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Changes to the NRS Standards for Adult Education

In January, the U.S. Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) released the long-awaited updates to the National Reporting System for Adult Education (NRS), including the new Educational Functioning Level (EFL) descriptors for ESL. These updates are of critical importance to programs that receive funding under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). The details of the revision are provided in the document titled “Technical Assistance Guide for Performance Accountability under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act,” which can be accessed here.

Below is a summary of what you need to know about the new NRS EFL descriptors for your English language learners. Please note that these descriptors are still evolving, and it is not clear when the changes will come into effect. We will update you when there is additional information published by OCTAE.

  1. The NRS descriptors for English language learners cover six educational functioning levels (EFLs).

1 – Beginning ESL Literacy
2 – Low Beginning ESL
3 – High Beginning ESL
4 – Low Intermediate ESL
5 – High Intermediate ESL
6 – Advanced ESL

  1. These six levels focus on three main modalities:
  • Interpretive: Receptive skills to understand, process, and interpret written and oral language delivered at an appropriate level and presented in a variety of contexts and genres.
  • Productive: Productive skills that allow learners to produce spoken and written language that transmits meaning in a variety of contexts, both in everyday and academic interactions.
  • Interactive: Skills that allow learners to process and produce meaningful interactions in spoken and written forms in a variety of contexts and settings.

The three modalities cover four language skills:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Listening
  1. The revised NRS EFL descriptors for English language learners draw content from the recently published English Language Proficiency Standards for Adult Education (ELPS). The ELPS are designed to identify skills most important and most relevant for adult English language learners as they pursue their educational, career, and life-improvement goals. The ELPS integrate with the College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS), providing a foundation for academic rigor.
  1. The revision of the NRS EFL descriptors calls for an increase in text complexity and progression of topics (progressive complexity) from familiar to academic in both instruction and assessment. Materials need to present level-appropriate text complexity that includes demanding language structures, academic vocabulary, and concepts as well as tasks that develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
  1. The new version of the NRS EFL descriptors puts a significant emphasis on the development of college and career readiness skills and the integration of academic rigor in the English language learning process at all levels, including the use of level-appropriate academic language in a variety of academic content areas, and including informational text in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
  1. The new NRS EFL descriptors promote the integration of technology in instruction, including the application of digital tool and resources, and the development of learners’ digital literacy.
  1. Although these new NRS EFL descriptors present the most important concepts and skills that should be taught at each level, they also leave room for state and local instructional frameworks and standards to guide lesson planning and curriculum development.

In this new WIOA landscape, programs need to not only help learners develop competence in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, but also develop the skills to problem-solve, evaluate complex texts, analyze information, and think critically so that they are prepared to achieve their educational, career, and personal goals.

Pearson ELT is committed to adult education and to the instructors who work to help learners achieve success. We are committed to keeping up with the changing landscape of adult education and to ensuring that our materials and tools are in alignment with the most recent standards. Comprehensive correlations of our materials to current standards are at your fingertips and can be accessed here.

The chart below outlines the correspondence of the NRS EFL descriptors to CCRS, ELPS, and CASAS and shows how Pearson materials are positioned within each level.

Click on the chart to enlarge the image.

Using Movies in the ESL Classroom

 Joe McVeigh

With Academy Award season upon us, ESL teachers may wish to think about how they can use movies in the classroom. Movies provide a wonderful source of language input for students. They can provide valuable exposure to language and also to culture, as well as being an excellent source of new vocabulary along with slang and idioms. They can be used to help students work on many language skills including listening, reading, speaking, and pronunciation.

Film selection criteria

Some teachers choose to use short excerpts from movies. If you have a class in which you meet with students for several hours a week, you may be able to use entire films with them. There are several criteria to consider when selecting films for use with students. First off, consider the level of interest and relevance for your students. A group of 18-year-old students in an intensive English program may have different interests in movie than a group of fifth graders or a class of adult immigrants and refugees. Be sure that the actors in the film speak relatively clearly, and that the storyline is not too difficult to follow. Analyze the language to ensure that it isn’t too difficult. Consider the content of the film to make sure that it’s appropriate for your students in terms of the language and themes involved. If you wish to use an entire film, check on the availability of a written script, which can be extremely helpful.

Practical considerations

Carefully preview the film in advance, so that you are aware of potentially difficult language or challenging themes for your students. Also check your equipment to make sure that everyone in the room can see the screen clearly and that the sound quality is adequate. If you want to find a particular section in the film, note the time on a counter so that you can access the right spot easily.

Classroom activities

Most films these days are available with closed captions that you can turn on or off. You can choose whether or not to turn on the captions. After viewing the film or an excerpt from the film, you can select comprehension questions or discussion questions to use with your students. You may also wish to pull out various bits of vocabulary, slang, idioms, or new expressions.

If you obtain a complete script of the movie for your students, you can assign them to read it either for homework or in class. You can ask them to act out scenes from the movie, or give them writing assignments based on the film.

For speaking practice, choose a scene from the film that contains a lot of activity. Put students in pairs with one facing the screen and the other with their back to the screen. Turn down the sound, then play the excerpt. Ask the student facing the screen to describe what’s happening to the student who can’t see. Then have the two partners change positions.

To really give your students a reading workout. Choose a film in a language other than English that has English subtitles!

General Discussion Questions about Movies

Here are some questions you can use with your students for a general discussion about movies.

  1. Generally speaking, what kind of films do you like? Comedy? Drama? Romance? Other?
  2. Often, at the end of the year, American film critics like to put together a “top ten list” of the ten best films of the year. If you were going to put together a top ten list for yourself, what movies would be on that list? Give reasons for your selections.
  3. Who is your favorite actor? Why do you like him or her?
  4. What qualities should a good actor have?
  5. Many people believe that the American (Hollywood) film industry has too much influence on the way that people think about the United States, about men and women, and about fantasy and reality. Do you feel that Hollywood has a distorted image of the U.S.?
  6. Some people think that studying film is not very helpful for learning English, it is only entertainment. What is your opinion? Has studying film been helpful for your English ability?  How could it be more helpful?

Sample Post-Viewing Discussion Questions for a Movie

  1. What is the meaning of the title of the film?
  2. How would you describe the mood, feeling, and story of this film to someone who was not familiar with it and who had never seen it before?
  3. What was your favorite moment in the film?
  4. What was your least favorite moment in the film?
  5. Who is your favorite character in the film?
  6. What part did you think was the funniest?
  7. What part did you think was the most special for you?
  8. List three new vocabulary words or expressions that you learned from this movie.

Instructions for Students to Practice Acting out a Scene from a Movie

  • With 1-3 other students, choose a scene from one of the films that we have watched to act out in front of the class.
  • The scene that you select should be an important one in the movie (not something trivial).
  • The scene, when enacted, should last about two minutes (or less), so choose your scene carefully.
  • It is not necessary to memorize your lines or to bring or use props or costumes, though you may do this if you wish.
  • Do not improvise new dialog for the scene. Use only the written dialog from the film.
  • When acting out the scene, use the same actions as the characters in the movies. Do not read directly from the script.  Remember, you are supposed to be speaking, not reading.
  • Try to use the correct pronunciation. Be as fluent and as accurate as you can.
  • Speak loudly and clearly so as to be heard by everyone.

Movie Vocabulary Homework Assignment

  1. For the next class meeting make a list of vocabulary words which are new to you from our film script. Your assignment is to find words and expressions from p. ______ to p. ________Your list should include at least ___________ words and expressions.
  2. Using a dictionary and consulting others, find an accurate definition or meaning of the word or expression.
  3. On your list include:
  • the page number in the script where it is found
  • the word or expression
  • whether the word or expression is commonly used or not
  • whether the word or expression is polite to use or not
  • the meaning


Page Expression Common? Polite? Meaning
17 Put his foot in his mouth somewhat OK Say something embarrassing or foolish
  1. You may work together with others who are working on the same pages.
  2. Make enough copies of your worksheet to class for everyone in the class. 

Sample Vocabulary from the film When Harry Met Sally

Here are some vocabulary terms and expressions from When Harry Met Sally that you could assign students to learn:

time to kill; to fix someone up with someone; there is no point (in doing something); to come down with something ; affront; to hit it off with someone; to bump into someone; I couldn’t agree more

Successful Films

A couple of films that I have used successfully in the classroom with students in an intensive English program include The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. What are some films that you have used successfully in the classroom? What activities did you use with them?

Joe McVeigh is a teacher, teacher trainer, and independent educational consultant based in Middlebury, Vermont. He has worked in a variety of countries and has taught at Cal State LA, Caltech, USC, Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English, and Saint Michael’s College. He is an active member of the TESOL International Association and has worked as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State. He is co-author of Tips for Teaching Culture from Pearson along with other books for students of English. In addition to talks and workshops at professional conferences, Joe contributes to the field through his website, which contains videos, resources, and presentation slides and handouts at

Academic Writing 101 – Part 2 – “What should I write about?”

Professor John Caine
SUNY, Suffolk Community College

Academic Writing 101 Part 2


One question I can guarantee every writing teacher has been asked is,

“What should I write about?”

This question often means students are having a hard time with focus and clarity not just subject material. Students ask the question, but what they often mean is, “How do I start?” Indeed, this has been the key question for the most well-known writers. Lewis Carroll offers us the obvious answer in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. 
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

How many English teachers have been tempted to quote these lines?

Academic writing is all about focus and clarity, so the question demands an answer, and the answer is a major component of well-written papers. The answer is, “May I see your outline, please?” This one question often brings students to the realization that academic writing is like making a nice dinner not a quick (text) snack.

If we’ve gotten to the writing section of the course, then we have already taught students various outline techniques, whether clustering, free-writing, or some other method. We teach them the process of creating an outline and then assume they will just naturally use the process, but do they? Academic writing can be a frightful procedure for many students. They view the procedure as if they were walking through a minefield filled with corrections (Bang), edits (Boom), and rewrites (Ouch).

Here is where so many instructors shine and inspire. Instead of land mines, they turn the landscape into a garden. Corrections become pleasant additions, rewrites become new ways to express and retell. Each edit brings rewards and satisfaction in learning to master a new language. And there is mutual joy in sharing this growth.

Most students are naturally anxious to do well, but they are unaware how this arduous process will affect their lives in the long term for employment applications, résumés, employment interviews, and much more. Asking students for an outline helps them to slow down and begin to focus. Now they must go back to their notes and choose a method to create an outline, knowing you will ask again. Does it matter if they use a formal or informal outline? For me it depends on the subject and depth of the subject. Some essays may require a formal outline simply because of the complexity of the subject, but most essays need only an informal one. But they must have an outline.

Here is where the academic process starts for students. “What should I write about?” becomes a mantra of focus and clarity. They will produce an outline using one of the methods they’ve been taught. As the outline forms, their focus sets and their clarity becomes sharp. Focus and clarity lets them answer their own question, “What should I write about?” They now have a topic, and with a topic they can develop a topic sentence, and that will lead them to a coherent paragraph. I’ve got goose bumps!

About the Author

John Caine is the author of several books, (Waldo and the Wackos, The Story of Pig and Giraffe, La Historia de Cerdo y Jirafa, My Name Sir?, In the Time of Big Trains, 4:56) short stories and poetry. He teaches English where he currently lives on Long Island, NY with his family


Academic Writing 101

Academic Writing 101

Professor John Caine
SUNY, Suffolk Community College

For many students, the first time they communicate in actual academic writing is in their first semester of college. There, for the first time, students understand that what they had been writing was a very “forgiven” form of academic writing, nurtured by kind instructors. Now, in an ultra-competitive college environment, they are expected, in fact required, to display and excel in the only acceptable form of higher education writing. This is often difficult and frustrating for both students and instructors. But there are ways to make the transition easier.

Teaching students to become fluent academic writers can be a challenge. As educators, we know that good readers are much more likely to become good writers. Introducing students to well-written examples before teaching academic writing helps them understand the process and how to use academic writing for various purposes. Academic writing comes in many forms: rhetorical, logical, argumentative, and the dreaded essay, to name a few. Helping students discover and understand better writing begins with helping them discover and understand how to be better readers. And let’s face it — better writing means less red ink and more sighs of relief. The transition is often easier for good readers because they usually have a wider vocabulary and better context awareness, draw on background knowledge, recognize sentence structure, and understand why they are reading. These skills seem obvious, but they are lacking in, and are even foreign to, many readers.

Approximately one in six individuals cannot do what you are doing now — read. Of those able to read, many do not do so on a regular basis predominately because of lack of opportunity. This means that exposure to academic written examples may be lacking.

We want students to have strong, well-organized papers, and that means helping them understand reading, speaking, grammar, and writing in academic terms. Sometimes asking students to speak in logical, fluent sentences is a good way to have them begin the process of writing in fluent, logical sentences. The end result of academic writing is to teach, to help us understand something better than we did before, or to add insight into previously studied material. Information is wonderful, but what is more important is how we can use the information in practical ways. If the information is not presented in a fluent, logical sequence, it is useless.

People read what they are interested in, so let your students experience and benefit from appropriate material that engages their imagination, interest, and learning style. Elicit and introduce new vocabulary, idioms, and collocations so that hearing and using them becomes part of students’ background knowledge. Then ask them to relate the information orally before writing. Give them a purpose for their writing. This means asking them to read with a motive for writing. Is it to refute, to inform, to incite? If their motive is clear, their writing will probably be clear. Have them analyze word structure and usage. Is the writing straightforward or rambling? As students listen to themselves speaking, most of them will self-correct and realize there is a better way to express ideas, phrases, or facts. And the beautiful part is that they will love the process so that it becomes standard practice.

These generalizations get us started. In the following articles, we will examine specific examples to help students understand, apply, and master academic writing.


About the Author

John Caine is the author of several books, (Waldo and the Wackos, The Story of Pig and Giraffe, La Historia de Cerdo y Jirafa, My Name Sir?, In the Time of Big Trains, 4:56) short stories and poetry. He teaches English where he currently lives on Long Island, NY with his family

Pearson’s University Success: Breaking It Down and Dishing It Out into Bite-Sized Chunks for EAP Student Success

By Mary Kay Seales, University of Washington

Note: This review was first submitted to the TESOL Higher Education Interest Section in December 2017.

Lockwood, R.B., Sokolik, M. & Zwier, L.J. (Eds.) (2017) University Success Series. Hoboken, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc.


Pearson’s University Success series for EAP students brings together, and skillfully breaks down, the complex skills needed by English language learners at the university level.

Full Text

Anyone who has taught university-level English language learners knows that no matter how well they may have performed in their English language courses, they are usually not prepared for the shock of the real university classroom, which includes massive amounts of reading, competing in a classroom of native speakers, listening to hour-long lectures, and writing papers without their helpful English teachers nearby. How to help EAP students bridge this gap has been a subject of research and experimentation by English language teaching professionals for the last several decades, myself included. Delineating, and then breaking down those necessary skills that native English-speaking students take for granted has been a struggle for those of us working with this student population.

So here’s some good news. University Success, a new three-level series from Pearson, gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to helping students cross this bridge between their English language courses and life in a real university classroom. Each of the levels – Intermediate to High-Intermediate, Advanced, Transitional – is divided into Reading, Writing and Oral Communication skills, so three separate standalone textbooks at each of the three levels.

Each of the textbooks is also consistently divided into five content areas – Biology, Humanities, Engineering, Sociology, and Economics – as well as three sub-skill areas – Fundamental Skills, Critical Thinking Skills, and Authentic Extended Content. This consistency across textbooks and levels would make this an excellent series for an integrated Academic English Program, and the up-to-date topics, readings, and lectures by Stanford University professors give the series the authenticity they need.

Although there are myriad EAP textbooks, many of which I have used in my thirty-two-year teaching career at the University of Washington, this series brings together the best ideas from those texts into one book.  For example, in the Transitional level’s Oral Communication text, you can find activities covering everything from how to elaborate on a point you are trying to make to creating and communicating a visual, such as a graph or diagram. The critical thinking section of this particular text in the series includes a section on “interpreting and utilizing hedging devices,” something you might not think to teach but extremely useful. Finally, in the Authentic Content section of this textbook, students listen to authentic lectures by one of five experts while they practice using all the note-taking and listening skills they have learned in previous units. Even for experienced teachers, this helps break down the complex mix of skills need for understanding what’s going on in the classroom and taking a more active role as a student.

Another feature unique to this series is the level of attention given to the metacognition of language learning, which again is a nice feature for both teachers and students. Each mini-skill in every unit is explained clearly and succinctly, so students, and equally importantly, teachers can understand why they need to master it.  Although further research into the extent of the value of metacognition in language learning is needed, it has been shown to be a valuable enough tool to warrant adding it to our teaching strategies. “It is very worthwhile for teachers to understand the importance of metacognition in language learning because it helps learners to become autonomous and self-regulated language learners…teachers should focus on both teaching language content and teaching the ways and processes of learning” (Raoofi, Chan, Mukundan & Rashid, 2014, p.45). University Success textbooks operate on this assumption.

One other factor that I always look for in a textbook is the layout and design. I want something that is not too ESL-ish looking when I’m working with students who are serious college-level English language learners. The pages of the Transitional level of University Success are dense, the print is small, and the units are one to two pages in length. There are plenty of visuals to break up the pages – tables, photos, graphs, cultural notes in boxes – all making this, at least for me, a respectable-looking book to bring to the table for my graduate and undergraduate students.

In terms of support materials, the University Success series is accompanied by the online MyEnglishLab, where students go for the listening component of various activities throughout the textbooks, including the lectures and a self-assessment component at the beginning of each chapter.

As usual with textbooks, there is more than enough, maybe too much material. I would be hard put to get through all the activities in one textbook in the ten-week quarters we have in our English language programs at the UW.  Still, as an experienced teacher I would pick and choose from this text, and could put together a solid ten-week course using just this resource. I also think it is an excellent series for a new teacher who is trying to wrap their heads around the how to help their university-level students bridge that gap between their English classes and their university courses.

As one of the three series editors, Lawrence Zwier, an associate director of the English Language Center at Michigan State University puts it, this series provides an “academic onramp” for students, and I think it is definitely worth a look for your EAP courses.


Raoofi, S., Chan, S., Mukundan, J. & Rashid, S.M. (2014). Metacognition and Second/Foreign Langauge Learning. English Language Teaching, Vol. 7, (1), p.45.

Mary Kay Seales has been an English language instructor at the University of Washington for over 30 years, specializing in instruction for EAP students. She also has extensive experience in teacher training in the U.S. and abroad.