A strengths-based approach to multilingualism for adult education and family literacy

Editor’s Note: In this week’s post, World Ed Senior Technical Advisor, US, Dr. Alexis Cherewka, joins NCFL Senior Training Specialist, Sherri Hudson, and NCFL Director of Family Literacy, Dr. Anna Kaiper-Marquez, to consider the ways in which reframing multilingualism through an asset-based lens highlights the many strengths that adult multilingual learners of English bring to the family literacy and adult education classrooms.

In November 2023, the U.S. Department of Education launched an initiative entitled “Being Bilingual is a Superpower.” The purpose of the initiative is to promote the essential nature of multilingualism for children’s and families’ economic success and social engagement. At both the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) and World Education (WE), we also believe that multilingual literacies are never barriers to success. While our work is in alignment with the stated purposes of the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, which prioritizes assisting adult multilingual learners of English (adult MLEs) with “improving their reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension skills in English” (U.S. Department of Ed., 2018), we also recognize that multilingualism is an asset to creating richer adult learning experiences, stronger family engagement, and inclusive and equitable communities. In this post, we highlight various initiatives promoting multilingualism in adult education and family literacy that support this belief.

In a recent Enhancing Access for Refugees and New Americans (EARN) Spotlight by Alexis Cherewka entitled Using Multilingual Approaches to Support English Language Acquisition (Cherewka, 2023), Cherewka describes the vital importance of drawing on adults’ and families’ multilingual knowledge to support their language development, expand their learning experiences, and provide access to career pathways and other asset-based programming. 

Using a multilingual approach to adult education services frames the knowledge that adult multilingual learners bring with them to the classroom as assets. Therefore, this approach draws on program design and instructional strategies that promote the use of multiple languages and literacies for adult MLEs. As highlighted in the spotlight, multilingualism has wide-ranging benefits for adult MLEs. 

  • Enhancing English language development (Condelli et al., 2009)
  • Drawing on principles of adult learning and English language teaching (TESOL International Association, 2023)
  • Improving cognitive functioning (Kroll & Dussias, 2017)
  • Supporting intergenerational benefits through language preservation (Kroll & Dussias, 2017)
  • Preparing for bilingual careers (New American Economy, 2017) 

Adult education and family literacy program providers and practitioners can employ a multilingual approach in both program design and instruction. For example, at the English Empowerment Center in Northern Virginia, their program design includes community engagement that leverages multilingualism such as inviting adult MLEs with more advanced levels to become instructors, teaching assistants, or peer leaders so that they can support learners in their home language as they learn English. To support multilingual career pathways, adult education programs can partner with employers who are searching for multilingual employees and promote their learners’ multilingualism. For example, St. Paul Adult Education in Minnesota partnered with the local school district to provide a pathway for multilingual paraeducators, who were needed to represent the diverse linguistic capabilities in the school system (Cherewka, 2023). 

When it comes to instructional strategies, adult education providers can generate opportunities for MLEs to guide their own language use in multiple ways. For example, by designing project-based learning with opportunities for multiple languages and allowing MLEs to determine how and when to rely on their various languages, learner agency and multilingualism can be supported as an asset. Instructors can also utilize translation as a pedagogical tool by organizing brainstorming and discussion activities in homogeneous language groups, then asking for students to share to the whole class in English. 

While focusing on the multiple language repertories of adult learners is essential in increasing their own learning goals, we also know that adults’ identities are multiplex as they are often parents, grandparents, and caregivers. Ultimately, they draw from and further develop their language and literacy skills with their children and families. It is the linguistic connections between adults, children, and families that make multilingual approaches to learning vital not only for adult learners, but for the whole family. Family Literacy programming is a strategy for supporting these intergenerational language connections.

Described in NCFL’s October 2023 Brief on Family Literacy, NCFL defines family literacy in alignment with Federal Law as a continuum of services that address the multigenerational nature of literacy. Family literacy programs integrate (1) interactive literacy activities between parents and children; (2) support in parenting activities and opportunities for learning; (3) adult education and literacy activities that lead to readiness for postsecondary education or training, career advancement, economic self-sufficiency, and personal goal attainment; and (4) age-appropriate education to prepare children for success in school and life. 

A key component of a successful family literacy program is a robust adult education component. As Cherewka’s work highlights, when adults can draw from their multilingual skills when working toward their individual learning goals, numerous benefits can arise. The same is true surrounding the positive impacts of multilingualism for children and families. Growing scholarship has explored the role of multilingualism in parent and child engagement (e.g., Lanza, 2007) and a wide array of research has found multilingualism to be key in supporting cognitive benefits for children and families such as greater problem-solving and creativity (Bialystok, 2001), the strengthening familial bonds (Wei, 2011), and increasing academic success of children (King & Fogle, 2006). In the below examples, we highlight family literacy programs that were funded under the Arizona Statewide Family Engagement Center grant that showcase multilingual practices in adult and family literacy programming.

Family literacy programs allow parents and caregivers to develop and expand their personal parenting goals in the languages of their home and of their “heart”.  This means that parents can identify and work on family learning goals through classes that provide instruction in the language/s they are most comfortable in.  For example, in Phoenix, Arizona, parents enrolled in Cartwright School District family literacy programs have the opportunity to develop family learning goals through Parent Time classes delivered in their first language, Spanish.  Parents participate in learning that is aligned with their family goals as well as debrief about the classroom experiences they have had with their children during Parent and Child Together Time or PACT Time.  In both Spanish and English, parents discuss their PACT Time experience and receive support from the instructor about classroom observations, at-home learning opportunities, and questions they may have that connect to their English language learning.

In Mesa, Arizona, the family literacy program at Mesa Public Schools supports parents and caregivers with English language learning in their adult education classes.  Each of the eight school-based programs in the district meet once a week at their child’s school for in-person whole-group instruction and twice a week for online instruction. This allows for differentiated leveled learning groups to address their specific language ability, supports parents in practicing specific language skills that are relevant to their child’s learning, and meets the needs of adults’ English language goals in small online learning groups.

Similar to the “Being Bilingual is a Superpower” Initiative, WE and NCFL believe that the multilingual knowledge and capabilities of adults, children, and families are never barriers but are instead assets in intergenerational learning. By supporting multilingualism in all four components of the family literacy program, we can ensure that children’s and adults’ funds of knowledge are garnered to support the “academic, cognitive, economic and sociocultural advantages” (U.S. Department of Ed., 2023) of multilingualism that research and practice have highlighted. 

If you are interested in taking a multilingual approach to your family literacy program, you may want to review state policies and discuss the reflection questions from the spotlight with colleagues to determine how this approach can support your multilingual families and your family literacy program design and instruction. Additionally, visit familieslearning.org/webinar for recordings of relevant professional development opportunities, including “Speaking and Listening for Multi-level, Multi-language Adult ELL Classrooms” and “How to Support Multi-Language Parent Facilitation.”

Multilingual Approach Adapted Checklist for Family Literacy Programs

  • What language and literacy assets do your multilingual adult learners of English and their children bring to your family literacy programs, to their communities, and to the workforce?
  • Reflect on the multiple languages and literacies that adult MLEs and their families bring to your family literacy activities. Consider a survey or informal interviews with adult MLEs to learn more about their language and literacy experiences.
  • How can you offer skill-building opportunities in multiple languages?
  • If adult MLEs have digital literacy needs, can you utilize distance learning programs or collaborate with multilingual community members or program alumni to provide services in multiple languages? See this spotlight for ideas. 


Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in development: Language, literacy, and cognition. Cambridge University Press.

Cherewka, A. (2023). Using multilingual approaches to support English language acquisition. Enhancing Access for Refugees and New Americans Spotlight. https://lincs.ed.gov/sites/default/files/EARNMultilingualSpotlight.pdf

Condelli, L., Spruck Wrigley, H., & Yoon, K. S. (2009). “What works” for adult literacy students of English as a second language. In S. Reder & J. Bynner (Eds.), Tracking adult literacy and numeracy skills: Findings from longitudinal research (pp. 132–159). Taylor & Francis.

King, K., & Fogle, L. (2006). Bilingual parenting as good parenting: Parents’ perspectives on family language policy for additive bilingualism. International journal of bilingual education and bilingualism, 9(6), 695-712.

Kroll, J. F. & Dussias, P. E. (2017). The benefits of multilingualism to the personal and professional development of residents of the US. Foreign Language Annals 50(2), 248–259. https://doi.org/10.1111/flan.12271.

Lanza, E. (2007). Multilingualism and the family. Handbook of multilingualism and multilingual communication, 5, 45.

NCFL. (2023). Setting the Foundation for Learning Success. A Brief on Family Literacy. https://familieslearning.org/blog/ncfl-highlights-its-deep-experience-with-family-literacy-in-new-brief/

New American Economy. (2017, March 1). Demand for bilingual workers more than doubled in 5 years, New Report Shows [Press release]. https://www.newamericaneconomy.org/ press-release/demand-for-bilingual-workersmore-than-doubled-in-5-years-new-reportshows/

TESOL International Association. (2023). The 6 Principles for exemplary teaching of English learners.  https://www. the6principles.org/. 

U.S. Department of Education. (2018). Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) resource guide.https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ovae/pi/AdultEd/aefla-resource-guide.pdf

U.S. Department of Education. (2023). Biden-Harris Administration Launches “Being Bilingual is a Superpower” to Promote Multilingual Education for a Diverse Workforce https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/biden-harris-administration-launches-%E2%80%9Cbeing-bilingual-superpower%E2%80%9D-promote-multilingual-education-diverse-workforce

Wei, L. (2011). Moment analysis and translanguaging space: Discursive construction of identities by multilingual Chinese youth in Britain. Journal of pragmatics, 43(5), 1222-1235.

About the Authors

Dr. Alexis Cherewka is an adult educator, researcher, and technical assistance provider with 10 years of experience in the field. She has a PhD in lifelong learning and adult education from Penn State University, and her research interests focus on how adult educators and adult education policy can support a more equitable educational experience for all adult learners. 

Headshot of Sherri Hudson
Sherri Hudson provides high-quality coaching and professional development for families and educators across Arizona. Sherri brings over 27 years of education experience to NCFL, previously working in early childhood education, family engagement, and professional development across multiple environments. She holds a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education, a Master’s in Reading Curriculum and Instruction, and is National Board Certified in Early Childhood Education. 

Headshot of Anna Kaiper-Marquez
Dr. Anna Kaiper-Marquez is the Director of Family Literacy at NCFL. Her professional and research interests include adult and family language and literacy research and practice, English language learning and literacy in international contexts, and language practices and methodologies in the Global South. She received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology-Based Human Relations at Connecticut College, CT; her master’s degree in Urban and Special Education at Mercy College, NY; and her Ph.D. in Comparative and International Development Education at University of Minnesota, MN.