What is English as a Second Language (ESL)?

Adult ESL, or English as a Second Language, is the term used to describe English language instruction for adults who are nonnative speakers of English. (Adult English for speakers of other languages, or adult ESOL, is alternately used in various parts of the United States.)


Adult ESL is used to describe various types of instructional services for adults who do not speak English.


One way of looking at adult ESL is through some of the related definitions set forward in Title II Adult and Family Literacy Act, section 203 of the Workforce Investment Act (1998). With these, we can see some of the criteria (for adult education, limited English proficient individuals, and English literacy programs) that guide definition of federally funded adult ESL services and the individuals eligible for them.


According to the act:


The term "adult education" means services or instruction below the postsecondary level for individuals who have attained 16 years of age;

  • lack sufficient mastery of basic education skills to enable them to function effectively in society;
  • do not have a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent, and have not achieved an equivalent level of education;
  • or are unable to speak, read, or write the English language.


The term "individual of limited English proficiency" means an adult or out-of-school youth who has limited ability in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language, and whose native language is a language other than English, or who lives in a family or community environment where a language other than English is the dominant language.


The term "English literacy program" indicates a program of instruction designed to help individuals of limited English proficiency achieve competence in the English language.


Unlike general adult education, adult ESL instruction targets English language and literacy proficiency needs rather than broader educational needs. Instruction may be offered to highly educated, credentialed learners, those who are not who are not educated or literate in their native languages, and to all English language learners who fall between the two.



Source: Kerns, Trish, and Marilyn Knight-Mendelson. ESL New Teacher Resource Guide. Handbook. Ed. Mary Ann Corley. Sacramento: California Adult Literacy Professional Development Project, 2004.

What are the Characteristics of Adults Learning English in the United States?

The population of adult English language learners is diverse, and characteristics of learners vary from location to location and program to program. These adults may range in age from 16-year-olds who are not attending high school to adults in their 90s. English language learners also differ in terms of their educational background, length of time in the United States, the native language they speak, their personal experiences in their home country and in the United States, and their socioeconomic status. Learners may be permanent residents, naturalized citizens, legal immigrants, refugees and asylees, or undocumented immigrants. One program or class may include members with such diverse backgrounds as the following:

  • Learners whose native language does not yet have a writing system (e.g., Somali Bantu refugees)
  • Learners who have had limited access to education and literacy in their native countries because of political, social, economic, ethnic, and religious strife
  • Well-educated people with secondary, post-secondary, and graduate degrees, who have enrolled in adult education because they need to learn English. These might include lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, college professors, artists, and musicians.

Like native English speakers in adult education programs, English language learners often have a strong desire to work hard; learn more; and meet goals that serve themselves, their families, and their communities.


Culture and the Classroom

Because schools are educational institutes defined by culture, there are aspects of your students’ behavior in the classroom that will reflect their previous (and, at times, very different) home environments, educational backgrounds, or attitudes toward schooling. These behaviors may differ from the classroom conduct we are accustomed to in the United States. As an instructor, you can navigate these differences in culture and identity in a way that positively serves both you and your students. We can create welcoming and understanding classroom environments that are conducive to education for empowerment.

One helpful way to conceptualize the role of culture in the classroom is to think of culture as an iceberg. There are the obvious aspects of culture that we see on the surface, but there are also many facets of culture that lie under the surface and affect a learner's performance in the classroom. Look at the graphic below for an illustration of the iceberg model of culture.

For more information about how culture and background play a role in a learner's experience in the classroom, please download the following document. It outlines the stories of 2 different learners and explores how their backgrounds may affect their abilities to learn English. Finally, it explores what this means for you as a teacher.

Cultural Adjustment
Cultural Adjustment handout.docx
Microsoft Word Document 107.0 KB