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Focus On Basics

Volume 8, Issue C ::: November 2006

More Curriculum Structure: A Response to "Turbulence"

by John Strucker
"Attendance turbulence" was coined by Tom Sticht and colleagues to describe the severe absenteeism and high dropout rates that characterize many classes of adult basic education (ABE) and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) (Sticht et al., 1998). What's behind this turbulence? A decade of research by the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) has shown that adult learners' relatively poor attendance and high dropout rates do not usually occur for trivial or frivolous reasons (see Comings et al., 1999; 2000). Most adult attendance and persistence problems stem from the inevitable demands of adult life: changes in job schedule; the need to take a second or third job; illness (sometimes chronic) of the students themselves, their children, or other family members; marital problems; and housing difficulties, to name just a few. Whether one is working toward a PhD or a GED, it is difficult to be a full-time parent, full-time wage earner, and full-time caregiver while also attending classes regularly.

However, despite adult learners' problems with attendance and completion, we also know that many remain quite persistent in their desire to learn. Research by Stephen Reder and Clare Strawn (2001) has shown that when adult learners drop out of their program-based learning, many reengage by returning to programs at a later date and by attempting to study on their own in the interim. Reder and Strawn also found that many adults in the ABE target population who have not enrolled in programs engage in self-study through personally-owned books, library resources, and Internet exploration (see their article in this issue for more on this ).

It's time to stop blaming adult learners for failing to attend classes regularly because they live adult lives. We need to admit that many learners will have difficulty attending classes consistently and completing programs on schedule. At the same time, we need to take advantage of their persistence and determination. These characteristics have implications for the ABE/ESOL system as a whole. For example, I've always wondered why more ABE and ESOL programs don't offer weekend classes for people whose work week is full. In recent years the program I taught in, like many around the country, has moved away from open entry–open exit enrollment, which added new students as other students disappeared or completed. I applaud this trend. I also hope programs will avoid the temptation to fill seats by enrolling learners who have only the slimmest chances of attending regularly or completing the course. Enrolling people who have little chance of persisting and succeeding is hurtful and disrespectful to them. It is also highly disruptive to teaching and to the learning of those learners who are able to stay and attend regularly.

In this article I take into account the realities of adult lives and provide some micro-implications for the class room — how we design courses and how we teach — and some macro-suggestions for the system as a whole.

Teachers' Responses to Turbulence

When I was an ABE reading teacher, five out of the 10 learners who were present in my class on Monday night were often absent the following Wednesday. In their place on Wednesday might be three or four learners who had not attended on Monday. Moreover, I knew that only 50 to 75 percent of those who began my classes in September would still be there in January. In any given class, I might be faced with missing students, a core of students with fairly regular attendance, a returning student or two whom I hadn't seen for a long time, and a totally new student enrolled from the waiting list.

I opted to make every class as self-contained and stand-alone as possible, planning each activity to begin and end within a single session. If students could only attend a fraction of their classes I would give them a few precious "reading vitamins" that might somehow pay off down the road. Every night I arrived in class with a brand new lesson in the form of three or four sets of photocopies: perhaps a short story for oral reading fluency, a paraphrased newspaper article with questions and a worksheet for comprehension and vocabulary, a spelling list culled from their writing miscues, and a stimulus for a writing assignment. My lesson plan addressed some components of reading, but it was seldom related to what we had done the night before, much less the week before. And worse, my teacher-made handouts were usually only available the night of the class, hot off the presses.

In retrospect my adaptation to irregular attendance was just plain wrong-headed. Self-contained and disconnected lessons are an especially bad idea for students who struggle with a particular skill or competency. To use an example from sports, imagine you want to learn to play golf, but you are not a particularly gifted athlete. If your golf teacher concentrates on your grip during one lesson, plays a few holes with you the next, works on your backswing during the following lesson, touches on putting next, then reviews the grip two weeks later, your golf game probably would not improve much. Only the most gifted athletes could learn from such fragmentary lessons, and even they would probably not regard them as a good use of their time and money.

Other teachers I knew responded to turbulence differently, but with equally disastrous results. Like me they were sympathetic to the fact that many students' absences were not the result of irresponsibility or lack of dedication. They took the "lost sheep" approach: when a student missed a class or two — or four or five — they would abandon the rest of the class for 15 minutes or more while they caught up the returning student. Another strategy for sporadic attendance was "reviewing what we've reviewed." These teachers incorporated so much review into each class session that the students who had the best attendance were forced to follow the pace of those with the worst. It must have been disheartening. Why make a commitment to regular attendance if the class is designed to reward poor attendance? Some may have even concluded that with so much reviewing going on, it was a waste of time to attend every class. One step forward, two steps back.

Structure and Sequence

When learners have difficulty with a subject and they are not able to have near-perfect attendance, it is essential that individual lessons follow a predictable routine and be part of a sequence that is recognizable not only to the teacher but also to the students. What does this mean in practice? Imagine a typical ABE student, a single mother who has been attending her intermediate reading class fairly regularly. Without warning, her son's asthma acts up, and she has to take him to the emergency room and then to multiple follow-up appointments. She must also spend several evenings at home caring for him until he improves. As a result, she is forced to miss six consecutive sessions of her reading class.

Like many adult learners, she is persistent and dedicated, and she returns to class as soon as humanly possible. When she finally returns, imagine how much easier it would be for her if the class had been following a similar routine every night. It would be even easier if those nightly routines were incorporated into a published syllabus that she had been given. She would know what she had missed during her absence and what to expect upon returning.

For example, she would know that during the first 20 minutes the class would be doing collaborative oral reading from the same novel they had been reading before she left: a book she had been able to read at home and while waiting in the doctor's office. If the teacher was sticking to the syllabus, the student would even know how far the class had read in the novel. She could be confident that the next activity would be a lively give-and-take vocabulary discussion where students learned new word meanings from the teacher, created contexts for their use, and debated their understandings of the new words. The returning student would even know exactly which words had been covered while she was absent and which new words would be discussed that night because she had read the next chapters in the vocabulary workbook while she was absent. The last activity of the evening would be a brief writing assignment based on the vocabulary lesson, or a bit of silent reading from a regular nonfiction text in science or social studies; she would also have a copy of this text at home.

I am not advocating that we revert to multiple-choice work books and the "butterfly teacher" who flits from learner to learner, stopping just long enough to place red marks on incorrect answers. I am advocating active teaching: whole group and small group activities with plenty of teacher/learner and learner/learner interaction and abundant real-time feedback to learners. In the hypothetical case above, the vocabulary workbook is intended as a springboard to discussion, not a substitute for it.

Two essential elements create effective structure. Student should own their own books and workbooks, and the teacher needs to employ a syllabus and stick to it, no matter how much turbulence occurs in attendance from night to night or week to week.

Is it feasible for students to own their books? I think it is. If programs cannot afford to supply books free to students, then students would indeed have to buy them. Already many General Educational Development (GED) programs expect students to purchase their own books. And if our students are successful in ABE or ESOL and go on to the next phase of adult education — community college — they will be expected to buy their college texts.

Is it feasible to stick to a syllabus in ABE or ESOL classes? For intermediate, pre-GED, and GED levels of reading and math and for ESOL at intermediate and above it is eminently feasible. However, it won't be a "no-brainuh," as we say in New England. It will take hard work to create workable and effective syllabi. Teachers will have to share knowledge and experiences about what materials work best with various levels of students, and they will have to figure out an optimal pace of instruction, one that works for most students.

Adhering rigidly to the timetable of a syllabus probably does not make sense for beginning reading or beginning ESOL classes. Teachers of beginners need to adjust the rate at which the basic building blocks of reading or English are presented. Beginning readers have little choice but to attend class regularly because it is almost impossible for them to practice the skills they need on their own or outside of class. Although a fixed time table may not work for them, beginners thrive on structure. Research strongly suggests that beginning reading should be taught using one of the "structured language" approaches such as Orton-Gillingham or the Wilson Reading System, where the scope and sequence is clearly mapped out, even while the rate at which the material is presented depends on students' progress (Kruidenier, 2002).

With regard to the use of syllabi, why shouldn't adult basic education more closely resemble the "other," more privileged adult education: postsecondary education? When our students reach community college they will find that most teachers employ a syllabus and attempt to stick to it regard less of fluctuations in attendance and enrollment.

To summarize, more classroom structure would enable ABE and ESOL students to know exactly what to expect during each session and exactly what material the class covered when they were absent or had to drop out. The structure would not only help those learners with attendance problems, it would also help those who attend regularly because their progress would no longer be determined by those who attend sporadically. Even students who are eventually forced to drop out for long stretches would at least be able to attempt self study from their books until they can return.

Dream a Little

If we let ourselves dream a little, we can imagine face-to-face ABE and ESOL courses having parallel and supporting online courses. If the on-line courses were able to employ evolving computer capabilities for speech recognition, intermediate readers could practice oral reading for accuracy and fluency on their own, or continue to practice reading independently when they could not attend classes. I am not advocating that online learning be substituted for face-to-face learning; the latter is far superior for too many reasons to list here. But parallel online courses could prevent those who are forced to drop out or those who attend sporadically from falling so far behind that they become discouraged and no longer persist.

Dreaming more grandiosely, what if ABE and ESOL courses were closely aligned in structure, scope, and sequence across a whole state or region? ABE and ESOL learners frequently move from place to place in search of better housing, better employment, or for family reasons. Wouldn't it be to their advantage if, when they re-enrolled in a new program, they found the same array of courses they had been taking at their old program? A student could tell the staff of her new program, "Last year I completed ESOL 2 in Cambridge. I think I'm ready for ESOL 3 here in Lowell."

A uniform and consistent curriculum is not as far-fetched as it sounds. To an extent we already have this with the GED: one set of tests and one set of subject areas around which to organize classes. In the United Kingdom practitioners and researchers took a bold step two years ago by creating national curricula for adult literacy, math, and ESOL. These national curricula allow learners to know precisely where they are in their overall progress and what competencies and skills they will be tackling next. In their famous spirit of muddling through, our British counterparts did not insist that their new curricula be absolutely perfect and completely research-vetted before implementing them. They designed them using the best available evidence and professional wisdom from researchers and practitioners, and they assumed their new curricula would need some tinkering and adjustments as they go along. A major evaluation is now in progress; the results should be very informative.

In Conclusion

When I used to plan those self-contained lessons every night some lessons soared, but others bombed. I was, however, very proud of myself for being so creative. If I were to return to the classroom today and follow my own advice by sticking to the syllabus and making use of texts the students can take home, I might feel less creative. But, as Mary Beth Curtis, the designer of the Boys and Girls Town Reading Program, often reminds teachers who view structure and routine as a curtailment of their creativity, "It's not about you."

This is not a bad mantra as we discuss ways to reform and reshape the ABE/ESOL system. Let's start by building a system that responds to the lives adult learners actually lead. More structured and predictable classes may serve as a counterbalance to the often unpredictable demands of family and work.

Comings, J., Parrella, A., & Soricone, L. (1999). Persistence Among Adult Basic Education Students in Pre-GED Classes - NCSALL Report #12. Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.

Comings, J., Parrella, A., & Soricone, L. (2000). "Helping adults persist: Four supports." Focus on Basics, 4(A), 1-6.

Kruidenier, J. (2002) Research-Based Principles for Adult Basic Education Reading Instruction. Retrieved September 25, 2006, from http://www.nifl.gov/partnershipforreading/

Reder, S. & Strawn, C. (2001). "Program participation and self-directed learning to improve basic skills." Focus on Basics, 4(D), 15-18.

Sticht, T., MacDonald, B., & Erickson, P. (1998). Passports to Paradise: The Sruggle to Teach and Learn on the Margins of Adult Education. El Cajon, CA: Applied Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, Inc.

About the Author
John Strucker is the director of the Harvard Graduate School of Education Adult Reading Lab. A NCSALL researcher, he was the principal investigator on two large-scale research projects, the "Adult Reading Components Study" and "Components and IALS," a study done in partnership with Educational Testing Ser vice. He is currently the princi pal investi gator on a study testing an adaptation of the Boys Town Reading Program for use with adults. Before joining NCSALL, he taught adult literacy and ESOL for 11 years at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Exploring These Ideas

You may want to discuss these ideas in a staff meeting. Here are some questions to get you started:

1. Is turbulence a problem at our adult literacy site?

2. How do we think it affects student learning, not just for those who drop in and out, but also for those who persist?

3. How have we tried to cope with turbulence on a site-wide basis? Which of our techniques have been most effective, and why?

4. On a scale of one to five, where one is “varied and highly flexible” and five is “highly structured and predictable”, how would we describe our approach to curriculum?

5. Would more structure [in the ways discussed by Strucker] tend to help or hurt our students? Why or why not?

6. If we think more structure would be helpful, what type of learners would most benefit from it?

7. What changes might we want to try based on Strucker’s article and our discussion?

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