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Theory to Practice, Practice to Theory

A tutor-based program goes through multiple changes to serve its first-level learners better

by Anne Murr
I entered the adult literacy field four years ago as a volunteer tutor in the Drake Adult Literacy Center in Des Moines, Iowa. In my current role as Center Coordinator, I screen and place adult learners with volunteer tutors, train volunteers, and teach the initial lesson with all new students and tutors. I learn as much from the adult new readers as they learn from me. Along with teaching me about the varied and skilled ways in which they have succeeded in their lives, they have taught me about the depth of difficulty they have in processing language. Their struggles have taught me about the determination to learn and the obstacles they face.

As a Head Start teacher earlier in my career, I learned two valuable principles. The first was to reflect daily on what did and did not work in the classroom and to make changes based on those reflections. The second was to move from theory to practice, from practice to theory. I will examine here how critical reflection on the Drake Adult Literacy Center’s practice, and on the theory and research that support it, intertwine.

Adult Center

The Drake University Adult Literacy Center is a community outreach service of the Drake University School of Education. Community and university volunteers meet one-to-one twice a week with adult new readers. Learners range in age from late teens to 70, with most in the 30 to 45 year range. The majority work full- or part-time but feel they could get better jobs if their reading skills were better. Many attended special education in school, but declare, “I know I can learn. I just never got the chance.”


As I began to craft a literacy curriculum for adults I asked, “Do adults learn to read in the same way children do?” I downloaded  Learning to Read: Literacy Acquisition by Children and Adults by Perfetti & Marron (1995) from the National Center on Adult Literacy’s web site. Their study of the research led them to conclude that the cognitive process by which children and adults learn to read is the same. Of course, adults have more experiences, knowledge, and vocabulary in some areas, and more emotions linked to learning failure. Young children, I knew, learn through sensory stimulation while interacting with their environment. This principle guided my decisions as I began to design our curriculum. I wanted adult learners also to have interactive experiences that would stimulate their literacy learning.

Our First Practice

With guidance from Drake’s professor of early childhood literacy, we adopted the America Reads tutoring model: read together, write together, and incorporate spelling and skills development. Since phonemic awareness is a necessary part of literacy learning, we encouraged tutors to use phonemic awareness activities. Every tutor received Edward Fry’s Phonics Patterns (1997a), a resource to guide practice in phonemic awareness and spelling patterns. Each student received Fry’s Introductory Word Book (1997b; the 1,000 most commonly used words) for use in building sight vocabulary and was encouraged to bring in reading materials that had personal meaning for him or her. We purchased books written for adults at the beginning reading level. Students wrote during each tutoring session, because writing promotes the practice of phonological processing skills.

We hoped to address reading skills development with computerized drill and practice.  We used the Academy of Reading (Autoskill, 1998), which provides individualized training in phonemic awareness and reading. Adults were free to come to the Literacy Center to work on basic skills at their own pace. No keyboard skills were necessary. With all these pieces in place, we were confident that we had a balanced approach to literacy instruction for adults: use of personally meaningful text and writing in the context of real tasks as well as independent computerized skill work.


Mary, the woman I was tutoring, chose to read from her children’s Bible story easy reader. Despite practicing computer skills for hours and reading familiar stories repeatedly, she continued to make the same decoding errors. One of her goals was to be able to spell all her grandchildren’s names so she could write them on each child’s Christmas presents. For several months we practiced and practiced, but those names never became automatic and accurate. Our first year together, Mary’s spelling improved slightly in letters she wrote to her pen pal, but she was not making progress toward her goal of learning to read. She wanted to learn and worked hard to learn, but my teaching did not help her skills to improve.

During the first year, not one adult learner had made measurable progress in learning to read. The lack of progress informed us that our learners needed a different type of instruction. It was time to find a better way.

More Theory

I had been searching the National Institute for Literacy’s electronic discussion lists — covering such topics as learning disabilities, Equipped for the Future, and technology — for suggestions on improving literacy instruction. Barbara Guyer, who works with college students with learning disabilities, wrote “When all else fails, we go to the Wilson.” Since all else had indeed failed for adults at our Literacy Center, we decided to try the Wilson Reading System, (WRS; Wilson, 1988). With funds donated by R.R. Donnelley, a publishing corporation with a plant in Des Moines, we bought a Wilson starter kit. Our initial expenses were less than $500.

WRS is written specifically for adults with dyslexia (defined as language-based learning disabilities) and is based on Orton-Gillingham multisensory principles. First, students learn letter-sound correspondence and how letters and sounds combine in words (phonemic awareness and phonological processing skills). The WRS 10-part lesson plan provides both structure and flexibility to allow students multiple opportunities to build skills and to receive immediate feedback on their learning. Instructional materials also give volunteer tutors the specifics they need to teach with confidence.

A New Practice

The Literacy Center Advisory Committee decided that all new volunteers would use the WRS to instruct adults with low literacy skills. Although we were not yet proficient in the WRS, it met our learners’ needs more than our previous instruction had. The WRS also gave volunteer tutors a specific structure and materials they had lacked. (At a pilot training session for adult literacy providers I attended months later, Barbara Wilson confirmed that this
is the way all adult literacy programs begin using Wilson materials. After we had sheepishly admitted the we were “sort of” using the Wilson Reading System, Barbara told us, “You start by doing as much as you know and can do. Then return to the instructor’s materials and refine your skills as you are ready.”)

Volunteers initially attend three hours of orientation. The first hour and a half session is an overview of reading disabilities and how the Wilson Reading System addresses those deficits. The second session addresses lesson planning and gives volunteers practice with the lesson plan format. Tutors meet with me occasionally in follow-up seminars to continue learning. The Center’s limited budget precludes formal Wilson training for our tutors, but WRS instructors’ materials give tutors detailed and specific guidance. Currently 22 tutors and students are learning together using the Wilson Reading System.

Informed by the Learners

During our initial assessment, adults are often frustrated when they cannot name the sounds that go with the letters. While many of our learners know most of the consonant sounds, no one is able to name all the vowel sounds (phonemes) accurately. They struggle with perceiving sounds in words: they seem to be in a fog of sound from which they can identify few individual phonemes. They also are angry that no one ever taught them what they need to know in order to learn to read.

Most of our adult new readers have a bank of words they know by sight, but the “little words” give them difficulty. When asked in the initial assessment to read word lists beginning with three-letter closed syllables and progressing to increasingly more complex words, many  have more difficulty with the smallest words (ship or den versus mascot or pumpkins). The small words have fewer visual clues from which students can make their best guess.

Many of our learners tell me that they do not know that letters represent the sounds in the words we speak, or that when you see a letter, that letter tells you the sound. During the introductory lesson, most are able to recognize the individual sounds in three-letter words for the first time. As they systematically learn letter-sound correspondences and how to blend and segment sounds in words, learners stop relying on the “guess and check” method of reading, and move to the more reliable “see and say” method.

Adults in our Center have shown me that no step in the process of learning to read comes easily. They must repeatedly practice each new sound, each new combination of sounds, often for months, before skills and concepts become automatic. One task in the Wilson lesson is to read 15 words, three words per line. Learners must read three words silently, then return to the beginning of the line and read the three words aloud. After carefully decoding each word, they often return to the beginning of the line and cannot remember the first word. These are persons with many abilities and accomplishments, but they can master holding sounds and words in short term memory only after a multitude of repetitions.

Informed by Research

A year after beginning to use the WRS, I enrolled in a research class that was a requirement for my masters degree in adult education. I began to research the question, “Why do children fail to learn to read?” Research confirms what I have learned from our adult learners. The lack of phonemic awareness and inability to manipulate sounds in words, which I see in our adult new readers, is one of the causes of reading failure (Bradley & Bryant, 1983).

These reading deficits are neurologically based and span all levels of cognitive ability. New brain scanning technologies have identified that brains of children and adults with reading problems do process language differently (Shaywitz, et al. 1998; Richards, et al. 2000). A large proportion of reading failure is the result of neurological difficulties that must be addressed directly.

Substantial research indicates that effective instruction for persons with reading deficits should be systematic and intensive, and should involve directly teaching how to recognize sounds in words and how letters represent sounds (Liberman  & Shankweiler, 1985; Torgesen et al., 1997). Instruction must include multisensory approaches, with extensive opportunities for practice that allow the learner to attain automaticity. Instruction about word structure and comprehension must also be included. The WRS contains these necessary components, and adults respond positively to this instruction.

Reflections on our Present Practice

In contrast to our first, less structured language experience approach, we now have a way to track learner progress, and learners are making progress. Every WRS level (Step) is divided into substeps. During each lesson, the learner reads a list of 15 words and graphs the number of words read correctly. When the learner easily and consistently reads 14 or 15 out of 15 words, he or she moves to the next substep. Every learner in our Center has progressed through at least several substeps. 13 have moved from step one to step two. Three learners are now in step three and four are in step four (out of a total of 12 steps). Progress is slow; however, each person is taking the time he or she needs to build reading skills. Adult learners in our program are forming the foundation of skills necessary to become independent readers, and they are pleased with the results of their hard work.

When Mary started with the WRS, she didn’t like it because she thought she already knew the alphabet. “But I found out I didn’t know the sounds,” she said. “When my employer left me a note, I panicked: back to old habits. Then I took my time and I read it!” 

Jesse, who also attends a center where he is working on job skills, said, “At that center they don’t teach me the sounds. I need that.” 

One of our youngest students, a 20-year old college student diagnosed with learning disabilities, exclaimed, “This is productive. Learning is fun.” Adult learners are learning to trust what they know about letters and sounds.

Volunteers also are responding positively. “I like the fact that the WRS program is so well organized. It’s a step-by-step approach with many helps for both the student and tutor,” said one. 

Another commented, “I like the flexibility. My student can move ahead while continuing to review previously learned concepts.”

We continue to refine our tutoring skills, and we know that we are not yet proficient. With more training resources, tutor preparation and support could be greatly improved. To become more effective, tutors need to be active independent learners. Wilson tutor materials are clear and explicit, but volunteers need to spend time reading and practicing their skills.

The Future

Our Center’s process of practice and praxis continues. Are we providing the best possible literacy instruction for adults with language-based learning disabilities? How can we improve vocabulary and comprehension development? How can we address emotional blocks to help adults create the conditions for their learning? What more can we do that we have not yet discovered?

Research clearly identifies the criteria of instruction for children with reading disabilities, and has measured the effectiveness of this instruction. However, I have found no research that measures the effectiveness of reading instruction for adults with low literacy skills. I want to know if we are doing all we can to give our learners the most effective instruction. I have begun my own research to measure the impact on adults’ reading skills of direct, systematic instruction in phonological processing skills by volunteer tutors using the Wilson Reading System.

Research informs our practice in the one-to-one tutoring setting with adults. Individuals in the Adult Literacy Center also instruct me about their needs and the challenges of remediating their reading difficulties. What will the next adult learner teach me and how will that inform our practice? Together, we move from theory to practice, practice to theory, in the continuing  process of reflection and learning.


Autoskill (1998). Ottawa, Ontario: Academy of Reading.

Bell, L., & Perfetti, C. (1994). “Reading skill: Some adult comparisons.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 244-255.

Bradley, L., & Bryant, P.E. (1983).  “Categorizing sounds and learning to read—a causal connection.”  Nature, 301, 419-421.

Byrne, B., & Ledez, J.  (1983). “Phonological awareness in reading-disabled adults.” Australian Journal  of  Psychology, 35, 185-197.

Fry, E. (1997a). Introductory Word Book. Chicago, IL: NTC/Contemporary.

Fry, E. (1997b). Phonics Patterns. Chicago, IL: NTC/Contemporary.

Liberman, L., & Shankweiler, D. (1985). “Phonology and the problems of learning to read and write.”  Remedial and Special Education, 6, 8-17.

Lyon, R. (1995). “Toward a definition of dyslexia.” Annals of Dyslexia, 45, 3-27.

Perfetti, C.A., &  Marron, M.A.  (1995). “Learning to read: Literacy acquisition by children and adults.” National Center on Adult Literacy,  Technical Report TR95-07.

Read, C., & Ruyter, L. (1985). “Reading and spelling skills in adults of low literacy.”  Remedial and Special Education, 6, 43-52.

Richards, T., Corina, D., Serafini, S., Steury, K., Echelard, D., Dager, S., Marro, K., Abbott, R., Maravilla, K., & Berninger, V. (2000). “The effects of a phonologically-driven treatment for dyslexia on lactate levels as measured by proton MRSI.” American Journal of Neuroradiology, 21, 916-922

Shaywitz, S., Shaywitz, B., Pugh, K., Fulbright, R., Constable, R.T., Mencl, W.E., Shankweiler, D., Liberman, A., Skudlarski,  P., Fletcher, J., Katz, L., Marchione, K., Lacadie, C., Gatenby, C., & Gore, J. (1998). “Functional disruption in the organization of the brain for reading in dyslexia.”  Neurobiology, 95, 2636-2641.

Torgesen, J.K., Wagner, R.K., & Rashotte, C.A. (1997). “Prevention and remediation of severe reading disabilities: Keeping the end in mind.” Journal of Scientific Studies of Reading, 3, 217-234.

Wilson, B. (1988). The Wilson Reading System. Milford, MA: Wilson Language Training Corp.

About the Author

Anne Murr has been coordinating the Drake University Adult Literacy Center, Des Moines, Iowa, since May, 1998. She has a degree in elementary and early childhood education and taught Head Start for six years. She has completed course work for a masters degree in adult education.