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Adult ESL learners and professional career.


This article presents issues concerning adult ESL learners as recent immigrants who were enrolled at a community-based adult literacy program in the Southwest. In particular, the article introduces stories of the adult learners whose ESL literacy education was crucial to their goals in professional careers and examines issues through their voices.


Adult ESL learners, particularly as new immigrants to this society, are dealing with loads of issues in their everyday lives. Factors such as their immigrant status in the U.S., reasons to immigrate to this country, economic stability, and educational background are contributing elements to such issues. They have been broadly addressed and discussed within the work of adult/family literacy, second language literacy, community based language education, and national language policy (Auerbach, 1992; McKay, 1993; McKay & Wong, 2000; Van Duzer & Florez, 1999; Weinstein-Shir, 1993) and in the studies of particular groups of adult ESL learners (e.g., Chung, 2000; Lopez, 2000; Wong & Lopez, 2002). Research studies in the area of adult ESL have informed practitioners, educators, as well as policy makers on how to work with diverse groups of adult ESL populations.

Issues concerning adult ESL learners with professional career experiences

There are various reasons adult ESL learners attend classes and their learning goals correspond purposes of their immigration to this country. Those who led a professional career in their home country find the opportunity to continue pursuing their profession in ESL classes as they believe that knowing English helps them gain access to social and economic opportunities.

While working with adult ESL learners who came to this country recently (less than 2 years), I became familiar with particular concerns and issues pertaining to them. I have learned that many of those who had led a professional life in their home country were going through hardship at various levels in the new country. Most of the time, their lack

of English proficiency becomes the main barrier that inhibits them from continuing their careers. A lack of resources and information available to them is another barrier. Recent immigrants in adult ESL classrooms are not well informed on skills, qualifications, and other options in the areas of their profession; English proficiency is considered the key skill/ability to attain. The program standards of adult ESL literacy by various organizations such as NCLE, NCSALL, for example, clearly state that development of workplace and vocational skills among adult ESL learners is identified as a primary factor in the programs. However, in many adult literacy programs, a curriculum for adult ESL learners tends to focus on developing general communication skills, not literacy skills required for specific areas of profession.

There are a number of studies that show the significance and urgent needs to develop a curriculum for adult ESL learners that emphasizes vocational literacy skills (Grognet, 1997; Marshall, 2002; McKay, 1993; McKay & Weinstein-Shr, 1993). However, most of ESL textbooks for adult learners are aimed at developing general communication skills rather than specific professional literacy; moreover, careers included in those textbooks are manual jobs and do not include those of higher education. In order to provide appropriate educational opportunities to adult ESL learners seeking professional careers, there needs to be curriculum development based on a critical understanding of significance to serve the needs of those adult learners. Critical approaches to adult ESL literacy discuss issues concerning learners in their educational, social, and cultural contexts from the viewpoints of learners. That is, learners become active participants who engage in the discussion of their problems and issues of concern. Freirean-based participatory literacy practice is one of the exemplary approaches (see Freire, 1998). Participatory education based on the work of Freire (1970), according to Auerbach (1993), engages adult ESL learners in the practice of critical analysis and reflection on their experiences and the social contexts of their lives.

Stories of adult ESL learners

As it is evident in the body of research in the areas of second language literacy, adult literacy, ESL literacy, etc. (e.g., Auerbach, 1992, 1993; Freire, 1998; McKay, 1993; McKay & Wong, 1996; Wiley, 1996), the process of literacy acquisition of adult ESL learners involves various issues of the learners in regards to their living situations. In adult ESL classrooms, learners influence their learning and the teacher's teaching to a large extent as their personal experiences become the very essence of learning and teaching practices in the classrooms.

One night after teaching the class in Adult Basic Education, as I was getting ready to go home, a student approached me with the following account:
 Teacher, I want to talk to you ... I am feeling really sad ... miss
 my mother and my country. I don't have friends, work.... nothing
 here. When I talk to my mother on the phone, I feel bad because I
 miss her so much. I came here because of my husband and
 my children. I want to go back home.--Martha

We were standing outside of the classroom for an hour and I was listening to her as she was sharing her emotional struggle and hardship that she was going through in this country. Her story reminded me of stories that I used to hear from the students whom I worked with in public schools and colleges. The student's name is Martha and she recently moved from Peru. The conversation with her raised many critical questions and issues. As it will be described in detail in the following section, in this article I look into the issues and concerns pertaining to adult ESL learners as recent immigrants with professional career backgrounds. The study was conducted in a community based adult ESL program located in Southwest. The participants were all enrolled in the intermediate ESL class that was offered three nights a week. They were all native Spanish speakers who were recent immigrants (1-2 years) from Mexico, Peru, and Columbia. There were also native speakers of other languages, such as Chinese, Korean, and Russian in the class. The primary goal of learning English among the learners was to acquire English literacy needed to obtain jobs or pursue their careers.

Shift of socio-economic status

As new immigrants to this country, one of the major challenges that they were facing was a change in their socio economic status. The shift from leading a professional life in their home country to working on a temporary manual labor impacted their lives in various aspects. In the following excerpts the participants shared how they were feeling about the new life and changes in their living conditions:
 In my country, I had my own business. Here, I am working two jobs.
 I take care of old lady and she is in wheel chair. It is a lot of
 work. I have also another job. I am taking care of old man. I don't
 make any money at all.--Martha

 I worked in business administration. Now, I am working at a
 restaurant. The first time, it was very difficult to work at the
 restaurant because I didn't know about food and English. I am very
 tired. At the restaurant, I stand up all day long. I cannot sit. My
 legs are really hurting.--Ana

 I was working in government office. I was a lawyer. I had a good
 job there, but here I am a working man.--Carlos

Their stories reflect the hardship that the participants were facing due to the shift of social and economic status in the new society. "Tales of immigrants who practiced law or medicine in their native lands only to work as janitors and restaurant workers are no rare" (McKay & Weinstein-Shr, 1993, pp. 409-410). They all seemed to struggle to get adjusted to the new life and culture as recent immigrants. Above all, such hardship was also revealed in their emotional struggle:
 Here in ESL classes, there are lots of professionals, doctors,
 chemists, teachers ... They were all professionals in their
 country, but here they don't have good jobs. It is hard
 emotionally. My first time in Los Fuentes, I worked from 12
 to 8am. It was very hard. I wanted to go back home. I lost a
 lot of weight.--Carlos

Language barrier and emotional struggle

Their struggle and hardship was not only manifested in the social and economic context, but also in their efforts toward learning English. In the following excerpt, one of the participants shares language barrier that he was facing in a daily communication:
 I started learning English 4 months in Mexico before I came. It is
 difficult. It is very confusing. I can speak English with you. You
 understand me. But, other people don't understand me. They don't
 want to understand me. When I talk to them in English, they say
 "what is he talking about?" It is very embarrassing.--Carlos

In the case of Carlos, the difficulty that he faced in communicating in English was not only due to the lack of fluency in English. As he expressed in the above excerpt, there was lack of support and understanding from native speakers of English, which seemed to discourage him more in spite of his efforts into learning English. The issue concerning their families and children's education was also expressed in their own words:
 My children didn't know English and it is different culture. The
 school is different. My children crying all the time. My daughter
 was small and all the kids in school speak only English. She didn't
 understand English. Now she is okay. Yes, it was

 I have to think a lot of things, my family, my job, other problems
 with my car and house. I need to take care of children and learning
 English. It is so hard.--Carlos

As parents the adult learners were bearing such responsibilities as providing financial, emotional, and educational support to their children. Most of all, as newcomers, they all seemed to be very much concerned about helping their children learn English and feeling frustrated due the limited support that they could give in that matter.

Limited access to workforce

One of the major concerns that the adult learners had was the difficulty in obtaining jobs. Since they were aware of the importance of acquiring English literacy in order to obtain desirable jobs, they were enrolled at this ESL class hoping that they would achieve their goals in the nearest future. One of the participants shared it in his story:
 Los Fuentes is a very small town and there is no job. For those
 who don't speak English, there are few opportunities. You can
 get a job without knowing English, but it is hard work. I am
 working as an operator. Pay is so low, but I have to work.
 It is hard. When I applied for a job they told me that I need
 to speak English well, even though I have a lot of experiences.
 I was applying for maintenance job in an apartment building,
 but couldn't get it because of English. Someday, I want to
 have a better job.--Carlos

They pointed out that the main reason for the difficulty in obtaining jobs was the lack of English skills. However, it was also implied that there was limited access to information on the workforce in the community. Among various factors that affect development of English literacy of adult ESL learners are also availability of instruction, accessibility of classes offered, and appropriation of program (McKay, 1993). In the economic area, responsibility for not getting a job rests in the individual and his or her lack of English literacy rather than in larger social and economic factors. "Economic and social gains have been more the results of long-term organized efforts to win better working conditions and benefits than of the acquisition of English language and literacy" (Wiley, 1993, p. 425).


The stories of adult ESL learners as recent immigrants informed us about the issues of significance to the learners, educators, as well as policy makers. Many studies examined various issues of adult learners and provided social, cultural, educational, and political perspectives on adult literacy education (Auerbach, 1992, 1993; Freire, 1970, 1998; McKay, 1993; McKay & Weinstein-Shr, 1993; Norton Peirce, 1997). This article contributes to a body of research in adult ESL literacy in several aspects. First, it supports such notions that advocate better social and educational opportunities for adult ESL learners. Therefore, development of appropriate programs for them is called attention to in that programs for adult ESL learners should support literacy acquisition as well as vocational training. Second, this article addresses the significance of understanding adult ESL learners who are immigrants to this society as a valuable resource. The adult English learners in this article all had professional careers in their native country; however, their knowledge and experiences were not validated in this country.

Lastly, the study that this article is based on gives us valuable research on a specific adult ESL learner population and therefore informs on their needs and experiences as addressed in a report of action agenda for adult ESL literacy (TESOL, 2000). Finally, the stories of the adult ESL learners in this article reflect authentic life experiences of individual adult learners as well as their community. This provides us with such a great opportunity to learn about their experiences in the various living contexts and therefore informs us about how to support them in making their lives better.


This article examined the issues concerning the adult ESL learners who came to this country as recent immigrants with valuable resources. Their experiences in learning English and making efforts to obtain desirable jobs, and their struggle in adjusting to the new culture are valuable information to practitioners, administrators, and policy makers who are involved in adult ESL literacy. It is learned that the lack of support for the recent immigrants in getting information on the careers that they were looking for became the very first barrier that they were facing. There was also little support from the community in the participants' seeking ways to fulfill their goals. We are informed that it was not merely due to low English proficiency that the adult learners faced social and economic difficulties; there were other factors contributing to the hardship and struggle. The role of community and society was addressed in the stories of those adult ESL learners--the community supportive of adult ESL learners in developing English literacy and achieving their goals to make their life better. A term, "community" is used here to signify a sense of collective as well as a physical environment such as programs, organization, and other material resources. In conclusion, it is only by understanding the language needs of adult ESL students in their personal lives and communities that educators are able to provide better services (McKay, 1993). This article also reminds us that awareness of demographic changes of immigrants is urgent as the U.S. is becoming more diverse and therefore, the needs of newcomers to this society who are adult ESL learners challenge those involved in adult literacy education. To reiterate, taking into account social contexts that influence language use, the needs of adult learners, and the resources they have in order to meet their needs provides us with a knowledge base and pedagogical directions (Weinstein-Shr, 1993).


Auerbach, E. R. (1992). Making meaning, making change: Participatory curriculum development for adult ESL literacy. Washington, DC. And McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

Auerbach, E. R. (1993). Putting the P back in participatory. TESOL Quarterly, 27, 543-545.

Chung, H. C. (2002). English language learners of Vietnamese background. In S. L. McKay & S. C. Wong (Eds.), New immigrants in the United States (pp. 216-231). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury.

Freire, P. (1998). The adult literacy process as cultural action for freedom. Harvard Educational Review, 68, 480-498.

Grognet, A. G. (June 1997). Integrating employment skills in adult ESL instruction. ERIC Digests [Online version]. Retrieved Nov. 1, 2002, from

Lopez, M. G. (2002). The language situation of the Hmong, Khmer, and Laotian communities in the United States. In S. L. McKay & S. C. Wong (Eds.), New immigrants in the United States (pp. 232-262). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marshall, B. (July 2002). English that works: Preparing adult English language learners for success in the workforce and community. ERIC DIGESTS [Online version]. Retrieved Nov. 1, 2002, from

McKay, S. L. (1993). Agendas for second language literacy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McKay, S. L. & Wong, S. C. (1996). Multiple discourses, multiple identities: Investment and agency in second-language learning among Chinese adolescent immigrant students. Harvard Educational Review, 66, 577-608.

McKay, S. L. & Wong, S. C. (Eds.) (2000). New immigrants in the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Norton Peirce, B. N. (1995). Social identity, investment and language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 29, 9-31.

Norton Peirce, B. N. (1997). Language, identity, and the ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly, 31, 409-429.

TESOL (October, 2002). Adult ESL language and literacy instruction: A vision and action agenda for the 21st century. Retrieved October, 2002 from

Van Duzer, C. & Florez, M. C. (1999). Critical literacy for adult English language learners [Electronic version]. ERIC Digest. Washington, D.C.: National Center for ESL Literacy Education. Retrieved March, 2002, from

Weinstein-Shr, G. (1993). Overview discussion: Directions in adult ESL literacy-an invitation to dialogue. TESOL Quarterly, 27, 517-528.

Wiley, T.G. (1996). Literacy and Language Diversity in the United States. Washington, DC and McHenry IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

Wong, S. C. & Lopez, M. G. (2002). English language learners of Chinese background; A portrait of diversity. In S. L. McKay & S. C. Wong (Eds.), New immigrants in the United States (pp. 263-305). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jungkang Kim, Furman University, SC

Kim, Assistant Professor in the Education Department. teaches courses in the TESOL graduate program. His research areas include TESL/TEFL, multicultural education, and adult literacy.
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Author:Kim, Jungkang
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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