Marshall Adult Education

Research Brief

How Should Adult ESL Reading Instruction Differ

from ABE Reading Instruction?

By Miriam Burt, Joy Peyton, and Carol VanDuzer

Center for Adult English Language Acquisition

(from )

A brief from the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA) summarizes the research base on adult English speakers learning to read and the suggestions for instruction from these studies.

Research Base

            The Reading Research Working Group (from the National Institute for Literacy and the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy) looked at approximately 70 research studies

(Krudenier, 2002). Only five of the studies address English language learners specifically.  Another review focused on reading development among adult ELLs in the U.S. (Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003).

Research Findings

The authors focused on the four components of reading.  According to the authors the research suggests that the differences between adult English speakers and those learning English may affect both the ways that adults learn and how they should be taught.  They define the four components and give suggestions for teaching reading to adult learners in ABE programs.  Suggestions are then listed for teaching English Language Learners (ELLs).  This Research Brief lists their suggestions for teaching ELLs.

Alphabetics and Word Analysis

Issues for ELLs:  ELLs may not have literacy skills in any language, or may be literate in a non-alphabetic system (Chinese), a non-Roman alphabet (Cyrillic), or a Roman alphabet such as Spanish.  All will experience some difficulties in English sound-symbol relationships (Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003).  Nonnative English speakers do not have the vocabulary base in English that native speakers do in either written or oral expression.  Therefore, instructional strategies that rely on oral comprehension of vocabulary and use of nonsense words to teach sound-symbol correspondence are not likely to be successful with ELL (Nation, 2005; Qian, 1999).

They suggest the following activities:

●    Assess beginning readers’ letter-sound knowledge through their pronunciation of letters word parts, or whole words that are decodable using common rules or generalizations.

      ●    Assess knowledge of sight words with lists of regularly and irregularly spelled words.

      ●    Provide adult beginning readers with explicit instruction in word analysis.


Issues for ELLs:  Folse (2004) found that grouping words (colors, foods, etc.) can actually the learning of vocabulary, as the learner may confuse the words.  The same is true when antonym pairs are presented together.  He recommends grouping new vocabulary around looser themes such as planning a trip, etc.

Understanding the meaning of a word through context is difficult for ELL learners, because they often do not have the vocabulary in English that native speakers have (Eskey, 2005). While fluent English speakers possess a written English vocabulary of 10,000-100,000 words, ELLs generally know only 2,000-7,000 English words when they begin academic studies (Hadley, 1993).

Suggestions for teaching ELLs:

●    Pre-teach the vocabulary in a reading passage.

      ●    Select reading passages that are only slightly above what learners can read independently.

      ●    Provide learners with multiple exposures to specific words in multiple contexts.

      ●    Avoid presenting synonyms, antonyms, or words in the same semantic set together.

      ●    Teach learners to use both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries.

      ●    Encourage learners to use word cards, with the English words on one side and the

             translation on the back, and to study them frequently.

      ●    Encourage vocabulary learning through regular tests.

      ●    After reading, have students write sentences using specific words and grammatical forms.


Extensive individual oral and choral reading (note reading, not speaking) is of questionable value in the adult ESL classroom.  Accuracy in oral reading of adults learning English may be complicated by native language interference at every level from the letter-sound relationship, to suprasegments of the language (stress, intonation, and pauses).


Issues for ELLs: Cultural issues might impede text comprehension.  What seems to be a straightforward text (for example, an article about a tree house) may present the reader with difficulties in comprehension because of cultural differences.  It is of limited value to assess reading comprehension when readers lack the cultural knowledge needed to understand the text.  Summarizing is difficult and should not be asked of learners until they understand the text (Hood, Solomon, & Burns, 1996).Suggestions for teaching ELLs:

●    Have students complete cloze passages.

●    Provide instruction in comprehension strategies such as using headings and graphics to predict meaning, summarizing verbally, skimming, and scanning.

 ●   Assess students’ strategy use by asking them which comprehension strategies they used.


Burt, M., Peyton, J.K., & Adams, R. (2003). Reading and adult English language learners: A review of the research. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Eskey, E. (2005). Reading in a second language. In E. Hinkel, Ed., Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 563-580). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Folse, K. S. (2004) Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.

Hadley, A.O. (1993). Teaching language in context. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Kruidenier, J. (2002). Research-based principles for adult basic education reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy & the Partnership for Reading. Retrieved 2/08/05 from htt;//

Nation, I. M. P. (2000).  Learning vocabulary in lexical sets: Dangers and guidelines. TESOL Journal, 9(2), 6-10.

Nation, I. M.O. (2005). Teaching and learning vocabulary. In E. Hinkel, Ed., Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 581-595). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Qian, D.D. (1999). Assessing the roles of depth and breadth of vocabulary knowledge in reading comprehension. The Canadian Modern language Journal, 56, 262-305



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