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ESOL Basics
Lesson 1 - Characteristics
of Adult ESOL Learners

Welcome to ESOL Basics. There are few things as complex and overwhelming, yet as engaging and rewarding, as teaching English to speakers of other languages. Where should I begin? Do I have to speak a foreign language? Should I teach grammar? We hope that as you work your way through this eight-week course, you will find answers to your questions and, more importantly, find new questions to explore on your own.

This course is designed for the instructor who has just begun to teach ESOL and would like to learn the basics of teaching English to adult learners. It is our hope that you will also learn more about the growing number of ESOL resources on the World Wide Web and become more confident in using the Internet as a medium for instruction.

Each week's lesson includes:

  • information to review;
  • important resources including websites to visit, explore, and/or bookmark;
  • an online discussion for you and your webmates to reflect upon and participate in; and
  • an assignment to complete for review by the online course facilitator and your webmates.

Because online learning is new to many, be sure to refer back to the "How to Be a Good Online Learner" tutorial that you went through at registration. It provides tips for being a good online learner, and participating in online discussions, an overview of online learning "netiquette", and other great tips for learning online. Also, don't forget that technical help for the course is always located under the Getting Started announcement.

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Warm-Up / Review

Meet Our Learners

To start the course, take some time to meet the four ESOL learners who are pictured below. They are all from different countries and have different stories. They will be similar to the learners that you will meet in your classes or tutoring situations. If you click on the names or the photos, you will go to their profile pages. Each profile page contains links to sites and information about their countries.

As you read the case studies, think of some of the factors that may affect the learners’ ability to learn English. Keep those factors in mind as you progress through this lesson.

Oscar Rodriguez
Oscar Rodriguez
Fawzia Ahmed
Fawzia Ahmed
Alex Bogushevsky
Alex Bogushevsky
Sun Young Park
Sun Young Park

Think About Your Learners

How are these four ESOL learners similar to – or different from – the learners in your classes or tutoring situations?

The profiles gave you some insight into factors that may affect English language learning. What other factors have you observed in your own teaching or tutoring?

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What is ESOL?

There are many different reasons why people learn English. The acronyms below demonstrate some of those reasons:

ESL Acronyms

  • ESL (English as a Second Language)
    This term refers to English instruction for persons who intend to live in an English-speaking country.

  • EFL (English as a Foreign Language)
    This acronym refers to people learning English as a foreign language, usually in a country where English is not the native language.

  • ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages)
    The term reflects the fact that learners may often speak more than one other language. It is often used interchangeably with ESL.

  • VESL (Vocational English as a Second Language)
    This acronym refers to English instruction for a specific job or career.

Go to the Acronyms to Know for the complete list of acronyms.

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Characteristics of the Adult Learner

If you have been working with adult learners who are native speakers of English, you may be familiar with the characteristics of the adult learner. The second language learner also shares these characteristics.

Adult ESOL Learners

  • They represent a wide range of educational backgrounds. They may have from little to no formal education in their native language to completion of university and advanced degrees in their native language.
  • They are goal-oriented and highly motivated. They have come to you for a specific reason. Their goal(s) may be long- or short-term.
  • They bring different skills, interests, backgrounds, and life experiences to the learning situation. They have rich life experiences.
  • They want or need immediate application. Adult learners need to apply what they are learning. The tasks must be practical, have a clear purpose, and relate to their daily lives.
  • They have different learning styles. Adult learners often relate to their previous education. Some may learn by doing, others by listening, speaking, reading, or writing.
  • They are very busy. They may work more than one job in addition to going to school and taking care of their family. They may be tired and have difficulty staying on task for long periods of time.
  • They may have different levels of proficiency. Student levels may differ in listening, speaking, reading, and writing in both their first and second languages. They may not be literate in their first language.
  • They may have a poor self concept. Many people do not see themselves as learners. Some do not think they can learn or that they know how to learn. Often adult learners have preconceived ideas about the classroom. They may expect the class to be teacher-directed.

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Possible Barriers to Learning

It is also important to have an appreciation of some of the difficulties that adult language learners face. Some of these difficulties, such as poor eye sight and diminished hearing, can affect all of us as adult learners. We also know that we have certain preferred styles of learning. Some of us have even learned to compensate for learning disabilities.

The adult ESOL learner must contend with all of the challenges that affect any adult, but they must also face the obstacles that a different culture and a new language present.

Learning Barriers for Adults

  • Diminished vision - Our vision peaks at age six. We make accommodations up to age twenty. Vision declines after age forty.
  • Diminished hearing - Hearing peaks at age twenty-five and gradually declines up to age fifty-five with a short decline after fifty-five.
  • Diminished physical endurance - People can't sit for a long period of time.
  • Memory - Short-term memory (a minute ago or last week) decreases with age. Long-term memory (from our childhood or long ago) is not affected.
  • Learning difficulties - Learners may show difficulties in a second language that they did not show in their first.
  • Trauma - Learners who have suffered traumatic events in their countries may have difficulty concentrating or remembering new things and may suffer symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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Learning Styles

Individuals learn in different ways. The variety of ways in which people learn are called learning styles. Learning styles are as unique as fingerprints and differ according to who we are, where we are, how we see ourselves, what we pay attention to, and what people ask and expect of us. Recognizing and dealing with these individual learning styles can be a challenge for teachers.

Teachers who are aware of learning style differences and provide for a variety of learning styles in their lessons often see a marked improvement in student learning. Read more about Perceptual Learning Styles and Tips for Teachers on how to accommodate these styles in your instruction.

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Language and Cultural Considerations

Part of the enjoyment of teaching ESOL is getting to know more about people's cultures and languages. However, culture is much more than dress and food. Culture consists of beliefs, values, customs, and nonverbal communication styles. We all see life through the lens of our own culture. This ethnocentric view of the world often leads to misunderstanding and miscommunication. ESOL teachers need to be aware that they are teaching not just language, but culture as well. Comparisons in Nonverbal Communication lists some gestures, body language, and space and time differences that may lead to miscommunication.

The learner's first language may also present some interference in acquiring English. How easy would it be for us to learn Chinese - a language that is not only written in pictographs, but spoken in a variety of tones? See Characteristics of Some ESOL Students' Languages for short descriptions of several languages.

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Building Our Online Community

Important to building a sense of community in our online learning environment is getting to know one another. Please introduce yourself on this week's Discussion Board. As in any community, participants need to follow a set of guidelines (in our online community it's called "netiquette") on how we can most effectively interact with one another. Before posting, please see the tips on being a good online learner in the "How to Be a Good Online Learner" tutorial that you went through at registration. It might also be helpful to review the section on navigation under the Getting Started announcement.

Go to Lesson 1 - Building Our Online Community for our first week's discussion. You may also find all weekly discussions by clicking on the Discussion Board button on the course homepage. Once you have entered the discussion area, follow the instructions posted below.

Respond to these questions:
  • Why are you taking this online course?
  • How long have you been teaching ESOL?
  • What level of learners do you teach (basic, intermediate, advanced)?
  • Do you teach a multilevel class?
  • How many ESOL learners do you teach?
  • How many nationalities are represented in your class?

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Learner Profile

Complete both of these assignments:

1. Write a brief profile of one of your own ESOL learners, providing information about

  • language
  • country
  • family status
  • age
  • English language proficiency
  • any other factors that may influence language learning such as prior academic experience, disabilities, trauma, etc.


2. Think about the four ESOL learners profiled in this lesson and select one of them. From what you have read in this lesson, and from your own experience, what do you think will affect the learner's ability to learn English?

Post your response in Lesson 1 - Learner Profiles.

A few reminders:

  • Don't forget to post your "participation post"! This can be a comment that you make on another participant's post, a question that you would like answered by your peers, an interesting website that you've found related to the week's discussion, or an observation about what you have learned this week. You may post this "participation post" in either the Discussion thread, the Assignment thread, or the Great Links forum.

  • Begin planning ahead for Lesson 4. During the fourth week of the course, you will be asked to report on an ESOL lesson that you have observed. It may take some time to make arrangements to observe a lesson. It might be a good idea to start making those arrangements now.

Please note the following guidelines for observations:

  1. You may not observe yourself.
  2. You must observe a full lesson which is typically 1 1/2 - 2 hours.
  3. You may not participate in any of the lesson delivery, e.g., small group instruction. You are there to observe and when you are an active participant, you cannot be an active observer.
  4. You must observe in an adult education setting. Any observations done in the K-12 system will not be accepted and a course completion certificate will not be awarded.

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More Resources and Activities

Further Reading

Beginning to Work with Adult English Language Learners: Some Considerations
What do teachers who are beginning to work with adult English language learners need to know? This Q&A discusses recommendations in four areas: application of principles of adult learning in ESOL contexts, second language acquisition, culture and working with multicultural groups, and instructional approaches that support language development in adults.

Beginning ESOL Learners’ Advice to Their Teachers
What do adult ESOL learners want from their teachers? This article summarizes comments from beginning-level learners in a community-based ESOL program.

Cross-Cultural Issues in Adult ESL Literacy Classrooms
This digest identifies some of the cultural factors that can influence learner and teacher behavior during classroom ESOL literacy instruction.

ESL Instruction and Adults With Learning Disabilities
This digest reviews what is known about adult ESOL learners and learning disabilities, suggests ways to identify and assess ESOL adults who may have learning disabilities, and offers practical methods for both instruction and teacher training.

For more information on Learning Disabilities and Adult ESL, see the CAELA Resource Collection on Learning Disabilities and Adult ESL.

Trauma and the Adult English Language Learner
This digest describes trauma and abuse in immigrant communities, discusses the effects of trauma on learning, and suggests ways in which practitioners can modify their practice to facilitate learning among victims of trauma and violence.

Frequently Asked Questions in Adult ESL Literacy
The Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA) provides information on adult ESOL literacy education to teachers and tutors, program directors, researchers, and policymakers interested in the education of refugees, immigrants, and other U.S. residents whose native language is other than English. CAELA offers a page of FAQs in addition to digests on a number of issues related to teaching Adult ESOL.

Social Identity and the Adult ESL Classroom
Social identity can be seen as the various ways in which people understand themselves in relation to others and how they view their past and their future. The act of immigrating to a new country can profoundly affect a person's social identity.

Cultural Perspectives

To learn more about how culture can alter perspectives, read the following short essay that was written by Peace Corps volunteer:

To appreciate the challenging of adjusting to life in a new country and learning a new language, read the story "Running," excerpted from Peace Corp Volunteer Peter Hessler’s memoir, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze.

UCLA Language Materials Project
Learn more about the history, status, sound system, grammar, vocabulary, and writing of a particular language by clicking on a region.

Warm-up Activities for Your Classroom

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Except where noted, all material is ©, Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center. All rights reserved.