The Process of English Language Acquisition and Use of Content Area Literacy Strategies: A Case Study of English Language Learners (Ells) At the University Level

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education

First Advisor

Renee Falconer

Advisor Department

Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education


This qualitative case study explored (a) the processes by which English Language Learners (ELLS) attending a university in the southeastern region of the United States of America (U.S.A.) develop literacy skills, and (b) the strategies that these ELLs use to comprehend subject matter in the various content areas of the curriculum. Bilingualism brings with it many social, economic, and academic opportunities, and bilinguals certainly experience a certain amount of joy in acquiring a new language; however, the challenges involved with acquiring proficiency in a second language are numerous. Success at the university level for ELLs using the second language as the medium of learning depends largely on their literacy abilities and the use of strategies to comprehend specialized material in the content areas. There were seven participants for this study. The primary participants were two ELLs at a southeastern university of the U.S. from Korea and Panama. The four secondary participants were a faculty member, an administrator of the English Language Institute (ELI), and two English as Second Language (ESL) instructors in the same university. Data collection took the form of taped interviews (semi-structured and unstructured), observations, field notes, and examination of artifacts such as test papers, and class notes. This revealed both a priori categories as described in the literature, such as motivation, metacognitive behaviors, and other emergent themes. This study found that ELLs encountered difficulties in the following domains of the content areas of the mainstream university curriculum; receptive and expressive aspects of the English language, written assignments, reading and comprehending subject matter, and adjusting to the teaching, learning, and assessment models of the host country. Strategies employed by the primary participants were grouped into thematic categories that included: motivation, academic peer coaches, use of media, use of dictionaries, and metacognitive behaviors like self-solving, asking questions, studying hard, and spending more time on task. Implications for the educational community were identified, and suggestions for future research were recommended. Recommendations include: conducting more qualitative studies to observe ELLs in actual learning environments, and conducting empirical studies to examine the interactions between ELLs, English as first language (L1) students, and instructors in university classrooms.