Reading Patterns and Profiles of Adult Literacy Participants Discussion Summary - Reading and Writing Discussion List

Guest Discussion Leaders:

Daryl Mellard, PhD, Kansas University

Daphne Greenberg, PhD, Georgia State University


Daphne Greenberg, PhD


Two weeks prior to the start of the discussion, moderator Daphne Greenberg circulated the announcement and abstract of the upcoming discussion that included brief biographies of the discussion leaders, questions for participants to consider, and links to relevant research articles by the discussion leaders. The five-day discussion ranged over many topics and produced over 120 posts from more than 40 different participants.

On behalf of the ASRP Website, John Strucker organized this discussion into the five topics that appear in this summary. Moderator Daphne Greenberg archived the summary on the Reading and Writing Skills List.

On June 21 Daphne kicked off the discussion with some background information on the research and some questions for participants:

I would like to warmly welcome Daryl as he joins me in guest-facilitating this discussion on Reading Patterns and Profiles of Adult Literacy Participants.

Daryl will be focusing on his study of the reading practices of struggling adult readers. I am going to be focusing on ideas that can be used in the classroom to help our students gain exposure to reading. I would like to start with two concepts: sustained silent reading and read-aloud activities. For those of you not familiar with these terms, sustained silent reading refers to an activity where students read silently for a predetermined period of time. The books used in this activity are high interest/low vocabulary (adult interest books written at the learner's reading level). Read-aloud refers to an activity where the teacher has a copy of a book, and each student has a copy of the same book. The book is at a level that may be difficult for the student to read on his/her own. The teacher reads out loud, and the students follow along.

I am wondering, have any of you tried to engage your students in sustained silent reading, or read-aloud activities? What were your successes and/or challenges?

Topic 1: Participants’ questions and comments about the research studies by Greenberg and Mellard

A veteran ESL teacher noted that advice on reading aloud has been inconsistent over the years:

I've been attending ESL workshops for more than 30 years so I've heard it all: Don't read aloud, read aloud but don't give the students the books, don't read around [meaning "round-robin"] because students will model bad pronunciation, read around to pick up on pronunciation/vocab problems, time reading, don't time reading, etc.

Daphne responded:

It can be confusing when one receives different suggestions at different workshops over the years. In terms of teachers reading out loud to students, two most popular reasons suggested for this are:

  • Students get an opportunity to hear how an expert reader reads
  • Many of our students never had a chance to hear stories read out loud to them, so this gives them a chance to experience this.

In reality, to my knowledge, there has never been an adult literacy randomized study that compared the supposed positive consequences for students who experience read-alouds compared to others who do not. It would be great to have one conducted.

In terms of whether one should let ESL students read out loud in class, you raise an interesting question: Is it harmful to hear incorrect pronunciation from peers? Once again, I don't know of any study that scientifically analyzes this particular question with adults.

ESL expert Heide Wrigley also responded to the question about reading aloud with ESL learners:

I am sure I am among the teacher educators whose advice on what to do about fluency in the ESL classroom was not definitive - if not confusing or, worse, contradictory.

We simply don't have enough solid research with ESL learners to guide us on whether to build reading fluency directly by asking students directly to read aloud or indirectly by promoting general language proficiency, providing exposure to spoken English and then hoping that things click and learners are able to match the words they have heard to the forms they encounter in print.

I think the biggest challenge for the ESL field is to look at the
interaction between language proficiency in English and the ability to
process print fluently in any language. In other words, we need to
sort out to what extent a lack of fluency in a second language is due
to not yet having learned enough of that language and to what extent
it is due to some underlying reading difficulty not just in English
but in the native language as well.

In the meantime, I don't see any harm in shared reading (aloud) for
ESL learners and a tremendous need to keep oral language and written
language connected so we can increase both interactive communicative
fluency and fluency in reading

A participant had this question about Daryl Mellard’s study:
In your study, it seemed as though the younger participants (under 25) were pleasure/volunteer readers and not so concerned with vocational reading as the "older" participants were. Did I understand this correctly? Were the younger participants there for personal fulfillment or vocational reasons?

Daryl replied to the question as follows:

[A participant]...asked about distinctions of reading between younger and older participants in our study. She’s very right that the older participants engaged in reading practices more directed to vocational areas, preparation or enhancement. The younger participants were less so inclined. The younger persons were more focused on GED preparation and completion. Our sense is that the younger participants didn’t make a strong connection between their academic goals and their literacy practices; they had differentiated the academic work from their everyday reading, which was part of their social connections.

Daryl then added these further thoughts and observations about his study:

Our work about literacy practices was based on our observations that adult ed. participants seemed to emphasize the need for information relevant to an interest and maybe a challenge (e.g., childcare, health, employment). Our impression is that we could improve attendance and retention if we worked on personalizing some element of the instruction beyond goal setting. Smith’s (1996) description emphasized this view as an individualized construct of reading practices. So, we interviewed adult ed. participants about their literacy practices (reading in books, magazines, newspapers, technical documents, and work materials). The results suggested a diversity of interests and practices, which further suggested that individualizing the reading materials could be a useful strategy for instruction or reinforcement of reading component skills. As several persons noted in yesterday’s exchange, no one formula (e.g., readability formula) seems appropriate for matching learners to materials.

So, how would this work as an option: For teaching reading components to struggling readers, maintain tight control of the material so that the focus on a skill (e.g., word analysis) can be maintained, but then ensure that some portion of the lesson uses more varied materials (e.g., magazines, newspaper, how-to documents) and get incorporated with guided practice such as small group or peer?

John Strucker echoed Daryl’s last point:

I really like Daryl’s suggestion. It's pretty much what we were able to do with adult learners in the Harvard Adult Reading Lab, which was a one-on-one tutoring situation. Teachers were directed to work on the components of reading as needed (word recognition, phonics, vocabulary) using carefully focused materials, but then they used high interest materials as much as possible when they were working on fluency and silent reading comprehension. For some learners this meant fiction, for others magazines, newspapers, or history. Still others wanted to focus primarily on work-related stuff. I remember one learner who wanted to get a special hazardous materials "haz mat" trucking license so he could get a better job. For the record, he ended up getting the license.

Reflecting on the above, one participant referred to the approach suggested by Daryl as "...[a] best practices mix of constructivism and targeting essential skills."

A practitioner had these questions for Daryl about how much time should be spent on various activities:

Say you have a two-hour class time per week -- how would you structure your time? For the word analysis, would you do a guided reading initially followed by turn taking? How much time would you devote to other skills or pleasure reading/sustained silent reading (SSR)? Do you envision writing in this scenario? How do you talk about grammar?

Also, do you explicitly talk about the concepts of "learning to read" and "reading to learn"? Also, do you talk about study habits or explicitly about self-regulation?

To which Daryl responded:

[A participant]...asked about use of class time for the context of the instructional practices (e.g., learning to read and reading to learn). Such discussions are explicit in the strategy instructional approaches we encourage. The short answer is that the study habits are integrated into a larger discussion about becoming more strategic learners. As part of the Describe step, the strategy itself is described as well as when the strategy would be useful. The dialogue between instructors and students includes exchanges about how the learners’ current methods don’t work effectively or efficiently (for comprehension) and then the need for "buy-in" to learn the new strategy as an alternative. These interactions include the role of self-regulation in the sense that we choose how we approach a given reading task and part of choosing depends on our purpose (e.g., to learn specific information, to find an answer, for enjoyment). We want to make the decisions more explicit for the learners and provide alternative approaches.

The same participant asked Daryl about the use of text messaging by participants in his study:

In the short time since you have done this study, the use of text messaging on cell phones has exploded among younger users. Have you had an opportunity to collect data about this? How do you feel about how texters alter the language, i.e., revising spellings and the use of shorthand/slang? Do you think that this will make it difficult to read/write in standard English? Have you collected data specifically about how adult ed. participants use computers, surf the web, or email?

Daryl wrote this reply:

We have not included specific research focused on the social networking and text changes. If the examples I receive from friends are fair representations, I agree that the text structure has changed.

A critical question is whether they will discriminate the "social" language from the more formal language associated with academic and vocational settings. I trust that many will make the discrimination, but be stymied by the higher-level of communicative style.


Topic 2: Practitioners’ use of sustained silent reading (SSR) and read-aloud

Participants responded to Daphne’s opening questions: "[H]ave any of you tried to engage your students in sustained silent reading or read-aloud activities? What were your successes and challenges?" Participants’ responses were extensive, and many interesting techniques and approaches were shared.

Response #1

In both our ABE and GED level reading classes, we begin every class with
SSR--10 minutes--and no one ever complains once the habit is going. Totally free choice of reading materials with the exception of porn—most opt for a novel or the newspaper. I scour the free box at the library to score cooler magazines. We have had several students who have read their first-ever entire book. Occasionally, we go around the room and discuss what's happening in our books but nothing is routine in that regard. I have noticed that on days when I choose for us to read longer--perhaps up to 20 minutes-- rarely does a student remind us of the overtime. If anyone questions the myriad good purposes of using silent sustained reading, I'll be happy to list them, but they seem so obvious to me...

As for reading aloud, we do so every day. We roundrobin with everyone being able to say "pass" without question. I teach the GED-level students, and we read complete stories, plays, and poems, and most students much prefer reading aloud. When the piece is something that requires a more polished/dramatic reading, I may take that [myself] so that students can both hear good reading and not be bored or miss the depth due to poor reading.

Response #2

In our ABE and GED classes we use both techniques (SSR and read-aloud). Our ABE instructor tends to read aloud more than the students. This technique allows the poorer reader to understand how the word is pronounced without being embarrassed. Even when given the opportunity to choose whether or not they would like to read aloud, a student could be presented with an unknown word. By having the instructor read aloud, we can avoid that problem. Students may choose to read aloud on other occasions. The instructor modeling the reading also shows the students how to use inflection in their voice to assist with understanding the meaning of the text.

Our GED class reads books as a group on a regular basis. They keep asking the instructor for more books to read. To my amazement they have read through Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter. I believe this process has encouraged our students to do more reading on their own. They have also been challenged to read more difficult articles and books than they would have chosen in the past.

Response #3

One activity I tried this spring was to pass out New Readers Press books entitled Ten Real Life Stories to the class. I put the students into small groups and had them choose which story they wanted to read. Then I asked them to take turns reading the paragraphs around the circle. When each group finished the short story, I asked them to write a summary on what they had read. Students enjoyed working with each other, and each group was able to create a group idea of what the story was about. Having the students read aloud in small groups was less intimidating than reading in a whole class setting. Students stayed on task and appeared to enjoy the activity. Having multiple groups reading at the same time was not distracting, which was one of my concerns going into the activity. Concentration on what they were doing seemed to take over and create the dynamic needed for the activity.

Response #4

I used to use what I called "readalong." I read text (usually a short story, but sometimes books, once a manual for a MIG welder) onto a cassette tape (remember those? - latterly I have used CDs) for students to use as homework - they read while the voice reads. It was conceived simply to overcome the Matthew effect - to get thousands of words read, painlessly. It was popular and I felt it improved attitude and reduced that fatal fear and hesitation that [causes] meaning [to] evaporate. (I am averse to tests so have no data, no p valueto be seen, but I know they did several very important literacy/learning/attitudinal jobs well. We can all see it when it happens!)

Originally, I read the material myself as the only recorded stuff, of which there was relatively little, was abridged and so useless for my purposes. Today you can get better recordings by better readers which are specifically not abridged.

It's a real confidence booster (and confidence is core) and delivers a good sense of what reading for pleasure is all about, also the need for a certain speed and the need to keep going. I read at about 150 - 160 wpm in the event. Slower than that and it becomes difficult to grab the meaning. 150 wpm is not, though, altogether too ponderous to bear.

Response #5

I have used the SSR in class with my students for intervals of 15-20 minutes at a time. However, the reading selections are from books at the readers’ levels. The books were usually a selection of short stories with students completing comprehension questions at the end of each selection. The SSR was a very successful strategy, one that the students looked forward to each class period. They frequently spoke of the number of new words they were learning during their SSR time.

Yes, I do have weekly readings the students do together. I introduce the readings with a PowerPoint presentation created and recorded with my voiceover in Jing. Here is a sample:

These recordings are of the first two minutes of oral reading of the material. Then I have the students do paired readings of the same passage for 30 seconds starting at the beginning of the text and alternating four times. Then I ask them to finish the reading with SSR at home and to do Comprehension and Vocabulary lessons on the readings for homework. The SSR could be done in class, but I have a lot of other stuff to do, so I often expect them to do it at home.

Also, the Comprehension and Vocabulary isn't necessary, but it is a part of the curriculum I am using from McGraw Hill in New Worlds. Instructors could do the same with the GED reading books from whatever publisher your organization uses or with random readings if you do not have any purchased materials. I feel that reading aloud some of the materials and then recording them is valuable because I get to model the reading in such a way that the students can follow along with the words and learn pronunciation, phrasing, and other subtleties that make a HUGE difference in reading comprehension. Also, since I record these on the Internet in a Web site area that students can access after class time, they can go back and listen to the recordings as often as they want.

Information on creating these recordings:

  1. Type the text into PowerPoint
  2. Locate clip art in Microsoft Office or any other location available to make the slides more interesting.
  3. Create a Jing account at
  4. Record the voiceover for each one and save them in
  5. Load each recording on the Web. You can use any Web site your organization can provide. You can even create Web sites for free if you go to . I heard of one instructor who had students create Web sites of the book they are reading for class. Here an instructor could have the students create separate pages for plot, character, setting, and so on.

There are so many great tools at our disposal that I am having trouble figuring out which ones to incorporate into my fall semester. I so enjoy reading all of everyone else's great ideas in ReadWrite!!

Response #6

In our reading lab I used the Informal Reading Inventory (IRI) for SSR.
There are four levels, but I only used three. At the independent level a
student can read with at least 99% word recognition and 90%
comprehension. At the instructional level a student can read at least
95% word recognition and 75% comprehension. At the frustration level a
student can read at 90% or lower and a 50% or lower comprehension.
Obviously, we recommend the independent level for SSR. There is a five
finger rule in which a student will count the unknown vocabulary on a
page and when there are five or more words, they toss it and choose
another text. They choose books, magazines and articles on the
Internet. The success is that students begin to read at home more or in
their spare time.

Response #7

In an earlier thread about "book clubs" about two months ago, I posted about our program's experiences the last four years. (I think it was #750 if I understand the numbering system, dated 4/25.) This spring our four ABE/GED classes read Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam, Jr., which was the book October Sky was based on. We gathered for group discussion and celebration on May 27, and students, staff, and guests had a wonderful time sharing their thoughts about the book. Our students were so proud that they had finished reading an entire book (all 368 pages)! If you're interested, here's a link to our wiki page, which includes a 7-minute slide show of our morning:

Our book choice for next year is Memory Boy by Will Weaver. Although it's a "young adult" book, the themes should resonate with our students, too. We're always looking for book ideas, so I appreciate everyone's suggestions. Thank you!

Response #8

I have a library in my classroom at a state prison where students can take out books. I bought the books from Townsend Press for $1 each. They just published books on Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, and Obama. From the ideas you have all posted I think I will start a reading club next Sept. with these books since they are so inexpensive.

Reflecting on the above contributions and suggestions, Daphne wrote:
...[T]here are two aspects that are mentioned in my suggested reading for this discussion (you can find the link at: ) that we have not yet talked about. I am bringing them to everyone's attention, in case people want to discuss them:

  1. Examples of Read Aloud Books: (teachers read out loud while students follow in their own copies. In other words, students are not doing the reading,teachers are. This way students are exposed to books that they cannot yet read). As mentioned in the article, the following are examples of books we used:
    • Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
    • Sounder by William Armstrong
    • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
    • What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
    • Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
    • The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
    • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
    • Mama by Terri McMillan
    • Sula by Toni Morrison
    • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
    • The Red Pony by John Steinbeck
    • Night by Elie Wiesel

    Does anyone have other books they would recommend?

  2. Book Talk. As mentioned in the article: "The rationale of this component is that discussing a book with others feeds the learners’ curiosity, gives them an opportunity to exchange points of view, and introduces them to other books in the library." It is a type of literary circle activity, but on a smaller scale. This component of the program was conducted after each session of sustained silent reading. During this time, an informal discussion was held where the learners and instructors discussed the books they were reading and expressed their opinions and reactions about them. When doing this activity, learners can hold the book and show the cover to the class as they talk. They should never disclose the end, so that another learner can become curious and, eventually, read it. The instructor should not force any learner to talk if he or she does not feel comfortable sharing. Typically, each person in our program talked for about 1 minute, with some students talking a bit longer.

Does anyone on this list engage students in a Book Talk type of activity? Anything to share with us about this?

Response #9

Referring to some of the titles mentioned by Daphne, one participant cautioned:
As a clinical psychologist, I would advise knowing your class before giving them books such as Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and Night by Elie Wiesel.

The misunderstanding of Steinbeck's book is common - taking a message that mentally handicapped people are dangerous.

Very unhappy books are sometimes the staple of reading lists, but people with very unhappy lives often resonate to the wrong things. Balance is important [to achieve by also reading]...biographies of courage, optimism, the best of human nature.

Daphne responded to the above concern as follows:

A few posters have mentioned concerns about books that are selected for readalouds. I couldn't agree more. We tried to be as careful as possible... For example, we tried to stay away from books with many graphic descriptions of rape, abuse, and violence. We did not want people to be triggered by hearing these descriptions. We also tried to stay away from books that described in a negative way people who struggle with reading.

In terms of the two particular books that were being possibly problematic:

Night was chosen because students had mentioned that they had heard about the Holocaust and wanted to read a story that involved people living through it. None of the students had experienced events similar to the Holocaust, but of course this does not mean that someone wasn't triggered by something that was described.

Of Mice and Men was chosen because students had wanted to read a book by an author that is often read in high schools. To be honest, I hadn't thought about the message that mentally handicapped people are dangerous. I guess this is my bias, I have a brother who has autism, so I know that this is a myth, and it just never occurred to me that this is a message that people could take away from the book. I don't know if a discussion about this occurred in the classroom, but I would think that if such a book is read, it would be a great opportunity to talk with the class about this myth.

I am grateful to the posters who brought up the concerns regarding the importance of selecting appropriate books for the classroom. It points to the difficulties of teaching. We need to be very careful with the messages we give others both in and out of the classroomsby the books we choose to bring to the classroom, by the clothes we wear, by the tone of our voice, by the words we use to express our thoughts. I imagine that we all try to do the best we can, but we always have to be open to other people's perspectives and thoughts so that we can learn from our colleagues. So thank you!

Response #10

I do an activity in my multi-level community college ESL reading class like book talk. Students do outside reading on their own. The books we use are books from Penguin and Oxford that come in different levels. (In fact, I'd be curious to know what readability formula they use to create the levels.) The student can choose the book, but I initially assign the level based on a couple of tests. I sometimes put students in pairs or groups and they have to share information with their partners about the book. I usually give them some questions to get them started, and they also have to tell their group why they would recommend the book or not.

Response #11

...I would like to recommend The Ultimate Gift by Jim Stovall. My class absolutely loved this book. I had them read it and do service learning projects, and then finish the semester by giving presentations on the project they chose either in PowerPoint or a poster. Lastly we viewed the video. Students were so moved by the entire project that we had our best-ever last day of class.

Response #12

An additional resource for ABE reading teachers may be at your local public library. In my area, local libraries purchase and provide classroom sets of books for educators. These classroom sets can be reserved in advance and checked out for an extended period of time. Many chapter books usually contain the readability level that can be found on the inside cover pages of the book. This grade level information can be used as a benchmark for selecting the appropriate independent and/or instructional reading levels for students.

Many local libraries also maintain recommended reading lists by grade levels that would be good resource for ABE teachers to explore. Libraries are also a great place for student field trips. I think it's very important for students to have their own library card and have access to a whole new world of information resources. Reading has to become a daily habit for reading skills to improve significantly. An important role for teachers is to model good oral reading skills daily, and to help students discover that reading is fun. The goal is for students to be motivated to read independently outside of their class time-every day.

Response #13

I have had great success in adult ESOL and GED environments using an approach I first heard about from Judy Richardson [speaker at a 2006 VATESOL --VA Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages -- conference] called "BRIAB: Book Report In A Bag." I'll post a copy of a newsletter article Judy wrote to the files section. [Steps involved in BRIAB]

  1. You choose a book or article. I've found it helps to have a stack of possibilities available -- and to indicate that easiest are often children's books or well-known fairy tales.
  2. You find a bag.
  3. You fill your bag with between 5 and 10 items (no less than 5, no more than 10) that YOU think relate to the story in some way.
  4. You practice trying to retell the story while you pull out the items, one by one, to enrich your story. (Note cards are allowed, but not full scripts.)
  5. You practice some more!
  6. You schedule your time to present your BRIAB to the class.
  7. You practice some more!
  8. You give your BRIAB presentation!
  9. You listen to others' BRIABs and complete rubric-based evaluations.

Response #14

I like to develop rubrics [for BRIABs] with students, and make completing the rubrics part of their grades, and sharing the rubrics results (without the authors' names) with the students. I also like to model various BRIABs -- one per class -- a serious news story/article BRIAB or a beautifully illustrated ...bilingual children’s book. [An article] is not really a book, but BRIAB doesn’t have to be a book...I like the name BRIAB, and like the flexibility of having a magazine report in a bag, or an article report in a bag or a comic book in a bag. I'm a HUGE fan and believer of children's books as springboards for very adult interaction, discussion, relevance -- the illustrations alone are often so worth sharing with others, the vocabulary can be challenging (or not), and a larger novel.

Sometimes we add to the rubric and question "In one to three words, write what you think a theme of this BRIAB was..."

Technology note: I now teach online, and as I shared this idea, I am musing about BRIABs purely online...[perhaps] during DimDim (or other web collaboration sites), or VoiceThreads ( [here are links to some voice threads I've created: ] or photo slideshows, and of blended/hybrid approaches to BRIABs. If you use a Moodle or other learning management system, you could easily assign this using VoiceThreads, and assign each learner to leave a question and/or comment on others' VoiceThread BRIABs...
It's always helpful for me to read notes about what others have tried. I hope something here provides an idea or two for some of you.

Response #15

Mostly I have not read whole books [with my classes]...[A]t a chapter a week, they take [too much] time, but Trustee from the Toolroom went down well. It is by Neville Shute, a very underrated writer. I have mostly used short stories, including selections from Kurt Vonnegut, Roald Dahl, Annie Proulx, Somerset Maugham, Ruth Rendell, Garrison Keillor, James Herriott, JD Salinger, Helen Dunmore (My Polish Teacher's Tie may be the best ever!), Conan Doyle and so on and so on, really almost ad infinitum!

Several participants wrote about the special challenges of selecting books and planning activities in prison literacy programs:

Response #16

[In the prison where I teach]...I have not had too many problems using my discretion bringing in some of the Townsend Press type materials.

I DO have problems getting movies in that I would like to show. We are only allowed to show PG-13 and below movies. AWESOME STORIES and both offer great lesson plans and reading materials that go along with movies. I have been in the process of starting a monthly movie program -- since I am the media specialist - and providing the ABE teachers with the lesson plans and reading materials from Awesome Stories, TeachWithMovies and other material I can find online and/or suggesting books from the library. We do have use discretion -- regarding anything sexual in nature of course... and anything that is violent.

Since so many of our men in prison have so much time on their hands - I have considered... introducing the concept of study circles to some of the inmates to do on the tiers using authentic materials of interest to them.

I think book clubs and discussion on the tiers might work as well if we could find books that are of mutual interest to small groups of students, each with a mentor [...trained by the teachers].

There is no education offered on our Pre-Trial Units (except for 18-21 year olds with Special Education needs documented in the past). These units are comparable to "jails." Delaware does not have jails. Un-sentenced inmates stay in the state prison pre-trial units - sometimes for 2 years (often not that long) awaiting their trials if they cannot post bail or if they do not have bail permitted.

I have often thought that study circles or book clubs might be one way to keep them a little more occupied, but no one has approached the subject in the past.

Response #17

A teacher who works with a jail literacy program added these comments:

The Alameda County Library Write to Read program in Fremont, CA has 10 very successful book/reading clubs taking place at various libraries. When I enter the library administration office every Tuesday, I see and hear lots going on as I pass the conference room where one of the reading clubs meets. I work with a jail literacy program, and I'm so interested in how the process works that I'll be participating in the next three-hour training session - June 30th. It might work for the jail's program to start something like this - of course getting approval might be a barrier.

Response #18
Bill Muth, a reading researcher with many years of experience in prison literacy, added these comments:

Policies vary from system to system and prison to prison. In the federal system, for example, teachers have lots of latitude, as long as they remain in control of the books, and prisoners may receive books directly from publishers, but not from individuals. This is more about contraband than the content of books. Not to say that some subjects are taboo (e.g., building weapons, maps of local areas). And, of all things, the federal prisons have deeply restricted the approved religious books. They have issued a list of 150 approved books. As far as I know all other books, including such authors as Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Buber, have been removed from chaplains' libraries. Here is a link for those interested:

Response #19

A participant suggested the use of a text mapping strategy:

On the topic of the kinds of scaffolding that make text accessible to students, you might be interested in my work using scrolls and text mapping. You'll find a short introduction in the link below and more details on my website:

Response #20

With regard to the above post, a participant wrote:

I can see how text mapping could effectively be used with a newspaper or magazine articles in helping adult learners engage with text and develop comprehension skills. Have you tried this with adult learners?

My mental picture is that you could take the text and enlarge it as you
copy it to make it easier to read. For Daphne and Daryl, have either of
you done an activity like text mapping in your work? If so, how did it

Response #21

To the above questions the poster of Response #19 replied:

This strategy...has been successful for community college students taking remedial and developmental reading programs, as well as for training in some public sector fields (police and fire).

You can enlarge or reduce, or work with same-scale copies. It all depends on your purpose, the needs of your students, the amount of room that you have, and the text. Typically, I use same-scale copies. It's just easier and works for most situations.

No direct research as of yet...Indirectly, there is a lot of support for this kind of approach in the research on graphic organizers, learning styles, and multimodal instruction, and typography and graphic design. Plus, I have a lot of anecdotal experience -- unsolicited feedback from educators all over the country (and some overseas) that comes in through the website.


Topic 3: Issues in selecting reading materials, including subject matter, readability, and other factors

Issues surrounding readability formulas and their limitations arose from participants’ questions about the materials used for readalouds in Daphne’s study and the kinds of materials learners preferred to read in Daryl’s study.

A participant asked Daphne how books were chosen for the readalouds in her study and how long teachers stayed with a book. To the first part Daphne replied, "...the first book was chosen by an educated guess by the teacher... [who based her guess]...on the demographics of the students in her class." As for how long to stay with a book, Daphne responded as follows:

Read-aloud times are excellent times for teachers to model what expert readers do. So, after the teacher read out loud, the students and teacher talk about what was read. If it becomes clear to the teacher that students are not enjoying a book, then the teacher should negotiate with the students how much longer they should "try to give the book". Expert readers often disagree on the amount of time they "give a book". Some people feel that if they start a book, they should finish it, others give it a few pages, and yet others give it a few chapters. All this is shared with the students and negotiated with them about what they want to do.

The same participant also asked,

In Mellard's study, most of his participants were younger and seemed to favor periodicals as reading material. How do you feel about the use of magazines and newspapers in a class library? At what reading level are many magazines and newspapers written? I suspect most popular culture magazines are written at an 8th grade reading level (or lower).

To which Daphne responded:

Magazines and newspapers are very appropriate in a class library. [But] I don't know the answers to your questions regarding the reading level of most magazines and newspapers (sorry). Maybe someone on this list has an answer to your question.

Concerning the readability of magazines and newspapers, John Strucker wrote,

[their readability] varies quite a bit, sometimes even within a single issue of a given publication. Furthermore, if the content is familiar - i.e., if a reader is already familiar with celebrities’ lives and antics via TV and internet, People magazine may be more accessible than a magazine at a similar readability that covers some other beat like sports or current events.

A participant responded to Daphne’s query about the readability of magazines and newspapers. She chose an excerpt from a newspaper article and pasted it into MS Word and used Word’s readability to calculate the readability as grade equivalent (GE) 6.8 to 7.0. Since several participants responded to its content, the excerpt is reproduced below:

The Phillies' ace pitched eight innings Sunday, giving up three earned runs. But the Phillies couldn't touch Minnesota Twins starter Carl Pavano in their 4-1 loss. Halladay is 8-6 with a 2.43 ERA this season. The Phillies have scored nine runs in his six losses. "He's too good to be 8-6," Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino said. "It leans back on us with the lack of run support. We haven't given him run support for the last five or six starts. For us, that gets frustrating."

That's not the only thing that frustrated them, however. One day after blowing a five-run lead in the ninth inning before losing 13-10 in 11 innings, the Phillies' bats went silent against Pavano, who pitched a complete game. The only run came on Wilson Valdez's solo homer in the fifth. It was Valdez's second homer in two days after not hitting one for almost six years, spanning 423 at-bats.

The Phillies (35-32) are 11-19 since May 17. During that time, they went from leading the NL East by five games to third place, 5 1/2 games behind the Atlanta Braves. The Phillies haven't trailed by that much this late in the season since Sept. 17, 2007, when they trailed the Mets by seven games with 17 to play. They won the division.

Another participant used the excerpt to illustrate some of the limitations of readability:

Readability tools...can be very helpful as starting points. However, you also have to consider the individual reader's level of background knowledge and vocabulary. The sample passage provides a great example of why this additional judgment is needed. As a college graduate and someone who reads and writes professionally, I have a very high reading level. However, I have practically zero knowledge about sports.

I know what the words "run," "support," and "start" mean, but I do not understand the following sentence from the article: "We haven't given him run support for the last five or six starts."

What is "run support"? What is a "start"? I can vaguely guess that "run
support" refers to how a team can somehow help a batter get from one plate to another, but even if I'm right, I don't have a clear picture as to what that means.

So while the readability measures can give you a good starting point as to
readability, the teacher/tutor must always take into account the background knowledge and knowledge of jargon/specialized vocabulary that the reader has.

And, another participant reacted to the cultural content of the article:
The article about susceptible to so much bias that I would not even attempt to attach a "readability" GLE to it. Think about it: I live on Maui. I know Shane [Victorino]. I know his father. I know the rules of baseball. I also know a dental surgeon from Mexico who is a student of mine and doesn't have a clue about baseball. We have to be very circumspect with attributions of readability.

To the readability discussion, Tom Sticht added the relationship of document design to readability, citing his approach to "...[T]ransform[ing] a manual from one of dense prose and poorly selected language to one of greater usability by providing visuals, white space, and more familiar language." Sticht also mentioned the FORECAST readability formula he developed "...using adult technical materials and...only word counts to determine the readability of materials. The FORECAST is simple to hand
calculate and correlates in the +.90 range with other readability formulas."
[For more on these topics see Sticht (1975) Reading for working: A functional literacy anthology.]

In a post related to Sticht’s comments, a participant made these points:

I haven't seen anyone raise the issue of how VISUAL aspects of a document also affect readability ('reader-friendliness'). ...[I]n the field of workplace writing, "visual eloquence" is seen as a crucial first step to enticing a reader and keeping a reader. CHATS (Baker, 2001) is a mnemonic for the various elements of visual eloquence (Colour, Headings, Access Aids, Typography, and Spacing - the last may be particularly crucial). [Because of the importance of visual features]...putting text through a [readability] formula-calculator will give only part of the picture.

Daphne shared some additional thoughts on readability and readability formulas:

I am glad that the concept of readability has been raised-this is a very important issue that one has to consider when thinking about developing a library in the class for silent sustained reading. Some issues to consider:

  1. Since our learners are adults reading at low levels, we need to keep in mind that the readability formulas were not tested on our types of readers. It is an empirical question whether these readability formulas are accurate for our students.
  2. As already mentioned, culture, exposure, and background knowledge play a big role in readability. [But these factors]...are not typically measured by readability formulas (with one exception-see below). So, for example, a baseball story can be written in very easy-to-read English, but a newcomer to the United States may find the text very difficult to understand, even though the reader can read at the targeted reading level. Similarly, background knowledge may make certain text easier to read than would be expected. For example, if a heart attack survivor is reading at the third grade level, s/he may be able to read and understand many [medical] words that are higher than a third grade level.

Keeping the above in mind, you may want to know about the following three readability tools (these are taken from Burke & Greenberg, Spring, 2010-Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal):

As already mentioned by another poster, The Flesch-Kincaid formula is available in Microsoft Word. Select three samples of 100 consecutive words (in a book-take a sample from the beginning, middle, and end of the book) and type them into a Word document. Make sure not to use any hard returns, and don't include abbreviations. The readability formula will mistake the period symbol "." for a period which signifies the end of a sentence. Since people have different versions of Word, I won't give the instructions on how to run the readability, but if you go to Help and search for readability, you will find the instructions for how to do it for your version.

One negative:

The Flesch-Kindcaid seems to underestimate the difficulty of text!

Spache and the Dale-Chall Readability Formulas: Type a 100 word passage in the "text to be analyzed" box. (best to do this a few times from different sections of the book to get an idea about the entire book). If you have a book that is written below the 4th grade level, accept the default of the Spache formula. If you have a book that is written at the 4th grade level and above, select the Dale-Chall option. Similar to the one mentioned above-don't include abbreviations with periods.

One positive:

You can place an asterisk next to a word that you know would be considered difficult, but for your student, it would be considered easy. So for example, a man who has been dealing with prostate cancer and who reads at the third grade level, may find the word prostate easy and therefore, for him-it should not be considered a difficult word.

With regard to readability Daryl observed, "I was surprised that Lexile scores didn’t get mentioned more frequently [in the discussion]. In response, Daphne wrote,

In one of Daryl's posts, he had mentioned...the Lexile framework for readability. Heide Wrigley sent me the following link, which is a working paper from the National Center on Educational Statistics on the Lexile Framework for readability: . Thanks Heide!

For those of you who are not familiar with the Lexile framework, it is a way to measure the difficulty of prose. It has become pretty popular in the K-12 system, with tests providing scores about a person's reading level, and then teachers matching these scores with difficulty levels of text.

This kind of framework has not yet been set up for adult literacy teachers [who are] trying to help adults match their reading levels to books written for adult learners.

Responding to Daphne’s last point above, a participant who works for CTB McGraw-Hill, publishers of the TABE, offered this information about using Lexiles to identify books for adult learners:

CTB McGraw-Hill and MetaMetrics have completed a study to align TABE
Reading Scale Scores to Lexile Reading Measures. TABE customers can
access a free website to run individual and group Lexile reports.
Students and teachers can also access the Find-A-Book service from
MetaMetrics to locate books at public libraries across the country at
specific Lexile levels.

More information can be found at

Strucker acknowledged the usefulness of Lexiles for determining readability, but expressed skepticism about the usefulness of Lexile-aligned test scores for predicting what materials adult literacy students might be able to comprehend independently:

Struggling ABE readers may miss a test item because they really didn't comprehend it, but they may also miss it because they misread one word in the question or in the answer choices - regardless of the Lexile level of the passage. And, English Language learners (ELLs) may miss an item because of a single grammar feature, idiom, signal word, etc.

Heide Wrigley contributed these thoughts about readability and comprehension instruction:

Thanks to Daphne for drawing people’s attention to the Lexile papers [we wrote]. I don’t think we have any studies that tell us what kind of scaffolding makes texts accessible to students, texts that they are interested in but that are "too hard" to be understood as judged by readability formulas.

There’s always the issue of background knowledge being able to override readability to some extent, but struggling readers may not be able to access that knowledge and make connections and not get stuck on 10-dollar words and long sentences.

So, one of our challenges, I think, is to increase the readability of texts by showing students how to unpack difficult materials (read, reread, think, look it up, read again).....[Rather] than selecting easy pieces...[students can] pieces that offer a bit of a challenge, while at the same time not overwhelming them with lots of explanations.

We’ve had success when working with adolescents in Canada by letting them choose materials they wanted to read (for Sustained Silent Reading) and reading with them both widely (novel studies) and deeply (through word study and other ways of looking at both linguistic and semantic relationships among words).

And, I love the idea of "visual literacy" that someone else had mentioned – [it is] such an important aspect of readability, namely looking at a text where font and format invite you to read and spend some time with the ideas instead of making your brain hurt.

Strucker was concerned that some posters appeared to blur the distinction between readability and comprehension:

Readability, no matter how you calculate it, is a static and abstract characteristic of text; [whereas]...comprehension is a dynamic activity that involves the interaction of readers with texts.

[Despite the limitations of readability formulas]...we are still better off beginning with a readability formula, but realizing that readability is only a starting place in our thinking about selecting material. To readability measures we should always add all of the individual learner characteristics (motivation, interest, background knowledge, etc.) that affect whether a reader will be able to comprehend the text.

Reflecting on the preceding extensive discussion on selecting reading materials, Daryl posted these comments and questions about male/female preferences for reading materials:

As you consider matching reading materials to readers, how do gender differences get considered? I can imagine that topical content might weigh in the decisions.

The basis for the question is in our study about age, gender, reading level, and learning disability status interactions among adult ed. participants. In general, the results suggested that females engage in more varied forms of literacy activities than did males. Also, puzzling in [our] data was that males who reported a high frequency of literacy practices scored so low on the two reading comprehension measures. Seems like engagement is critically important and that readability is necessary but insufficient to encourage that engagement. As you review the varied activities to encourage reading, does participation seem gender-neutral in your setting?


Topic 4: Dyslexia across different writing systems and the decoding difficulties posed by English spelling

This topic began with a participant’s comment that dyslexia was probably as common among ESL students as among ABE students. Strucker disagreed with this observation:

...[D]yslexia is probably not as prevalent among the overall population of ESL enrollees as it among native English speaking ABE enrollees, at least based on analyses Ros Davidson and I did with data from the Adult Reading Components Study (ARCS) One of the main reasons native English speakers take ABE/ASE classes is because they didn't graduate from high school. And, this in turn appears linked to 60% or more reporting childhood reading problems and difficulty with reading and school throughout the grades.

In addition, the ARCS assessment data supplied strong inferential evidence that learners’ self-reports were correct: many had severe difficulties with phonemic awareness tasks, pseudo-word reading, real word reading, fluency, and spelling - i.e., typical signs of dyslexia.

In contrast, when we tested native Spanish speakers in Spanish literacy, fewer than 5% reported trouble with reading as children, and only about 5% appeared to have trouble with Spanish pseudo-words and phonemic awareness tasks. In other words, the percentage of people showing signs of a "core phonological deficit" (one common definition of dyslexia) was about what you'd expect for the overall population of Spanish speakers. (Although the neurological substrate for dyslexia may be distributed equally among humankind across the globe, because of the more transparent orthography of Spanish, a smaller percentage of people have severe trouble learning to decode Spanish, as compared to readers of English where the percentage may be as high as 9-10%.)

A participant followed this with a related comment on the relationship between dyslexia and writing systems and a generous list of references on the incidence of dyslexia in various languages:

Dyslexia occurs with all writing scripts, but people with dyslexic difficulties find some scripts easier than others. That is why the incidence of dyslexic reading difficulties varies according to scripts. Finnish for example has fewest, English has most.

Some reading:

They discovered that whereas the Italian subjects did better on reading tests, they did as poorly as the English and French dyslexics on the word sound tests. All three groups showed the same reduced activation of the left temporal lobe while reading. The results reinforce the theory that dyslexia arises from some sort of deficit in processing language sounds.

"This research proves the existence of a universal neurological basis for dyslexia," says Uta Firth from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. "It also highlights the impact that the complexity of orthography can have on reading proficiency of dyslexics and therefore on the severity of the disease and the ease of diagnosis. This means that in the Italian population there may be hidden cases of dyslexia. On the other hand, otherwise mild cases of dyslexia may appear far worse in irregular orthographies like that of English or French." The frequency of diagnosis of the disorder in the different countries depended on how easy it was for native speakers to spell the words in their language. The study could also explain the findings of other studies, which have shown the rate of dyslexia among 10-year-olds in the United States to be twice as high as in Italy.

A participant in the above dyslexia discussion introduced the topic of how reforming or simplifying English spelling might help dyslexics:

Anyone can copy my own research that shows that dyslexics benefit from cutting surplus letters from words in English which do not help to show meaning or pronunciation, and often mislead, and this does not harm present readers. They are half the problem. English spelling is gradually cutting out surplus letters from words, but too many remain. I use parallel forms of a standard reading test, one form modified by deleting surplus letters from words.

A number of participants responded with copious examples of English spelling complexity and the difficulties of reading English caused by its lack of orthographic transparency. Here is one example:

After studying the inconsistencies of English spelling for more than a decade, the reasons for the higher incidence of dyslexia in English-speaking countries seem pretty clear to me.

  1. If you are not especially good at linking sounds to letters, having to link 44 sounds to 91 basic spellings (rather than just 44) makes life harder. (Finnish has just 38 totally regular spellings for its 38 sounds.)
  2. The fact that 80 of the 91 basic English spellings have unpredictable variants adds to the problem (e.g. stole - coal bowl roll soul soldier).
  3. Much worse still are the 69 spellings with more than one sound (e.g. shout, should, shoulder).

One participant summarized the case for reforming English spelling as follows:

I recommended allowing what I believe to be a very important discussion about the English spelling system to resurface and resume on this list. ...[I]f there is a need to expedite reading and writing literacy development, it appears a strong case could be made to make English spelling more transparent in terms of its graphemic and phonemic correspondences.

Another participant concurred, writing:

From the perspective of expediting literacy development and minimizing the symptoms of what many call dyslexia, it would appear incumbent upon us, as alleged professionals, to keep the discussion [of spelling reform] alive.


Topic 5: Final thoughts from Daryl Mellard and Daphne Greenberg


The week’s discussion has included many exchanges about the varied reading levels of AE participants, teaching reading components, selecting textual materials, assessing their readability with Lexiles or other readability formulas, and how those materials are used instructionally: small group, SSR, homework, and fluency practice.

Some of us noted "that a person’s completed educational level or even functional level, such as from an AE placement test, may be too imprecise for instructional planning." (Mellard, Patterson, & Prewitt, 2007, pg 209)
So the question becomes how do we make distinctions about learners’ proficiency on phonemic awareness, word analysis, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension to aid instructional planning? Are those component level proficiencies meaningful for instructional planning?

The ebb and flow of this week’s discussion has been healthy. I greatly appreciated the opportunity to participate and learn from such a wise group. Many ideas are certainly challenging particularly as I look for the evidence to support the practice and how one might conduct high quality research to test their efficacy.

Seems to me we continually are challenged to meet individual learner needs, recognize that their needs are generally substantial, and that we won’t have much time to demonstrate improvement to maintain their interest to attend. As many respondents noted, the learners have many challenges to receiving instruction and practicing their new skills and strategies. Good that so many have imagination and energy to continue this work.


I would like to thank Daryl for joining me in guest facilitating our Patterns and Profiles Discussion. I would also like to thank John Strucker and the ASRP ( folks for deciding to host this discussion on our list. Although, today is the last day of the "official discussion," please continue to share thoughts, ideas and questions. As Daryl has noted, it is great that our community has so many practitioners with the "imagination and energy to continue this work."

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