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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue C ::: March 2005

Individualized Group Instruction: A Common Model

by Perrine Robinson-Geller
Individualized Group Instruction (IGI) describes the adult basic education (ABE) classroom model in which learners work independently on assigned workbooks or worksheets with a teacher available to help them as needed. “Group” is used in the term because learners often are assigned a particular class and teacher and meet at a specific time. IGI differs from tutoring because the learners are not sitting with a teacher one-on-one for the whole time, although one-on-one interactions occur as the learners need help. IGI is commonly used with ABE and preparation for the tests of General Educational Development (GED)-level classes. Except for language labs (equipped with computers or tape recorders), English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classrooms do not often use IGI because learner- to-learner interaction is essential to mastering a new language (see the cover article f or more on this). For the purposes of this article, the term ABE will encompass the full range of adult basic education classes excluding ESOL classes. The term IGI was coined by John Comings, director of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL), in 2003.

IGI takes several forms. For example, in some classrooms, learners are never grouped and minimal structured interaction occurs between learners. In other IGI classrooms, the teacher groups students for mini-lessons or other tasks; in yet others, the teacher begins with a whole-group activity followed by individual study. Supplementing IGI with small group work, either impromptu or planned, is a common variation. Learning centers and computer labs that use computer-aided instruction (CAI) are also using a form of IGI.

In general, IGI is characterized by the following:

Little research has been conducted on modes of delivery in ABE, so there are no empirical data on just how prevalent IGI is. The studies that have looked at instructional practice in ABE classrooms have not differentiated between tutoring and IGI. However, the term individualized instruction is common in ABE. The National Evaluation of Adult Education Programs in 1992 found that 57 percent of programs were using individualized methods (Young et al., 1 995). A 1990 study examining adult literacy services found that “individualized instruction has become the principal format in basic skills classes” (Kutner et al., 1990, p. 20).


IGI as a mode of delivery has been used since ABE started receiving federal funding in the 1960s. At that ti me, enrollment was increasing exponentially and new teachers and new methods were needed. Programmed instruction was popular in higher education and appealed to adult educators as an instructional system that was well suited to the adult population and the structural issues presented by ABE.

Programmed instruction is based on a behaviorist model of education in which every task is broken into small steps; learners get immediate feedback and must achieve mastery before proceeding to the next step. Programmed instruction is usually done individually. Applied to adult education, it became IGI. It fit nicely with adult education learning theories of the time, such as the self-directed adult learner (Knowles, 1970). Early federal teacher training institutes encouraged programmed instruction and the individualization of instruction. As teachers who received this training went out into the field they took those ideas and adapted them to the realities of ABE, and IGI became part of the fabric of ABE.

The Administrator’s Perspective

IGI enables administrators to handle open entry/open exit enrollment and sporadic patterns of attendance in ABE classes: since in IGI each learner works indepen dently, new learners are not disruptive. IGI makes it easier to offer instruction to students at a variety of learning levels: learners work on materials at their levels and in the topic areas on which they need to focus. IGI also allows new teachers to step into existing classes with minimal disruption.

The Teacher’s Perspective

IGI allows teachers the flexibility needed to enroll, assess, and orient new learners while existing learners continue their work. The IGI teacher is a facilitator, helping learners to understand and process information. The interaction between the learner and the materials is supposed to be the primary guide for the learner. This does not mean that IGI teachers do not teach: they do. It is a responsive and reactive teaching. Teachers do not always know what they are going to teach and when, since the teaching generally consists of impromptu mini-lessons given when a learner gets stuck and needs help.

Some teachers thrive on the diversity that the IGI classroom offers. They enjoy the variety of subject matter they are called upon to teach and the wide range of learners with whom they interact. Others find it frustrating or boring. It is challenging to have the in-depth knowledge of material needed to assign appropriate materials and offer alternatives to struggling students. The stresses of teaching this way are well expressed by the following excerpt from an interview with a respondent with 15 years of teaching experience and 10 years of administration and staff development experience.

“I literally within minutes would switch from teaching somebody decoding at a very basic level to teaching someone, oh, trigonometry... it was fairly daunting and challenging to have the kind of immediate switch. You’re just click, click, click, click all day long from one subject to another, from a young high school student to an older re-entering vocational student to a single parent who had some emotional issues going on to somebody who had learning disabilities. Just c onstant moment by moment switching of ways of interrelating with the students. I remember at the end of the day, I was always exhausted.”

The Learner’s Perspective

The IGI model offers benefits and drawbacks to the learner as well. Learners are able to work at their own pace and on materials specifically targeted at their level. They do not need to spend time on material that they have already mastered. They are not penalized for missing a class, because they can continue right where they left off; they do not miss anything (nor do they hold others back) when they are absent. Learners do not need to be self-conscious about not keeping up with a group or about outpacing a group. IGI is better suited for someone who has a clear, attainable goal and needs some intensive brush-up work in a particular area to attain it. Learners may develop a close relationship with the teacher.

At the same time, IGI requires a level of independence and ability to negotiate printed text, which makes it unsuitable for very-low-level learners. It also requires a learner to be self-directed, independent, and comfortable asking for help when he or she needs it. Because they work independently, learners may not experience a sense of cohort with their peers, which research is showing to be important for learner retention and success (Kegan et al., 2001). IGI’s heavy dependence on materials such as workbooks and w orksheets, which present material in small isolated chunks, may lead to the acquisition of discrete facts but not an overall, big picture understanding of a topic.

Best Practices

To ensure that learners are well served, teachers who use the IGI mode of delivery need to address the issue of waiting time. This occurs when a learner is either finished or struggling with materials, and has to wait for the teacher. To alleviate their own stress and that of their learners, teachers can provide for each learner some ideas of what to do if they need to wait: for example, enrichment activities that build on materials they have already mastered.

Some teachers simply say that they are available and sit at the front of the room. Skilled teachers are explicit about how learners can access them, either going from one learner to another as the learners needs help or getting to each learner to check in and see where he or she is. This works to the favor of learners who are not comfortable seeking help. It also allows the teacher to know how each learner is doing. Nevertheless, getting to each student in a timely way is always challenging. As an experienced IGI teacher remarked:

“It (IGI) means that once they get help, they get exactly the help that they need. But sometimes it’s not possible to do that. If you’ve got six people lined up waiting for your help, five of them are going to be sitting there twiddling their thumbs. They may well get to a point where they’re just so stuck that they can’t do anything without some assistance. That part of it can be frustrating for the teacher, who has this sense that people are just waiting and waiting and for the student who gets the sense that everyone else is coming before him or her.”

Many teachers occasionally form small groups in IGI classes. They sometimes group learners who all need help on the same topic, such as fractions, and provide a group mini-lesson. Learners follow this with appropriate individual work. Teachers also sometimes invite members of the class who are interested in a particular topic, such as writing, for example, to join in an enrichment group. Members of the class who do not wish to focus on writing continue in their independent work.

Teachers must familiarize themselves with available materials and make careful choices about which materials to use. Since the materials play such a prominent role in IGI, choosing the highest quality materials that meets learners’ goals is especially important.

In Conclusion

As with any instructional delivery system, IGI works best with skilled teachers who have had an opportunity to learn how to teach in this configuration. Although IGI is not a new classroom model, no empirical evidence demonstrates its effectiveness. Little has been written about how to do this type of teaching and what factors contribute to successful learning experiences with its use. Additional research would contribute to an understanding of this very common form of ABE instruction.

Kegan, R., Broderick, M., Drago-Severson, E., Helsing, D., Popp, N., & Portnow, K. (2001). Toward a New Pluralism in ABE/ESOL Classrooms: Teaching to Multiple “Cultures of Mind” Executive Summary. NCSALL Report #19a. Retrieved January 2, 2005, from http://www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/

Knowles, M. S. (1970). The Modern Practice of Adult Education (1st ed.). New York, NY: Association Press.

Kutner, M. A., Furey, S., Webb, L., & Gadsden, V. (1990). Adult Education Programs and Services: A View from Nine Programs. Washington, DC: Pelavin Associates, Inc.

Young, M. B., & et al. (1995). National Evaluation of Adult Education Programs Executive Summary: Arlington, VA: Development Associates, Inc.

About the Author
Perrine Robinson-Geller has been a research assistant with NCSALL at Rutgers University since 2000. Before that, she was based at Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland, OH, as a teacher/coordinator for three workplace literacy programs and an ABE program. She also worked at the Ohio Literacy Resource Center.

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