Webcasts From Assessment to Practice Part I: Research-Based Approaches to Teaching Reading to Adults Q & A

From Assessment to Practice: Research-Based Approaches to Teaching Reading to Adults

Responses to Webcast User Questions

Prepared by John Kruidenier, Rosalind Davidson, and Susan McShane
for the National Institute for Literacy
November, 2007


During the Institute webcast, From Assessment to Practice: Research-based Approaches to Teaching Adults to Read, the webcast viewers asked a number of questions that the presenters did not have time to answer. The moderator, Sandra Baxter, asked the presenters to prepare brief responses to these questions. The responses prepared by the three presenters (Rosalind Davidson, John Kruidenier, and Susan McShane) are presented below.

To respond to the questions, the presenters first grouped them into the categories listed below. If two questions were essentially the same, they were listed together, separated by a slash (/). The responses to the questions are listed by category. The primary respondent's initials appear at the end of each answer.


General Questions
Assessment / Reading Profiles Website
Alphabetics: Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Decoding
Teaching Strategies
Specific Teaching Materials
ESL Questions
LD Questions
Questions Answered During Webcast
Questions Beyond Presenters' Expertise
Questions Requesting Information about Products/Curriculum

General Questions

Question: What is the possibility of a National Institute for Literacy sponsored institute/team to travel and train teachers nationally in these methods? There are so few of us who understand the urgency of this kind of instruction - our students who receive it say it's like unlocking a door for them. How do we open the door and help teachers, programs and funders "get it"?

Response: The National Institute for Literacy funds the LINCS Regional Resource Center grants who provide and disseminate the highest-quality resources using various approaches (such as highlighting online materials, face-to-face technical assistance, distance learning, and discussion lists) through partnerships with adult education and related organizations to help practitioners use evidence-based instructional practices that improve outcomes in adult learners' literacy skills. The Centers have limited funding to organize training and workshops based on Institute-developed materials on regional and state levels. To request trainings in your state, contact the Resource Center for your area.


Question: Will this presentation be archived for later use? One of our administrators wants to show clips of the presentation at a teacher in-service. Is there a copyright issue?

Response: The webcasts are archived on our website, feel free to use the archives as part of in-service professional development. Please cite The National Institute for Literacy as the source for the webcast. Other web casts sponsored by the Institute..


Question: Is there a way we could get a copy of the discussion either the text or the presentation itself as it was filmed? The whole dialogue you have there seems to be a good tool for further discussion and even training?

Response: The PowerPoint slides and Transcripts are available on the main page for this webcast..


Question: When is your next Webcast and what will the subject(s) be?

Response: We do not currently have any webcast planned, please subscribe to our Announcement list to get the latest information about the Institute's News and Notes: http://lincs.ed.gov/mailman/listinfo/announce .


Question: Please do more sessions on ELL./Could you feature also teaching reading to adult ESL learners?

Response: The Institute is working on developing our priorities for the next few years.



Question: We constantly hear, "Peer reviewed, scientifically based." Does this mean the program or just the methodology? For example, I would like to use a peer reviewed, scientific based program where the entire program has been tested, but I have been told that as long as the methodology is proven scientifically based that is all that is needed i.e. passage reading shows that it increases reading.

Response: Peer review often occurs when researchers submit their studies to a journal for publication. Other researchers (their peers) review the submissions and recommend to the journal editor whether or not to accept the submission for publication, what changes might be needed, and so on. The peer review process is a part of the 'science' that makes some research 'scientifically based.' Using Research and Reason in Education is a very good Institute publication that answers these questions.

A specific program for improving some aspect of reading can be tested by researchers and this study can then be submitted for peer review. A more general method for teaching an aspect of reading can also be tested. In both cases, the more times a specific program or method is tested (by different researchers) the more likely you are to get a clear indication of its effectiveness.

If a specific program "fits" your needs (it teaches what you want to teach) and has been shown to be effective through rigorous research, then you can use it with confidence. If specific programs have not been researched, your next best option is to select a program that is based on more general, research-based methods. Again, the publication Using Research and Reason in Education can help guide you in this process. (JK)


Question: If I wanted to see if a program is peer reviewed, scientifically based, where would I go to see if it is?

Response: Check the documentation that comes with the program, or check with the publisher. If the program is research based, it should provide a reference to the research. Using Research and Reason in Education an Institute publication, tells how you can evaluate this research. (JK)


Questions: What does the research say about teaching ESL students in adult literacy programs? How will instruction for ESL students be different? / To what extent do the research studies and instructional strategies apply to adult English language learners?

Response: Research with adults has not adequately addressed approaches to teaching reading to those who are learning English as a second language (ESL students). An upcoming issue of an Institute publication, QEd, has an article by Heide Wrigley that addresses some of the important issues that teachers should consider when teaching reading to a second language learner. For example, how much schooling did the student have in her native language? Can she read in her native language? How good is the student's English; how good is the student's vocabulary? (JK)


Question: I teach ESL to adults. Most of them speak Spanish. Is there any research being done by you on the common errors they make when it comes to reading?

Response: Since written Spanish is predictably phonetic, literate Spanish speakers understand how to decode. This is a big plus, but until they have sufficient oral English vocabulary, they pronounce English words as if they were Spanish, using their native language skills. This is especially persistent for the many English cognates of Spanish, but can be a significant problem for comprehension when applied to unfamiliar vocabulary.

All of the Spanish speakers from the Adult Reading Component Study in ESOL classes, and most in ABE who tested at intermediate level reading ability, had not mastered all the English consonant sounds. It is important to ask ESOL learners about their educational background. The ARCS found that ESOL Spanish speakers' reading ability in Spanish was directly related to years of Spanish school completion: the more years completed, the stronger the skills. The level of NNSE native language literacy affects the intensity of instruction the learner will need in English literacy.

A NCSALL brief, "Patterns of word recognition errors among adult basic education native and nonnative speakers of English" shows the kind of errors that persist in nonnative English speakers after they have enough oral language to progress to ABE from ESOL classes. (RD)


Questions: What does the research say about adult students with a learning disability in reading? What instruction works best for these adult literacy students? / Were adult with Learning Disabilities in the research? If so, what were the gains?

Response: The little research that exists on teaching adults with a learning disability reaches the same conclusion as the research on teaching children with a learning disability in reading. Direct and systematic instruction in letter-sound correspondences is the best choice for teaching word analysis. This is covered in the webcast. More research is needed on teaching adults with a learning disability. (JK)


Assessment / Reading Profiles Website

Question: Dear Presenters, I like and use the Reading Profile Website, but want to know for example, what are the recommended amounts of time I should be spending per lesson on a low intermediate student who needs vocabulary development, phonics, and fluency work. Should I spend more time initially on vocabulary development since that is going to impact comprehension most? Also, do you recommend starting instruction by focusing on one component first, or is lesson sequence simply up to teacher discretion?

Response: Spend a greater portion of time on the area of most need, but every session should include time for all the major reading components. A low intermediate reader needs to improve decoding to automaticity level coupled with oral reading to improve fluency, as well as vocabulary enrichment and instruction on comprehension strategies. (RD)

Question: Most adult educators are part-time and have little training or time for assessments like the DAR or Woodcock. What else can we do to assess where our learners need instruction?

Response: You may not need to assess every learner in your class, but for those you do, you can have a volunteer administer the tests, or ask the learner to come 15 minutes earlier (or stay later) and spread the testing over a few class sessions. When learners understand that they will find out what they need to learn and you will find out where to concentrate your instruction, they will cooperate in whatever testing situation you can manage.

Use the Match a Profile on the website for the assessment. You can use the Word Reading Test, Word Meaning Test, and the Sylvia Greene Phonics Inventory that are free on the on the ASRP website. (RD)


Question: Is there a comprehensive assessment tool that you can recommend in an ABE/GED program?

Response: All you need (along with an NRS assessment for reading comprehension) is offered on the ASRP website. If you want a published print assessment, the Diagnostic Assessments of Reading or another IRI will do the job (see Test Bank on the ASRP website). (RD)


Alphabetics: Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Decoding

Question: Are there exemplary programs or activities that work well with adults in working with decoding?

Response: The researchers who worked with me on my book knew of several structured programs that had been used effectively with adults with limited reading/decoding skills. The programs are listed below:

  • Lindamood-Bell
  • Neuhaus Multisensory Reading and Spelling
  • Orton-Gillingham
  • Slingerland Multisensory Approach
  • The Spalding Method
  • Starting Over
  • Texas Scottish Rite Hospital Literacy program (also known as Alphabetic Phonics)
  • Wilson Reading System.

In my experience Wilson is the one most used in adult education programs, although it is certainly not typical for programs to offer this kind of structured instruction. You can get information on these programs online.

Also, for many years, programs have successfully used the Laubach Way to Reading series, which is phonics based and was developed for use by volunteer tutors working with adult learners. It is a product of Proliteracy's New Reader's Press. (SM)


Question: What do you think of systems such as Lindamood Bell or Orton Gillingham for adult learners?

Response: As full programs: Lindamood Bell is often helpful for those adults with severe phonological deficits. Orton Gillingham is a structured 'scripted' phonics approach for beginners and low intermediate learners. Both are excellent programs for those adult readers who need this level of instruction. Both require extensive training to become a certified instructor. (RD)


Question: We have quite a few students who come into our adult education program who have learning disabilities. Very often phonics doesn't work for them. Please comment.

Response: It is difficult to respond to this question without knowing how you currently attempt to teach phonics to these students. The programs listed in the answer to the question above (Are there exemplary programs or activities that work well with adults in working with decoding?) should work for most students with a learning disability in reading. (JK)


Question: How do you convince high school teachers to also teach decoding skills for the lower functioning LD students?

Response: This question does not deal with adults. You could refer your colleagues to the Institute publication, What Content-Area Teachers Should Know About Adolescent Literacy, and to the Center on Instruction publication, Academic Literacy Instruction for Adolescents. (JK)


Question: What are some good strategies for learners that have extreme difficulty with the sounds of letters?

Response: Learners who have this kind of difficulty may have a reading disability caused by a phonemic awareness deficiency. You probably need a structured phonics program. Most of these (I think) include phonological and phonemic awareness training. Some of the programs are listed in the answer above. (SM)


Question: How soon and often do you introduce the many exceptions to the rules in English phonetics?

Response: While you acknowledge that there are exceptions, it still makes sense to carefully teach and review the rules and principles that most often "work." I think you probably would want to teach the rule "to mastery" with many examples, before noting some of the exceptions. Of course, some of the exceptions are very common words, and these are likely sight words for many adult readers anyway.

A rule or a strategy is definitely better than a guess. You can teach them to try the rule first and then try another sound (for the vowel, for example) if, when they sound it out, they don't hear a word they recognize. (SM)


Question: Do you suggest combining sight reading with phonics? Memorize the word and sound and explain the meaning.

Response: I think there are many words that are taught as sight words initially, because they're not decodable (they don't follow the rules!). And of course, you want the other words also to become sight words, so providing multiple exposures-practice to build speedy word identification-is useful. I think that means you really can't avoid teaching sight words and phonics together. (And of course, if they don't know the meaning of a word, there's no point in learning to identify it, so you would want to check on that as well.) (SM)


Question: I have low level adult learners every day for 2 hours a day. We begin at the phoneme level. Do you think having me read aloud to them might help them appreciate reading more? They all say they hate to read. Thank you.

Response: Yes, reading material aloud that they find engaging should be helpful as a motivator. Assuming that you work on all of the components of reading, as suggested during the webcast, you could also use the material you read aloud for work on reading comprehension. When teaching reading comprehension strategies, teachers often have to use texts written a higher reading level and these are precisely the texts that adults with decoding problems have difficulty with. Listening to texts read aloud can free students from the burdens associated with decoding and allow them to focus more on comprehension issues.


Question: Does poor fluency always indicate comprehension difficulty?

Response: No, fluency is supported by word reading automaticity and familiarity (from understanding oral language, its structure and vocabulary) with the complexity of sentences presented in a particular passage. Someone who is a good decoder and mature speaker can fluently read a passage on some topic with which she is not at all knowledgeable and sound like there is complete comprehension where, in fact, there has been none. On the other hand, if the text is presented in short simple sentences, slow word recognition may not hamper comprehension.

Assess the reader's level of automaticity on reading isolated words. If reading words quickly and accurately is not the problem, he may be ignoring punctuation and phrasing that help chunk the words into familiar oral language patterns. (RD)


Question: Is there value in having an adult student reread a passage until fluency is attained for that particular passage?

Response: Yes. Assuming that the passage is not too difficult, repeated readings can lead to increases in reading achievement for the passage read and more extended fluency practice can lead to more general increases in reading achievement. (JK)


Question: Fluency - what does that involve other than just reading passages and documenting how many words are read per minute.

Response: There are three aspects of fluency: (1) speed (or rate), (2) accuracy (in word identification), and (3) phrasing and expression. You can work on all three aspects (if needed) using guided repeated oral reading. However, it might be best to focus on one aspect at a time. And of course, accuracy will improve if you teach phonics and work on sight words. (SM)



Question: Can you give more strategies for teaching reading comprehension?

Response: The National Reading Panel identified eight broad categories of comprehension strategy instruction that research (with children) has found to be effective:

  • Comprehension monitoring
  • Graphic organizers
  • Question answering
  • Question generating
  • Story structure
  • Summarization
  • Cooperative learning
  • Multiple-strategies instruction

You can get detail about the research on the strategies from the Report of the National Reading Panel. You can find suggestions about instruction in the adult education context (for each category) in the book, Applying Research in Reading Instruction for Adults: First Steps for Teachers (McShane, 2005), which is available online from the National Institute for Literacy at www. nifl.gov and also may be ordered for free by contacting the Institute at 800-228-8813 or emailing edpubs@inet.ed.gov. (SM)


Teaching Strategies

Question: What do you suggest for training volunteers to teach adults at the community-based literacy organization level?

Response: I have been a literacy volunteer, trained volunteers, and managed a community-based literacy organization, so I am aware of many of the issues involved with volunteer training. In one sense, I think the content of training for anyone teaching reading is the same, whether they are paid instructors or volunteers. In fact, at the National Center for Family Literacy, we have adapted the teacher training based on the book (McShane, 2005-mentioned in the answer to the comprehension question above) for a special project involving community-based literacy organizations.

On the other hand, if you are serving a narrow population-those who need very basic reading instruction-you should look into training in one of the structured programs listed in the answer to Alphabetics Question above (Are there exemplary programs...?). Of course, this kind of training is costly for programs to provide (at least initially) and it requires a significant investment of time from volunteers.

I know it's hard to get people to attend as much training as you would like them to have. Ideally you have a minimum basic workshop that introduces all the components of reading and a selection of materials that tutors might use to work on different skills at different levels. You also have a staff member or volunteer who is able to administer diagnostic reading assessments, help tutors to understand what the results mean, and suggest at least general approaches for addressing the needs identified. Then you might consider offering follow-up training on specific topics in different formats, so people could choose from participation options: face-to-face workshops or discussions, on-line training, on-line discussions, or list-servs.

There's no simple answer to this question! (SM)


Question: How do you handle teaching multiple levels within one class--with students scoring at so many different levels?

Response: The researchers who worked with me on the book (McShane, 2005, mentioned in the answer to the comprehension question above) suggested flexible grouping based on individuals' reading-component skill profiles. You would assess each of the learners on the components and then put all this information together to create a class profile. Then it might become clear that some people could work together on some components. Your groupings might vary from one activity to the next based on individual needs. For an example of how this might work, read Chapter 9 in the book. (SM)


Question: How do you integrate student centered goals and learning into your research-based approaches?

Response: With some learners you might use real-life goal-related materials to introduce and practice strategies. This should be possible for vocabulary and comprehension-strategies instruction. As long as the personal or job-related goals require reading, you should be able to do this. (Of course, it may be difficult in a multi-level class.)

On the other hand, many learners have very similar goals, and of course the most common one is to pass the GED tests. You can use the texts in GED preparation workbooks to introduce and practice strategies. The students tend to see them only as workbooks for individual study, but they could have these other uses.

Even with those whose GED goal is not realistically in the near future, you can explain that the reading strategies you are teaching (with simpler materials) will be useful on the tests. They should be reminded that almost all of the tests require significant reading comprehension. That's why it makes sense to work on reading.

With some adult education students, you might have to "sell" reading instruction. Many of them consider themselves to be pretty good readers and may be put off by the suggestion that they could use improvement. They might also need to work on math, so it's easy to focus on that as the main goal. Perhaps if you have "bought" the need for reading instruction, you can "sell it" to them. (SM)


Question: Please define explicit, direct instruction.

Response: I use the terms "explicit instruction" or "direct instruction" (as I believe many others do) to refer to a general format or approach that has been established to be effective. The following features characterize explicit teaching:

  • Make goals and expectations, instructional content, and the structure of the lesson very clear. Don't assume; be explicit.
  • Address all aspects of the skill or strategy in question. Don't leave anything out. Check on required background knowledge instead of assuming it's "in place."

Make a routine of the following steps:

  1. Explain the skill or strategy
  2. Demonstrate/model the skill or strategy
  3. Provide opportunities for guided practice
          Then, only when the learner is performing the task well and consistently--
  4. Provide opportunities for independent practice
  5. (SM)


Specific Teaching Materials

Question: In 8th grade my son was determined to be on 4th grade reading level. He received zero reading help in 8th, and 9th grade. In 10th grade, he mostly received only passage reading. The school will only use a piece-meal approach in helping him with mostly just passage reading. Do you have any suggestions? I'm trying to get them to use a scientific based program, but they refuse. They say their approaches i.e. passage reading is scientific based. Please help.

Response: I assume your son has had a thorough educational evaluation. Are there any clues to his problem from that assessment? At what level is your son now reading? If he hasn't significantly closed the gap between his grade (11th?) and reading level, the passage approach is not working. Please ask to see the scientific evidence for their approach.

More practical would be a local adult reading center in your area that may offer a structured reading curriculum and a high school diploma program. (RD)


Question: Why do publishers feel that all readers that have problems are juvenile and illustrate below the adult readers area of respect?

Response: This is not true of all publishers. Check out some commonly used curricula such as those offered by Steck-Vaughn or Educators Publishing - and others. (RD)

ESL Questions

Questions: Can this method be applied to adult ESL learners? / Can I apply the same principals to adult illiterate learners of English? / Are these strategies also good to use with those that English is their second language? / Would you address the possible application of reading strategies to our ESL adult students?

Response: The general approach presented during the webcast can be used with all of your students: Assess all of the components of reading in order to develop a profile of reading strengths and weaknesses that can be used to develop a plan for instruction. As the answers to the following questions suggest, ESL students may have some unique needs you will need to address. Much more research on teaching reading to ESL adults is needed. (JK)


Questions: Fascinating. I realize that one of the difficulties in teaching ESL is that the weakest "strand" may be because of their native languages, not necessarily because of individual weaknesses. So, the ESL reading teacher must address both issues. Am I correct? / In your opinion what's the most difficult component for adult learners when it comes to reading English? / Which is priority for ESL students?

Response: Yes, the difficulty many ESL students have with English can affect their reading. For these ESL students, English vocabulary and language learning will be a priority. (JK)


Question: For beginning levels, do you believe there is any value in having ESOL learners distinguish between real and nonsense words when, in reality, any word they don't yet know is nonsense? Thanks.

Response: The plus for teaching real words is exposure of a single item for instruction in both word recognition/analysis and word meaning. Real words can be incorporated into early writing activities - there are plenty of real words without using nonsense words. However, nonsense words are valuable in assessing how well a particular phonics element has been mastered without the interference of the word being a sight word or just very familiar. (RD)


LD Questions

Questions: Would a student with dyslexia benefit more from sight word development approach or part to whole phonics instruction?

Response: The research suggests that those with dyslexia benefit most from direct and systematic instruction in letter-sound correspondences, which would include but not be limited to sight word development. (JK)


Questions Answered During Webcast

(These questions are not answered here. Please view the webcast or read the transcripts for responses.)

Why is reading broken down into its component parts for research, assessment, and instruction in reading?

What is the most important conclusion that can be drawn from the assessment profiles research?

What does the research say about adult beginning readers' phonemic awareness and word analysis abilities?

Since Ed has such weak skills in word identification, how does he get such a (relatively) high comprehension score?

Given that English spelling has so many examples of "broken rules" does it make sense to teach the phonics rules at all?


Questions Beyond Presenters' Expertise

What do you suggest for teaching ADHD children and adults?

I am teaching adult English language learners. Is it helpful if I give reading materials in both English and their native language? Will their L1 help with L2 in reading comprehension?

How do you start teaching reading to ESL learners who do not read in her own language?


Questions Requesting Information about Products/Curriculum

Please note that the Institute cannot make any recommendations in regards to commercial products and cannot provide responses to the following questions.

Dr. Davidson mentioned that good curricula exist for "intermediate" readers. Can you tell us which are best for the various components?

Would you advise where one could purchase phonics curricula for the beginners or intermediate learners?

Can you recommend some staff development videos or CDs that identify and help new instructors to learn how to teach beginning readers?

Are there videos available that demonstrate how to teach reading to ESL/low literacy students using a role playing or documentary approach?

Is there a website the adults can log in and learn how to read?


Please note: We do not control and cannot guarantee the relevance, timeliness, or accuracy of the materials provided by other agencies or organizations via links off-site, nor do we endorse other agencies or organizations, their views, products or services.