Spring 5-6-2015



Degree Name


Primary Advisor/Dissertation Chair

Walter Enloe

Secondary Advisor/Reader One

Nancy Popp

Peer-Reviewer/Reader Two

Kim Johnson


Developing academic literacy skills is becoming increasingly high-stakes for Adult Basic Education (ABE) English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) learners to accomplish goals like passing the General Education Diploma (GED) test or preparing for post-secondary. ESOL literature suggests that academic literacy development is not only a language issue, but a cognitive and academic phenomenon. Related to an adult learner’s cognitive and academic learning is stage of epistemological complexity. Theories of adult epistemological development, including constructive-developmental theories, are based on empirical research demonstrating that the logics through which adults construct meaning can continue to develop over time following predictable patterns, moving hierarchically toward increasingly complex ways of meaning-making. Constructive-developmental research has shown that development shapes qualitatively distinct ABE/ESOL learning experiences, and native English speaker writing maturity; however, few if any studies have investigated the relationship between development and adult ESOL academic literacy learning. Using Robert Kegan’s Constructive-developmental Theory (CDT), which derives from Western psychology but has been used in previous studies with non-Western and ABE/ESOL populations, this qualitative case study explores the academic literacy learning experiences of nine ABE/ESOL learners in a college and career preparation class. The data include two semi-structured qualitative interviews and class observations. Analysis includes the dual lenses of grounded theory and CDT. Findings suggest that developmental perspectives, ranging from “instrumental” to “socializing” and “transitioning toward self-authoring,” made a qualitative difference in how ABE/ESOL learners experienced and engaged with academic literacy learning. Notably, instrumental learners demonstrated what looks like struggle, but from their developmental perspective represents a logical pathway toward success as they defined it. By contrast, learners transitioning toward self-authoring brought unique learning agendas and capacities for self-monitoring. This study concludes with recommendations for supporting and challenging ABE/ESOL learners who are linguistically, culturally, academically, and less visibly but critically, developmentally diverse.


Adult Education, Developmentally Appropriate Practice, ESL/ ELLs, Constructive-Development

Previous Versions

Aug 31 2018

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