Workplace English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) / Occupational English

The Basic Idea:

Teach English to workers or potential workers who don’t speak English as their first language — tailored to a specific workplace’s tasks and needs.

How it works:

  • Inventory the communication skills a specific workplace requires.
  • Consult English-speaking employees to develop a standard workplace vocabulary (for example, identify standard names or nicknames for processes or machines, or agree to refer to a toilet as a “toilet”.)
  • Experienced ESL teachers develop a curriculum to train workers in the workplace’s standard vocabulary.
  • Provide the language training on-the-job or before employment to help workers qualify for the job

Who Does It?

Usually a partnership including some or all of the following:

  • Businesses
  • Educational institutions (e.g., high schools, community colleges)
  • Workforce intermediaries (e.g., state and local workforce programs, nonprofit organizations)
  • Funding may come from business, government workforce training funds (e.g., Workforce Investment Act), immigrant and refugee resettlement funds, and foundations.


  • A very effective way to help immigrants become high-functioning workers, even if their English proficiency is limited.
  • The partnerships developed can lead to other beneficial workforce development activities.
  • Helpful in rural areas with rapidly growing immigrant populations.


  • While ESL expertise is readily available in many rural areas, developing an occupational English curriculum requires specialized skills that are not as widely available.
  • It can be difficult to find the right people to get the idea off the ground, but once they’re in place, this idea isn’t too difficult to do. And again, volunteers can help!

Simplicity Index

Communication is key. Work with employers to establish a standard workplace vocabulary, then tailor ESOL courses to focus on words and phrases that will be most useful for immigrant workers.

Quilt It

  • Earn It – These classes can refer workers and their families to other training and support services – like Job Coaching and Career Mapping – that can help immigrants settle in to rural communities.


  • Central Minnesota Occupational English Project (St. Cloud, MN), an initiative of the Stearns-Benton Employment &  Training Council / WorkForce Center – St. Cloud, sought to increase the region’s capacity to include limited English speaking residents as a part of the community through Occupational English and other employment education and support services.  Read more about the project at: .

 Action Resources

  • Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA) helps states build capacity to promote English language learning by developing resources, training materials and providing technical assistance to adult ESL teachers, programs and states.
  • The Division of Adult Education and Literacy (DAEL), Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), U.S. Department of Education promotes programs that help people get the basic skills they need to be productive workers – including English proficiency.
  • AECF Publication (2005): Center for Working Families EarnBenefits Evaluation-Learning Paper – A learning paper on Seedco’s EarnFair Alliance – a network of faith-based and community organizations – that provides workforce services like training, language classes, skill upgrades and job placement to job seekers in New York City. Read about their implementation of EarnBenefits, an experiment in integrating services to help low-income families.

Information Resources

  • The National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) is a research and development center focused on adult learning.  Visit their website to review their research and get information about best practices:
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