Academic journal article Journal of Adult Education

Principles of Adult Learning: An ESL Context

Academic journal article Journal of Adult Education

Principles of Adult Learning: An ESL Context

Article excerpt


Given the current global economic situation, industries have been forced to examine their efficiency and effectiveness, and this is also true for adult education programs. Many programs, whether public or private, face budget downsizing which leads to questions of how to effectively instruct the adults they serve. This article provides an overview of the characteristics of adults who participate in English language programs. Potential barriers to participation and factors that might motivate them to persist in these programs will be briefly examined. Finally, this article concludes with an examination of principles of adult learning and their role in designing effective activities and environments for adult learners.

Adult Learning in an ESL Context

Demographics and Participation in Adult Programs

Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) submit that for the first time, the number of adults in our society is greater than the number of youth. Furthermore, they add that these adults are better educated and that they represent greater cultural and ethnic diversity (p. 7). Merriam et al. cite census statistics that show immigration trends have shifted from an influx of Europeans in the early to mid-20th century to being primarily from Latin America (52%) and Asia (25%) in 2002. Given these trends, Merriam et al. state that by 2050, minorities will make up approximately 50% of the overall U.S. population, up from 31% in 2000 (p. 10). These immigration trends are evident in English literacy programs as reported by the National Reporting System (NRS). According to the NRS website,

The National Reporting System for Adult Education (NRS) is an outcome-based reporting system for the state-administered, federally fimded adult education program. Developed by the U.S. Department of Education's Division of Adult Education and Literacy (DAEL), the NRS continues a cooperative process through which State adult education directors and DAEL manage a reporting system that demonstrates learner outcomes for adult education. The project is being conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) in Washington, DC. The NRS reported that during the 2004-05 program year Latino students made up more than 70% of the student population in English language (EL) classes and the second largest group was Asian students comprising 14% ("Characteristics of the Least-Literate," 2005).

Adult Participation and Barriers

There are many reasons that adults participate in education programs, however, Merriam, et al. note that the vast majority of adults, (90.6% according to a 1997 UNESCO study), participate in adult education programs for career- or job-related reasons. These reasons are categorized accordingly: 58% cited professional or career upgrading, 18.3% cited "other," 17.6% responded to earn a college or university degree, 3.8% to earn a vocational or apprenticeship certificate, and 2.3% cited to complete secondary school (Valentine, 1997 as cited in Merriam, et al., 2007). Researcher and noted adult educator, Cyril Houle conducted a noteworthy study in 1960 that included 22 learners who were considered active and engaged. From this study, Houle determined that these learners fell into one of three subgroups: goal-oriented learners, activity-oriented learners, or learning-oriented learners (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p. 132). Among Houle's three types of learners, the most common type in Adult English language settings is the goal-oriented leaner. Goal-oriented learners enter the education environment with specific desired outcomes to be achieved at the end of participation. A common goal of English language learners (Ells), is the desire to advance economically, however, this desire may be inhibited by their life situation. Orem, (2000) notes that "They [Ells] see education as an opportunity for self-improvement, but they lead very complex lives, which limits their access to classes" (p. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.