Date Approved


Graduate Degree Type


Degree Name

Education (M.Ed.)

Degree Program

College of Education


Adult ESL learners at the community education level are frequently undereducated (Lasater and Elliott, 2000, 2005), and fifty percent of limited-English proficient (LEP) adults report having nine or fewer years of formal schooling (NCIIP, 2012). They may be preliterate or only marginally literate even in their L1, which has significant negative implications both for language acquisition and for employment and educational opportunities. Further, many of these adult students also experience feelings of low self-worth with respect to their ability to succeed in any academic setting, let alone a foreign one, which poses a serious barrier to their ability to transition to community college or university (Shen, 2012). However, standard curricula for adult community education ESL classes typically follow a competency-based model that focuses on oral tasks and basic employment skills rather than attempting to foster and develop critical literacy and sociopolitical agency.

In this paper, I argue that for adults with limited formal education and either limited or interrupted L1 literacy, helping learners develop a meaningful relationship with authentic and personally relevant texts is crucial (Fingeret, 1991; Purcell-Gates et al, 2002; Purcell-Gates & Waterman, 2000; Blanton, 2005). I develop an empirically-grounded theoretical argument for the use of the personal narrative genre in second language instruction, and show that focus on narrative as a social literacy event actively engages learners’ histories and subjectivities in the classroom while serving as a bridge between the symbolic codes of speech and writing. I emphasize research which indicates the unique role personal narrative plays in supporting identity negotiation and development of sociopolitical agency (Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2000; Nicholas, Rossiter & Abbott, 2011; Mishler, 2006; Coffey & Street, 2008), of special importance for marginalized populations. Finally, I argue that using autobiographical narrative in adult ESL instruction can provide a forum for tying students’ histories to their new language use, thus enabling development of heightened sense of self-worth at the same time as foundational critical literacy skills and agency are developed. A model curriculum for implementing this approach is outlined, and justification is provided.

Included in

Education Commons