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Influences on the Reading Practices of Adults in ABE

by Alisa Belzer
What do adult literacy learners do, intentionally or unintentionally, outside of class to improve their reading and writing? And what seem to be important influences on these actions? We followed adult literacy learners Edna, Juan, and Margaret for a brief period, using observation and interviews to take "snap shots" of their out-of-school literacy activities and efforts. We learned that teachers, access to materials, and perceptions about the importance of reading practice play a role in what they knew to do and actually did to improve their literacy skills outside of class. This article describes these findings and identifies their implications for practice.

Extensive research on children has found a positive relationship between time spent reading and reading achievement (Anderson et al., 1988; Goodman, 1996; Smith, 1994; Stanovich & Cunningham, 1992; Taylor et al., 1990; Wigfield & Guthrie, 1997). Much of the research on adult literacy learners' reading development has focused on issues and techniques related to formal instruction. However, adults may spend as little as three hours a week in adult literacy programs, and programs that do provide more instructional hours often focus on developing a diverse set of skills that might only tangentially include reading (e.g., workforce readiness and development, so-called life skills, math). It seems likely that to improve their skills significantly most adult struggling readers need to do more than simply attend a program. They may not spend enough time reading in class to become fully competent readers. By examining the ways adult learners intentionally and unintentionally interact with literacy outside of formal settings, researchers, teachers, and the learners themselves may get insight into how to increase the likelihood that they will meet their reading goals.

The study participants, Edna, Juan, and Margaret, were all learners at the New Brunswick Public Schools Adult Learning Center (NBPSALC), a partner with the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) at Rutgers. NBPSALC offers classes ranging from beginning literacy to adult high school and include workforce development and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). The learners were selected for this study by recommendation of their teachers based on the duration and consistency of their participation in the program, their potential to be reflective and communicative, and their willingness to participate in the study. The data collection for this cross-case study of three adult learners involved a combination of observations of literacy interactions outside of class (the researchers spent one day "shadowing" each learner and the learners recorded an audio log one other day to document their interactions with literacy), and interviews with the learners and their teachers.

The Adult Learners

The following descriptions of the three focal learners in this study are drawn from the data and are constructed to help us understand more about how, why, and under what circumstances adult struggling readers interact with text outside their classes. At the program they attended, none of the teachers assigned homework, and none had a class library nor did they report making a particular effort to encourage their students to read outside of class. Whatever reading the learners did was as a result of their own initiative.

Edna is a 54-year-old married woman and mother of five adult children. She was born in Guatemala and came to the United States at about age 16. Literate in Spanish, she earned her certificate of General Educational Development (GED) in English when her children were young. She has recently returned to school to improve her skills for different kinds of work after being laid off from an air conditioning factory, where she had worked for 24 years. Edna participates in the adult high school classes at the program, and reads relatively fluently. Of the three participants, Edna reads at the highest level.

Outside of school Edna likes to read in both English and Spanish, and does so on a daily basis. When she talked about reading at home, she primarily referred to reading her schoolwork. Edna reported that she reads the local newspaper and the Bible several times a week. In addition to the scriptures, Edna reads religious materials "about people in the church." She also reads magazines that her daughters pass on to her. She uses her computer on a daily basis, reading the headlines on the Yahoo website and a Guatemalan newspaper on the Internet. However, she spends much of whatever spare time she has completing reading, writing and grammar, and math workbooks, often slipping this work in between household chores.

Since starting school again, Edna feels her skills have improved. She believes that doing school work at home, although not required, is critical to her success in school. Being able to go to her daughters and a family friend for help with homework, as she does, is also an important source of assistance for her. Edna also believes that reading books would help her improve her skills, but she does not do this often. She expressed a strong desire to get a library card and borrow books that are "stories about people," but complained that she has not followed through on this. She believes that spending time reading would "calm me down." Although she spends more time reading on the computer than in books, she believes that the former is less valuable.

Quite a bit of text was visible in Edna's house, including mail and newspapers in her dining room; books in her computer room on the desk and on shelves; notices, coupons, and recipes stuck to her refrigerator door; and a framed printed passage on the wall entitled "The Unknown Guest" (referring to God). On the day we spent observing her, Edna went to class, the grocery store, and the bank. During the course of her day she was surrounded by text in all of these places and seemed to interact comfortably and fluently with it. For example, at the grocery store, she compared labels looking for specific ingredients, and at the bank she filled out a deposit slip without hesitation.

Juan is a 21-year-old man who lives with his mother, was born in the United States, but has spent extended periods of time living in Puerto Rico with his father, who resides there. He describes himself as equally fluent in English and Spanish. He is the father of 2-year-old twins who live in another city with their mother. Juan explained that, subsequent to a serious car accident at age seven, he was always in trouble at school. Transferred from his regular high school to a disciplinary school in high school, he dropped out at age 16. After returning from a five-year stay with his father, he decided to go back to school. Juan reads at an intermediate level.

Juan reports that, "Sometimes I write, I don't hardly read." When asked why he doesn't read, he said, "It's ‘cause I got things I got to do." He later admitted that reading just "doesn't attract my attention...I look for something...that's more comfort able for me." In school, he explained that he reads, because that's what you do there. "When I'm home, that's my freedom, and I do what I want." 

Juan does not have a job, but he described himself as the person his family counts on to help out with various responsibilities. His days tend to be somewhat unstructured. He reported that on a typical day he may hang out in the downtown business area, or help out in the beauty salon where his godmother works. When Juan was observed, there was almost no evidence of interaction with any text. He seemed to operate almost completely outside a world that demands reading skill. He does not drive, work, or have a bank account. Although we were not invited inside his home, Juan reports that there are no books or magazines there. Although he can read some, there is almost nothing in Juan's life that seems to require him to do so, and he reports that he just about never seeks out text to read except when he's in school.

Margaret is a 42-year-old African-American woman. At the time of data collection she was pregnant. She had a 10-year-old daughter who lived with Margaret's mother and visited Margaret on the weekends. Margaret dropped out of high school, at age 18, just weeks short of graduation. She reported that school had been hard for her. Margaret did not articulate any specific long-terms goal for participating in the program, other than simply going to school. "My goal was going to school and finishing school."  She hasn't thought much beyond that. She does see herself going to school, not only for herself but also for her daughter. "I want to get something for my life for my daughter and so she can get an education, and I can get an education, and we can learn some thing together. That's the best thing for my daughter, for me." Her teacher reported that when Margaret first came to class, "She could not read five words." However, she sees her as one of her successes. "She has done amazingly well... She has made really good strides." Margaret was reading at the most beginning level of the three study participants.

Margaret does not drive, so on a typical day she rides the bus or takes a cab to school. Sometimes she is absent from school because she can not afford the transportation. She comes directly home afterwards. She reports that at home she "looks" at her mail and the newspaper. She also says that she reads the Bible and other religious materials frequently. When she has difficulty decoding something, she seeks help from her fiancé with whom she lives. He often reads the newspaper aloud to her. Margaret always keeps the TV on when she's home. She likes to watch shows about animals, but she said she also likes to watch games shows that involve figuring out words.

Margaret lives in a residential area with no stores within walking distance. Although she doesn't make shopping lists, Margaret reports that she does read when she goes shopping, "I have to read stuff there to buy something because I might buy the wrong thing. You've got to read it." She also reads directions and recipes on food boxes. Although Margaret does read some, there is a scant amount of print material in her home and, based on her reports and our observations, the time she spends engaged with it on a daily basis is short.

Reading Practices Across the Three Cases

The three research participants interact with text in diverse ways both quantitatively and qualitatively. At one end of the extreme, Edna reads a range of texts every day. She reads as part of fulfilling her adult responsibilities, to stay informed, for spiritual reasons, and to do schoolwork. At the other extreme, Juan seems to find little reason to read at all outside of class. Although a less capable reader than Edna, Margaret seems to read more in her day-to-day life than Juan. She does read some on a daily basis. She, in turn, has shown significant progress in her reading. These subjects' reading behaviors indicate a complex interaction among learners' beliefs and understandings about reading development, teacher messages and behaviors about reading development, and the home environment.

All three seem to think that school-like reading really counts for improving their skills. Even Edna, who said she believed she should read more books, put her considerable effort primarily into completing academic exercises, rather than spending the time engaging in more authentic reading tasks. When asked what the best thing was that she could do to help herself improve her skills, she replied, "If I do my homework, I will be better in everything that I want to do." Juan resists reading anything more than absolutely necessary because doing so does not engage him. Margaret believes the main ingredient in improving her reading is to spend more time in school. When asked if there was anything she could be doing outside of school to help herself, she said, "Not right now." Because their teachers did not report that they make any particular effort to encourage their students to read outside of class, or to engage them in reading for pleasure, students' experiences in the program probably did little to dispel their beliefs and alter their practices. Thus students' preconceived notions of reading seem to work, to some extent, against the likelihood of their engaging in extensive or additional reading practices outside of class. The data indicate that these adults may not choose, be able to, or even think to increase the amount of time they spend reading outside of class without support, motivation, and encouragement from their teachers.

At least two elements of their home environments seem relevant to their involvement in reading as well: their access to print, and the support and interest of their family members. Juan, who has the least text in his home, seems to read the least; by reading less he is decreasing his chances of reaching his reading goals. Similarly, Edna, with reading materials through out her home and opportunities and expectations for interacting with text throughout her day, reads the most. Although the causal relationship between access to print and engagement with reading among these three adults cannot be established, since the study numbers are so small and there are likely other factors at play, it seems logical that someone who has more to read within his or her environment also has more opportunity to read. In other words, access to text seems likely to be a necessary, if not always sufficient, ingredient in actual reading.

Also related to the home environment is the role that other family members play in encouraging or discouraging the adult learner to read, work hard, and improve his or her skills. Baker et al. (1997) make clear that parents play an important shaping role in their children's beliefs about reading and their motivation to read. However, we have no research on the role that adult children and spouses play in motivating adult students to do the same. The data indicate that family members are an important part of the mix. Edna gave us several examples of her family's support and involvement in her reading development, and learning more generally, that seemed extremely important to her. In contrast, Margaret and Juan have little support or encouragement for their efforts. Margaret's boyfriend sometimes acts as a literacy helper by reading the newspaper to her and helping her with personal business, but she did not report any involvement on his part in her learning. Not resisting her participation in the program is an important element, but active involvement and encouragement in her reading at home may have further assisted her development. Similarly, although Juan's teacher reported that his mother frequently checked up on his attendance when he first started participating at the program, she seemed to pay no attention to his actual progress, or the work that he was doing. This seems to indicate that she felt her role was simply to get him to school. The rest was up to him and his teacher.

What Teachers and Tutors Can Do

This case study offers some straightforward implications for practice. Although teachers can only work to improve what goes on in their classrooms, and must accept that the demands of adult life may militate against many of their efforts to encourage reading outside of class, they should be aware of what they can do to increase the potential of adult literacy learners' reading in their day-to-day lives.

An important step is for instructors to help adult learners understand the importance of reading more each day, reading widely from a range of texts, and reading for a range of purposes (information, pleasure, as well as skill development). Explicitly communicating this message is important, but may well not be enough. The data suggest that educators may need to help adult learners re-evaluate their beliefs, values, and goals regarding reading, especially if belief systems are bound by images of school-like reading, which inhibit the range and quality of texts read (as well as motivation to read). Teachers also need to emphasize and maximize the conditions that can support increased reading practice. The fact that some teachers do not take an active role in promoting reading practice, for whatever reasons, makes it seem unlikely that those who are not already inclined to do so will increase the types of reading they engage in or the amount of time they read outside of class. Or they will not increase that enough to improve their reading above and beyond what would happen through class participation alone.

Ideas for Encouraging Students to Read

  • Make an explicit connection between reading practice and reading improvement.
  • Create a classroom library. Be sure to include books at different levels of difficulty, and diverse genres. New books are expensive, but used ones are plentiful and cheap at yard and rummage sales. Don’t shy away from children’s and young adult literature that focuses on topics that might be of interest to adults.
  • A great source of titles can be found at
  • Do “book talks.” Teachers and students can introduce each other to favorite books through brief “hooks.” Try reading aloud the back cover, the first paragraph of the first chapter, or another favorite part. Tell others why the book was enjoyable.
  • Provide 10 to 15 minutes of class time for reading books, magazines, and websites.
  • Set up book clubs made up of students interested in reading the same book. Provide discussion questions and formats for talking about the book.
  • Help students come up with techniques for reading independently including how to pick a book that is not too hard, a range of strategies to employ when encountering word-level or comprehension difficulties, and how to find time to read.
  • Take a trip to the library. Help students get library cards or work out any previous difficulties with library fines and overdue books.
  • Have students log their reading activity inside and outside of class. Logs should include what was read, how long it was read, or how many pages were read. Celebrate benchmarks such as every 100 minutes (or pages) or every three books completed. Let students determine how logs should be kept and what the benchmarks should be, as well has how to celebrate them.
  • Hold a book fair. Teachers and students bring in books to swap. This can be coupled with book talks.

Access to text is another ingredient in encouraging reading outside of class. A starting point is providing a classroom (or easily accessible) library with a range of books, magazines, and other print materials in a variety of genres and levels of difficulty. Beers (1996) suggests that while choice is important, it should be limited so that inexperienced readers are not overwhelmed. It is unlikely that most adult struggling readers will go to the public library and select a book to read simply at the suggestion of a teacher. These adults will need a great deal of step-by-step direction in helping them know how and where to locate texts, how to select texts that will engage and not frustrate them, and how to find time to read. Therefore teachers will need to go beyond simply providing access to texts. One element may be creating extended time in class to read (Campagna, 2005).

Earl (1997) took many of the steps described here but still found that her students did not read outside of class. She worked with her students to develop an incentive system to encourage reading, but she also gave them a reading log that they were to fill out and return each week. She found that by the time the incentive prizes arrived (greatly delayed by bad weather), the students no longer needed them. The logs not only seemed to serve as an adequate reminder to read but they also conveyed a strong and clear message about the importance of reading outside of class and provided a structure for tracking progress. In addition, as the students started reading more, they started talking to each other about it more. The book-related talk that occurred in class also seemed to spur the learners on. Although teachers cannot hope to change the culture of support for learners in their homes (for better or worse), teachers can work to build interested and supportive networks of learners in class who share and discuss their reading likes and dislikes, triumphs and challenges. They can thereby create a book club atmosphere that may help adults over the hump when they, their spouses, partners, or children do not do so.


It is a simple idea to argue that adult struggling readers need encouragement and help to read more as a way to increase their potential to become more fluent and capable readers. The data presented here suggest that to do so is a complex task that needs focus from teachers, learners, and researchers to implement. Although an important first step, simply telling adult students that they should read more is probably not enough. Instead, teachers should proactively help learners rethink their assumptions and attitudes toward reading, gain access to a wide variety of texts, and help them overcome a range of barriers that make reading outside of class difficult. Adult learners can do a great deal to help themselves learn to read more quickly, but they may need help getting started.


Anderson, R. C., Wilson, P. T., & Fielding, L. G. (1988). "Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside of school." Reading Research Quarterly, 23(3), 285-303.

Baker, L., Scher, D., & Mackler, K. (1997). "Home and family influences on motivations for reading." Educational Psychology, 32(2), 69-82.

Beers, G. K. (1996). "No time, no interest, no way! The 3 voices of literacy." School Library Journal, 42(3), 110-113.

Campagna, S. (2005). "Sustained silent reading: A useful model." Focus on Basics, 7(C), 8-10.

Earl, D. (1997). "Learning to love reading." Focus on Basics, 1(B), 1-4.

Goodman, K. (1996). On Reading. Portsmouth, NJ: Heinemann.

Smith, F. (1994). Understanding Reading (5th ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Stanovich, K. E., & Cunningham, A. E. (1992). "Studying the consequences of literacy within a literate society:  The cognitive correlates of print exposure." Memory and Cognition, 20(1), 51-68.

Taylor, B. M., Frye, B. J., & Maruyama, G. M. (1990). "Time spent reading and reading growth." American Educational Research Journal, 27(2), 351-362.

Wigfield, A., & Guthrie, J. T. (1997). "Relations of children's motivation for reading to the amount and breadth of their reading." Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(3), 420-432.

About the Author
Alisa Belzer is an assistant professor of adult literacy education at Rutgers University. She began working in adult literacy education in 1987 and has been a program coordinator, tutor trainer, classroom teacher, and tutor. Her research interests have been in the areas of authentic assessment, professional development and teacher research, policy, learner beliefs, and adult reading development.