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Getting the Terminology Straight

Created by the Adult Learning Resource Center

for the Illinois Community College Board

Adult Education Service Center Network

  • ESL, ELA and ELLs

  • ABE and ASE

  • The Relationship Between ELA and ABE/ASE

  • The ELA - ABE/ASE Progression



For the purpose of reporting data to the state, adult education institutions designated the courses they offered in the past as either “ESL” or “ABE/ASE.”  

ESL (English as a Second Language, sometimes known as ESOL, or English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses are for students whose first language is not English. Under the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the term ESL has been updated to ELA, English Language Acquisition. These courses focus on all areas of English language development, including listening, speaking, reading, writing, grammar, and pronunciation, and often include instruction on civics, life skills, career pathways, math and American culture. All of the students in ELA classes are English Language Learners (ELLs).  Students in ELA courses are tested in Illinois using the BEST Literacy, BEST Plus, or CASAS Life Skills Reading tests.

The National Reporting System (NRS) divides ELA students into six levels, as described in the Educational Functioning Level charts for ESL (ELA). The NRS charts of the Educational Functioning Levels for ESL (ELA) and ABE/ASE can be viewed and downloaded from the iLEARN course page.


Courses designated as ABE (Adult Basic Education) provide basic reading, writing and math instruction to adults who read below a 9th grade equivalency level, as indicated by TABE test scores. ABE courses are sometimes referred to as "Pre-GED" classes.

Courses designated as ASE (Adult Secondary Education) are for students who read at a high school equivalency level, 9.0-12.9, according to TABE scores. ASE courses typically prepare students for the GED® or a similar test with the expectation that they will transition into higher education or into career training. In many institutions, ASE level courses are called “GED” classes.

The NRS divides ABE/ASE students into six levels as well. You can view and download the NRS charts from the iLEARN course page.

This online course has been developed for ABE teachers who have ELLs in their classrooms and who do not have extensive training in ELA instruction.

The Relationship Between ELA and ABE/ASE

Although the CASAS test is only used to test ELA students in Illinois, the NRS Educational Functioning Level descriptions for both ESL (ELA) and ABE/ASE include CASAS test score ranges. We can use these CASAS score ranges to compare the reading levels of ELA and ABE/ASE students.

You can see the overlap between ELA and ABE/ASE by looking at the colors in the chart below. For example, ELA students at the Low Intermediate ESL (ELA) level have reading scores on the CASAS of 201-210, which is the same for the Beginning Basic Education ABE/ASE level (shown in yellow). This level translates to an approximate 2.0-3.9 grade level equivalency as measured by the TABE.  

You can see that the Advanced ESL (ELA) level ends with a CASAS score of 235, but that score corresponds to the High Intermediate Basic Education ABE/ASE level (shown in blue). 

Although there is an overlap in the reading test scores, it is important to note that ELAcurricula differ greatly from ABE/ASE curricula. In ELA classes, reading is taught with other language skills (listening, speaking, pronunciation, grammar, etc.). In fact, the emphasis may be on oral language skills, with lesser emphasis on reading and writing until the higher levels of ELA. At all levels of ABE/ASE, however, the curriculum focus is on reading, writing, math, and employability skills.





The ELA – ABE/ASE Progression

Although some ELA students (particularly those with strong educational backgrounds) may be capable of transitioning directly into higher education or job training, most don’t have strong enough academic skills to make this leap.

There is a natural progression from ELA instruction to ABE/ASE. At the beginning, ELLs need the comprehensive English language instruction provided in ELA classes. Listening and speaking are the foundation for reading and writing. ELLs need to learn grammar and background information about life and culture in America in order to understand what they are hearing and reading, and to express themselves orally and in writing.

A logical next step for students exiting advanced ELA courses is into a low or high intermediate level ABE class to continue strengthening their academic reading, writing, math, and employability skills. These skills will be necessary if they want to attain a GED® or other high school level credential and/or transition into higher education or job training.