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ESL Lessons for Adult Students

Technology Center

Nearly 80 percent of U.S. immigrants are 18 or older. Always motivated, though frequently frustrated, these adult learners present school districts with unique challenges -- and exciting opportunities. Do your adult ESL programs measure up? Included: Online activities for review, reinforcement, practice, or drill

According to figures compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 80 percent of the 26.4 million immigrants living in the United States are older than 18. The National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education (NCLE) reports that in 1998, 2 million adults and out-of-school youths enrolled in U.S. Department of Education-funded ESL programs. The sheer numbers of those adult ESL students demonstrate that English-language programs cannot stop at the doors of the high school but must be included in district-run continuing education programs. Is your district able to meet the challenges these students present?


Immigrants who attend ESL or EFL classes in continuing education programs are usually highly motivated and willing to work hard to learn the language of their new country, but they face a number of obstacles.

"Many of my students work from 4:00 p.m. until midnight or later," Mary Ellen Rund, an adult ESL teacher in East Hartford, Connecticut, told Education World. "They arrive at school tired. Because they usually speak their native language at home, the amount of time available for practicing English is limited. Many of my students are very intelligent, and they understand the importance of learning the language. It's hard to look at the frustration in their eyes as they try to adapt to a new country and a strange language but find they can't learn as quickly as they feel they should.

"People who grow up in this country speak very quickly, and they tend to slur their words," Rund said. "Add to that the fact that in English, one word can have more than one meaning -- or be used as more than one part of speech -- and you begin to see the problems my students face.

"American expressions are also real killers," Rund added. "My students have enough trouble dealing with the fact that one English word can have four or five different meanings; when they hear an expression such as 'raining cats and dogs,' they're left completely 'out in left field.'"


So what's a teacher to do?

"I adjust my lessons to the needs of the group," Rund said, "and simply teach what they don't know yet. Some students excel in written work but don't understand a word when spoken to. Others speak quite well but can't put a written sentence together. I aim for balance.

"In the lower levels, speaking is stressed," according to Rund. "My main goal is communication: helping students get their point across even if their grammar is poor. Of course, striving for good grammar is always a goal. Grammar is the foundation of a new language.

"Students who achieve basic communication skills go on to learn specific vocabulary for daily living," Rund explained. "I cover emergencies, school conferences, telephone conversations, and so on. Pronunciation is also important, and that can be a problem because students are often more familiar with the incorrect pronunciation they hear on the street. So I have them practice moving their mouths correctly, emphasizing such common trouble sounds as a, e, i, o, u, th, v. I let them know, however, that sounds can vary in different parts of the country.

"I also stress American culture," Rund added, "teaching about holidays and government and discussing concepts in terms of 'this is how many Americans do things.' So many cultures are represented in my classes that such conversations also help us find out how we are alike and how we are different."

Respect is a key word in her classes, according to Rund. "Some cultures are so different that I find I sometimes have to bite my tongue and remember I'm there to help, not judge. The equality of women, for example, is definitely not a worldwide concept!

"Anything I teach is illustrated with many, many examples, and I try to think of every possible way to present a lesson," Rund noted. "Audiotapes, written work, and lots of listening and conversation are just some of the different approaches I use. I use scavenger hunts to teach students to follow written directions, vocabulary BINGO to teach new words, and role-playing to practice daily living skills. We've gone on field trips to grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, and libraries. Students practice such conversational skills as ordering food, interviewing, and asking for help or directions. Often students bring in job applications, government papers, financial aid applications, or bills, and we use them as learning tools as well."


Computer technology lends itself especially well to adult ESL/EFL instruction. The Internet, in particular, offers an abundance of opportunities -- through e-mail, chat rooms, and interactive projects -- for students to participate in authentic language activities.

The activities below, appropriate for ESL/EFL students in middle school, high school, and above, can provide instruction, review, and reinforcement as well as individual or group practice and drill.

Be sure to visit the Education World ESL Center for more ESL/EFL activities and resources!


At the University of Illinois Lingua Center, students can improve their understanding of both spoken and written English with the Interactive Listening Comprehension Practice. They choose a topic, predict the correct answers to questions about the topic, listen to an audio description of the topic, and check and correct their original answers. (Grades 6-8, 9-12, and adult)

At Karin's ESL Partyland, students can participate in a News on the World Wide Web scavenger hunt. Students practice reading comprehension as they visit a variety of online news sites and answer questions about site content. (Grades 9-12 and adult)

Students complete a Proverbs Quiz at the English as a Second Language Home Page. They're presented with a random selection of ten proverbs and asked to identify the missing word in each. (Grades 6-8, 9-12, and adult)

At the Comenius English Language Center's Fluency Through Fables page, students practice vocabulary skills and improve their reading comprehension. They select and read a short fable, then complete a series of activities based on what they have read. (Grades 6-8, 9-12, and adult)

In Vocabulary Drills from the Brigham Young University English Language Center, students are provided with a picture and a list of vocabulary words. They must match each word to the correct element in the picture and then click each element to check their answers. (Grades 6-8, 9-12, and adult)

Students practice grammar, vocabulary, and idioms as they complete Interactive English Language Exercises from Aardvark's English Forum. (Grades 6-8, 9-12, adult)

At Listening Activities from The ESL Wonderland, students can click Television Ratings System to listen to an audio broadcast about a new television rating system. They practice their understanding of spoken English as they answer interactive, multiple-choice questions about the broadcast. Students can also complete a post-listening activity in which they explore other links on the same topic. (Grades 9-12 and adult)

At Activities for ESL Students, students can Learn About Places While Studying Grammar. They scroll to The United States of America, select a state, and complete an interactive grammar activity that includes factual information about the state. (Grades 9-12 and adult)

At this Merit Software site, advanced ESL students follow step-by-step instructions for Writing a Business Letter. (Grades 9-12 and adults)


The following sites offer additional resources that can be useful to ESL students.

  • Wordsmyth This integrated dictionary-thesaurus includes a database of more than 50,000 words.
  • SchMOOze University This MOO (multi-user object-oriented environment) calls itself a virtual university for ESL students.
  • Your This site provides links to a variety of dictionaries, including foreign language and specialty dictionaries, as well as a number of other language tools.


Article by Linda Starr
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