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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue A ::: August 2001

Teaching Reading to First-Level Adults

Emerging Trends in Research and Practice

by Judith A. Alamprese
Reading has always been a fundamental concept taught in adult basic education (ABE). The  methods and contexts for reading instruction, however, have varied over time according to practitioners' theoretical perspectives and belief systems about the reading process. For example, the teaching of reading often has been imbedded in instructional content rather than addressed as a discrete skill. Because of the variations in instructional approach, it sometimes has been difficult to discern the extent to which reading is being taught in ABE programs.

The past five years have witnessed a national call to improve the teaching of reading in elementary education. Reading is now a priority in key education legislation, such as the Reading Excellence Act and Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It has been the subject of research syntheses sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Service's National Institute on Child Health and Human Development in conjunction with the US Department of Education (DOE). Reading instruction is also one of the key areas under program quality in the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) of 1998.

ABE practitioners' concerns center on teaching reading to first-level learners, generally are defined as those scoring at a 0 to 6th grade equivalent  on a standardized reading test or at Level 1 on the National Adult Literacy Survey. First-level adults enter ABE programs with a range of reading skills. This variation in abilities sometimes poses challenges for instructors. The enrollment of first-level learners in ABE programs remains constant: about 17 percent of those participating in programs funded under the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (US Department of Education, 1999). ABE practitioners have voiced a desire to learn about effective instructional methods for them. Furthermore, as states implement the National Reporting System for ABE accountability, ABE staff at all levels have a need to understand the amount of improvement it is reasonable to expect from a first-level learner over a specified time. All of these circumstances have led to the teaching of reading emerging as critical topic in ABE, particularly as a focus for staff development and program improvement.

Emerging Research on Adult Reading

The literature on teaching reading to children is extensive, but few national studies have examined effective strategies for reading instruction with adults. Most studies on adult reading have been small in scale and descriptive in design. As a result, few empirical data exist about the particular instructional approaches that are associated with reading improvement in adults. To address this gap, the US DOE funded two national studies on reading for adults: the Evaluation of Effective Adult Basic Education Programs and Practices, conducted by the research firm Abt Associates Inc.; and the What Works Study of Adult English as a Second Language Programs, undertaken by the American Institutes for Research. The National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) is also studying the instructional strengths and needs in reading of adults enrolled in ABE and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes.

Key Issues

Although not based on research on adults, the syntheses presented in the report prepared by the National Reading Panel (2000) provide a useful perspective for understanding key issues in reading instruction. Taking into account the work undertaken by the National Research Council Committee - Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) - National Reading Panel research syntheses examined how critical reading skills are most effectively taught and the instructional methods, materials, and approaches most beneficial for students of varying abilities. The Panel examined three topics in reading: alphabetics (phonemic awareness and phonics instruction), fluency, and  comprehension (including both vocabulary  and text comprehension instruction). The implications of the Panel's report for teaching adults are that direct instruction on these topics may be beneficial to first-level adult learners, and that teachers must understand adults' relative strengths in these areas prior to beginning instruction. A recent review of the literature on adult reading research (Venezky et al., 1998) supports these findings.

Questions for ABE

The emerging research on K-12 reading raises issues for teaching first-level adult learners. Will adults be receptive to being taught with a direct instruction method?  How much emphasis should be placed on each of the key reading areas?  How can adult text materials be incorporated into instruction focused on these reading areas? These questions and others concern instructors as they consider using research in refining their practice.  One source of forthcoming information about these questions is Abt Associates' study of reading instruction for first-level learners, which is attempting to answer two critical questions: 

Studying Direct Instruction

We are attempting to answer the fundamental question of whether adults improve their reading skills as a result of attending ABE programs by examining ABE programs serving English-speaking, first-level learners in reading classes across the country. Our study is also investigating factors that may be associated with learners' improvement: their personal background and prior experience in education and work; the amount that they participate in instruction; the type of reading instruction that they receive; and the characteristics of the ABE program in which they participate. 

While learners' background and amount of the instruction they receive are factors often examined in research, the operation of an ABE program is a new area of inquiry. We are attempting to address the gaps of previous studies of adult education programs, for example, National Evaluation of the Adult Education Program (Young, et al., 1994), the Evaluation of the Even Start Program (St. Pierre et al., 1995), and the Evaluation of the National Workplace Literacy Program (Moore et al., 1998). These examined the impact of ABE programs but did not develop in-depth enough information that allows us to understand the instructional and organizational approaches that local ABE programs use to administer services and produce learner outcomes.

Our assumption is that while quality instruction may be necessary for learners to improve, it may not be sufficient to address all of the needs that adult learners bring to the instructional setting. We are studying the instructional leadership that programs provide, the background and experience of instructors, the types of learner assessment that are used, and the support services that programs provide to learners. Our intent is to develop a better understanding of the ways in which ABE programs can both organize reading instruction and provide the resources to foster participation.

In selecting ABE programs and classes for our study, we are targeting programs offering reading instruction that is organized and structured and  taught by individuals with training and or extensive experience in reading instruction. Since prior research (e.g., Young et al., 1994) has indicated that instruction in ABE often is not organized or systematic and thus may not contribute to learner outcomes, our approach has been to exclude programs that would not provide a good test of the study's questions.  We also want to determine the extent to which teachers' prior experience or training contributes to learners' growth.

In our initial analyses of five ABE programs, we found structured, organized classes where reading is taught explicitly and includes activities aimed at developing phonemic awareness as well as fluency and comprehension. The amount of time spent on these topics varies with the level of the learners. Classes for learners at the 0 to 3rd grade equivalent level  spend more time on phonemic awareness and phonics than classes for learners at the 4th to 6th grade equivalent level. The instructional content moves in a sequence. An attempt is made to build vocabulary with words from the text used in developing reading comprehension. Reading passages used in comprehension exercises are selected for high relevance to adults and are appropriate for the learner's reading level.

Observations of classes indicate that instructors monitor learners by moving around the room to make sure that they are on task and providing feedback by correcting a mistake when it is made. Teachers foster high learner engagement by involving all participants in the class, by having learners take turns working at the board to complete exercises, and by encouraging all learners' participation in discussion.

To provide opportunities for learners to practice the knowledge and skills that they are learning, teachers use exercises to guide learners in developing their reading skills. They use a variety of learning modalities, including oral reading, the completion of exercises on the board, and group recitation. They also  have learners complete out-of-class assignments. Instructors gives concrete feedback; offer verbal praise when a learner gives a correct response or demonstrates initiative; encourage self-monitoring by pointing out specific strategies; and elicit verbal praise from other learners. In addition, teachers attempt to involve all participants by asking frequent questions, calling on learners by name, having learners take turns in oral reading, providing responses to learners' written exercises, asking learners to volunteer to participate in class exercises, and providing opportunities for learners to ask questions in class.

The instructors organize their reading instruction into a series of exercises or activities. They have an overall plan for the semester, term, or session, and their instructional activities follow a sequence based on the reading framework that they are using. Those who have been trained in reading instructional approaches such as the Slingerland Approach, the Wilson Reading System, and the Lindamood-Bell Learning Process are likely to adapt lesson plans these training programs provide. Other ABE teachers create their own lesson plans, which include instruction on the reading components (e.g., word analysis and word recognition, vocabulary development, comprehension development) in various amounts of time and sequence. The emphasis on any one reading component depends on learners' reading level and specific instructional needs. In carrying out these lessons, instructors use a variety of materials, including those produced by the reading programs noted above, as well as commercially produced materials, artifacts such as the newspaper, and exercises they create. The classes are based on a predetermined set of activities that may vary depending on learners' pace and progress (Alamprese, 2001).

Learners' Perspectives

Adults participating in the study are asked to describe which aspects of the instructional process facilitate or impede their learning as well as their perceptions of their experience in the ABE program. Participants in the first group of five ABE programs have cited the pace and structure of  teaching, the repetition of  content, the feedback  provided to them, and  instructors' personal interest in their well-being as important factors affecting their learning. These adults also have a high rate of attendance (67 percent), and many have enrolled in more than one term or semester in the program. Overall, they assess their experience in the reading classes as positive, productive, and motivating (Alamprese, 2001).


The instructional methods used by teachers in the first group of programs in this study are consistent with the research reported by the National Reading Panel and the synthesis of reading produced by Venezky and  colleagues. Since the data collection is not yet complete, an analysis of the relationship between these methods and learners' capacity to improve their reading skills is not yet available. The study is scheduled for completion in 2002, when the final results will be available. In the interim, however, the trends in instruction that are being documented in the study offer some insight into current reading instructional practices that are of interest to teachers serving first-level learners and who are interested in offering group-based instruction.


Alamprese, J. A. (2001). Strategies for Teaching Reading to First-Level ABE Learners. Presented at the 2001 Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE) Conference, Memphis, TN.

Moore, M.T., Myers, D., & Silva, T., with assistance from Judy A. Alamprese (1998). Addressing Literacy Needs at Work Implementation and Impact of Workplace Literacy Programs: Final Report. Washington, DC: Mathematica Policy Research Inc.

National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Child Health and Human Development.

Snow, C.E., Burns, S.M., & Griffin, P. (eds.). (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

St. Pierre, R., Swartz, J., Gamse, B., Murray, S., & Deck, D. (1995). National Evaluation of the Even Start Family Literacy Program: Final Report  Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates Inc.

US Department of Education (1999). Adult Education: Human Investment Impact,1994-1998. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

Venezky, R., Oney, B., Sabatini, J., & Richa, J. (1998). Teaching Adults to Read and Write: A Research Synthesis. Bethesda, MD: Abt Associates, Inc.

Young, M.B., Morgan, M., Fitzgerald, N., &  Fleischman, H. (1994). National Evaluation of Adult Education Programs:  Draft Final Report. Arlington, VA:  Development Associates.

About the Author

Judith A. Alamprese is an educational researcher with Abt Associates, in Washington, DC. She has worked closely with many states, including Connecticut and Pennsylvania, on adult education change initiatives, and has conducted a variety of studies of ABE over the past 15 years.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL