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Planning Reading Instruction for Adults

Instructional planning involves both content and process. The content of a reading activity or lesson is determined by the reading-component needs of individuals and groups. This chapter will discuss ways to address the component skills in learning activities for adults with different levels of reading skill. The process of instruction involves general instructional principles, which are reviewed here first.

What Do We Know About Learning and Teaching?

Information about teaching adults to read abounds, but for decades adult literacy instructors have used programs and activities in the absence of definitive research that demonstrates their effectiveness. Such demonstrations are now emerging through the efforts of researchers and of developers willing to submit their programs to high quality evaluation. Without a strong research foundation, adult literacy teachers have in the past based their instruction on a range of philosophies and techniques, many of them "home grown" and created without the benefit of research into what works. Under such circumstances, how could teachers know which choices were best? The answer is: they could not. It is entirely possible that some adult literacy programs, or program elements, were highly or partly effective. But by and large, it was up to teachers to decide what worked best, and for whom, and sometimes these decisions were based on instinct, personal philosophy, or anecdotal information from other teachers

Similar models and approaches are often called by different names. For instance, "explicit teaching," "direct instruction," "active teaching," and "expository teaching" are terms you may be familiar with that have been used by different authors to describe similar approaches (Woolfolk, 1998). As you read this summary and other literature, don't be put off by the variety of labels. Look for common elements and distinctive features.

With the advent of scientifically based reading research, teachers can now plan instruction and activities with the confidence of rigorous scientific study behind their choices. The practices described below are based on the existing evidence-based research and offer helpful guidance. Begin with these proven approaches and, where science has not yet answered questions about adult literacy instruction use your professional wisdom to adapt them for your students.

The approaches suggested in this section are those most frequently cited in a number of reviews of the research on effective teaching in general and on the characteristics of effective instruction for students with learning disabilities (LD). The LD research is applicable because many adults in basic skills programs have the characteristics of a reading disability (Chall, as cited in Kruidenier, 2002). Although this summary does not represent a complete survey of the literature, you may find this sampling of the research helpful in your analysis and decision making.

Of course, most of the research is based on experience in children's classrooms, but to the extent that K-12 students and adult learners have similar characteristics, the findings may be applicable in ABE and family literacy settings. So consider the principles described on the next few pages and think about how they might apply to what you know about reading instruction for adults.

Principles of effective instruction

The research reviews have a lot in common. Featured prominently are references to sequencing of tasks, the need for explanation, modeling, and guided practice, and the importance of multiple practice opportunities. Several of the principles echo the findings of the National Reading Panel, so we can make a direct connection to reading instruction. Many of these features of effective instruction are represented in the following models or general approaches, repeatedly found to be effective:

  • Explicit or direct instruction
  • Strategy instruction
  • Scaffolded instruction
  • Intensive instruction or active engagement
  • Structured or segmented instruction

You will notice that the several of the approaches have similar features, and you should not see them as completely distinct. There is considerable overlap among them.

Explicit instruction. Explicit instruction is one of the principles identified in a research synthesis on effective teaching (Ellis, Worthington & Larkin, 1994). The authors cite three features of this approach:

  • Teachers using explicit instruction make goals, objectives and expectations explicit.
  • They make instructional content explicit.
  • They make the structure of the lesson presentation explicit.

In explicit teaching, you make clear the objectives and purpose of each learning activity and explain how each activity relates to broader learning goals. For example, you might begin with an activity to access prior knowledge, build background knowledge, and show how the skill or content being addressed relates to the bigger picture. Then during the instructional process, you return frequently to the big picture to maintain the learners' awareness of the purpose and use of the skill. ("You need this so you can . . . This is the first step in learning to . . .")

You address all aspects of the learning task: how to think about it, how and when to perform the task or use the information, and how to evaluate the task. You show learners what good performance "looks like." Leaving nothing to chance, you check on the required underlying skills and knowledge and then work through each step (National ALLD Center, 1999). You teach clearly and directly by explaining and modeling the skill or concept, guiding learners as they practice, and providing many opportunities for application of the skill to ensure that they can generalize (transfer) their learning to other contexts and situations (Mercer & Lane, 1996; Mellard & Scanlon, 1998; Woolfolk, 1998).

Strategy instruction. Strategy instruction is not designed to teach content; instead it teaches learning tools. Strategy instruction aims to teach learners how to learn effectively, by applying principles, rules, or multi-step processes to solve problems or accomplish learning tasks. Examples of strategies include phonics rules, ways to monitor comprehension, procedures for decoding multi-syllabic words, tips for using context clues to define words, and test-taking strategies.

In teaching strategies, you model your thought processes, demonstrating when and how to use the strategy and then prompting or cueing learners, as needed, when it is appropriate for them to use a strategy that has been taught (Ellis et al., 1994; Swanson, 1999; and Taylor, Pressley, & Pearson, EffTchrspaper.pdf).

Scaffolded instruction. Scaffolded instruction is the process of supporting learners in various ways as they learn, and gradually withdrawing supports as they become capable of independent performance of a task or skill. Supports include clues, clarifying questions, reminders, encouragement, breaking the problem down into steps, "or anything else that allows the student to grow in independence" (Woolfolk, 1998, p. 47). According to Swanson, in scaffolded instruction, students are viewed as collaborators and the teacher as "a guide, shaping the instruction and providing support for the learning" (Swanson, 1999, p. 138). This is an interactive process that bases instruction on learners' prior knowledge, provides needed support, and gradually removes the support as it becomes less necessary (Ellis et al., 1994).

Intensive instruction. The two elements of intensive instruction are active learning and time. Intensive instruction involves active learner engagement and plenty of time on task (Ellis et al., 1994; National ALLD Center, 1999). Students learn more when they are active, that is, not just listening or watching, but applying "focused, sustained effort on the content or task" (Mellard & Scanlon, 1998, p. 293). For example, they might be using a decoding strategy on an unfamiliar word, practicing sight words with flash cards, participating in a discussion about a text, working to solve a comprehension problem, or creating a "map" or other graphic organizer. And, as might be expected, they learn more when they spend more time engaged in such activities. Although it may seem like "over-learning" for average students, struggling learners usually require multiple and frequent practice opportunities. Intensive instruction has also been described as requiring a high degree of learner attention and response and frequent instructional sessions (National ALLD Center).

Structured/segmented instruction. Structured instruction has been defined as the act of "systematically teaching information that has been chunked into manageable pieces" (National ALLD Center, 1999). Complex skills or large bodies of information are broken into parts, which are taught systematically according to a planned sequence. An approach that is described similarly has been termed "segmentation" (Swanson, 1999). You must analyze each task and break it into its component parts, and then after teaching the parts systematically, bring them back together so learners are aware of the process or concept as a whole.

You have probably noticed that these approaches are similar to each other, and when used together, would seem complementary. It's easy to imagine what teaching looks like in a classroom where these methods prevail most of the time.

Many of these principles are based on reviews of instruction with the full range of learners in children's classrooms. Do you think these approaches are likely to work well with the learners in your class?

Key features of effective instruction: A summary
  • Explicit instruction
    • Make goals, lesson objectives, activities, and expectations clear
    • Make connections between lesson activities and broader skill goals
    • Address background knowledge and prerequisite skills
    • Explain and model all aspects of the task
    • Assume nothing and leave nothing to chance
  • Strategy instruction
    • Teach learning tools: principles, rules, or multi-step processes to accomplish learning tasks
    • Model and demonstrate; prompt and cue learners to use strategies
  • Scaffolded instruction
    • Provide supports for learning as needed: breaking into steps, providing clues, reminders, or encouragement
    • Withdraw support gradually as it becomes less necessary
  • Intensive instruction or active engagement
    • Keep learners focused, active, and responding
    • Provide plenty of "time on task"
  • Structured or segmented instruction
    • Break information and skills into manageable parts
    • Teach parts systematically and in sequence
    • Bring the parts together to re-focus on the whole
Responding to individual differences

Variety is the rule in adult classrooms. Because individuals differ in many ways, the effectiveness of a strategy or technique can vary from one learner to another. Because of differences in early school experiences, perceptions of the nature of teaching and learning, personal histories, cultural differences (including expectations about schooling and the teacher's role), special aptitudes or special learning needs, and (of course) current life stressors, individuals often respond in unanticipated ways to even the most well-planned instruction.

Given this variety, what do you do? First, of course, choose teaching strategies that research says have the greatest chance of effectiveness, but also, with the learners and setting in mind, use your professional wisdom in applying them.

  • Be sensitive and aware of learners' needs and preferences
  • Be explicit with learners about the purposes of classroom activities
  • Talk with individuals (if a direct approach seems appropriate) to identify problems or concerns
  • Be patient; give instructional strategies time to work
  • Be flexible and creative in applying strategies; make adjustments in response to individual differences

Planning Reading Instruction: Who Needs What and When?

One might assume that the alphabetics skills are learned first, and then as accurate word identification and fluency develop, the focus of teaching and learning shifts to comprehension. In fact, as discussed earlier, literacy learning is not such a simple, linear process. The reading components interact and reinforce each other.

Phonemic awareness precedes and supports acquisition of decoding skills, but readers don't get to be experts at phonemic awareness and then learn to read. It appears that although phonemic awareness is an important foundation, it continues to develop as reading skills increase. Learning to read actually increases phonemic awareness (Kruidenier, 2002, Chard & Dickson, 1999).

The relationship between fluency and comprehension also appears to be reciprocal ("Assessment Strategies and Reading Profiles" website).11

11 Part of the National Institute for Literacy site with data from the Adult Reading Components Study (ARCS)

Fluency (accuracy, rate, and expression) is vital to understanding the written word. Increasing fluency improves comprehension. At the same time, fluency depends to some extent upon comprehension. Without background knowledge and vocabulary in the subject matter, a reader doesn't know how to read a text with phrasing and expression.

Because these interactions are complex, and because adult learners' profiles are typically uneven, with strengths in some components and weakness in others, it makes sense to include all needed component areas in lessons as frequently as time allows. Ideally, the proportion of time spent on one or another component varies depending upon individual needs, but when planning for groups it's safe to assume you'll have to address most of the components. Research shows that most ABE and family literacy learners need work on fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Many also need work on decoding skills. The challenge is to integrate the needed components to create a well-paced lesson with the right balance between review, new learning, and practice.

0-3 GE4-7 GE8-12 GE
Print Skills
  • Decoding: A structured program that includes phonemic awareness, letter-sound relationships, common rimes (word patterns) and important phonics rules; high-frequency words (signt recognition)
  • Fluency: Decoding practice; guided repeated reading for accuracy and speed
Print Skills
  • Decoding: Structural analysis: e.g., prefixes and suffixes; review of needed rules and letter sounds
  • Fluency: Paired reading or tape assisted reading for accuracy and speed
Print skills
  • Decoding: Multi-syllabic words as needed
  • Fluency: Guided repeated reading for speed, as needed
Meaning Skills
  • Fluency:Oral reading for phrasing and expression
  • Vocabulary:Context clues for word meanings; signal words; Important goal-related words
  • Comprenension:Pre-reading strategies (e.g., accessing prior knowledge); question answering; simple graphic organizers (e.g., KWL & story structure); functional reading and writing (e.g., forms); reading and discussion of interesting or goal-related texts (may also involve listening to texts that are too difficult for independent reading)
Meaning Skills
  • Fluency:Paired reading or performance reading for phrasing and expression
  • Vocabulary:Words in texts; common prefixes and suffixes; signal words; context clues for word meanings; important goal-related words
  • Comprenension:Comprehension monitoring and repair strategies; graphic organizers; question answering; question generating and QARs (question-answer relationships); cooperative learning; functional reading and writing; reading and discussion of interesting/goal-related texts (may also involve listening to more difficult texts)
Meaning Skills
  • Fluency:Performance reading for phrasing and expression
  • Vocabulary:Words in texts; common roots, prefixes, and suffixes; dictionary use; academic/content-area words (e.g. science and social studies); other goal-related words
  • Comprenension:Comprehension monitoring; question generating and QARs; graphic organizers; summarization; multiple strategies; cooperative learning; reading in academic content areas in preparation for further education (depending on goals); reading to build background knowledge; other interest- and goal-related reading activities

Time may not permit you to follow this suggested pattern perfectly in every lesson, but you can at least be aware of this guideline and be sure you don't regularly fail to address any skills that assessment indicates are important. The following table includes examples of skills and activities and shows how the content and emphasis varies across learner levels.

Planning Reading Instruction: Structure and Sequence of Activities

Earlier in this chapter we summarized the research on effective teaching, which has obvious and direct applications to the structure of reading lessons. Research supports the following sequence for teaching basic skills (National ALLD Center, 1999 and Swanson, 1999). You can use it with any of the strategies and activities described in this book.

Sequencing basic-skills instruction
  • Introduction and purpose
    Explain the purpose and objectives of the skill or strategy. Show how it relates to broader objectives, i.e. how it fits with the goal of improving reading comprehension or building vocabulary or improving spelling skills.
  • Explanation and modeling
    Introduce the skill by explaining and demonstrating. Break the skill into parts or steps, and teach them one by one. Give several examples of how and when it should be used. Include non-examples, too, if applicable: "This is what it isn't; here's an example of a situation where you wouldn't use this skill."
  • Guided practice with feedback
    Provide plenty of opportunities for learners to practice the skill or strategy, and pay close attention so you can help if they get stuck, and correct them if they start doing something wrong. Sometimes we are uncomfortable correcting adults, but it does no good—and may do considerable harm—to practice incorrectly. They need multiple opportunities to do it right. Guided practice might take a long time, because you need to remain at this stage until the learners are successfully using the skill or strategy. (In other words don't move on because time on the clock is running out. Continue on another day if need be. Re-teach if necessary.)
  • Independent practice
    When you and the learners feel fairly confident that they've got it, ask them to practice on their own, perhaps as homework, and perhaps applying the skill in another context, with another type of material.
The importance of review

Regular and frequent review rounds out this sequence. Rosenshine's "six teaching functions," based on the research on effective instruction, include review at the beginning and end of the above sequence (Rosenshine & Stevens, as cited in Swanson, 1999 and in Woolfolk, 1998). He would begin with review of the previous days' work and include weekly and monthly review and assessment.

Lesson planning

This book does not offer a model for a reading lesson plan. The scheduling and grouping suggestions in the next section have to do with managing instructional time and using small groups to create homogeneity within the heterogeneity of a multi-level class.

For details on lesson planning, you might consult one of the structured reading programs, which include specific lesson sequences with recommended times for each lesson component. As indicated earlier, you may want to learn about one of these programs to teach beginning reading. Although the lesson plans are intended for beginners, you may be able to adapt them for mid-level learners.

Grouping in Multi-Level Classes: How to Teach What?

One way to manage multi-level instruction is by varying the format: using small- and large-group work and individual study. By grouping learners with common needs and goals, you can teach skills at different levels with different texts. And individual study time allows better readers to work at their own pace on specific needs identified by assessment, while a teacher or aide works with individuals or groups on basic decoding skills, for instance.

Using varied groups and activities offers other benefits as well. Individual study provides a measure of privacy, and many adults appreciate being able to practice without putting their mistakes on display. But these same individuals may enjoy social interaction, too, and may learn a lot from each other through discussion and other group work. Such activities provide a way to build vocabulary and background knowledge in a variety of subject-matter areas. In addition, some adults in basic education programs—even those who have been successful in work and other life activities—carry vivid memories of school failure. They may be relieved to discover they are not alone in their struggles and may enjoy learning in a collaborative classroom, where they can help and encourage each other. Finally, varying activities allows you to address several of the reading components in each lesson, and the changing pace keeps people interested.

What kinds of learning objectives are most appropriate for different kinds of groups? Consider the lists below and think about how you might use large groups, small groups, pairs, or individual study with your class.

Instructional format options

Whole-class or large-group activities

  • Teaching or reviewing commonly needed skills (context clues or comprehension strategies, for instance)
  • Teaching vocabulary
  • Building background knowledge with videos or speakers
  • Reading aloud by teacher (to model fluency or build background knowledge in content areas)
  • Discussion of videos, speakers, reading, class projects, etc.

Small-group or pairs activities

  • Level-appropriate skills practice
  • Repeated oral reading for fluency development
  • Collaborative learning (constructing graphic organizers or working on class project "committee" assignments)
  • Discussion of readings on limited-interest topics
  • Basic reading "classes" for beginners

Individual study

  • Journal writing
  • Workbook study and other practice (work sheets, flash cards)
  • Computer-assisted instruction
  • Silent re-reading of classroom texts
  • Teacher- or tutor-guided repeated oral reading
  • Tape-assisted repeated oral reading
  • Tutoring
  • Short-term help with life-needs or goal-related literacy tasks
Profiles and grouping

Because individual adults' profiles are often uneven, you will probably need to form different groups for different activities. Although one group of people in a class might need to work on building fluency, they might not all have similar decoding problems. Another group might have similar reading comprehension scores allowing them to practice a new comprehension strategy together using the same material, but some members of this group might need to work with others on vocabulary or fluency.

In some programs, adults are assigned to classes according to their skill levels. Even these classes show considerable heterogeneity across the components, but if the range of decoding skills isn't too great, teachers can work more often with the whole group. In a multi-level group, managing instruction to address individual needs may require varied activity formats and flexible grouping.

The examples in the illustration on the following pages reflect a fictional teacher using her professional wisdom to group her students in order to apply what she has learned about effective reading instruction. You might use her ideas as food for thought—input for brainstorming as you approach your own planning.

To see how this might work, consider the following example. The learners are fictional of course, but their test scores are real. The individual profiles are based on assessment data from adult learners participating in research studies (J. Alamprese, personal communication, July 2004 & D. Mellard, personal communication, July 2004).

Elizabeth K. has been teaching at the Mid-City Career Center for 8 years. The local ABE program runs three or four classes at the Center every year, and Liz usually has a mixed-level group of learners. The ESL students are in a separate class, but some of the students in the ABE/GED class are immigrants whose first language is not English. They enroll in ABE because they already have good conversational English skills and/or because they have come as far as the ESL class can take them, and they want to earn a GED.

The instructional plans described here for the Mid-City Learning Center class are not based on the researchers' data. They are presented as illustrations and possibilities only.

The individuals profiled in this illustration are not a random sample of the learners in these studies. They were chosen as examples, to represent a range of learners. The test data used in the illustration are a small sample of the data collected by the researchers.

For years, Liz gave the TABE test and used the results to put together study plans for the GED and pre-GED students. She tried to work one-to-one with the poor readers, but often felt she didn't really know how to help them. Last year, things began to change. The district used special grant money to provide a year-long series of teacher workshops on reading. As part of the reading initiative they also invested in additional reading assessments, and now the teachers have access to training, materials, and even assistance from specialized district staff to help with administering and interpreting the tests.

Now all adults who enroll take a set of assessments covering four component areas:

  • Silent reading comprehension
  • Oral vocabulary
  • Fluency (the test measures speed and accuracy in reading lists of common words at increasing difficulty levels.)
  • Decoding (the test requires the learners to decode pseudo-words, like pag, sike, and fessin.)

Assessment is usually completed within the first two weeks.


Most members of Liz's Tuesday and Thursday evening class enrolled and completed testing within the first few weeks of the school year. Liz met with each student to discuss test results and create individual learning plans. She explained that she would do her best to help them to build needed skills and make progress toward their individual goals. She encouraged them to attend faithfully, to ask for help when they were having a hard time, and to practice their skills outside of class as frequently as possible.

Following are the major goals identified by the class members at enrollment:

  • Michael B.--Improve basic skills
  • Jason D.--Improve reading skills and help children with schoolwork
  • Sarah J.--Get a GED and prepare for community college
  • Luan K.--Improve English reading skills
  • Keisha N.--Get a GED
  • Jin P.--Improve reading skills
  • Brian P.--Get a GED
  • Kyle T.--Get a GED and a job
  • Juan V.--Improve reading skills and get a better job

Assessment results for the members of this class are in the following table.

Mid-City Career Center
Tuesday & Thursday ABE/GED Class
Reading Component Assessment (Grade-Equivalent Scores)
Student Decoding GE Fluency GE Vocabulary GE Reading
Comprehension GE
Michael B. 4.9 3.2 4.7 3.4
Jason D. 2.4 2.6 6.9 5.8
Sarah J. 16.9 2.2 8.4 6.2
Luan K. 5.5 5.4 5.6 5.4
Keisha N. 2.4 2.4 4.9 4.9
Jin P. 14.4 2.6 5.1 3.1
Brian P. 7.8 4.6 8.4 3.3
Kyle T. 11.9 8.0 7.7 6.2
Juan V. 4.4 2.8 4.7 4.0

Source: Abt Associates Inc. (2004). ABE Database. Bethesda, MD: Author.

Of course in a group, instruction can't be entirely individualized. Liz explained that her plan for each class period would allow some time for individual study focused on goals, some activities involving the whole class, and some small-group and pairs work. She said she would try to group people based on their skills, goals, or interests, and that groups would vary depending on the objective of each activity.

As a first step in planning, Liz looked at the test data and learning plans and made lists of the learners who needed the most work on each of the component skills.

The reading components: Who needs the most work?
  • Decoding: Michael, Jason, Luan, Keisha, and Juan
  • Fluency: Everybody! (except maybe Kyle)
  • Vocabulary: Michael, Jason, Luan, Keisha, Jin, Juan (Kyle? Since other skills look good, maybe it's vocabulary that's limiting comprehension?)
  • Comprehension: Everybody! (Maybe some of the comprehension strategies could be introduced in the whole-group setting. If the demonstration texts are too difficult for some of the learners, they could just listen to them, and then practice the strategies with simpler material.)

Next, using this analysis, she created a schedule for addressing the needed components on a regular basis. She didn't have any proven guidelines to follow in allocating the time, but she thought this plan was worth a try.

Tuesday Thursday
Decoding group
Decoding (XYZ program) -
Michael & Juan (20-30 min.)
Decoding (SYZ program) -
Jason & Keisha (20-30 min.)
Whole class
Fluency practice (15 min.) Fluency practice (15 min.)
Comprehension-strategy practice (30 min.) Comprehension-strategy practice (30 min.)
Vocabulary (20-30 min.)

Liz decided to set aside time every class day (both Tuesday and Thursday) for work on fluency and comprehension. On Tuesday, in addition to the 45 minutes spent on these activities, she planned to focus on vocabulary: whole-group and small-group work on word-learning strategies and some direct instruction on new words, too. She decided that those who needed to improve basic decoding skills could meet with the aide, who was trained in the (fictional) XYZ program for basic reading instruction. The aide could work with them one-to-one or in pairs, scheduling some students on Tuesday and the others on Thursday. She also made tentative grouping plans based on common needs and strengths. (Liz devised this schedule to make the most of the limited class time available. Although far from ideal, it does dedicate time to explicit reading instruction, while allowing time for math and writing and perhaps individual study or tutoring.)

Following is a detailed outline of Liz's plan.

Mid-City Career Center
Tuesday & Thursday ABE/GED Class
Reading Schedule
Decoding (phonics Instruction)
Michael & JuanTuesdayXYZ program study (with aide)
Tutoring or pairs work
Jason & KeishaThursdayXYZ program study (with aide)
Tutoring or pairs work

Who When How
Everyone Tuesday
Repeated oral reading -- Speed-practice pairs (based on similar fluency and decoding scores):
  • Jason and Keisha
  • Michael and Juan
  • Sarah and Jin
  • Luan and Brian

Kyle could work with an aide on repeated oral reading of GED workbook selections to build speed.


Repeated oral reading -- Accuracy-practice pairs (decoding emphasis):

  • Jason and Keisha
  • Luan and Brian
  • Michael and Juan

Sarah, Jin, and Kyle don't need decoding, so they could work on phrase reading, practice with books on tape, or prepare a poetry or drama performance.

Who When How
Everyone Tuesday
Whole group & small-group activities
Small groups:
  • Sarah, Kyle, Jason,
  • Luan,, Keisha, Juan
  • Michael, Jin, and Brian

Who When How
Everyone Tuesday Words for the week activities
Whole-group and small-group word study/review based on units: signal words, GED science words, GED social studies words, health words, etc.

Word-learning strategies
Small-group, level-appropriate practice on dictionary skills, context clues, common prefixes, etc.

Vocabulary pairs & groups:

  • Brian and Sarah
  • Michael and Juan
  • Jason and Kyle
  • Luan, Leisha, and Jin

Of course, this kind of teaching was the result of considerable thinking, problem solving with other teachers, and the inevitable trial and error. It took a while to really understand what the test scores meant, and figure out how to use the information. Liz started with a couple of reading activities, figured out how to make them work with different skill levels, and then gradually expanded the focus on reading. It was an exciting, but sometimes intimidating challenge the first year.

This year, however, Liz was feeling more confident--that is until she learned about the site coordinator's latest plan. Marie explained that she wanted Liz to take on another class. This group had been part of a special reading project last year. A good number had enrolled again this year, but the teacher had resigned unexpectedly. Could Liz take this group, too, she wondered?

Reading Project Class

Teaching another class sounded fine to Liz because she was really beginning to enjoy teaching reading, and with this group she would have more time to focus on it. But then she got the students' files and saw they had all been recently tested as part of a follow-up for the special project. They had taken several tests, but they weren't the ones Liz was using and the scores were percentiles, not grade equivalents. Since Marie and Liz agreed it didn't seem right to give them another battery of tests, Liz said she would do the best she could with the test data. "So much for feeling comfortable," she thought. "I guess I'd better learn something about these tests ASAP."

Here's what she found out:

  • The phonemic awareness test the students took was a phoneme deletion task. They were asked to repeat a word with one phoneme omitted (i.e. "say spark without the /s/"). Liz thought this was a fairly difficult task, especially for poor readers, and it certainly identified the poor readers in this group fairly accurately.
  • The decoding test was similar to the one her other students took. It required decoding of pseudo words. They look like real words and can be "sounded out" using phonics principles, but have no meaning (sek, tob, etc.).
  • The fluency score was based on a timed reading of a story or passage.
  • The oral vocabulary test was a measure of receptive vocabulary that asks students to identify the picture that represents a spoken word.
  • The comprehension score was based on the appropriateness of a student's answers to questions about the content of stories she read silently.
Mid-City Career Center
Tuesday & Thursday Reading Project Class
Reading Component Assessment (Percentile Scores)
Student Phonemic Awareness Decoding Fluency (Rate) Oral Vocabulary Reading Comprehension
Lisa A. 2 16 9 45 5
Amy C. 63 86 37 82 25
Monte D. 50 19 5 63 25
David J. 1 13 5 4 2
Emily L. 16 25 16 58 37
John M. 1 25 16 18 2
Andres M. 2 42 5 37 25
Tonya T. .4 14 5 19 5
Catalina W. 37 18 5 14 5

Source: D. Mellard, 2004

Next Liz decided to refresh her memory on percentile scores. She knew that a percentile rank wasn't the same as the percentage of correct items on the test, but she wanted to be sure she understood. Here's what she learned:

A percentile rank score shows the percentage of people in the test's norming group who scored at or below a particular raw score. So if a student is at the 75th percentile, we infer that 75% of people who took the test had the same or a lower score, and only 25% scored higher. On most measures, most of the population clusters around the middle, that is, around the 50th percentile.
Percentiles do not represent equal intervals. That means that a difference of 5 percentile points at the low end (between the 10th and 15th percentiles, for instance) probably represents a much greater difference in raw scores than 5 percentile points in the middle of the range (say between the 47th and 52nd percentiles).

Liz discovered that the scores had been converted to percentiles because the different tests had different kinds of scores that were impossible to compare. The conversion to percentiles put all the scores in the same terms, so a teacher could make comparisons across the components.

With that background in place, Liz looked again at the scores and noticed that this group had one thing in common with her other class: they all needed work on fluency, with the possible exception of Amy. She also noticed that the silent reading comprehension scores suggested two clearly defined groups.

  • Very low or beginning readers: Lisa, David, John, Tonya, and Catalina
  • Poor readers within the average range: Amy, Monte, Emily, and Andres

As she looked at the individuals, she saw that David's scores were extremely low across all components. His was a very flat profile. She found herself wondering about Amy's scores. All her scores were well above average except for fluency and comprehension. She also noticed that Lisa, Monte, and Emily's scores were similar in that all showed poor decoding skills combined with much better vocabulary scores. Monte, unlike the others, though, showed strength in phonemic awareness. Liz thought that might mean he would respond well to phonics instruction.

The former teacher's notes showed that the very low readers had been receiving reading instruction in the (fictional) XYZ program during one half of each class period. But Liz noticed that even they showed considerable variety in the component skill areas. Lisa's vocabulary score was close to average (near the 50th percentile), John's decoding and fluency scores were considerably higher than the others, and Catalina was comparatively strong in phonemic awareness. The following graph shows how this group varied despite their similar comprehension scores.

line graph of same information as table, above

The higher group showed even more variety.

line graph of same information as table, above

Liz really liked the way the table and charts depicted the class profile. She decided she would see if someone could help her make something like these for her ABE/GED class, too.

The test scores would be the most important source of information for her planning, but Liz knew it was important to know more about the students as individuals so she could be aware of special needs, as well as goals and interests. This kind of information would be helpful in choosing appropriate learning activities for individuals, selecting reading materials, and grouping learners based on common goals. So next she read the enrollment interview notes, goal forms, and learning plans in the students' folders. This is what she learned:

Lisa had a reading problem as a child, but isn't sure she ever had any special help with reading in school. She completed the 10th grade and at the time of enrollment last year, had a job cleaning rooms at a motel. She wasn't getting full-time hours and therefore didn't have full benefits. She was still living with her parents because she couldn't afford a place of her own. She wasn't sure what kind of work she wanted to do, but said she knew she had to improve her reading in order to be independent of her parents.
Amy talked openly in the interview about the need to improve her reading skills, but she said she didn't remember having a reading problem as a child and managed to complete the 12th grade. She had a long-time relationship with the father of her two children. She said he had a good job, so they got by pretty well even though she only worked part-time, 10-15 hours per week, according to her enrollment form. She said she would like to be able to help her kids with homework and was concerned that one of them may have a reading problem.
Monte doesn't remember having a reading problem as a child. He finished the 10th grade. He has a disability and was referred to the program by his vocational rehabilitation counselor. He was working 20 hours per week in a local factory at the time of enrollment. He was receiving a disability pension, but the disability was not specified. (There was no indication of a physical problem, and Liz surmised from notes made by the teacher that his might be a mental health problem.) His primary goal was to get a GED. He mentioned that all his siblings finished school and he feels bad about dropping out.
David finished the 11th grade and at the time of enrollment was working part-time stocking shelves and cleaning up at a grocery store. He said he didn't have a reading problem as a child. (Liz wondered about that, given his very low scores. She resolved to learn more about David, as the interview notes were skimpy, and his reading goal seemed uncertain.)
Emily only finished the 9th grade, was working very limited part-time hours at a convenience store at the time of enrollment, and said her goal was to earn a GED. She said she was separated from her husband and was receiving public aid of some kind. (Liz noted that her scores were among the highest in the group and thought she might ask her about vocational goals after the GED. If she wanted to pursue a career interest it would give Liz ideas for choosing reading materials.)
John mentioned having a reading problem as a child, but he didn't get any special help. He says he just "kept plugging away" (his words in the teacher's notes) until he finally gave up after finishing the 10th grade. The notes indicated a health problem but didn't have much other information. (Liz decided she needed to learn more about this student, too.)
Andres is a native of Mexico whose first language was Spanish. He is a long-time resident of the U.S. and said he felt comfortable with conversational English and didn't need an ESL class. He finished the 10th grade and mentioned that he did have a reading problem as a child. At the time of enrollment last year, he was working in construction and getting as much overtime as he could to support his two children and their mother. He was very clear about improving his skills to get a better job and was willing to consider taking the GED tests if he was convinced it would help with his career goal.
Tonya said she wasn't sure about a reading problem but she did have a learning disability and did have special help in school. She said she finished the 12th grade. (Liz wondered if she got a Special Education diploma.) Her goal at last year's interview was to improve her reading to get into the practical nursing program at the vocational-technical college. (Looking at her scores, Liz made a note to help Tonya identify a couple of short-term goals so she wouldn't get discouraged.)
Catalina is a native of Mexico and started school there. Her family moved to the U.S. when she was 10 years old. She described her spoken English as "good." She did have trouble with reading in school but didn't remember receiving any special help. She completed the 10th grade. At the time of enrollment last year she was doing housecleaning and baby-sitting, but wanted to get "a real job." Her other goal was to read to her preschool-age daughter and help with homework when she is older. She apparently remembers that her parents couldn't give her much help because they didn't speak English well.

After analyzing the test data and perusing the files, Liz knew she had a real opportunity to work intensively on reading with this group. Because some of the learners were getting the XYZ program instruction, she felt she would have time to work more closely with each learner to individualize instruction. She planned for everyone to spend plenty of time reading and discussing their reading, but each student also had individual needs she wanted to be sure to address. So the first thing she did was to make notes about their relative strengths and weaknesses and tentative decisions about primary focus areas and materials for each learner.

She considered the plans tentative because she understood that tests are just one source of information--a sample of performance at a point in time. She knew she would continue to learn about the students as she worked with them and might need to revise her plans.

Primary focus areas based on initial assessment


  • XYZ program (for decoding)
  • Fluency practice
  • Comprehension: reading and discussion of controlled vocabulary texts or simple stories
    Since her oral vocabulary is strong, she might be able to work with Emily and Andres once in a while, to learn new words. Then she could work on decoding and spelling the words. She could also take the reading materials home and re-read these simple texts for extra practice to build fluency.


  • Comprehension strategies
  • Fluency: paired or tape-assisted reading to build speed (This should help with comprehension.)
  • Silent reading on topics of choice to build vocabulary and background knowledge
    One possibility is material on how children learn to read. There's a lot of material for parents.


  • Decoding with word-study workbooks (Phonemic awareness is strong, so he might make good progress. He probably will need direction, help, and feedback, but the workbooks should provide structure and sequence.)
  • Fluency: echo reading or paired reading for speed (Decoding work will improve speed, too.)
  • Comprehension: Pre-GED workbooks and small-group work on strategies
    To speed up the GED preparation maybe he could get extra study time at home or at the vocational rehab office using a computer assisted instructional program.


  • XYZ program (decoding)
  • Fluency: echo reading or paired reading of simple texts
  • Comprehension: reading and discussion of controlled-vocabulary texts or simple stories
  • Vocabulary: words in categories (feelings, work, money/finance), words in the news, make word cards and sort by category
    I need to get more information on his goals and interests. Since his reading is very weak, he won't be able to read anything interesting independently, but maybe I could find a volunteer to read to him. Then they could talk about it, or, if others also read the material, he could take part in small-group discussions.


  • Decoding: word-study workbooks (Independent study will probably not be enough, but the books could provide structure for some pairs or small-group work with assistance.)
  • Fluency: echo or paired reading to build speed (Improved decoding skills will support fluency and improve comprehension.)
  • Comprehension strategies: small-group work
    Because she needs a full-time job, she might be interested in information on vocational options. Maybe we could search the internet for some simply written materials on jobs. Since her reading comprehension and vocabulary are fairly strong, she might be able to read this material at home and mark the text where she has questions or if she finds a job she wants to learn more about.


  • XYZ program (decoding)
  • Fluency: echo reading or paired reading of simple texts
  • Comprehension: reading and discussion of controlled-vocabulary texts or simple stories
  • Vocabulary: words in categories (feelings, work, money/finance), words in the news, make word cards and sort by category
    I'll have to spend some time with him to find out about specific goals and interests. Motivation material might be especially important for him since reading is a real struggle.


  • Fluency: paired or tape-assisted reading
  • Vocabulary: workbooks, including work-focused vocabulary in chosen vocational areas; word-learning strategies (context clues and the dictionary)
  • Comprehension strategies: small-group work and silent reading on topics of interest (building speed and vocabulary will improve comprehension.)
    Maybe he could work with Emily on researching vocational options.


  • XYZ program (decoding)
  • Fluency: echo reading or paired reading of simple texts
  • Comprehension: reading and discussion of controlled-vocabulary texts or simple stories
  • Vocabulary: words in categories (feelings, work, money/finance), focus on science/healthcare, make word cards and sort by category
    If we can get one of the books from the vocational college practical nursing program, maybe a volunteer could make an audiotape, so Tonya could read along while listening and get extra practice at home.


  • Decoding with word-study workbooks (Her comprehension score is as low as the people in the XYZ program, but her phonemic awareness is strong, so she might make fairly speedy progress with some help. If not we can change the plan.)
  • Fluency: Echo reading or paired reading for speed (decoding work will improve speed and comprehension.)
  • Comprehension: reading and discussion of controlled-vocabulary texts or simple stories
  • Vocabulary: words in categories (feelings, work, money/finance), focus on vocational interest area, make word cards and sort by category
    Children's books might make good reading material for her, given her goals. She could read them to her daughter at home.

After completing these individual analyses, Liz made the following plan for the first few weeks of class.

Liz's To-Do List
  • Meet with each learner to get acquainted and to update goals and learning plans.
  • Find time to listen to each learner read aloud. (Because the fluency test was administered by someone else, Liz decided she would like to hear each of them read at least a short passage aloud. She thought she might schedule this reading separately, but it also could be done less formally as part of a fluency activity in class.)
  • Survey the group about interests and do some brainstorming about topics they would like to read and learn about. (Liz figured this would help her to plan some whole-group activities and maybe suggest an idea for a class project. She knew this group had excellent attendance in the previous year and thought a long-term project might work well. It would give them interesting opportunities to apply their reading skills. Of course, she would have to be sure there were ways for the lowest readers to contribute to and learn from the experience.)
  • Plan for small-group instruction. She made the following tentative group decisions.
    Fluency (groups based on similar fluency and decoding skills):
    • Monte, David, Tonya, and Catalina
    • Lisa, Emily and John
      (Andres and Amy could join a group or work independently with a tape.) Comprehension (groups based on similar comprehension and fluency/speed):
    • Emily and Amy
    • Tonya, Catalina, and David
    • Andres and Monte
    • Lisa and John
Homogeneous grouping in a multi-level class: Getting started

The illustration above points out some of the issues you will need to address and suggests tools and strategies for approaching the task of teaching in the multi-level classroom. You might find the tools and techniques used by our fictional teacher helpful.

  • Make a chart or graph showing learners' assessment scores.
  • Look for patterns in this data. Are there weaknesses or strengths common to all students or to sub-groups?
  • Look at each component and make a tentative plan for pairing or grouping individuals based on common needs and strengths. Try working with these groups, and make adjustments if necessary.
  • As you make these plans for groups, remember that the component skills do not operate separately. Decoding skills affect fluency, which in turn affects comprehension. Consider skills across these related components as you plan.
    • If people are to work in a group on comprehension activities, similar comprehension skills are obviously important, but differences in reading speed can make it hard for individuals to work together, so fluency should perhaps also be considered in grouping decisions.
    • And of course, there's more than one aspect to fluency. In working on accuracy, similar decoding skills may be more important than similar reading speeds.

Obviously, this kind of teaching requires careful analysis, and there are probably as many ways to do it well as there are teachers and learner groups. Your knowledge of reading instruction and your understanding of the learners in your class--their reading strengths and needs, their relationships with each other, their expectations about learning, and their "comfort" with different types of interaction--will guide you in finding creative ways to manage multi-level reading instruction in your ABE or family literacy adult classroom.

Reading instruction in a multi-level group: Structural support
  • Instructional aides may allow you to provide more individualized instruction. If you don't have an aide, see if it's possible to get one--or consider using volunteers. Volunteers and aides require training and supervision, but extra help is vital if your class includes beginning or non-readers, special-needs learners, or English language learners who need individual attention.
  • To work effectively with adult beginning readers, you will need a structured, explicit curriculum, but you don't need to reinvent the wheel. Research the existing programs to find a way to provide this kind of instruction. Look for programs that are scientifically based.
  • If you are part of a large adult education program, perhaps the program could experiment with reorganizing so that classes or sites could specialize in different levels or types of instruction.

Where Do We Go from Here?

If you haven't been doing much direct reading instruction, you will need to develop your skills gradually. You won't become an expert overnight, and it may also take time to get the learners used to a change in expectations and routines. Think about what you've learned and what it will take to provide effective instruction and plan a step-by-step process.

What it takes: A review of the basics
  • Teach reading! Schedule the time and make plans.
  • Assess the components and develop individual and class profiles.
  • Make individual and group-based plans based on assessed needs and strengths.
  • Use instructional strategies based on scientific research.
Teaching reading in the adult classroom: One step at a time

Get familiar with the component assessments in use in your program:

  • Consult the administrator's manuals so you know exactly what is being measured and how.
  • Examine the tests so you understand the tasks learners are asked to perform.
  • Be sure you are clear about the relationship between the tasks and the reading component skills being measured and which aspects of each skill are tapped by your assessments. You want the tests to be useful for planning, so you don't want to misunderstand a test score or infer too much.
Make a plan:
  • Review research-based strategies for each of the reading components.
  • Create a profile of your class.
  • Analyze the group: Where are common needs and strengths?
  • Analyze individual assessment results, and create individual learning plans.
  • Based on this analysis, choose one or two components that represent common needs, and one or two strategies or activities you read about in this book and see how they work with your class.
Give it a try:
  • Prepare the learners by explaining your purpose and process.
  • Address individual needs in a multi-level group with flexible, homogeneous grouping.
  • Observe the learners' responses to each activity carefully, and be ready to step in with cues or other guidance as necessary.
  • Don't expect instant results. Make adjustments if you run into a snag: choose a shorter passage; try pairs instead of groups; provide more demonstration and modeling; allow more time, etc.
  • When you feel confident with these activities, plan a logical sequence of next steps and try one or two more, proceeding carefully and thoughtfully, as above.
Next steps?

Keep on learning!

Take every opportunity to learn more about scientifically based reading instruction.

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