Six Tips for Hosting Virtual English Now! Learning Circles

English Now! learning circles like the ones offered at the Thomas Jefferson Adult and Career Education (TJACE) program are multi-level, learner-led groups for English language and digital literacy practice. Last spring when the TJACE learning circles migrated quickly to a distance learning format, we found, through trial and error, that the flexible learning circles model lends itself to a video conferencing format like Zoom. In fact, learners can play an important leadership role in their own virtual learning experience.

The tips below share how the spirit of learning circles can be achieved virtually, but these strategies could be adapted to any multi-level classroom.

1. Establish virtual classroom norms. Just as you would in a face-to-face environment, collaborate with the learners to set expectations for attendance, participation, and respectful discussion. Our virtual circles welcome learners whenever they are able to join, accommodating late arrivals and early departures, young children on laps and family members in the background. Remember that students will have different experiences of the same class depending on what kind of device they are using and their internet access. If some students join by calling in, pause frequently to make sure they are processing the conversation and call on them specifically to speak.

2. Orient learners to the platform you will be using. Which features of this technology are most important for your purposes? Zoom has an impressive array of options, but in a multi-level class, mastering a few simple features might be best. Practice sending messages through the chat, turning off the video and audio, and using reactions in response to prompts. If you have students who are returning to learning circles or are familiar with the technology, you might invite them to lead the orientation.

3. Incorporate learners’ home environments.  Acknowledge and be sensitive to the fact that you are seeing learners in private spaces, which might be unwillingly on display. Learners might not feel comfortable connecting via video chat; encourage these learners to turn off their camera or to join by calling in. Learners who have limited internet access can also call in. But for all learners, joining class from home presents rich opportunities for language learning and cultural connection. Invite learners to share something from their homes in a show-and-tell (and have those who call in describe the object). Use the wealth of realia available to reinforce vocabulary, provide real-word context for concepts, and encourage participation.

4. Address COVID-19 in a civics context. Find out what your learners know and want to know about the pandemic. Share a weekly COVID update, focusing on data from your health department as well as announcements from area hospitals, testing sites, public schools, and agencies offering support. Keep a local focus. Review the name of your governor, discuss the difference between city and county, and make a list of students’ zip codes. Show them how to access local information and invite learners to present information to the group. You could invite guest speakers from local agencies to present virtually, sharing information that will have the most direct benefit and promote civic engagement.

5. Provide leadership opportunities. In a virtual classroom, learners can be a Zoom co-host and set the meeting agenda, manage the chat, take notes, or serve as time keeper. This gives them a chance to practice both their technology and English skills while offering practical support to the facilitator. Hosting a virtual meeting is now a critical workforce skill. We can all benefit from increased practice.

6. Encourage peer support. TJACE is piloting a program for learning circle participants to serve as volunteer “buddies” for beginning English language learners in our school. Buddies can support beginners with accessing technology and interpret for staff if needed. This is a volunteer role; the benefit to the buddy is that they can put this volunteer experience on their resume.

While Zoom is neither a panacea nor a substitute for face-to-face connection, the virtual classroom can still be a place for meaningful engagement. As one of the learners at TJACE said, “I like the virtual learning circles very much, because I feel like I am learning English from the real live conversations. [O]ur teacher works as a facilitator of our communication. She keeps everyone in the Zoom class active for some interesting and practical topics or whatever we want to talk about and ask for.” By keeping virtual meetings flexible and remaining responsive to learners’ needs, facilitators and learners alike can increase their digital fluency and learn new skills together while remaining physically apart.

By Maryann Peterson

Maryann is an ESOL instructor and EN! learning circle facilitator at the Thomas Jefferson Adult & Career Education program at Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, Virginia.

English Now! is a project of The EdTech Center at World Education, Inc. and is generously supported by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.

The English Now! learning circles project works with adult education programs across the United States to serve English Language Learners in weekly learning circles using a blended mix of digital content and small group meetings facilitated by a teacher or trained volunteer. If you are interested in starting up your own English Now! learning circles, please contact 

Engaging Adult Learners on Waiting Lists Using Learning Circles

David J. Rosen & Priyanka Sharma

“I am getting better at reading my e-mail, and using English at work. Last week I didn’t need any help with translating at my job. Also, I was able to talk with the IRS and give simple information (in English).”
~ Mahdi, English Now! participant from Portland Adult Education, Maine

The English Now! Pilot Project implemented and refined the P2PU Learning Circle model for providing low-cost, effective, and sustainable English language learning opportunities for adults on waiting lists for ESOL classes. Funded by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, this pilot project was led by World Education, Inc. in partnership with P2PU, with David Rosen as the project evaluator, and five New England programs:

  • Portland Adult Education, a public adult education program in Portland, Maine;
  • The Immigrant Learning Center, a community-based adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program in Malden, Massachusetts;
  • YMCA International Learning Center, a community-based ESOL program in Boston;
  • Notre Dame Education Center, a community-based ESOL program in South Boston; and
  • Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative at the Providence Public Library.

Over the course of the project, the five pilot programs each offered three rounds of weekly, face-to-face, facilitated Learning Circle (LC) meetings that included online learning. Learning circle duration was between 8 – 12 weeks. Typically, the face-to-face meeting was two hours, with about half of that time spent in a computer lab or on individual laptops to access an online ESOL course or other online ESOL learning resources like: USA Learns, Burlington English, Voice of America’s VOA Learning English, and Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab (ESL Lab).

“… I found USA Learns very useful to navigate the outside world – renting an apartment, paying taxes, learning about work. The conversation part in the learning circles helped me a lot to prepare for the ESOL 3 class. I picked up a lot of vocabulary and confidence from that. I got confident about researching online. It was enjoyable, especially working together in a face to face setting.”
~ Shaun, English Now! participant from Immigrant Learning Center, Malden, MA

The ESOL programs used LCs in various ways: As an onboarding tool to get potential learners off waiting lists into classes and comfortable with the program, and to enable program staff to see if they were ready to make a commitment to their learning; as a way to do low-cost, individually-paced online learning with one-night-a-week, face-to-face support; and to connect with potential learners who, for a variety of reasons, could not access a traditional class-based program.

Learner at computer

This project had some unanticipated outcomes. Several programs, the Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative (RIFLI) and Notre Dame Education Center, for example, found that LC participants who later attended ESOL classes were better prepared for those classes than other students, even if they entered a class mid-cycle. LC participants in Portland learned when ESOL classes would be offered, and then had sufficient time to negotiate with their employers for time off to enroll in a class. RIFLI ended up offering other kinds of LCs as well as ESOL, such as preparation for the U.S. citizenship test, digital literacy, public speaking, and writing for library patrons in general. Over the course of the project, we learned that the P2PU Learning Circles model could be adapted for use by adult ESOL programs for learners on waiting lists for English classes. We are pleased that all of the pilot programs found the LCs valuable enough to continue to offer them indefinitely after the project concluded in May 2018.

Learning circles are a free and open-source project of P2PU, and you can start a learning circle in your neighborhood by visiting We are currently planning a national scale-up of the project. For more information about the English Now! Project, contact the project director, Priyanka Sharma <>.

Learning Circles Address Wait Lists for English Classes

According to the Adult Student Waiting List Survey conducted in 2010 by the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education, seventy-two percent of programs had waiting lists across all 50 states. This equals about 160,000 potential learners who were not able to receive access to educational services.

Photo Credit: P2PU

World Education, in partnership with Peer2Peer University (P2PU), has taken up the challenge to pilot a program model to serve English Language Learners (ELLs) who are on waiting lists. English Now!, a project of EdTech Center at World Education, is supported by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation to pilot a framework that utilizes blended learning in a facilitated learning circle format. 

English Now! is working with five adult education programs: YMCA International Learning Center – Boston, The Immigrant Learning Center, and Notre Dame Education Center in Massachusetts, RIFLI in Rhode Island, and Portland Adult Education in Maine as they try out the learning circle model with their ELLs.

Learning Circle participants with their facilitator, Trace Salter, from Portland Adult Education, Portland ME

Learning Circles are a lightly facilitated peer-learning model for adults working through online course materials face-to-face, with a facilitator trained in blended learning approaches. Programs have been using various online learning tools such as USA Learns, Burlington English as well as DuoLingo, and Newsla. With guidance and training, the facilitators have been employing an adapted version of the P2PU lesson plan framework to structure the learning circle meetings. The pilot project is currently underway, and we are already seeing some promising results from the first round that ended earlier this year. In addition to the English language learning circles, some programs are now using the same model to engage students on waiting lists for citizenship classes.

The learners have reported that they like the peer learning, participatory approach of the learning circles. They appreciate the support they get from each other. One of the beginner-level ELLs noted that she felt better prepared to be in a formal class as a result of  her participation in the learning circle. Another student shared that being part of a learning circle has given her confidence to talk to her daughter’s teacher for the first time without an interpreter. She was glowing with pride!

Stay tuned as we continue to finesse this learning circle model to accelerate adult students’ learning while they wait for a slot in a class and help them be more effective learners. For information about the English Now! Project, contact the project director, Priyanka Sharma.

Reference: McLendon, L., Jones, D. and M. Rosin. (2011). The Return on Investment from Adult Education and Training. McGraw Hill Research Foundation.

Financial Literacy Skills


Adult literacy has been at the heart of World Education’s work since it was established in 1951 in India and founded the Literacy House upon the urging of Mohandas Gandhi. Sixty-four years later, while gains have been made in many parts of the world, the need for literacy education remains great:  there are nearly 800 million adults and out-of-school youth in the world with limited or no literacy and numeracy.  In the U.S., adults’ basic skills are falling behind those of other developed nations.  For the first time, the skills of young adults are lower than those of their parents’ generation.  At the same time, people need even more different types of literacies to move ahead in their lives than in 1951. World Education’s approach to literacy education and how we define it has evolved and expanded commensurate with the skills adults need to navigate systems, pursue opportunities, and address problems successfully in their personal lives, work, and communities.

To commemorate the Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, in this series of blog posts World Education/ U.S. staff share their views on what literacy means to us today and how we are helping to advance adult education in multiple ways.  Our list is not comprehensive: there are not enough days in a week to feature all the types of literacy youth and adults need in today’s world!  Please join the dialogue.

Financial Literacy

Financial literacy skills enrich all facets of life. A recent study, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, found that over 60% of students cited financial and not academic reasons for dropping out of college.  A strong foundation in financial literacy needs to be a hallmark of all educational programming. The importance in making financial literacy and planning integral in adult education programming is magnified with the increased emphasis on college and credential completion, if learners are to earn a family sustaining wage.

How is World Education helping to support financial literacy education for adult students? National College Transition Network continues to partner with the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) to raise awareness of the importance of financial literacy. We co-developed a financial literacy publication that is geared specifically towards adult learners. This publication, Mapping your Financial Journey: Helping Adults Plan for College, is available as a free resource. We have also collaborated with NEFE to develop a workshop kit called Money Management for Adult Learners that can be used in adult education programs. We continue to present workshops and deliver trainings together and have an upcoming workshop at the 2015 NCTN Conference. See you there!


Mentor Support for Adults Transitioning to College

If asked to name a person who has had a significant impact, been a role model, or who has guided us in our professional and/or personal lives, almost all of us will have at least one person come to mind. These guides and/or mentors play a crucial role in our personal and professional growth. Research studies confirm what we already know intuitively – that mentoring works!

In the academic context, the bulk of the research has been done with high school students. Studies have shown mentoring to positively improve attendance (Kennelly & Monrad, 2007), and increase college enrollment rates (Jekielek, Moore, & Hair, 2002), to name a few of the benefits. Mentoring has also been shown to have a definite impact on student persistence and academic achievement in college (Crisp & Cruz 2009; Terenzani, Psacarella, & Blimling 1996).

With such an encouraging evidence base, we at the National College Transition Network (NCTN) were interested in developing a mentoring model that addresses an unmet need for mentoring adult learners transitioning to college from adult basic education programs. Building on our College for a Day project, and with support from the State Street Foundation and the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, Adult College Engagement (ACE) Mentoring project aims to increase access, persistence, and success of adults in college and training and build capacity of the participating adult education programs. To implement the program, NCTN has partnered with three adult learning programs and two community colleges in the Boston area. Mentors are adult ed program alumni, who have completed at least one year of postsecondary education. The mentees are adult education students who are transitioning to college this Fall.

As of September, 15 mentors are guiding their mentees through their first couple of weeks in college. The mentors bring the wealth of their own college-going experience to the mix and have been guiding the mentees over the summer. The ACE project is unique because mentorship straddles the adult education program experience and the first year of college to ensure persistence. Research shows that the first semester and year represent a crucial threshold after which students’ persistence to completion increases considerably (McCormick & Carroll, 1999, Calcagno, et. al., 2006). The mentoring activities are geared to get the mentees through the critical periods when new college students are most likely to drop out: the period between acceptance and when classes begin; the first month of classes; mid-terms; the end of 1st semester; and enrolling in 2nd semester. The testimonials from the participating mentors and mentees have been encouraging and we look forward to seeing the continued impact of the planned activities. All the tools and resources used in the project implementation come from our Mentoring Toolkit, which we hope to make available on our website in January 2015.

Does your program have a mentoring component? Tell us more about your mentoring experiences by connecting with NCTN on Facebook and Twitter.

For more information about the Adult College Engagement project, contact Priyanka Sharma,

Example of a Mentor-Mentee Profile

Mentor #1 is an ESOL and College Transition program graduate from one of the participating programs. After graduating in 2010, she went on to work towards her Associate’s degree in the biotechnology field. At the local community college, she has continued as an exceptional student, working as a teaching assistant. She is now in her final year of study. She is excited to be a mentor and happy to give back as the adult education program has been such a force for success in her life.

Mentee #1, a 50-something immigrant from Haiti, just finished her high school diploma and has enrolled in the local community college to pursue a certification in Medical Transcription. She is very excited to begin her classes as going to college has been a lifelong dream, and she wants to set an example for her teenage daughter.

Mentoring for Student Success

student and teacherJanuary marks National Mentoring Month! Formed in 2002, National Mentoring Month celebrates the evidence-based, positive impact of mentoring in the United States. Although most of January’s activities focus on youth, mentoring can have a positive effect on adult student success, too. Returning to Learning: Adults’ Success in College is Key to America’s Future (Lumina Foundation, 2007) asserts that a mentor is a primary need for many adults, especially those who belong to minority groups, need financial aid, work more than 20 hours a week, and maintain single-parent responsibilities. The most successful mentoring provides four types of support: 1) psychological and emotional; 2) degree and career-related; 3) academic/ subject knowledge; and 4) the presence of a role model. Mentoring can have a positive impact on student outcomes including self-confidence, future aspirations, grade point average, and persistence rates (Crisp, 2010). Mentor recruitment, selection, training and ongoing support are key for obtaining positive outcomes.

The United States Department of Education Adult Basic Education to Community College Transitions Symposium identified the provision of mentoring as a promising approach to effectively support nontraditional adult education students’ transition to postsecondary education (MPR Associates, 2007). The first semester and first year in college represent a crucial threshold after which students’ persistence to completion increases by over 45% (McCormick & Carroll, 1999, Calcagno, et. al., 2006). Mentoring for adult college transition students must be geared to get the mentees through the critical periods when research shows new college students are most likely to drop out: 1) period between acceptance and when classes begin; 2) first month of classes; 3) mid-terms; 4) end of the first semester; and 5) planning to enroll in the second semester.

World Education’s Adult College Engagement (ACE), supported by the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, will further build evidence for this promising practice. Beginning in January 2014, mentoring will be provided to 15 Boston-area adult learners as they complete their final semester in one of the participating adult education programs, as they transition to college by September 2014, and as they complete their first semester and enroll for the second semester in college. Mentors will be graduates/alumni of the adult education programs, who have successfully transitioned to college, and completed at least one year of postsecondary education. To accomplish this, the National College Transition Network (NCTN) will pilot a replicable, scalable mentoring model and a mentoring toolkit in partnership with three Boston-area adult education programs: Asian-American Civic Association, X-CEL,Inc., and Cambridge Community Learning Center, and with two community colleges: Bunker Hill Community College and Roxbury Community College.

For more information about Adult College Engagement, contact Priyanka Sharma at As the project director, Priyanka will share our lessons and new tools as they emerge. Stay tuned!