Unearthing the Secrets of Successful Adult ELLs

Years ago, a social worker friend taught me that the best way to help people tackle difficult challenges was to focus on past instances of success rather than on failure. Success, he told me, was worthy of detailed investigation: What factors contributed to successful outcomes? And how can we encourage more of what has worked well in the past for others who are similarly situated?

When I began teaching English as a second language, this advice came to mind. As I watched my adult immigrant students struggle to master our verb tenses or wrap their tongues around our sound system, I decided that it might be useful to investigate how successful adult ELLs went about achieving fluency in English. What were the secrets of their success? What strategies had worked well for them?

To find out, I embarked on a series of formal, structured interviews with successful adult ELLs. Several of those interviews have been published in the March and December 2012 issues TESOL Connections, and they form the cornerstone of the work on self-directed learning that I do with all of my students.

But this semester, a new twist occurred to me. Rather than simply have my students read, listen to, and reflect upon the interviews I had conducted with successful ELLs, it struck me that it might make an even stronger impression on them if they did their own field research and conducted their own interviews.

And so we began the Secrets of Successful Learners project. I asked my students if they each knew someone who had learned English as an adult and who spoke English really well. Some students, isolated from English speakers both at home and at work, couldn’t think of anyone. But others knew someone—a spouse, a cousin, an uncle—who had successfully learned to speak English accurately and fluently.

For homework, I asked them to go out and interview these role models, and then to report back to their classmates what they discovered. Here, in the words of the people they interviewed, is some of the advice they unearthed:

  1. Run away from people who speak your language. Be in contact with as many English speakers as possible. Ask them to correct you.
  2. Expose yourself to America and to American culture. Avoid stores and other locations in the United States where they speak your language. Watch movies and TV without subtitles or English closed captions.
  3. Just try to speak—if necessary, use gestures.
  4. Try to think in English.
  5. Keep a pencil and a notebook with you to write down new words and expressions.

All of this advice, of course, sounds familiar to us as teachers but can be very difficult in practice for many students to follow. However, hearing these suggestions from someone they know and respect (rather than only from a teacher) can be powerfully motivating.

It has also been fascinating to hear about less orthodox strategies that have worked well for some of my students’ interviewees. One student was advised to transcribe President Obama’s speeches as a way to focus on sentence structure and pronunciation. Another student embarked on a project to copy over short stories word for word because that strategy had helped expand the vocabulary of the relatives he had come to the United States to live with.

In the end, what seemed to matter most to my students was not just the specific advice they gathered but the weight they attached to it because it came from a trusted source who, as they saw and heard with their own eyes and ears, had made the leap to fluency.

What secrets of successful adult ELLs have proven motivating for your students?

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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4 Responses to Unearthing the Secrets of Successful Adult ELLs

  1. Christine Olli says:


    Your blog is excellent and is now on my favorites bar. As my semester with my high beginning-low intermediate students winds to a close, I’ve been using elements of your self-directed learning project ideas in class to help inspire students to keep up their skills and learning between and beyond classes and give them ideas about how to do that. Last night, students were sharing their answers to questions about their out-of-class English usage (Have you spoken English every day since the last class? What have you read in English since the last class? Did you use subtitles in your native language on television? Is your phone set to English? etc.). One student, who has been in the US for seven years and learned most of the English she knows through self-directed learning, told a fascinating story of learning, thinking and doing in a second language. She taught herself to use her car’s GPS in English, and uses it often to get around to the many different houses she cleans. When she changes the language to Polish, she becomes totally confused and doesn’t know what to do. She can only use the GPS in English.

    I’m looking forward to more fully implementing the project next semester, everyone’s feedback, and all future posts!


    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      What a great story about the GPS in English, Christine! I’ll have to add that to my list of strategies to mention to my students. In class today, one of my students proudly described making a reservation at Disney World and consciously declining an invitation to speak to a Spanish-speaking reservations clerk, choosing instead to transact her business in English. These may sound like baby steps, but together, they add up!

  2. Geoff Jordan says:

    Hi Alexandra,

    Have you published a report of your students’ own field research and interviews?



    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thank you for your interest and your question, Geoff. The results of the first-round of my intermediate students’ informal interviews are included in the blog post above. However, I am interested in expanding the “Secrets of Successful Language Learners” project and would be interested in finding a way to partner with other interested instructors to engage larger numbers of students in this kind of inquiry. If this interests you, we can follow up off-line. My email address is alowe44@verrizon.net

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