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Literacy Resources for Adult ESL and ABE Educators: General Resources

Tips & suggestions, online resources, and physical materials for Adult ESL and ABE educators.


This guide is designed to assist both ESL and ABE educators with their teaching endeavors. Here you will find information on adult learning theory, example lessons, recommended books and websites to aid in preparation, links to professional websites, program directories for learners, and more.

Professional Organizations

Featured Book

Characteristics of Adult Learners

  • Adults are goal oriented, meaning that education is related to a specific need or outcome in their lives.
  • Adults are not children.  They are self-directed and do not learn just to learn.
  • Learners must connect literacy to its meaning in their everyday lives and find ways to determine for themselves the conditions under which they will use reading, writing, and speaking.
  • Learner Centered Instruction and Shared Decision Making
    • A learner-centered approach actively involves the learner in the learning process, helping to decide what he or she will learn based upon needs, interests, learning styles, and abilities.  The instructor is more like a coach or a facilitator, rather than a transmitter of knowledge to a passive recipient.
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Authentic Materials and Authentic Activities
    • Try to connect learning to the real world, and to to the situations where it will be used.  For example, if your learner is working construction jobs and has trouble reading work orders have the learner bring examples of these work orders so you can practice reading them together.  Or if you have an ESL learner who only needs English to work in a restaurant, practice vocabulary, phrases, and grammar that are relevant to that situation.  This is not to say that your learner will not need to learn particular basics or building blocks to arrive at his or her goal. The purpose of authentic materials and acitivites, though, is to have thematic continuity between real life needs and the learning process in order to maintain relevancy and interest.
  • SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely)
    • These criteria can help guide you and your learner in deciding upon goals.  For example, if your learner tells you that her goal is to pass the GED or HiSet, but she has a third grade reading level, you must honestly and constructively help her to reevaluate her immediate learning goals.  By making smaller, more realistic goals with the purpose of attaining the longer-term goal you will ensure that she will see more measurable progress instead of quiting when her original goal isn't met right away.
  • Find out what motivates your learners and use this knowledge to inform instruction and bring them back.
  • Adult learners bring a wealth of knowledge and a lifetime of experiences to the learning process.
  • This background should be valued and built upon.
  • Discover the context and situations in which the learner performs well or has positive literacy experiences.  Find ways to incorporate this into the learning process.
  • Different aspects of people’s abilities to learn can be affected by their age.
  • Some Adult Basic Education learners may have undiagnosed learning disabilities.
  • Affective Influences
    • Feelings, emotions, and self-esteem.
  • Priorities and Responsibilities
    • Adults usually have urgent learning needs and limited time to devote to learning and studying.
    • Adults often have job or family responsibilities that come before learning.
    • Each of these priorities can affect consistent or long-term participation.
  • Attrition can be attributed to student responsibilities, personality, and appropriateness of instruction to student needs.  Although you can control the last part, you shouldn’t take attrition personally.

One of the most well known approaches to adult education comes from the Brazilian teacher Paulo Freire. The Freirean approach to adult literacy education bases the content of ABE or ESL language lessons on learners' cultural and personal experiences, encouraging a participatory model and rejecting a "banking" model.

If you're interested in learning more, read his classic work Pedagogy of the Oppressed and then the overview of "The Freirean Approach to Adult Literacy Education" for some perspective on how the ideas apply to the BPL's work with adults and English learners, and adult literacy more generally. 



If you often worry about having a wide range of levels in your groups or classes, you may find the ideas and best practices in this guide helpful.

Career Online High School doesn't work for you? Check out these alternatives! 

JVS Adult Dipolma Program

  • Free
  • Must be 20+
  • In person classes during morning hours
  • Diploma through Boston Central Adult High School
Boston Day and Evening Academy 
Good option for anyone under 19 (but 19/20 year olds can go too) and so not eligible for COHS or the above program. Strong academics and career support for after graduation-- very rigorous and best for folks with 10th grade or higher reading/writing. 
  • Lottery system
  • Technically through the BPS
  • You can start 3 or 4 times a year only
  • GED/Hi-Set prep and help registering
  • Free
  • 18+
  • They have a "Pre GED" track with extra support, so are good to refer anyone with below 8 grade reading
  • Adult Diploma Program 
  • In Somerville through their public schools, if you get 
  • Small fee for the program 

Great Sites for Literacy Educators

ESL Teacher Books

ABE Teacher Books