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Welcome by Editor


"First-level readers," "beginners," "new readers," "0-4 level," adult basic education has struggled with what to call those learners who are really still building decoding and comprehension skills. This inability to settle on a name may be masking a larger issue: Why are we, as a field, failing to serve these learners well?

I can think of three general reasons.

The first is the system. The funding structure for many adult basic education programs does not encourage service to beginners, because beginners often progress slowly.

Discomfort with providing direct instruction, which can feel childish to teachers who are attempting to create adult learning environments, is another stumbling block.

A third is that serving first-level learners well is hard work and requires specific training. Native English-speaking adults who have not learned to read probably have some learning difficulties or disability. Teachers must know a lot about the craft of reading to teach someone with a learning disability, and many adult basic education teachers, while well intentioned, lack the formal training in reading instruction they need to reach these learners effectively.

The teachers writing in this issue of Focus on Basics do know a lot about teaching reading. Ashley Hagar, of Cambridge, Massachusetts;  Gladys Geertz, of Anchorage, Alaska; and Anne Murr of Des Moines, Iowa, all bring immense skill to their classrooms and programs. They all have found that very structured classes, with direct instruction in specific subskills such as phonological awareness, word analysis, and sight word recognition, among other skills, provide the best results. Their students don't chafe under direct instruction, they welcome it: finally, they have the tools they need to join, however belatedly, the reading club.

The beginning learners in MaryAnn Cunningham Florez's English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) program had valuable feedback to share about the strengths and weaknesses of their instructors. Included in their list was the suggestion to "talk to us about learning and the learning process." It echoes the metacognitive strategies provided to students by Hagar, Geertz, and Murr. Florez shares her students' complete list of suggestions, and her techniques for getting such input from students.

Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz, in their overview of the neurobiology of dyslexia, explain that an inability to segment the written word into its underlying phonologic elements results in readers having difficulty in decoding and identifying words. But, they remind us, the phonologic deficit is "domain-specific." That is, other cognitive skills are intact. This is important information to share with first-level learners. It explains the paradox so often encountered of otherwise intelligent people who experience great difficulty reading.

We hope that the articles in this issue provide first level teachers with an introduction to the techniques useful for teaching first-level learners. Let us know what works for you.


Barbara Garner