Helping Adult ELLs Achieve the American Dream
Schools, non-profits, and smartphone apps provide technology-based resources to serve the growing population of adults learning English.
By Vinod Lobo
With a dramatic increase in immigrants coming to the United States, schools are struggling with an overpopulation of English language learners (ELLs). We often think about the 4.5 million K-12 students aiming to master English in schools, and all the resources educators provide to assist them in their educational journey. But what about their parents, older siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who are also ELLs? Without the support system found in schools, their efforts to find a better life and experience the American dream are often blocked by a language barrier.
Adult ELLs make up a significant part of the estimated 36 million adults in the U.S. who read at a 3rd-grade level or below. This growing population is expected to find jobs and provide for their families without any formal education in the English language. Only about 10% of this group is served by adult education, making them one of the most underserved populations in our educational system.
Helping Educate the Other 90%
Living in San Diego, I have seen first-hand the large number of immigrant adults who are not fluent in English. They often use their young children as translators in public situations. While some may speak enough English to get by, they lack the ability to read, write, and speak English proficiently. This prevents them from advancing in the workplace, completing a GED or taking college classes.
Statistics show a 1% rise in literacy skill scores can boost labor productivity by an estimated $225 billion per year. If we can provide effective instruction to more adult ELLs, we can help them reach their full potential and live the American dream.
Every year the United States spends an estimated $10 billion on adult learning services, but only an estimated 4.1 million adults are served within the funded adult education programs. So how do we help the other 90%? There are three approaches that hold promise: Using technology during hybrid classes in adult schools, turning non-profits into learning centers, and providing new smartphone apps to millions of adults.
Accelerated Blended Learning in Adult Schools
In some areas with a high volume of adult ELLs, local school districts have specialized adult schools that offer English classes. For example, Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista, CA, serves adult ELLs at a variety of locations and provides flexible options to fit adult learners’ busy schedules. Sweetwater is now piloting a blended learning model, which includes a mix of instructor-led classes and online supplements.
Students can use variety of devices, including tablets and smartphones, to access lessons and learning materials at school, home, or anywhere. This model can create a flipped learning environment where students learn material on their own, then spend time in class practicing their skills and asking the instructor questions to refine what they’ve learned.
Sweetwater uses a variety of programs to assist adult learners, including Learning Upgrade, a differentiated online curriculum enlivened by songs, videos, and games. The curriculum gives students immediate feedback and allows them to practice until they grasp each concept. It goes beyond simple passage reading to teach the fundamentals of phonics, reading, grammar, writing, and listening in English. Learning Upgrade motivates students because they are able to see their own progress and work towards attainable goals.
Since many of these learners also have families and may be working jobs, flexibility is the key to their individual success. By increasing time-on-task and maximizing learning at home, blended learning can accelerate growth and encourage proficiency.
Non-Profit Organizations Become Learning Centers
When entering the Somali Bantu Association of America (SBAOA) in San Diego, you’ll find adult refugees using a handful of computers to access programs that help them learn English. The association has focused on education as a means of “bridging the gap” for refugees and assisting them with acquiring language skills through small English classes and workshops. Once they have these language skills, SBAOA guides them through the process of transitioning to life in the U.S., including jobs, housing, and transportation.
SBAOA is breaking new ground by providing literacy instruction to adults outside of a traditional adult education center. In an article published by the San Diego Union Tribune, Said Osman Abiyow, president and founder of SBAOA, said that using technology and digital programs has been effective because students are absorbing new information at a rapid pace. Through their digital learning lab complete with donated computers, the association has attracted hundreds of learners. Word of mouth has spread the message that the SBAOA can help refugees learn English.
Farhiyo Hassan, who fled the ongoing civil war in Somalia six years ago, said, “When I first came here, I didn’t even know how to write my name. I didn’t know how to write, I didn’t know how to speak. … Now I can speak Somali and I can read and write in English.”
The digital resource allows adults to put their headphones on and work at their own pace in a safe environment. You can imagine being 40 years old, sitting in a classroom having to say “C is for cat.” It can be embarrassing. With a computer and headphones, there is privacy so each student can make these breakthroughs at their own pace. Many ELLs at SBAOA have gone on to get jobs and attend higher education after learning English language skills they need to succeed.
Self-Serve Learning through Smartphones
A report from Digital Promise notes that an estimated 75% of students enrolled in adult education programs also own smartphones. The same survey indicates that as many as 72% of adult education administrators and instructors believe in the potential of mobile devices for instructional purposes.
The Adult Literacy XPrize Competition is jump-starting this effort by challenging teams to develop mobile applications that result in the greatest increase in literacy skills among participating adult learners in just 12 months. The solutions will overcome key barriers to literacy learning by improving access, increasing retention, and scaling to meet demand.
The premise is simple: Low-literate adults often do not have computer and internet access at home. However, most of them do own a smartphone. If effective learning can be delivered through the smartphone, adults can “self-serve” by downloading the program onto their phone, enrolling themselves in the program, and making progress. This way, millions of learners can be served at an extremely low cost.
As the needs of our nation evolve, so must our educational resources. Thanks to technology, we are able to help a severely underserved population through blended learning, non-profit learning centers, and even through smartphone apps. The challenge now is to get moving and put these innovations into practice to help millions of adult ELLs become proficient. Each adult learner we help is another person on his or her way to achieving the American dream.
Vinod Lobo is the founder and CEO of Learning Upgrade. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @learningupgrade.