Midwest Refugee Coalition: Participatory Adult Literacy Program Development

June 17th, 2024 | Blogs


From June 2023 through April 2024, World Education led a community-engaged research initiative on behalf of the Adult Literacy and Learning Impact Network (ALL IN). This opportunity funded short-term research projects to unearth instructional and programmatic innovation, make visible teacher knowledge, and offer insights aligned to the National Action Plan for Adult Literacy’s goals of access, quality, and/or uptake of adult learning opportunities. This blog is one of five reports from the funded research teams  of this initiative. 

By Melissa Hauber-Özer and Joe Decker

The Challenge

Adult literacy and English to Speakers of other Languages (ESOL) classes play a pivotal role in facilitating the social and economic integration of immigrant and refugee families (Hofstetter & McHugh, 2023)³. These programs need to be tailored to learners’ educational backgrounds, needs, and goals, which vary widely among immigrant adults. Many adult learners from refugee backgrounds have had limited or interrupted access to formal education, which compounds the interrelated challenges of forced migration, including learning a new language, supporting their children in school, accessing healthcare and self-sustaining employment, and attaining economic mobility (Barbara Bush Foundation, 2021¹; Cacicio et al., 2023²). Literacy instructors, particularly for those teaching adult second language learners who are emergent readers, struggle to locate evidence-based instructional resources and access relevant professional development.

The central Missouri region hosts a small but growing population of refugees from Myanmar, Central and East Africa, and Afghanistan who speak a variety of languages and have a range of prior educational experiences and literacy skills. City of Refuge, a local non-profit organization, provides post-resettlement support for refugees, including basic needs fulfillment, professional development support, and educational programing. In recent years, the public adult ESOL program has not been able to keep pace with the increase in multilingual residents, resulting in long waiting lists and a gap in services at the pre-literacy level. As a result, City of Refuge’s Refugee Advisory Council identified adult ESOL classes as a top educational priority early in 2023. As a new faculty member at the nearby University of Missouri and a former adult ESOL and literacy educator, I (Melissa) assembled an adult education team including City of Refuge leadership, staff, and volunteers in January 2023. In March, we launched beginner- and intermediate-level adult ESL classes with childcare and transportation provided. 

Setting and Methodology

As the program grew, we designed a small-scale participatory action research study to better meet the local community’s needs and address the ALL IN call to action (Cacicio et al., 2023). We aimed to develop a customizable model for innovative, high-quality language and multiliteracies instruction using free and low-cost materials and tailored to the needs and priorities of refugee adults and guided by these research questions: 

  1. What program models and practical supports can increase refugee adults’ access to high-quality language and multiliteracies instruction?
  2. What curriculum designs and instructional approaches support the development of reading, writing, digital, and numeracy skills? 
  3. How can we encourage more refugee adults to engage with language and literacy support programs?

Our core team expanded to include two new ESL teachers and a research assistant. Classes ran from September through April, with 28 learners from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, and Russia registered during that time. 

Observations to Date

Our Model

The teachers worked together to identify relevant topics based on learners’ expressed language needs, select accessible materials, and develop an instructional model for each level. The beginner teacher used the English Unlocked Beginning Literacy level, which features a balanced literacy approach combining whole language and phonics, relatable content, predictable lesson structure, guidance for differentiation of activities, and flexibility in unit sequence, and supplemented with simple vocabulary games, role-play activities, and the language experience approach. In the intermediate class, the teacher sought to balance grammar instruction with applied, situated English practice, which included intermediate-level units from English Unlocked as well as a variety of multimedia texts, including board games, YouTube videos, maps, AI image generation, short stories, a graphic novel, poems, and student-written stories. 

Observation: Learners Leveraging Translanguaging

Learners engaged in multiple types of translanguaging – drawing on their existing language resources – to support classmates, discussing content and providing clarifications using shared languages of Dari, Burmese, and Arabic. They also developed personal learning strategies using their linguistic repertoires; for example, Ayaan habitually studied English words and phrases and their audio translations in Somali using a mobile application, Sabirah carefully transliterated new vocabulary in Arabic, and Senait requested children’s books in English to read during an extended stay in the hospital for cancer treatment. 

Observation: Community in Dynamic Adult Refugee ESOL Classrooms

Our learners faced challenges typical to adult education: moving to different states, beginning new jobs that conflicted with class times, caring for sick children, and navigating cultural differences such as co-ed classes. As a result, we lost class members and welcomed new ones throughout the year. Despite this fluctuation, we formed a tight-knit community in each class. During an intermediate unit on friendship, about a third of the learners shared that their closest friends were others they had met in the class. While enjoying an end-of-the-year potluck of chapli kabob, sai ua (sausage), kyawk kyaw (coconut jelly), and mahmoul cookies, beginner learners shared photos of family members and planned a summer outing to a nearby Amish settlement. These examples highlight the dual nature of adult ESOL classes: they not only facilitate increased English proficiency but also connect learners to others in the community, which in turn inspires them to speak and write more in English.

Implications for Research, Policy, and Practice

We are now collaboratively analyzing our extensive documentation of the project: planning notes, curriculum maps, and lesson plans; observational field notes focused on learners’ responses to instruction and evidence of learning; and focus group interviews with learners to glean feedback about the class, better understand goals and priorities, and inform curriculum development. We plan to share our model and recommendations for adapting the approach to different contexts with local, regional, and international practitioner networks to support adult ESL educators in meeting the needs of literacy-level learners and to raise awareness and advocate for continued improvement in this critical area. 

  1. Barbara Bush Foundation. (2021). National action plan for adult literacy 2021. Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. https://www.barbarabush.org/national-action-plan-for-adult-literacy/ 
  2. Cacicio, S., Cote, P., & Bigger, K. (2023) Investing in multiple literacies for individual and collective empowerment. ALL IN: The Adult Literacy and Learning Impact Network. 
  3. Hofstetter, J., & McHugh, M. (2023). Supporting immigrant integration via adult education and workforce development programs: Recommendations for the Task Force on New Americans. Migration Policy Institute.

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