Techniques for Teaching Beginning-Level Reading to Adults

This is a curriculum for those teaching low-level reading to adult learners. 

Ashley Hager
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Community Learning Center / Cambridge, MA
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages

The author has teaching experience at The Community Center in Cambridge, MA where her students are at the beginning-level of reading (equivalent to grade 0-2). She is concerned about applying reading acquisition research conducted with children to teaching adults in ABE classes to read (these adults may or may not have learning disabilities).

The breakdown of topics covered in a typical three-hour class session is a clear indicator of the needs and curriculum she is addressing: 1) phonological awareness, 2) word analysis, 3) word recognition ("sight words"), 4) spelling, 5) oral reading fluency, and 6) comprehension. The article advocates and outlines an approach to this student population utilizing, systematic, explicit, direct instruction of phonics. Selected aspects of a number of multi-sensory structured language programs are utilized in this program and are introduced in this article: 1) Orton-Gillingham, 2) Lindamood-Bell, and 3) Wilson Reading System.

For each of the parts of her curriculum listed above, short descriptions are provided that could be good beginning guides for ABE instructors to use as personal "launching pads" in gaining additional knowledge for understanding and implementation. The author has apparently done her homework on the basic research base underlying her hypotheses regarding interventions applicable to her ABE students.

The resource is very brief and has a limited, though distinguished, bibliography. However, it may make a very good overview or survey of the type of curriculum applicable to many low-literacy-level ABE students and of which their instructors could profitably be aware. One only wishes it had been somewhat expanded in form regarding the word level reading components outlined.

Required Training
  • A superficial overview of techniques is presented in the resource.
  • Depending on the depth to which knowledge and understanding of the suggested phonics techniques, training could be implemented variously.
  • For several of the MSL approaches noted, training is available from
    the publisher.
What the experts say

This very brief resource applies the synthetic ("bottom-up") approach to teaching reading to adult beginning readers. The bibliography provides the theoretical and research support for this approach. However, the literature cited is based on work with children, assuming that the research findings are applicable to adults.

The author describes what she does in her classroom with a very small number of adults who are presumably learning disabled. (It should be stressed that this approach is probably most effective with native speakers who have failed to learn by other methods.) Instructional methods incorporate several commercial programs (e.g., Wilson Reading System). She identifies activities from these programs that she has found to be effective rather than following any program in its entirety.

She recommends that teachers use nonsense words and real words that are unknown to the learners (e.g., stint). So that students are forced to sound out words letter-by-letter rather than relying on sight recognition. She encourages students to use this approach even on high-frequency words.

Less explicit is how students are taught to successfully blend letter sounds to produce whole words except by recognizing certain syllable patterns. This synthetic approach to teaching reading can lead to slow oral reading that focuses only on so-called "Word Banking" rather than on comprehension. To counteract that difficulty, the author recommends explicitly teaching fluency and comprehension. The resource is too brief to elaborate on how these reading skills are taught.

This is an excellent article for teachers of beginning level adult readers. The most useful feature is the "typical lesson plan for a three-hour class." The article is easy to read and engaging. This article could serve as a stand-alone or as an overview for an in-service on reading components and low level readers.

One of the most significant features of this article is that it is written by a successful, experienced reading teacher for other practitioners. It combines practical classroom techniques that captivate the reader along with references to research showing that those techniques have proven to be successful.  The author cites reasons why she chooses specific instructional activities for each topic. Her approach verifies research done in the field on successful instructional strategies for teaching reading to low literacy learners and undiagnosed students with reading disabilities.  These include direct, explicit instruction and multisensory instruction among others.

Of significance as well are her practices of utilizing a standardized routine, allowing sufficient time to review, mastering specific sub-skills, before moving on to the next skill, and including a writing unit and the Syllable Chart. The author includes teacher tips to show how she individualizes each component of reading instruction by incorporating pieces from other commercially produced programs.

Quoted student anecdotes are touchingly authentic and accurately document the difficulty involved in teaching to beginning-level adult readers. This article will resonate with readers who also teach this population.

The reader may also want to look at some additional resources such asResearch-Based Principles for Adult Basic Education Reading Instruction andReport of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Reports of the Subgroups.

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