English As a Second Language: Overview of Adult Education ESL Programs

Learn about the types of English as a Second Language (ESL) programs available to non-native English speakers. Find out where adults can take ESL classes.

ESL Programs for Adults

English as a second language classes are offered for new immigrants, college students and other adults whose first language is something other than English. Varying levels of ESL classes help adult students of varying proficiency levels. Programs can be made up of informal sessions that focus on conversation, or they can include structured courses that focus on written and oral proficiency and offer credits. ESL classes are typically offered in the evening and on weekends for adult students and some programs provide courses for free or at low-cost. Adult ESL programs can be found at community centers, community colleges, public schools, colleges and universities, churches, and civic organizations. Read on for more information.

Programs At a Glance

Program Program Length Program Levels Class Format
Academic ESL 8-15 weeks Basic, intermediate, advanced On-campus

Beginner ESL

Beginner classes are for those who speak little or no English. These classes focus on basic conversational English speaking and reading skills needed for survival. Vocabulary lessons might cover words needed for routine activities, such as catching a bus, renting an apartment, finding a job and cashing a paycheck. Adults who complete a beginner program can move up to intermediate programs, which include instruction in English grammar and reading.


Intermediate programs are designed for adults who have good speaking skills, but who may need help with reading and writing in English. These programs prepare adult students for career training to enter the workforce or to move on to advanced English programs that can prepare them for college courses.

Advanced Programs

These programs may be structured academic ESL classes. These classes are offered by colleges and universities and meet several times a week. Adult students can obtain the skills necessary to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which is sometimes required for non-native English speakers who want to attend U.S. colleges.

Some colleges and universities offer supplemental English courses for students whose English proficiency was sufficient to allow them to pass the TOEFL and gain admission but who may need additional language instruction to succeed in college. These courses can be subject-area specific. For example, an ESL class may focus on English terms in mathematics.

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