According to a 2007 study by the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, ESL instruction for adults is the largest and fastest-growing component of America’s adult education system, representing more than 40 percent of enrollments and more than 1.2 million students per year. Virtually all ESL students are immigrants.

A large percent of adult immigrants (estimated at 15 million or more) have very limited English proficiency and turn to ESL programs for assistance. (Report to Congress on State Performance, Adult Education and Family Literacy ACT FY 2003-2004, U.S. Department of Education, 2006, as cited in Passing the Torch: Strategies for Innovation in Community College ESL, Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, 2007).

The population of working-age adults who do not speak English well or at all is growing; it has expanded from 4.8% of the population in 1980, to 6.1% in 1990, to 8.1% in 2000 (2000 Census Brief). That 8.1% represents more than 8 million people of working age who did not speak English well or at all. Immigrants comprise one of every two new workers in the 1990s, a figure that is only likely to grow (Sum, Fogg, & Harrington, 2002 cited in Capps, Fix, Passel, Ost, & Perez-Lopez, 2005).

A number of issues are involved in literacy for adult-second (English) language learners. These include:

  • The need for more ESL classes to meet the language, educational, and employment needs of the diverse adult English-language learning population, including a growing population of ESL pupils with limited prior education or literacy;
  • The need to recognize the differences in teaching literacy to native English-speaking adults and non-native English speakers;
  • The need for greater articulation and transitions among ESL programs and academic or       vocational programs;
  • The need for coordination of services for adult ESL participants;
  • The need for a focus on effective instructional practices and sufficient time;
  • The need for greater attention to professional development; and
  • The need for greater recognition of the social and economic impact of literacy, English-language, employment, and basic and post-secondary education for adult ESL participants.

Recent arrivals to the United States have lower educational levels than previous immigrants; it is estimated that at least one-third have less than a high school education

(Current Population Survey, 2000, reported on NIFL ESL Literacy Facts website; Wrigley, Richer, Martinson, Kubo & Strawn, 2003). The majority of those enrolled in adult English language instruction are also at lower levels of English proficiency (i.e., at the beginning or low intermediate levels.) Since the demand for English language instruction far exceeds the supply, program providers are only able to accommodate some of those in need of ESL.