Inside IES Research

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Adult Ed Grantee Spotlight: Aydin Durgunoglu and Research for Adult English Learners

As part of the IES 20th Anniversary, NCER is reflecting on the past, present, and future of adult education research. In this blog, Dr. Aydin Durgunoglu, Distinguished Global Professor Emeritus at the University of  Minnesota-Duluth, reflects on how her life and training have influenced her work. Dr. Durgunoglu is the principal investigator on Content-Integrated Language Instruction for Adults with Technology Support, one of the six research projects that comprise the CREATE Adult Skills Research Network.  As part of this network, Dr. Durgunoglu and her team are focusing on the needs of adult English learners and on U.S. history and civics education, such as what might be taught as part of Integrated English Literacy and Civics Education programs. Hers is the first grant NCER has funded that is focusing on this area for this population.

Please describe your IES project.

My colleagues and I are developing a curriculum called CILIA-T (Content-Integrated Language Instruction for Adults with Technology Support). We are embedding English instruction into U.S. History and Civics content and providing technology supports for both students and teachers as part of the curriculum. Our goal is to provide a complete and integrated resource that can be used by teachers with varying levels of experience in English as a Second Language (ESL), civics/U.S. history and citizenship classes.

What motivates you to do this work?

Two of my motivations are my background as an English learner and immigrant and my training as a cognitive psychologist.

I started learning English when I was 12 in an immersion-based approach. I recall some of the struggles I had such as misunderstanding that “you may sit down” was a full sentence in English because, in Turkish, the single word oturun has a similar meaning to the English sentence. This realization along with both Turkish and American experiences helped me to see the importance of culture, language, and instruction.

As a cognitive psychologist by training, I am interested in learning, memory, knowledge acquisition, and—most of all—language. One of my research areas has been how literacy develops across different languages—how it may progress differently in Spanish, Turkish, English, Hmong, etc. and whether it involves general cognitive processes that are language independent.

These experiences and interests have long influenced my work. For example, my colleagues and I collaborated on literacy projects for Mother Child Education Foundation (MOCEF) based in Turkey that have evolved and currently include a focus on women’s citizenship and empowerment. This work was based on my theoretical work on literacy development in Turkish. In the United States, I have conducted studies with adults and children on how what they know in their home languages can help them learn English (cross-language transfer). All of these experiences led me to our work as the CILIA-T team.

How are you leveraging your experiences to build CILIA-T?

In addition to my theoretical and applied experiences in adult education, this project is benefiting from the contributions of a group of dedicated adult educators. These colleagues are teaching ESL, citizenship, history, and civics classes. We are collaborating on writing a curriculum that teachers like themselves would like to use. Based on our experiences and findings from the field, we have identified the components that we feel are key for CILIA-T. Three of these main components include

  1. Multimodal input:  Contrary to how I started learning English, providing linguistic input in several different modalities is helpful. Technology provides many opportunities to realize this goal. Learners can interact with and produce content in many forms. For example, they can create and share academic vocabulary sets and review them like a game. Technology can also facilitate deep conceptual understanding of academic topics. For example, learners can share and discuss not only texts but also audios and videos for a deeper analysis and application of civics and history topics.
  2. Build on first languages (L1): Adults already have a well-developed language system or systems, if they know multiple languages. They use the clues from their L1 to understand how English operates. Therefore, we can provide opportunities to bring that existing linguistic knowledge to the forefront and to compare and contrast explicitly. One clear way to leverage L1 is to integrate oral language and help bridge what the adults can do orally with what they aim to do in reading and writing.
  3. Academic vocabulary: Individuals with limited or interrupted schooling tend to have lower levels of academic vocabulary in their first language, and thus, likely lower levels in English. A language learner may be quite fluent in using English in their everyday interactions, but that does not mean they have a strong academic vocabulary across different domains, such as health, math, science, civics, and finance. CILIA-T covers academic and discipline-specific vocabulary in a purposeful way. Academic vocabulary is closely related to the conceptual understanding of a phenomenon. Therefore, just learning word definitions is not enough. The vocabulary has to be contextualized with a conceptual understanding. For example, executive branch does not mean much by itself unless it is situated within an understanding of an overall governmental system. Similarly, the definition of the word mortgage may be forgotten quickly if the learner is not familiar with the loan and repayment system in the United States. Luckily, adults have a lot of background knowledge to facilitate such conceptual scaffolding, but that is for another blog.

What value do you hope CILIA-T might bring to the students, teachers, and communities?

We believe that when all individuals, but especially the newcomers, understand the systems, practices, historical contexts, and the language(s) of their society, they can become more active participants in their communities and can work towards accomplishing their life goals more effectively. We hope that CILIA-T provides the adult learners and the educators and programs that support them with a tool to facilitate this growth.

This blog was produced by Dr. Meredith Larson (, research analyst and program officer at NCER.