Reading comprehension strategies for adult literacy outcomes

This research comprises content analysis of three common standardized tests for adults, commonly accepted as reasonable proxies for the global construct of adult literacy, to determine the comprehension skills that adults need to pass them.

Mike Hock
Daryl Mellard
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
University of Kansas, Center for Research on Learning, Division of Adult Studies
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This research comprises content analysis of three common standardized tests for adults, commonly accepted as reasonable proxies for the global construct of adult literacy, to determine the comprehension skills that adults need to pass them. These included CASAS Reading, GED, and National Assessment of Educational Progress. The purpose of the research was to determine a) the reading comprehension skills that are most important to adults’ success based on the three commonly accepted measures, and b) intervention strategies, previously researched and found to be effective with adolescents that may be helpful for instructors to use with struggling adult readers.

The authors provide a succinct table of reading comprehension strategies (identifying main idea, summarizing, drawing inferences, generating questions, creating visual images, and looking for clues). They also provide information and specific interventions to support each of these skills, pulling from the research.

Results indicate that self-questioning, visual imagery as most helpful to help adults look for clues in a text. Self-questioning to generate questions and paraphrasing to learn to summarize. No intervention strategy emerged fully to support drawing inferences. Summarizing and drawing inferences emerged as the most important reading comprehension strategies for adult literacy outcomes. The different assessments have different emphases. CASAS is focused on lower level comprehension (looking for clues) and less on high level (summarizing). The GED is the opposite.

The researchers suggest that educators need to provide adults with a full tool box of comprehension skills and help them learn how and when to use particular strategies. This calls for adults to use self-regulatory behavior, which also may need to be taught. Coincidentally, adults should be taught test-taking skills to off-set the cognitive strain that often occurs during testing.

What the experts say

Adult educators may find the following to be valuable:

  • Presenting how learning comprehension strategies may benefit adult learners on common accountability measures supports the case for teaching these strategies in the adult education classroom.  Some teachers/programs will find this information especially convincing!
  • The discussion of clusters of subordinate strategies embedded within certain strategies broadens the notion of “strategy” somewhat.
  • Documenting how skilled readers (i.e., the researchers) used varied and multiple strategies to accomplish reading tasks demonstrates how individual decisions (on the part of the reader) need to be made about which strategies to use and under what conditions—and that there are different “right answers” when reading strategically.

In their “results” section, the authors note that teaching the strategies useful for answering questions might  be considered “teaching to the test” and then note that this is appropriate in adult education. For adults, reading purposefully is critical.  There is a direct tie between having a purpose for reading and effective reading.

Reviewers noted several shortcomings to this article. Of concern is the assumption that most necessary reading comprehension strategies are those used in standardized tests.  Even though test makers try to use passages with everyday tasks, the situation is still artificial.  We do not learn from this research what strategies are most helpful in everyday reading situations.  Therefore, to draw conclusions about the strategies that students should learn merely from the strategies helpful for tests is short sighted and misleading.  Further, the article suffers from the lack of a theoretical base, from either the field of reading or adult education, to make the case for comprehension strategy instruction.

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