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Understanding Reading Instruction for Adult Learners
What Is Reading?
The definition of reading on page 3 is used by the Partnership for Reading, the National Reading Panel, and the federal Reading First law. According to this definition, reading is "a complex system of deriving meaning from print" that requires:
These key elements define the content of reading instruction, and research provides guidelines for building many of the important skills. This is good news because the need is great.
What Do We Know About Adults' Reading Needs?
Reading opens many doors--to employment, training, higher education, and lifelong learning. Adults who don't read well face serious barriers as they attempt to earn a living wage, to support their children's learning, and to fully participate in civic and community life. They are unable to gain access to a wealth of print information that readers take for granted, and they miss out on the joy of reading for pleasure.
Although we can't say exactly how literate adults need to be, we can say with certainty that most of the parents in family literacy and other basic education programs are seeking higher levels of literacy or English language proficiency to reach their personal, family, and work-related goals. That's why they enroll in adult education programs.
Most adult learners are employed and working hard to support themselves and to care for their families. Many have developed interpersonal and other skills that have enabled them to function as competent, contributing adults in spite of their lack of basic skills. However, they have hopes for the future, and they believe that education will give them options to improve their lives.
These adults know they need help to achieve their educational goals, but are often unaware of what it will take to do so. In particular, they may not realize the extent to which their reading ability is a barrier to their continued educational progress. Many enroll with the goal of earning a GED certificate, and expect to reach that goal in a matter of weeks or months. For some, a skills brush-up is sufficient, but most will need to do considerably more work than they anticipate. Some learners need to focus only on math or writing, but for others, the problem is more basic. Reading skill deficits affect performance on nearly every part of the GED test battery, because they are written tests. Learners with reading problems must address them before they can hope to meet their goals.
The number of adults with reading problems can be estimated based on national surveys. For instance, in 1992, 46% of adults in the U.S had Level 1 or Level 2 literacy skills, the lowest of five levels defined by the National Adult Literacy Survey (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993). (As this book is going to press, new data on adult literacy are being released by the National Center for Educational Statistics.)
How many of these adults are enrolled in ABE or other basic skills programs? The learner groups that programs serve vary, but the Third National Even Start Evaluation (U.S. Department of Education, 2003) gives us an idea of the literacy skills of adult participants in family literacy. This report shows that 11% of adults in Even Start in 2000-2001 participated in adult basic education services at the 0-4 grade level. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Reporting System, in ABE/GED programs, the number of low-level learners is higher. About 21% of adults in 2001-02 entered with reading skills at 3.9 GE or below (Participants by Entering Functioning Level, 2001-2002 Aggregate).
Clearly these adults need reading instruction. But what about the others? Is reading instruction important only for beginners?
Research tells us that mid-level readers (often the largest percentage of adult learners) have extremely varied reading needs, and although they have learned some word identification skills, they often don't make good use of these skills when reading. When they come to a word they don't recognize, they may use the first few letters and/or context clues to guess rather than decode the word (Davidson & Strucker, 2002). Other learners need to increase fluency, build vocabulary, or improve comprehension.
In other words, although they may not always understand the exact nature of their problems, many adults in basic education programs need to improve their reading. So why don't teachers spend more time on reading?
Challenges in meeting adults' reading needs
In current practice, teachers in many adult education and family literacy classrooms focus on GED preparation and other goal-related instruction.
Of course, many of these adults are not able to read GED-level textbooks or other goal-related materials, but in a multi-level classroom, teachers often feel they can't provide the kind of individualized reading instruction that these adults need. Teachers do the best they can to manage small- and large-group learning activities aimed at what seem to be common needs and rely on workbooks for individualized skills instruction. In the learning lab type of class, adults spend a large portion of their class time working independently on the skills they need, using textbooks or computer-assisted instruction programs, while the teacher circulates to provide help. In some classrooms the teacher is able to provide a volunteer tutor to work one-to-one with a learner who needs extra assistance.
This approach evolved in response to the realities of the setting and the learners. The multi-level classroom is common in adult basic skills education. The adults who enroll are busy with other life responsibilities, usually have limited time to give to education, and may be erratic in attendance. For these reasons, teachers often have found that some combination of the activities described above is the only workable way to manage their classes. Beder and Medina (2001) found in most of the adult literacy classrooms they observed "little evidence of teachers systematically assessing learners' needs or evaluating whether instruction met individual or group needs." They also concluded that continuous enrollment and mixed skill levels are very serious problems for adult educators.
Some states are beginning to move away from the multi-level class format and are recommending that programs provide classes designated for specific ability levels. In some urban areas with many classes at various sites, this kind of programming already exists.
However, even if the setting allows for individualized instruction, teachers usually have limited information about learners' needs. Armed with a couple of TABE test scores, they are expected to know just what each adult needs and how to go about providing it. It's not surprising that little explicit reading instruction is going on.
But now we have access to research (discussed later in this chapter) that tells us that adult learners have widely varying needs, and that we can administer specific assessments to create meaningful learner profiles. We also know now that if we work on those aspects or components of reading that are identified as needs, we might really make a difference for adult learners.
Of course, the realities of your situation are still with you! You will be challenged to find ways to use what we know to meet the reading needs of adults with varying skills and abilities. To some extent, meeting learners' needs is a matter of classroom management: planning simultaneous small-group activities, for example. But you may also need training to build your skills and awareness of options in instructional strategies. In particular, if you are working with beginning readers, you may want to find out more about one of the structured programs that have proven successful with children and adults who have reading disabilities.
Or you may be "running hard" to keep up with the needs of a growing number of immigrants, many of whom need to learn to speak as well as read and write English. If your class includes these students along with native speakers of English, you are challenged indeed! As a first step, you may need special training to build awareness of cultural differences, so you can work effectively with these learners.
You may need other kinds of resources as well: more class offerings, more flexible space, teaching assistants, tutors, computers, etc. Even if you don't see a way to make these changes soon, knowing what needs to be done is the first step. The information on research-based instruction and assessment options and the instructional planning examples in Chapters 8 and 9 may help you to think creatively about what you can do with existing resources. In some cases, you may (at least) identify a target to aim for, so you can advocate for the kind of program services that adult learners need.
In summary, you can begin with some concrete steps to help adult learners improve their reading skills:
What Can We Learn From the Reading Research?
Research can tell us something about reading instruction that has worked for adult learners, and knowing what works best is important because adult learners have no time to waste. We have a responsibility to help them become better readers and reach their educational goals as efficiently as possible.
Teachers who try to keep up to date by reading professional journals may be confused and put off by the quantity of "new" programs and priorities. Research offers standards for evaluating this flood of information--new ideas, competing claims, and commercial products--that educators are exposed to every day.
What are those standards? In their book, Using Research and Reason in Education (2003), Stanovich and Stanovich list the following criteria for evaluating claims:
The authors explain that the requirement that a study be published in a refereed journal is a minimal standard. At the very least, a research study should have undergone the scrutiny of journal reviewers, who are themselves researchers in the same (or an allied) field of study.
Experimental research1 related to educational practice can determine that: if a teacher does A, the learning result is B.
1 Experimental research is just one kind of research, but it is what we look for to establish that educational practices are effective. In order for that conclusion to be valid, the study must employ the logic of the experimental method, which enables the researcher to rule out other possible causes for the result.
For example, in a study that examines student learning after a teacher implements a new reading program, the researcher must control for other factors that might contribute to learning. Journal reviewers evaluating the claim demand evidence that the reading program should get the credit for improving reading comprehension.
They want to know that the student group receiving the new reading program and the other group that didn't use the new program are similar--that the experimental group didn't have characteristics that gave them an advantage. For example, reviewers want to be sure the experimental group didn't have better reading skills at the beginning of the study. They need to know that the researcher tried to ensure that the two groups were similar with regard to skills and other characteristics that might affect the learning outcome (age, prior learning, life experience, English language proficiency, etc.). They also want to be sure the students in both groups spent the same amount of time studying and the teacher in the experimental class didn't provide supplemental instruction.
By controlling for such factors that could influence the outcome, the researcher is able to state with some confidence that the new reading program caused the learning gain. (See Appendix A for details on research methods.)
Journal reviewers should look critically at such claims to be sure they are logically justified. If a study has not been exposed to--or has not survived--this sort of scrutiny, we should be wary of accepting any claims based upon it. But even that isn't enough. No single study carries enough weight to support a claim about an instructional practice.
The findings of a scientific experiment or educational study must be presented to the scientific community so other researchers can try it for themselves. If they repeat the experiment or educational intervention and have the same outcome, the finding has been replicated. Other researchers may try the intervention with different learner groups or in different program settings to see whether, or to what extent, the findings may be generalized. This kind of information is vital for practitioners who need to know how and when to apply research-based principles and practices.
We can have great confidence in the validity of a claim if many studies point to the same conclusion. A review or synthesis of a body of research presents this converging evidence and makes research knowledge accessible to educators who cannot be expected to read and digest all of the original studies.
Evidence from a large number of related studies may be combined using a statistical technique called meta-analysis. Meta-analysis is one way to resolve disputes about studies with conflicting results and so may be a good resource for educators looking for answers. According to Stanovich and Stanovich (2003),
The method is useful for ending disputes that seem to be nothing more than a ิhe-said, she-said' debate. An emphasis on meta-analysis has often revealed that we actually have more stable and useful findings than is apparent from a perusal of the conflicts in our journals (p. 18)
This is exactly what has happened recently in the field of reading, where debate about instructional approaches has a long history. A synthesis of the reading research for young children was done by the National Research Council and reported in 1998 in a book titled Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, Eds.). The National Reading Panel did a meta-analysis of the reading research for preschool through grade twelve, which is discussed in the volume Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read (NICHD, 2000). And more recently, the National Institute for Literacy published a review of the adult reading research titled Research-Based Principles for Adult Basic Education Reading Instruction (Kruidenier, 2002). This review, done by the Reading Research Working Group convened by the National Institute for Literacy and the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, also draws inferences from the first two reports in areas where there are gaps in the adult reading research. The next section is an overview of what these research reviews have to say about teaching reading.
Classroom applications and professional wisdom
Scientific research hasn't yet been conducted on many instructional questions that arise in adult education classrooms. The available research doesn't identify the best textbooks or computer-assisted instructional programs. It doesn't establish proven strategies for working with multi-level adult learner groups or tell you how to manage your limited instructional time. This book can't offer tried-and-true recipes for addressing every hurdle that adult learners face or for providing structured, sequential instruction for a working parent who can't make it to class more than a few times a month.
Yet when a topic lacks a research base or hasn't been evaluated according to principles of scientific evaluation, it is still important to look at the findings and principles from the established research base to look for clues on how to best approach an instructional challenge. The lack of scientific evidence for the efficacy or effectiveness of a particular approach doesn't mean it's impossible to decide what to do. By consulting the research base, you may or may not find that the approach in question has a link to existing research. If it does, you may reasonably decide to use it. If not, you should consider an alternative.
Making good decisions about applying research findings also means understanding individual learners, groups, and classroom settings so your instruction acknowledges their particular characteristics. The judgment that you've acquired through experience also enters the decision-making process. Together, these forms of knowledge may be called professional wisdom, which allows educators to adapt to local circumstances and operate intelligently in the many areas in which research evidence is absent or incomplete.
What Are the Components of Reading?
Research has identified five components of reading:
Each of the first four components plays an important role in facilitating comprehension, which is, of course, what reading is all about.
What Are the Components of Reading Instruction?
Paralleling the reading components are the instructional components:
How Do the Components Work Together?
Comprehension is the goal of reading instruction. All of the reading components contribute to the development of comprehension.
Alphabetics: phonemic awareness training and phonics instruction
The foundation for reading is the ability to identify words in print. Word identification skills are often called alphabetics. The term alphabetics refers to phonemic awareness, decoding, and sight-word recognition.
Sight words are those a reader recognizes automatically and reads rapidly. Some frequently encountered words, especially those that have phonetically irregular spellings, are initially taught to be recognized on sight, to enhance reading speed and fluency. But even if a reader initially identifies a word by decoding, after many exposures the word is stored in memory and can be quickly recognized. In this way all words eventually become "sight words."
Fluency is vital to comprehension. A fluent reader identifies words rapidly and accurately with little effort, and is therefore able to focus on meaning. A fluent reader also "interprets" while reading to determine appropriate phrasing and expression. This aspect of fluency indicates comprehension of the writer's message. Guided repeated oral reading is a recommended strategy for building fluency in beginning and developing readers. (See Chapter 5 for details.)
Vocabulary is important to reading comprehension in two ways. The beginning reader uses decoding skills to "translate" print into words that are already in his oral vocabulary. At higher reading levels, vocabulary knowledge is critical for understanding increasingly difficult materials. Learners not only need to learn new words; they need to deepen their knowledge of words they already know. Vocabulary instruction should involve direct teaching and context-based approaches. (See Chapter 6 for details.)
Comprehension strategies enable learners to monitor their own understanding as they read and to solve comprehension problems. Teachers provide direct instruction in monitoring and repair strategies. (See Chapter 7 for details.)
Teaching the component skills
These components should not be seen as sequential. Students don't learn the alphabetics skills and then become fluent and then develop vocabulary and then focus on comprehension. Although the foundational alphabetics skills are a primary focus of beginning instruction, in fact, all the components reinforce each other, and as a result, often develop simultaneously. Teachers should address all the necessary components (at appropriate levels of difficulty) in reading lessons (Kruidenier, 2002).
In addition, the skills should be taught and practiced not only with drills and workbook exercises, but also with meaningful, authentic (real-life) materials, including texts in content areas like science, social studies, literature, and materials related to work and home life. The National Institute for Literacy's website, Assessment Strategies and Reading Profiles (www.nifl.gov/readingprofiles/), clearly makes this point: "Reading is a combination of many sub-skills combined to achieve the common goal of comprehension. Teaching reading sub-skills in an authentic setting ensures that there is never a moment when comprehension is not a factor."
Print-based and Meaning-based Skills
Another way to understand the components is to group them into two categories:
Print skills have to do with reading words accurately and rapidly. When use of these skills is comfortable and automatic, the reader can attend to the meaning of the text, which is the focus of vocabulary and comprehension-strategy instruction. This distinction is not only a helpful simplifier; it also reflects common patterns observed in groups of adult learners.
Indications and suspicions cannot substitute for a formal diagnosis, so you must not assume that an adult has a learning disability.
For instance, reading researchers suggest that adults whose meaning skills are significantly stronger than their print skills present a profile associated with reading disability (Chall,1994, as cited in Kruidenier, 2002). We now know that most reading disabilities are related to word reading. You may suspect a disability when an adult struggles with print skills--isolated word identification, phonemic awareness, and decoding--but has an adequate oral vocabulary and is capable of understanding text when it is read to her.
English language learners present the opposite profile. They often exhibit stronger word identification abilities and fluency, with relative weakness in the meaning-based components. What holds them back is more likely a limited English vocabulary, not a reading disability. These two types of learners may have fairly similar scores on a silent reading comprehension test and even on a test of word recognition, yet have very different strengths and needs (Davidson & Strucker, 2002).
One lesson to be taken from these patterns is that you need to be able to assess adult learners' abilities in the component skills. A silent reading test alone often will not suffice. You have an opportunity to uncover problems that may never before have been identified and addressed. Unless you find out exactly what each learner needs, you will not be able to offer a real second chance at learning.
As you can see, research offers important insights about adult readers. It also provides guidance (or at least suggestions) for practice. As we get to specifics about assessment and instruction in the next chapters, you will see frequent references to adult education research principles. The next section introduces this research and includes a complete list of the principles.
What Does the Adult Education Research Say?
The resource of first resort for adult educators is Research-Based Principles for Adult Basic Education Reading Instruction (Kruidenier, 2002), a report of the research review done by the Reading Research Working Group (RRWG). Conclusions and suggestions presented in the report are from a fairly small body of experimental and non-experimental research in adult education, about 70 qualifying studies. A series of "emerging principles" described in the report are based on results from at least two experimental studies and any number of non-experimental studies. Findings based on fewer studies are labeled "trends."
Because very little experimental research on adult reading instruction has been done, the findings are carefully phrased. Note the frequent use of the word may, which indicates that further research is required to establish the validity of these results.
Relevant findings from the K-12 research are also included in the report as "ideas." The experimental research on children offers a much larger body of evidence, so where the adult research proved to be limited, the RRWG looked to the data on children. Of course, we can't be sure that these principles apply to adults, but until we have more adult education research, it seems reasonable to make use of this evidence in situations where adult learners and the children in the research have similar characteristics.
You should also be aware that most of the adult research was done with native speakers of English. Unless ESOL adults are specifically mentioned, the principles listed on previous page may not apply to them. For additional information on research specific to English language learners, you might consult The Center for Adult English Language Acquisition www.cal.org/caela.
The principles below are taken from Research-Based Principles for Adult Basic Education Reading Instruction (Kruidenier, 2002, pp. 20-27). They are grouped by topic and reading component area.
The term ABE, as used below, includes both Adult Basic Education and Adult Secondary Education (ASE) services.
Reading Assessment Profiles
Principle 1. When measures of achievement are obtained for each crucial aspect of reading instruction (alphabetics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), instructionally relevant patterns of scores, or profiles of adults' strengths and needs in reading, may be observed. These profiles suggest that ABE readers, including those in ESOL programs and those with a reading disability, are very diverse and that any one measure of reading achievement may not be sufficient to identify strengths and needs for instruction.
Alphabetics (Phonemic Awareness and Phonics)
Principle 2. Adult non-readers have virtually no phonemic awareness ability and are unable to consistently perform, on their own, almost all phonemic awareness tasks.
Principle 3. Adult beginning readers, like all beginning readers including children, perform poorly on phonemic awareness tasks that require phoneme manipulation. The ability to perform more complex operations with phonemes generally increases (in adults without a reading disability) along with reading ability, until word analysis is established.
Principle 4. Adult beginning readers, like other beginning readers, have difficulty applying letter-sound knowledge in order to figure out new or unfamiliar words while reading, although they are generally better at recognizing familiar sight words than children who are learning to read.
Principle 5. Participation in ABE programs may lead to increases in adult beginning readers' word analysis abilities.
Principle 6. Phonemic awareness and/or word analysis instruction may lead to increased achievement in other aspects of reading for adult beginning readers.
Principle 7. Word analysis may be taught using approaches that include direct instruction in word analysis along with instruction in other aspects of reading.
Principle 8. Fluency is an issue for adult beginning readers, intermediate readers, and perhaps for those reading at more advanced ABE levels. There are very large differences between adults with good and poor reading fluency, and adult beginning readers' fluency is similar to the fluency of children who are beginning readers.
Principle 9. Fluency may be taught to ABE students and fluency practice may lead to increases in reading achievement.
Principle 10. Fluency may be taught using approaches that include the repeated reading of passages of text, words from texts, and other text units.
Principle 11. Adults who qualify for ABE have poor functional literacy comprehension achievement. Although they may be able to perform simple comprehension tasks such as recalling ideas from simple stories and locating a single piece of information in a simple text, they are often unable to combine (integrate and synthesize) information from longer or more complex texts.
Principle 12. ESL adults, on average, tend to have lower functional literacy comprehension achievement in English; the percentage of ESL adults among the ABE target population is greater than the percentage among the general adult population.
Principle 13. Adults with a learning disability tend, on average, to have lower functional literacy comprehension achievement and are over-represented within the ABE target population.
Principle 14. Participation in an adult literacy program may lead to an increase in reading comprehension achievement.
Principle 15. Providing explicit instruction in reading comprehension strategies may lead to increased reading comprehension achievement.
Principle 16. Combining comprehension instruction with instruction in various other components of reading may lead to increased reading comprehension achievement.
Principle 17. In general, computer-assisted instruction (CAI) is at least as effective as non-CAI in increasing reading comprehension achievement.
Principle 18. The use of CAI may lead to increased reading comprehension achievement.
As you can see, we now have research support for making changes in the way we approach reading instruction. We know that many adults need explicit reading instruction and that addressing deficiencies in aspects or components of reading--like decoding and fluency--will likely pay off. Although the adult education research base is small compared to the research on K-12 reading instruction, we can make some use of what is known about teaching children. In addition, we can look forward to more information on adult learning in the near future. A number of studies are underway to fill in some of our knowledge gaps (see Chapter 1, page 5).
In the meantime, you can use what we have, adapt with care what the children's research has to say, and apply these established principles to make decisions about instruction. This approach is reasonable because the Reading Research Working Group found that the adult education research results were usually compatible with the research on children, not in conflict.
As knowledgeable professionals, you have tools to use in making critical judgments about your practice. Of course, what you do is only half of the equation. Despite your best efforts, without the learners' active participation and commitment, they may not achieve their learning goals
How Do We Apply What We Know in Working with Adult Learners?
Once you have accepted the challenge that comes with knowing what should be done, how can you help learners understand what they need and make a commitment to do what it takes to improve their skills? The suggestions below are based on the experience of adult education practitioners. They may help you to make the most of what the research says about adults' reading needs. Think about how or whether these ideas apply to the learners in your class.
Building learner awareness of reading needs
Working with adults as partners gives them a measure of control and may help them to maintain the motivation to continue their studies. Another strategy for maintaining momentum is to keep learning activities connected to individual learner goals.
Making instruction relevant and useful
Adult learners, including those working on basic reading skills, have practical goals in mind. What they do in class should directly relate to those goals because if they do not see the instruction as relevant they may stop coming to class. To achieve their goals, adults must be able to transfer their reading skills to out-of-class contexts and tasks (on the job or at home), and making this transfer requires practice doing exactly that. Transfer doesn't always happen as a matter of course. You need to teach the transfer.
On the other hand, you must provide the instruction learners need, and if, for instance, they need basic reading skill development, you will have to use a structured, sequential approach. Even if you do not adopt one textbook or program, you may decide to use commercial materials to introduce concepts and skills and provide early practice opportunities or reading matter with a controlled vocabulary. You will be challenged to integrate the skills instruction they need with real-world learning based on goals.
For many learners it may be fairly easy to use authentic work- or family-related materials--or pre-GED textbooks--to practice reading and writing. For those with more serious reading deficiencies, though, finding adult materials at appropriate levels is often difficult. You may have to ask the learners to have patience as you use classroom texts or other structured material to introduce skills. Whenever possible, they should eventually practice those skills with authentic (real-life) materials.
"Remember that we're working on these word patterns so you can figure out some of the words you don't know in labels and directions at work. Today we'll continue with the patterns and practice with them in your workbook, but tomorrow, if you'll bring in something you have to read at work, we'll look for pattern words and you can see how it works with the real thing."
You may also tape portions of authentic materials (manuals from work, for instance) and have adults read along with the tape. This works best if the material is not too far above their reading level. Another option for weaker readers is to read the material aloud and ask them to retell it. If you take down their words you create meaningful reading material they can discuss and use for skills practice.
And of course, direct skills instruction should not be the only focus of the reading lesson. Adults should have other literacy-rich experiences as well: reading and discussing stories, poetry, and articles, or researching topics of interest.
Planning for out-of-classroom learning
Even those who attend regularly probably spend only a few hours in class each week, and adults with limited reading skills will likely need to attend class for many months or years to achieve their reading goals. To the extent possible (without discouraging the learners), you should show your respect for adults by being truthful and preparing them for a large investment of time and effort. They may be able to increase their "time on task" by studying outside of class on their own time. You can encourage them by making specific assignments--but be sure to assign only tasks they can complete without assistance. (And remember, of course, that some people don't have time for home study.)
We also know that many adult learners attend for a while, "stop out" for a while, and then come back or re-enroll at another location. This is a common pattern. Some adults make a real effort to continue learning during the periods when they are not attending class. They review their textbooks and use TV or computer-based instructional programs (Reder, 2003).
With that knowledge in mind, and understanding that life complications make it likely that many of the adults in your class today will not attend long enough to reach their goals before they leave you, you may want to think about ways to facilitate self-study.
To the extent possible, be sure that learners have tools and materials to continue learning outside of class. And be sure they are familiar with the library and (if their skills permit) know how to use the computers most libraries now make available to patrons.
Summary: Tips for Goal-Directed Reading Instruction