Research-Based Principles for Adult Basic Education Reading Instruction
Produced by RMC Research Corporation, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
This publication was produced under National Institute for Literacy Contract No. ED-01-PO-1037 with John Kruidenier. Sandra Baxter served as the contracting officer's technical representative. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Institute for Literacy. No official endorsement by the National Institute for Literacy of any product, commodity, service, or enterprise in this publication is intended or should be inferred.
The National Institute for Literacy
Sandra Baxter Lynn Reddy
To order copies of this booklet, contact the National Institute for Literacy at EdPubs, PO Box 1398, Jessup, MD 20794-1398. Call 800-228-8813 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. This booklet can also be downloaded at The Partnership for Reading web site, www.nifl.gov/partnershipforreading.
The National Institute for Literacy, an independent federal organization, supports the development of high quality state, regional, and national literacy services so that all Americans can develop the literacy skills they need to succeed at work, at home, and in the community.
The Partnership for Reading, a project administered by the National Institute for Literacy, is a collaborative effort of the National Institute for Literacy, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to make scientifically based reading research available to educators, parents, policy makers, and others with an interest in helping all people learn to read well.
The Partnership for Reading acknowledges RMC Research Corporation for editorial support provided by C. Ralph Adler and Elizabeth Goldman and design support provided by Diane Draper and Bob Kozman.
Sandra Baxter, project director for the Reading Research Working Group, patiently provided expert guidance and advice throughout the project, along with John Comings and Andrew Hartman. This report would not have been possible without the active involvement of the members of the Reading Research Working Group. Special thanks are given to all members of the Group for their willingness to participate in this important project and to review and comment on various drafts of this report.
The Planning Committee of the Reading Research Working Group developed the original conceptual framework that remained largely intact throughout. Above and beyond the comments and advice offered by members of the RRWG, Mary E. Curtis and Dolores Perin helped with the important task of describing the organizing categories and subcategories identified by the RRWG. Dolores Perin also wrote drafts of some of the criteria that were used with qualitative research. Peggy McCardle of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development helped extensively with language related to research methodology and research findings. John Strucker tirelessly participated in several RRWG meetings as well as many informal discussions.
Members of the Practitioner Group were especially helpful in reviewing the practices that were drawn from the research-based principles. These form the basis for the adult reading instruction website, developed with Wil Hawk and Connie Harich of NIFL, that is a part of the Partnership for Reading website (www.nifl.gov/partnershipforreading).
Mary E. Curtis, Daphne Greenberg, Mary Jo Maralit, Jane Meyer, Thomas Sticht, Barbara Van Horn, and Heide Spruck Wrigley provided valuable written comments on various drafts. Detailed editing accompanied by many wonderfully useful suggestions for drafts or parts of drafts was offered by Sandra Baxter, John Comings, Susan Greene, Andrew Hartman, Elizabeth Link, Peggy McCardle, Dolores Perin, and Cristine Smith. Thanks to Cristine Smith for also facilitating the RRWG meetings and to all of the NIFL staff who helped in organizing them, especially Shelly Coles and Poojan Tripathi. Thanks also to Lynn Reddy of NIFL and Ralph Adler of RMC Research Corporation for their work on the final editing, graphics, and layout.
Chapter 2: Method
Chapter 4: Reading Assessment Profiles
Chapter 5: Alphabetics: Phonemic Awareness and Word Analysis
Chapter 6: Fluency
Chapter 7: Vocabulary
Chapter 8: Reading Comprehension
Chapter 9: Computer Technology and ABE Reading Instruction
Chapter 10: Conclusion: Summary of Results and A Research Agenda
The Partnership for Reading is pleased to present Research-Based Principles for Adult Basic Education Reading Instruction. The Partnership, an initiative of the National Institute for Literacy, the U.S. Department of Education, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, disseminates scientifically based reading research to inform reading instruction from birth through adulthood. This publication adds to a growing body of materials, begun with the release of Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read, that summarize the research and make connections to reading instruction in formal and informal learning environments.
This book represents the work of The Reading Research Working Group, a panel of experts on reading research and practice convened by the Institute and the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy to identify and evaluate existing research in adult literacy reading instruction and provide a summary of scientifically based principles and practices. This work was similar to that done by the National Reading Panel whose findings, published in Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read, have refocused how reading instruction is conducted from kindergarten to grade 3.
This publication represents the best information available about how adults learn to read. It is designed to serve two primary audiences: educators and policy makers who make decisions about the content of adult basic education reading instruction and researchers eager to identify new avenues of study to add to our understanding of this field. The Partnership invites readers to use this rich collection of findings to inform their work with adults.
The Reading Research Working Group (RRWG), a panel of experts on adult reading research and practice, was established by the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) in collaboration with the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL). It is part of the Institute's efforts to provide educators, parents, and others with access to scientifically based reading research, including research-based tools for improving literacy programs and policies for children, youth, and adults, through the Partnership for Reading.
The purpose of the RRWG was to identify and evaluate existing research related to adult literacy reading instruction in order to provide the field with research-based products including principles and practices for practitioners. This document presents findings from an analysis of the adult basic education (ABE) reading instruction research base and is designed as a resource for practitioners and reading researchers. It focuses on principles that can be derived from the research and a research agenda for the future.
For the purposes of the RRWG, "adult reading instruction research" is defined as research related to reading instruction for low-literate adults, aged 16 and older, who are no longer being served in secondary education programs. This includes low-literate adults in community-based literacy centers, family literacy programs, prison literacy programs, workplace literacy programs, and two-year colleges. It includes research related to all low-literate adults in these settings, including adults in ASE (Adult Secondary Education) programs, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) programs, and adults with a learning or reading disability.
Evaluating the Research
Two recent reports were influential in guiding the work of the RRWG: Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences and Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read. The guidelines used for selecting and evaluating ABE reading instruction research are based on those developed by the National Reading Panel (NRP) in their review of research related to reading instruction with children (National Reading Panel, 2000a). For the NRP review, major topics for study were established, studies were located through a literature search, and studies were evaluated using a set of "evidence-based methodological standards."
The RRWG made several modifications to the approach used by the NRP . Important modifications included the addition of topics especially important to adult reading professionals, the inclusion of studies related to the assessment of reading ability, and the inclusion of non-experimental studies as well as those involving the use of control groups.
Like the NRP, the major topics selected for study by the RRWG are those components of reading found by the National Research Council and others to be crucial during reading instruction: alphabetics (phonemic awareness and word analysis), fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The ultimate goal in reading is comprehension. Readers read a text in order to understand and use the ideas and information contained in it. Comprehension is improved when readers understand the key concepts or vocabulary in a text. Reading comprehension may suffer, however, when readers are unable to recognize individual words in a text. A reader may be conceptually ready to understand a text, for example, but will not have the opportunity to do so if he or she cannot read the individual words. To read individual words, the reader must know how the letters in our alphabet are used to represent spoken words (alphabetics). This includes knowing how words are made up of smaller sounds (phonemic awareness), and how letters and combinations of letters are used to represent these sounds (phonics and word analysis). The ability to figure out how to read individual words, however, is not sufficient. Readers must also be able to rapidly recognize strings of words as they read phrases, sentences and longer text. Fluent reading is crucial to adequate comprehension.
Effective reading and reading instruction cannot occur without sufficient motivation. Motivation is one of the additional topics selected by the RRWG for study, along with others that are especially important for adult reading instruction: computer technology, reading assessment, program goals and setting (family literacy, workplace literacy, and general functional literacy), instructional methods (strategies, material, teacher preparation, and the intensity and duration of instruction), and specific characteristics of learners that affect instruction (reading level, whether English is their first language, the existence of a learning disability, and motivation).
Use of K-12 Research
One task for the RRWG was to identify gaps in the ABE reading research and to consider how these gaps might be addressed. What research is needed and, of more immediate concern, where should the ABE instructor look for suggestions on the best ways to teach reading to ABE learners when the ABE research has not yet addressed a topic? One strong recommendation from the RRWG was to look to the NRP results for K-12 (elementary and secondary school) students, selecting those approaches to reading instruction that were likely to work with adult learners. To do this, the RRWG established criteria for evaluating the application of K-12 reading research to adult reading instruction. These criteria take into account the existing ABE research, the important differences between children and adults, and the strengths and weaknesses of K-12 research in each of the topic areas. NRP findings were used to help fill gaps in the ABE reading instruction research, to provide support when K-12 and ABE research were compatible, or to signal caution when they were contradictory.
A Brief Summary of Findings from the Research Review
Most of the principles derived from the ABE reading instruction research are "emerging principles" because they are based on a relatively small body of experimental research. There is much more research focusing on children, as demonstrated in the report of the National Reading Panel. The small size of the ABE reading instruction research base precludes establishing more than just a few principles based solidly on large numbers of research studies that have been replicated. Some of the topic areas reviewed contain no or very few research studies. This does not necessarily suggest that the quality of ABE reading instruction research is poorer than K-12 reading instruction research or other bodies of research, only that there is less of it.
Approximately 70 qualifying research studies were identified in the literature search based on the criteria used. From the results reported in these studies, eighteen emerging research-based principles and related practices for ABE reading instruction were identified, along with thirty-two additional trends in the ABE research. Twenty-two specific ideas that might be used to supplement the ABE research were derived from the K-12 research. Emerging principles were based on findings from at least two experimental studies (including quasi-experimental studies) and any number of non-experimental studies. Findings based on fewer than two experimental studies were labeled trends rather than principles.
Findings from the adult reading instruction research show that adults can have difficulties with any of the crucial aspects of reading: alphabetics (phonemic awareness and word analysis), fluency, vocabulary, or comprehension. It is important to assess adult students' abilities in each of these areas in order to identify what they already know as well as what they need to work on during instruction. Assessment for instructional purposes is one the first tasks a teacher performs. One emerging principle in the ABE research suggests that assessing each component of reading in order to generate profiles of students' reading ability gives teachers much more instructionally relevant information than any test of a single component can.
Some of the strongest ABE reading instruction research has to do with the assessment of adults' phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness among adult non-readers is almost non-existent and is only a little better among adult beginning readers. Adult beginning readers also have poor phonics or word analysis knowledge. Their sight word knowledge (the ability to recognize words on sight without having to sound them out) may initially be better than expected. Research evidence indicates that adults can be taught word analysis skills within ABE programs and, though the evidence is not as strong, that non-disabled readers can be taught phonemic awareness. Trends in the research suggest that phonemic awareness does not develop as easily among adults with a reading disability.
Teaching alphabetics leads to improved achievement in other aspects of reading. This emerging principle in the adult research is supported by research conducted with children. Research at the K-12 level, unlike ABE research, has identified specific practices that can be used to teach alphabetics. Many of these K-12 practices address topics that are especially important for ABE learners. No research was found related to the alphabetics ability of learners in ESOL adult basic education programs (programs that teach English to speakers of other languages).
There is very little research that reports results from the assessment of ABE students' fluency and vocabulary. We do know that young adults with poor fluency have an average silent reading rate that is much slower than that of normal readers. Emerging principles in the ABE research indicate that fluency can be taught to adults who qualify for ABE programs, that teaching fluency leads to increases in reading achievement, and that one specific technique can be used to help adults develop their reading fluency. This technique, repeated readings of a text, is also supported by a much larger body of research with children.
The one trend related to the assessment of ABE readers' vocabulary suggests that their vocabulary knowledge is dependent on reading ability. Although, as might be expected, their life experience can give them an advantage as they begin to learn to read (their vocabulary knowledge is much better than their knowledge of alphabetics), this advantage may disappear at higher reading levels. An important trend from the instruction research, supported by research with children, is that contexts that are more interesting or engaging, such as workplace or family contexts for adults, may be especially useful for vocabulary instruction.
Reading comprehension is the ultimate goal for reading. A large-scale national survey of adult literacy provides information about adults' reading comprehension that is more reliable than the information we have about their fluency and vocabulary. Results from this survey indicate that most ABE learners have difficulty integrating and synthesizing information from any but the simplest texts. Although it is likely that poor phonemic awareness, word analysis, fluency, and vocabulary contribute to poor reading comprehension, it is also likely that most ABE adults will need to be taught specific comprehension strategies. Those adults with a learning disability and those whose first language is not English are especially at risk. Although there are more principles and trends related to ABE reading comprehension instruction than for alphabetics, fluency, or vocabulary instruction, the research does not address issues related to these adults.
Three important emerging principles from the ABE reading research suggest that participation in an ABE program can lead to increased reading comprehension achievement, that explicit instruction in reading comprehension strategies is effective, and that teaching comprehension along with instruction in other components of reading is also an effective way to improve reading comprehension. The effectiveness of reading comprehension strategy instruction is supported by extensive research with children. In addition, K-12 research has identified eight specific strategies that may be of use to adult educators and also finds that instruction in other aspects of reading can lead to improved comprehension.
Trends in the ABE reading comprehension research also address several issues that are important to adult literacy students and teachers. Although more research is needed, these trends suggest that comprehension can be improved in most ABE settings, including workplace and family literacy settings; use of adult-oriented content material is an effective way to help improve comprehension; and, dealing briefly but directly with issues related to motivation and how adults feel about their reading can have a positive effect.
In general, the review of ABE reading instruction research found that much more research is needed in almost all of the topic areas addressed. Of the existing research, assessment research is the strongest. Emerging principles suggest that reading can improve in ABE settings, that direct or explicit instruction in various components is effective, and that computer-assisted instruction can improve achievement in some aspects of reading. Basic information about the reading ability of ABE learners is known and fairly sophisticated methods for obtaining assessment information and using it for instruction have been developed. Much more information is needed about ESOL learners and adults with reading disabilities. More information about specific teaching strategies is also needed. With the exception of fluency, specific teaching strategies validated by the research are just beginning to emerge. Also beginning to emerge are findings of special significance for adult educators related to adult-oriented settings and contexts, and issues of motivation and the feelings that result from continued failure in learning to read.
While K-12 research does not address these more adult-oriented issues with the same urgency, the much larger body of reading instruction research conducted with children is compatible with the ABE reading instruction research, offering both support for many ABE findings and specific suggestions for instruction in areas where the ABE research is thin.
The Reading Research Working Group (RRWG) was formed to identify and evaluate existing research related to adult literacy reading instruction in order to provide the field with research-based products, including principles and practices for researchers and professionals. This report presents results from an analysis of the adult basic education (ABE) reading instruction research base, focusing on principles that can be derived from the research and a research agenda for the future. Practices based on these principles are presented at the Partnership for Reading web site, www.nifl.gov/partnershipforreading.
The RRWG is sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) in collaboration with the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL). It is part of the Institute's efforts to provide educators, parents, and others with access to scientifically based reading research, including research-based tools for improving literacy programs and policies for children, youth, and adults, through the Partnership for Reading (see the Appendix for a description of the Partnership). A primary goal for developing the principles is to provide those in family literacy programs and other ABE settings with research-based methods for facilitating the intergenerational transfer of literacy by improving the literacy abilities of adults.
The RRWG is a panel of experts in the field of adult literacy research established by NIFL and NCSALL in order to:
For the purposes of the RRWG, "adult reading instruction research" is defined as research related to reading instruction for low-literate adults, aged 16 and older, who are no longer being served in secondary education programs. This includes low-literate adults in community-based literacy centers, family literacy programs, prison literacy programs, workplace literacy programs, and two-year colleges. It includes research related to all low-literate adults in these settings, including adults in ASE (Adult Secondary Education) programs, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) programs, and adults with learning or reading disabilities.
Four meetings of the RRWG were held to develop and review draft principles and practices.
Major steps in the process used to develop the research-based principles were:
How This Report Is Organized
The second section of this report, following the Introduction, presents the methods used to select and evaluate research related to Adult Basic Education (ABE) reading instruction. The methods used in this review place a premium on experimental research studies. Ideally, these studies objectively compare groups of learners receiving different forms of reading instruction and use statistical procedures to help determine how likely it is that one approach is significantly different from another. These studies are designed to increase our confidence in drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of a particular approach to instruction. This review uses non-experimental reading instruction research to support principles or trends based on experimental studies and to note promising directions that ABE reading instruction research may be taking.
The third section contains a list of findings from the research: the principles, trends, ideas, and comments that appear in the major sections of the report. This list of principles, trends, ideas, and comments serves as an index to the ABE and K-12 reading instruction research findings presented in the main sections of the report.
Most of the principles derived from the ABE reading instruction research might be considered "emerging principles" because they are based on a relatively small body of experimental research. There is much more reading instruction research focusing on the K-12 level, both experimental and non-experimental, as demonstrated in the report of the National Reading Panel (NRP) (2000a, 2000b). The small size of the ABE reading instruction research base precludes establishing more than just a few principles based solidly on large numbers of research studies that have been replicated. Some of the topic areas reviewed contain no or very few research studies. This does not necessarily suggest that the quality of ABE reading instruction research is poorer than K-12 reading instruction research or other bodies of research, only that there is less of it. The relative quality of the ABE experimental research base is the subject for another review, one that looks at the relative ratio of experimental to non-experimental studies in various fields, for example, or that analyzes the relative quality of methods used.
The main sections of the report focus on the major aspects of reading instruction: assessing students in order to describe their reading "profiles" or overall reading ability, alphabetics instruction, fluency instruction, vocabulary instruction, and reading comprehension instruction. Computer technology also forms a section. Assessment of student strengths and needs in reading is presented first because it is one of a teacher's first tasks. Sections on the major components begin with alphabetics and end with comprehension. This corresponds to the movement from smaller units of instruction to larger ones, and also from those aspects of the reading process that are considered "enabling" (alphabetics and fluency) to those that are considered the ultimate goal in reading (vocabulary and comprehension) (Snow, Burns, & Girffin, 1998; NRP, 2000a).
Although each component is covered in a separate section of the report, this does not mean that they should be taught separately. In fact, research suggests they need to be taught together for instruction to be truly effective (Snow et al., 1998; NRP, 2000a). Although research may attempt to isolate effective instructional approaches or aspects of effective instruction, this does not imply that only one approach should be used or that instruction should focus on only one aspect of reading.
Each of the main sections of the report presents (a) a description of the major aspect of reading covered in a section, including a definition and rationale and, when appropriate, how a reading component is assessed, (b) major questions related to ABE reading instruction associated with specific topics of interest to ABE practitioners, (c) answers to these questions in the form of emerging principles or trends when the questions have been addressed by the research, (d) a short summary of the research related to each principle or trend, and (e) ideas (and comments) for ABE reading instruction derived from K-12 reading instruction research.
Subtopics important to ABE reading instruction, identified by the RRWG, are listed in the left column in the following table. These form subsections in the report. All subsections are shaded in the table.
The final section of the report summarizes some of the more important findings and presents an agenda for future research based on these findings.
This review attempts to maintain a close link between the ABE reading instruction research base and the principles and practices that are derived from it. The statement of each principle or trend in the main sections includes citations that refer to relevant research studies. Studies that support a principle or trend are cited as well as those that may not. Citations for instructional studies with relevant experimental results, as defined in the methods section, are underlined, while citations for instructional studies with non-experimental results are not. Assessment studies, those studies that describe ABE learners' reading, are underlined if they use sound inferential statistical procedures, as described in the Methods section. Assessment studies that take snapshots of learners' reading abilities do not necessarily compare groups over time and therefore might not use an experimental design.
Some studies are cited more than once. These studies deal with more than one issue and are used to support more than one principle or trend. Because a study may have both experimental and non-experimental results, it is possible that its citation will be underlined in one instance (when its experimental results support a principle) and not in another (when its non-experimental results are used in support of a principle).
Use of K-12 Research
One task for the ABE Reading Research Working Group is to identify gaps in the ABE reading research and how these gaps might be addressed. Where should the ABE instructor look for suggestions on the best ways to teach reading to ABE learners when the ABE research has not yet addressed a topic? The National Reading Panel (NRP) has summarized reading instruction research results at the K-12 level (National Reading Panel, 2000a). One strong recommendation from the RRWG is to look to the NRP results for K-12 students, selecting for consideration those approaches to reading instruction that might also work with the ABE learner.
The findings or conclusions related to reading instruction from the NRP are used in this report in several different ways: (1) to provide support for tentative conclusions related to ABE reading instruction (when the findings from the NRP and those for adults are compatible); (2) to signal caution when the findings are not compatible; and, (3) to help "fill in gaps" in the ABE reading instruction principles where no or very few research-based results are available. The guidelines used in selecting K-12 instructional practices that might be used with adults are presented in the Methods section.
Applying research from the K-12 level to adults is largely speculative, especially in areas where there is little existing ABE research. Nevertheless, a convincing argument can be made for the use of K-12 results with adults when no research-based practices exist at the adult level. Until there is a larger body of ABE research, ABE instructional practices must move ahead without being informed by ABE research. Those practices based on a strong, carefully synthesized K-12 research base may provide the best source of promising ideas for instruction with adults. It should be remembered, however, that ABE is different from K-12 education in ways that have the potential to affect reading instruction outcomes: adults are older; ABE is not mandatory and adult attendance may not be as consistent; adults cannot spend hours each week on reading instruction, as do children; adults and children may bring different strengths and weaknesses to reading instruction; and, adults have different interests so that approaches that appeal to children may not appeal to adults.