Applying Research in Reading Instruction for Adults

First Steps for Teachers

Author: Susan McShane


Developed by



Applying Research in Reading Instruction for Adults

First Steps for Teachers

The contents of this report were developed using funds transferred from the National Institute for Literacy to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and awarded as a grant to the National Center for Family Literacy. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the National Institute for Literacy, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

Developed by the National Center for Family Literacy

The National Institute for Literacy was established to ensure that literacy would have a place on the federal policy agenda and to invigorate a national effort to improve adult literacy. Its primary activities to strengthen literacy across the lifespan are authorized by the U.S. Congress under two laws, the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) in the Workforce Investment Act and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The AEFLA directs the Institute to provide national leadership regarding literacy, coordinate literacy services and policy, and serve as a national resource for adult education and literacy programs. The NCLB law directs the Institute to disseminate information on scientifically based reading research pertaining to children, youth, and adults as well as information about development and implementation of classroom reading programs based on the research.

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 for 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 National Institute for Literacy

Sandra Baxter, Director

Lynn Reddy, Deputy Director

Editorial and design support provided by C. Ralph Adler, Lisa T. Noonis, Elizabeth Goldman, and Bob Kozman at RMC Research Corporation, Portsmouth, New Hampshire


This Partnership for Reading publication describes some strategies proven to work by the most rigorous scientific reading research available on the teaching of reading. The research that confirmed the effectiveness of these strategies used systematic, empirical methods drawn from observation or experiment; involved rigorous data analyses to test its hypotheses and justify its conclusions; produced valid data across multiple evaluators and observations; and was accepted by a peer-reviewed journal or approved by a panel of independent experts. This publication also was subject to two reviews; one by staff from the Institute of Education Sciences, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Department of Education, and the National Institute for Literacy; and one by external reviewers. In addition, experts in the field of adult reading research participated in its development. For detailed information on the review processes, contact The Partnership for Reading at the National Institute for Literacy, 1775 I St, NW, Suite 730, Washington, DC 20006.

Author's Acknowledgments

This publication is a product of the National Center for Family Literacy's Family Partnership in Reading Project, which was made possible by funding from the National Institute for Literacy. We especially thank June Crawford of the National Institute for Literacy for her support of this publication and the entire Family Partnership in Reading Project.

We also appreciate the contributions of the members of the National Institute for Literacy's Adult Reading Expert Group. From the earliest planning to reading final drafts, this group has provided vital input: defining the focus and scope of the book, clarifying research issues and helping to make the research-to-practice connection, offering ideas and resources for assessment and instruction, providing student data for the illustrations, reviewing drafts, participating in problem solving, and offering encouragement during the year-long development process.

Adult Reading Expert Group

  • Judith Alamprese, Abt Associates
  • John Kruidenier, Education Consultant
  • Daryl Mellard, Center for Research on Learning, University of Kansas
  • Stephen Reder, Portland (OR) State University
  • John Sabatini, Learning and Teaching Research Center, Educational Testing Service Consultant
  • John Strucker, Harvard Graduate School of Education, National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL)

Ex-officio Members:

  • Elizabeth Albro, U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences
  • June Crawford, National Institute for Literacy
  • Peggy McCardle, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
  • Lynn Spencer, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education

A group of adult education teachers also reviewed this publication during its development, offering the practitioner's point of view and helping us to make it a practical and useful tool for teachers.

Practitioner Review Group

  • Carol Benthien, Sheboygan, Wisconsin Even Start Program
  • Chris Gallagher, Carroll County, Maryland Public Schools, Even Start Program
  • Valerie Harrison, Richmond, Virginia Public Schools, Toyota Families in Schools Project
  • Nancy Potenza, Cochise College, Arizona Adult Education

The author especially thanks NCFL staff members Laura Westberg, Reading Initiative Project Manager, and Akeel Zaheer, former Vice President, Program Services, for guidance throughout the development process. Other NCFL staff also contributed: Kelly Bright found and retrieved numerous research articles; Tiffany Johnson created graphics, handled mailings, and prepared materials for the meetings; Gail Price provided invaluable editorial services; and Rebekah Witherington managed the details of travel to meetings.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Making the Most of This Book: A Reader's Guide

Understanding the Purpose of this Book

Surveying Content and Vocabulary

Planning to Meet Your Learning Goals

Chapter 2: Understanding Reading Instruction for Adult Learners

What Is Reading?

What Do We Know About Adults' Reading Needs?

What Can We Learn from the Reading Research?

What Are the Components of Reading?

What Are the Components of Reading Instruction?

How Do the Components Work Together?

Print-based and Meaning-based Skills

What Does the Adult Education Research Say?

How Do We Apply What We Know in Working With Adult Learners?

Chapter 3: Understanding Reading Assessment

What Is Learner Assessement?

Why Do We Assess Reading Skills of Adult Learners?

How Do We Assess Adults' Reading Skills?

What Do We Need To Know About Valid Measurement?

How Can We Assess the Reading Component Skills?

Chapter 4: Alphabetics: Phonemic Awareness Training and Phonics Instruction

What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Why Is Phonemic Awareness Important?

Who Needs Phonemic Awareness Training?

How Can We Assess Phonemic Awareness?

What Kind of Phonemic Awareness Training Is Most Effective?

What Does Phonemic Awareness Training Look Like?

What Is Decoding?

Why Is Decoding Important?

Who Needs Phonics Instruction?

How Can We Assess Decoding Skills?

What Kind of Phonics Instruction Is Most Effective?

What Does Phonics Instruction Look Like?

How Can We Address Adults' Reading Goals If They Need Phonics Instruction?

Chapter 5: Fluency Development

What Is Reading Fluency?

Why Is Fluency Important?

Who Needs Fluency Development?

How Can We Assess Fluency?

What Kind of Fluency Instruction Is Most Effective?

What Does Fluency Practice Look Like?

Chapter 6: Vocabulary Development

What Is Vocabulary?

Why Is Vocabulary Important?

Who Needs Vocabulary Instruction?

How Can We Assess Vocabulary?

What Kind of Vocabulary Instruction Is Most Effective?

What Does Vocabulary Instruction Look Like?

Chapter 7: Comprehension-Strategy Instruction

What Is Reading Comprehension?

Why Is Comprehension-Strategy Instruction Important?

Who Needs Comprehension-Strategy Instruction?

How Can We Assess Comprehension?

What Kind of Comprehension-Strategy Instruction Is Most Effective?

What Does Comprehension-Strategy Instruction Look Like?

Chapter 8: Initial Assessment and Instructional Planning

What Does Initial Assessment Look Like?

How Would Initial Assessment Work in Programs?

How Does Initial Assessment Inform the Individual Planning Process?

How Does Ongoing Assessment and Planning Inform Instruction?

Chapter 9: Planning Reading Instruction for Adults

What Do We Know About Learning and Teaching?

Planning Reading Instruction: Who Needs What and When?

Planning Reading Instruction: Structure and Sequence of Activities

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

Where Do We Go from Here?




Appendix A: Educational Research Design: Testing for Effectiveness

Appendix B: The Content of Phonics Instruction

Appendix C: Options for Calculating Readability

Appendix D: A Rule-Based Procedure for Summarization


Reading is the most basic of skills. Reading provides access to other skills and knowledge, facilitates life-long learning, and opens doors to opportunity. The National Institute for Literacy is authorized by the U.S. Congress to collect and disseminate information on the components of reading and the findings from scientific research. The National Center for Family Literacy fully endorses the national emphasis on reading and the efforts to promote scientifically based reading instruction for children and adults. We offer this resource for adult education teachers who want to build and strengthen adults' reading skills. We hope that adult education instructors in family literacy, Adult Basic Education, and other basic skills programs will find it useful.

We know that large numbers of adult learners need to improve their reading skills. And yet, many instructors in adult education programs do not teach reading explicitly for several reasons:

  • The assessments used in most programs don't reveal the complexities of adults' reading needs.
  • Teachers often have only fragmentary knowledge about reading instruction. Many have not had specific preparation in this area.
  • Most classes include adults with extremely varied skills, making specifically targeted, individualized instruction difficult, if not impossible.
  • Teachers are challenged to find ways to incorporate reading instruction into their regular classroom schedules, routines, and lessons.

This book was written with these realities in mind. It aims first to build background knowledge about reading and scientifically based reading instruction. The language and format are "teacher friendly," using student and classroom illustrations and sample instructional activities to make research principles concrete for readers. The focus in applying the research is on modeling thinking, planning, and problem solving in the context of fictional adult education settings. The student and class profiles in these illustrations are based on actual assessment data from adult literacy research studies--a reminder to readers of this book that it is a practical resource for use with real adult learners.

We titled this book "First Steps" because we know that no single resource can provide all the answers--everything that's required to change practice. But we believe this is a valuable resource for a teacher's professional development journey. By building a basic understanding of research-based reading instruction and offering suggestions for starting off in the right direction, we hope to whet teachers' appetites for further learning.

As teachers and programs become more capable of applying research-based principles for reading assessment and instruction, the real winners should be adult learners and their families. Improved literacy skills may allow these adults to take giant steps in the journey of lifelong learning. We are privileged to play a part in this important effort.

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Chapter 1