. Here are the specific themes that emerged in these interviews.

Use of One Core Distance Learning Curriculum

Teachers encourage students to start their distance studies using one online curriculum. Student work within the online curriculum provides a means by which teachers formatively assess learners’ needs for additional instruction and practice activities.

Use of a Content Management System

Many teachers use a content management system, often a simple website, to organize instruction and activities. Teachers who did so were more likely to provide differentiated instruction. This strategy also puts the teacher in the role of active facilitator who mediates between the learner and the online content, making constructivist learning possible, something commonly missing in ABE DL (Askov, Johnston, Petty & Young, 2003, p. 68).

Careful Adaptation of Technology to Pedagogical and Content Needs

These teachers found a balance between encouraging learners to use new technology and using technology authentically to support instruction and the demands of the content being taught, rather than just using a learning technology because it was novel (Mishra & Koehler, 2006).

Hybrid Model

Many of the DL teachers interviewed teach in hybrid courses, defined as a blending of face-to-face and online instruction (Askov et al., 2003, p. 64). This blended model is effective because it allows teachers to intensify and differentiate classroom instruction and provides supported use of online learning that prepares adult learners to continue their education if they have to withdraw from classroom learning.

On-site Computer Lab

Many of the programs where these teachers work provide on-site computer labs. Learners participate in DL in the labs, with support. The support helps learners develop computer skills while they are working on their academic content.

Lifelong Learners

Finally, in their comments, these teachers revealed that they themselves embrace opportunities to grow as learners and are open to continuous experimentation with technology.

A Sample Class

These themes can most easily be seen in the work of one ELL teacher working in an ABE program in Freemont, California. Her class is a multilevel, mixed-skills vocational ESL course conducted as a hybrid learning experience, blending classroom and independent online instruction. The teacher’s goals for her students are to help them develop technology skills to support their English language development and to help them build organizational and independent learning skills required to find and keep a job. In her computerized classroom, students work collaboratively on job-related content like writing résumés, filling out online job applications, and online job searching. Students build oral communication skills in class and build reading and writing proficiency through individualized complementary learning online. In addition to this online in-class instruction, the teacher assigns USA Learns for distance ESL instruction. Students can do this work at home or in the on-site computer lab. Because the language level of the students is so diverse, a range of online learning materials including specific websites is used to supplement the core curriculum product—USA Learns—to meet different students’ needs.

The teacher coordinates all course activities (including both in-class and DL), communicates with her students, and encourages students to communicate with each other using a web page created with a free web-authoring tool called Weebly (see Figure 1). She uses weekly self-assessment checklists collected using SurveyMonkey, an online survey tool where students report on completion activities for the week. The survey responses turn into a record showing the arc of their work and progress on long-term projects, which vary depending on their language development needs. Each student has his or her own Weebly page, which he or she uses as a portfolio to store and present project work.

Figure 1. V-ESL hybrid course webpage

Used with permission.

The teacher in this example created a rich online learning environment. She created opportunities for learners to use multiple forms of expression in English (recording their voices, conversing with others, creating written artifacts, etc.) and, in the process, helped them build technology skills that will help them in other parts of their life. Though most of the students used the same core DL curriculum, USA Learns, the teacher provided differentiated learning experiences in relevant online contexts, and was thus able meet the learning needs in the multiskills, multilevel class. Her work typifies themes that emerged from the interviews of each of the innovative teachers and can serve as an example to ELL teachers searching for instructional strategies to support effective online distance language learning.


Today, our learners come to ABE programming to learn English but also to prepare for full participation in communities of work, school, and civic life—including the parts of that community that exist online. Use of technology in learning is essential if learners are to keep up with the significant pace of changing technology and achieve success in future schooling and work (McCain, 2009). Use of supported online DL in ABE programs can help bolster ELLs against the disruption of future developments in technology. Taking advantage of the commitment a learner has made to participate in formal learning and leveraging it to provide opportunities for integrating computer skill development as they learn English will prepare them to respond flexibly to future demands that evolving technology places on them.

Acknowledgment: We wish to acknowledge the work of Sheryl Hart and Destiny Long for their contributions to the paper. Both interviewed teachers and participated in discussions through which the themes of our findings emerged. We also wish to thank Sharon Ram of Fremont Adult and Continuing Education for sharing her expertise.


Askov, E., Johnston, J., Petty, L., & Young, S. (2003).Expanding access to adult literacy with online distance education. Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. Retrieved from

McCain, M. (2009). The power of technology: Expanding access to adult education & workforce skills through distance learning. New York, NY:. Retrieved from

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017–1054. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9620.2006.00684.x

Project IDEAL Support Center. (2006, Fall–2007, Winter). Project IDEAL update. ProjectIDEAL Update. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education, OVAE. (2010). Adult Education and Family Literacy Act of 1998: Annual report to Congress, program year 2010-11. Retrieved from:

Jenifer Vanek is a doctoral student in second languages and cultures/curriculum & instruction at the University of Minnesota. She has been working with ELLs for nearly 20 years, devoting the last several years to supporting both learners and teachers with technology integration, online learning, and digital literacy.

Jerome Johnston is research professor of education and director of the Project IDEAL Support Center at the Institute for Social Research, the University of Michigan. He developed the Project IDEAL online professional development system to train adult education classroom teachers how to teach at a distance. With John Fleischman, he developed the free online ELL resource USA Learns (



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