Equipped for the Future and Adult ESOL Instruction (2000), by Andy Nash, EFF staff, New England Literacy Resource Center/World Education

Equipped for the Future (EFF) is a national standards-based initiative to reform the adult literacy system so that it better prepares adults for what they need to know and be able to do in today's world. The initiative began in 1993 when the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) was asked by Congress to assess progress on National Education Goal 6, the Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning Goal: "By the year 2000, every adult will be literate, and possess the knowledge and skills requisite to compete in the global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship." (National Education Goals Panel, 1993). This request reflected a growing interest in holding publicly funded education programs accountable for proving their effectiveness. A 1995 General Accounting Office (GAO) report heightened concern when it reported that federally funded adult education programs "had difficulty ensuring accountability for results - that is, being able to clearly or accurately say what program funds have accomplished" (Weiss, 1995). This article describes the EFF framework, examines its relevance to English learners, and talks about the challenges in applying the framework in ESOL contexts.

The EFF Framework
NIFL defined the task of EFF as twofold:

    1) to build a consensus about what adults need to know and be able to do in order to achieve Goal 6, and
    2) to develop a set of standards that would focus the system on delivering these results and be used to document progress in ways that are useful to students, programs, and policymakers.
EFF then set out to engage thousands of adults in "mapping" the key activities that adults perform in their roles as effective workers, family members, and community members, and to build consensus around a vision of adult lifelong learning. The initiative was informed by the work of other occupational and educational standards projects (such as the work-based skills identified in the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report, the national math standards, and K-12 standards for civics and government (Merrifield, 2000), and by research on adult development (Kegan, 1994; Mezirow, 1990) and cognition (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 1999). The resulting EFF framework includes four fundamental purposes for adult learning, three role maps, common activities that illustrate the connections among the roles, and a set of sixteen core skills that underlie the ability to carry out adult purposes and activities.

With its focus on student-centered teaching and life skills (Grognet, 1997), much of the field of adult ESOL is already consistent with EFF. What, then, does EFF add to the teaching and learning of English?

First, EFF supports an expanded notion of literacy and ESOL, one that goes beyond the traditional communication and computational skills to include the problem-solving, interpersonal, and lifelong learning skills that are valued but which are not typically recognized as part of the literacy system. Most ESOL teachers help students research needed resources, advocate for themselves, evaluate situations and options, and make decisions in an unfamiliar culture; yet few programs document these skills or report them to funders. EFF's definition of literacy legitimizes this work and enables teachers and learners to get credit for addressing all the skills needed in real world situations.

Second, EFF contributes tools (the role maps, skill wheel, etc.) that organize and guide a student-centered learning process. Practitioners use these to help adults identify their needs and strengths in the various roles and participate in deciding which skills, knowledge, or competencies they will need to improve in order to meet their purposes. As students collaborate in this curriculum development process, they develop a metacognitive awareness -- they become more conscious of their own learning -- that prepares them to understand and direct their learning in the future.

Third, EFF situates all adults along the same full range of skills, so that ESOL students are not only defined by their abilities to speak, listen, read, and write. Though these communication skills will always be the primary focus of their learning, adults can also document strengths in other categories, such as interpersonal or decision-making skills, creating a more holistic profile of their abilities. Adults can use such profiles outside the classroom for job interviews, school intakes, and other settings where they need to display their abilities.

And fourth, the standards provide a common, explicit and consistent set of skill definitions that allow us to communicate with a shared understanding across programs (e.g. family literacy, workforce development, ESOL, etc.) and with students. Moreover, the standards are written to describe what adults need to know in order to be able to USE the skills in real situations. This moves us away from a system of pencil and paper tests and toward one based on evidence that students can actually apply, in context, the skills they've been practicing.

EFF in the ESOL Classroom
EFF was developed to invite learners and teachers to find the links between life activities and the skills they require, to look for the ways that adults' abilities can be transferred from role to role, and to connect short-term goals to broader purposes for learning. Lessons may grow out of class discussions about what people do (or would like to do) in their roles, or might arise from the daily demands that get brought into the classroom. For example, adult students in Chula Vista, CA, were interested in finding out about affordable eye care. Their teacher, Judy Wurtz, turned to the standards for "Learn Through Research" and "Speak So Others Can Understand" to guide the development of these skills in a project where students researched available low-cost eye exams and glasses. They worked in teams to find telephone numbers in a phone book, planned and made phone calls, charted the information they got from the calls, and even attended a community event where they made contact with an agency participating in a national project to provide eye care for students. Not only did this activity give them practice in skills needed in all their roles, but Judy reported in her teaching log that their investigation led to eight students receiving eye appointments, and most of them getting glasses.

Similar lessons could certainly take place in non-EFF classrooms. Judy, and many other ESOL teachers report, however, that using the EFF standards helps them remember to address all aspects of the skill and to discuss with students the connection between what they're learning and how they're going to use it in real life.

Alysan Croydan, a teacher from the Refugee Women's Alliance of Seattle, WA, has described that she uses the standards to remind herself to find out more about students' specific purposes. For example, she used to respond to their articulated need for "English to go to the doctor" by teaching the language for making an appointment, etc. After they had covered this language, she was confused when students continued to name it as their goal. She asked them what was still difficult about making an appointment, and learned that the real issue was finding an appointment time that would fit their schedules. So she began teaching them how to negotiate an appointment time (going beyond the scripted dialogues) and started discussing aspects of their own schedule planning with them. She says that she gained a new appreciation for what is the first component of many of the standards - identifying the purpose for using the skill. Now she investigates further so that she has a clearer and deeper understanding of the students' needs and purposes.

ESOL and EFF: The challenges
EFF is intended for collaborative use. Its most effective implementation has been in classes where students understand the framework and use it to share control of and responsibility for the learning process. However, teachers of beginners find this very difficult to do in English. Although the text of the framework (role maps, skills list, etc.) is highly contextualized and written in short phrases, it frequently refers to abstract concepts that may be challenging to explain in simpler language. Teachers in the EFF standards development process responded to this challenge by extracting only the most immediately relevant excerpts, simplifying and translating text, working with students to create illustrations and other visual cues, and having students develop some of the framework pieces themselves (their own learning purposes, for instance) in order to generate their own ideas as well as some of the language they would find in the EFF text. Other practitioners report that, until a solid foundation has been built in English, they use EFF to guide their curriculum development but do not use it explicitly with students. What has been consistent across educators is an agreement that students should be brought into a discussion of their own learning as soon as this is feasible in any classroom.

A second challenge is skill assessment. Is it appropriate to assess all of the EFF skills when adults are coming to programs to improve their communication skills? How does one assess the decision-making, interpersonal, and lifelong learning skills of adults with whom one does not share a common language? First, ESOL teachers working with EFF have found, where they have been able to have this conversation in a shared language, that their students have affirmed the relevance of the EFF skills. Even so, EFF proposes that students be assessed only on the standards that have been identified as relevant to their own purposes and intentionally taught and learned. Other standards would not, in fact, be appropriate to assess.

The second issue of collaborative assessment with ESOL beginners is not unique to EFF, and will be studied by practitioners in the field as EFF develops its assessment framework. Some teachers are beginning to experiment with developing their own bilingual tools to assess learner progress in these new areas.

Finally, there are questions of culture. Is EFF imposing homogenized American notions of family, work, and civic participation? Is it promoting culture-bound notions of goals, individualism, and personal responsibility? The role maps are descriptions (not prescriptions) that were developed by a broad cross-section of adults. They offer a picture of adult activity that is intended to help adults identify their own needs and priorities. If used appropriately, they are a point of reference that gives newcomers information about cultural practices and an orientation from which to make their own choices.

Similarly, culturally-based ideas that individuals can exercise free will (and can therefore make choices about how to "solve problems," for example) and are expected to take care of themselves (and must "plan" for this by "taking responsibility for learning") are important topics for classroom examination. All educational approaches are built upon cultural assumptions, whether or not these are named. The entire EFF framework has been explicitly defined precisely so that its assumptions are clear and not hidden. This allows them to be critiques and debated by educators as well as students. In another example from Alysan Croydan, she described working on the "Solve Problems and Make Decisions" standard with a female student who could generate a range of solutions to a problem but could not imagine, from her cultural perspective, implementing any of them. Yet it was instructive for this student to learn that most Americans would find these alternatives possible, and that many employers expect workers to solve problems in this way.

Next Steps
Over the past two years, EFF has begun to develop an assessment framework that focuses on skills application and provides information for the learning process, information for credentialing or certifying students, and information for accountability (Stein, 2000). The 2001 EFF field development process is engaging practitioners from five states (Maine, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington) in building a performance continuum for each of the sixteen EFF Content Standards. The ESOL practitioners that are participating in this effort are providing input that will ensure that each continuum can adequately and respectfully benchmark the progress of diverse English learners.


Ananda , S. (2000). Equipped for the Future Assessment Report: How Instructors Can Support Adult Learners Through Performance-Based Assessment. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds). (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Grognet, A.G. (1997). Integrating Employment Skills Into Adult ESL Instruction. ERIC Q & A. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education.

Kegan, Robert (1994). In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Merrifield, J. (2000). Equipped for the Future Research Report: Building the Framework, 1993-1997. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Mezirow, J. and Associates (1990). Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood: A Guide to Transformative and Emancipatory Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Education Goals Panel (1993). 1993 National Education Goals Report: Building a Nation of Learners.

Stein, S. (2000). Equipped for the Future Content Standards: What Adults Need to Know and Be Able to Do in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

U.S. Department of Labor. The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. (1991). What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for America 2000. Washington, DC: Author. (EDRS No. ED 332054)

Weiss, L.A. (1995). Adult education: Measuring Program Results Has Been Challenging. Washington, DC: US GAO.