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Conversation with FOB

A Conversation with FOB

The Best of Both Worlds: Using Individualized and Group Instruction

Why not have the best of both worlds, decided the staff of the Ahrens Learning Center, Jefferson County, KY. This urban adult education center enrolls nearly 1,500 learners a year into adult basic education (ABE), literacy, basic skills upgrade, English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), workplace, and college transition classes. After using individualized instruction — students working on their own at their own pace, with help from a teacher — for many years, Ahrens tried a few models before settling on a combination of individualized instruction and group instruction. Since the program restructured its classes, enrollment has doubled. Focus on Basics talked with teachers and staff of Ahrens to learn why they made the switch, how the change was greeted, and what their model looks like today.

FOB: I understand that your program has changed its method of delivery of instruction. What did the original program look like?

Kitty: Years ago, the students were in a large learning lab. We drew some students out occasionally to do group work. The big change came when we divided the lab into individual classrooms, with one teacher in charge of each classroom. We did that about five years ago. That was the best thing that has happened to us.

FOB: Why?

Anne: At the time the teachers and I decided to change our method of instruction, we were in a period of malaise. We knew we were doing as well as we could, given the limits of the independent learning model, but our experience made it clear that this model wasn’t effective for many of our learners. We used Allen Quigley’s Rethinking Literacy Education: The Critical Need for Practice-Based Change1 as an initial catalyst for change and to try to keep current on new research. The 2002 Research-Based Principles for Adult Basic Education Reading Instruction2 is one of the most recent documents that has influenced our instruction.

The decision to change was mostly made cooperatively; both teachers and students saw the benefit to dividing the study-hall-type learning lab into smaller communities of learners. We worked hard to give students lots of information on the benefits of classes with group instruction. We constantly assured our students that they would be in a safe learning environment; they could disclose an area of academic weakness without fear of embarrassment.

FOB: What happened when you broke the lab into smaller individualized instruction settings?

Kitty: The students felt like they had their own classroom. They got settled, hung up their coats, made coffee, and were seeing the same people every day. Bonding occurred; it never did when we were in the big lab. I had just one group lesson a day, along with individualized instruction, at that point. About two years ago, we were strongly encouraged to go to a college-like setting, with one group after another. Using only group instruction didn’t work because it didn’t give us enough time for individualized instruction.

FOB: So you went from individualized instruction in a big, rather impersonal lab with different teachers at different times, to individualized instruction in a classroom with a set teacher, to a traditional model of group-based instruction in different subjects. Now what are you doing?

Diane: Each teacher is using teaching methods and strategies that are effective with his or her specific class. With my literacy-level students, I usually have an hour and a quarter of individualized instruction with students, everyone working on their own. Then we take a break and I do an hour of group instruction. If I have a volunteer that day, I like to break [the group] into two groups.

FOB: How do you pick the topics to teach in the group instruction?

Diane: I pick topics based on the students’ test results: usually some type of reading skills, like summarizing, cause and effect, [and] some times we do vocabulary work, or a phonics lesson on decoding skills. I try to vary it each day. Right now the research shows that we need to do more strategic teaching of phonics and fluency, so I try to include alphabetics and guided oral reading, procedures including repeated reading, paired reading, and echo reading. All of us use things from the newspaper, authentic materials; recently we were studying American history, and voting procedures.

Anne: What about the activity with James Holmberg?

Diane: We had an author who was writing a book on Lewis and Clark. He wanted our class to proofread it, since he was aiming for a four- to six-year-old reading level. The students were honored to have an author in the class. They told him what they didn’t understand, what vocabulary was new to them. They got their names in the book as guest editors.

The group component adds so much. The students look forward to working together as a group. As they share their ideas, they try to help each other. A lot of times someone’s question is beneficial to the whole group. Group work, from my per spective, has turned out to be wonderful, and has presented many teachable moments.

Nonie: When I am trying to address a variety of learning styles — I’m explaining verbally, drawing diagrams, using manipulatives, getting students to write, read, formulate questions, and analyze information — the entire group is getting instruction in multiple modalities. If I employ enough strategies, everyone in the group will find at least one and maybe more than one explanation that helps him or her.

Kitty: I love hearing the students contemplate answers to multiple choice questions out loud. They agree, disagree, and go through the thinking process together. They truly learn from each other. Sometimes I just sit back and listen. If the students feel comfortable enough to make mistakes around each other and really listen to each other, they are helping each other refine their cognitive skills in the process. When I observe all of this positive interaction in my class room, I feel as if I am accomplishing a big part of my goal as a teacher.

Nonie: Working together as a group allows us [teachers] to model the thinking process. We can think out loud and work our way through difficult reading comprehension ques tions and math problems involving multiple steps, using context clues to understand new vocabulary, and so on. This helps students learn how to tackle these questions on their own.

Diane: I’ve noticed that as students read silently they’re decoding, but not working on comprehending. The group gives me the opportunity, as we read out loud, [to work on this with them]. I say “This is the picture I have in my mind as I read” and I model for them how to make meaning as they move along. Then I tell them to practice.

Meryl: That was one of the things I was doing this morning: explaining that when we read, we make a video in our minds. When I read a title in class, I explain the picture that comes to my mind, and I ask them what they’re imagining. Then the conversation really snowballs.

Kitty: The GED test [tests of General Educational Development] now takes cognitive skills to a higher level than before. Many students have a difficult time getting past the com prehension level. They still try to look for answers directly stated in passages. Making inferences and drawing conclusions are higher-level thinking skills. Group work is a wonderful way to develop these skills.

Nonie: Another benefit is it allows you to help students see that they have to connect what they’re reading about to what they already know. Yesterday, for example, we were reading about a mathematician in 1777 Germany. I asked, “What do you know about the year 1777?” Someone answered, “I know 1776 was when the Declaration of Independence was signed.” That helped us establish a frame of reference, and the class had some idea of what life was like and how people dressed. It encouraged them to think of this time in history. That’s an important reading skill: tying prior knowledge to the passage they’re reading.

Kitty: When we’re introducing anything new to the students, they always ask, “Is this going to be on the GED?” I say, “This came from such and such book. You’re going to be asked critical thinking questions, [you’re going to need] good reading skills.” As long as we tell them how this is going to be applicable, the students are generally very receptive. They want to know that their time is being well spent and that the material is relevant.

FOB: So, by providing group instruction, you can model processes you want students to learn, such as helping them learn how to link their background knowledge to what they’re reading. This helps them develop the higher-order skills they need to pass the GED. What other benefits do you see group instruction offering?

Meryl: We need to ask our adult learners what types of jobs they have or have held in the past. Many of the jobs today involve working together in teams, and may require s kills that the learners need to practice or improve. We have many people in our center who have jobs in fast food restaurants, and they need to be able to work with others. The group work in our classes can provide opportunities to enhance the skills they need to do so. It also gives the teacher the opportunity to model conver sa tions in ways that can improve learners’ ability to work in teams.

FOB: How do you structure the individualized time?

Kitty: Teachers structure their classes differently. In my class, the first half hour is spent getting settled. That’s the time when I give students work, check over their assignments, and talk with new students. I then teach a group lesson in reading, science, social studies, or writing for an hour. We take about 30 minutes after that for individualized instruction, and then I teach math for an hour. After math, I am available for approximately two hours to help individual students with their work. I also use this time to retest students.

Nonie: I have all my students enrolled in PLATO, a computer program developed by PLATO Learning, Inc. ( It is perfect for individualizing instruction in either a broad topic, like reading, or something specific like finding the main idea, or multiplying fractions. It’s thorough, gives students a lot of feedback, and keeps them engaged in ways that sometimes a book does not. Most learners enjoy it and can work for extended periods of time when I am busy with the group.

Occasionally I have someone who knows the material but needs to brush up. Usually I give them the option of working from the book and reviewing or skimming the material.

Diane: For the learners I work with, I don’t think one without the other would work: as much as everyone benefits from groups, in reality, each student has his or her individual goals. If we’re doing group work on how to blend letters, some times one person needs work on decoding. The individual time is the time for that.

FOB: How do people make sure they get a teacher’s attention during individualized instruction?

Nonie: When my students are using the computer, I check on them frequently, looking for anyone experiencing frustration. Some of our older students aren’t familiar with computers, so I check to see they’re not stalled.

When I’m teaching the group lesson, the individual learners know they’re on their own, but we don’t have such a huge group that the independent learners can’t come get me when they have a PLATO-related question. If I have 15 to 18 students in the room, two or three are likely to be working independently. When I’m not doing the morning group instruc t ion, it’s all individualized. In the afternoon, the room is quiet; I can give each student individualized instruction.

FOB: You mentioned two or three students working independently?

Nonie: I have two, and often three, classes a day, but I usually have s everal people who need to work independently. There’s always that choice. For example, I have one stu d ent now who is working independently on the computer to beef up one skill to pass the GED. If I have someone who is very behind the class in math, I may have that person work independently on math and join us for group writing.

Anne: Choice is really important. Choice encourages students to take responsibility for their learning. We urge the students to be partners with their teacher in making these choices.

Meryl: It’s so important to shift the power to the adult learners’ shoulders. It helps to build the part nership in the learning process. It’s so impor tant for them to know why [we do what we do].

Nonie: I use the word partnership when I talk to adult students about their role as learners in my classroom, and I do respect their wishes if they choose to work independently. However, I stress that we know that learning is social, that it is a result of demonstration and collaboration, and I very seldom have students who decide to work exclusively on their own. To teachers interested in exploring the value of group instruction further, I would recommend books by Frank Smith, or read his article “Learning to read: The never-ending debate” in the February, 1992, issue of Phi Delta Kappan. Another excellent source for information on this topic is Judith A. Alamprese’s “Teaching reading to first-level adults; Emerging trends in research and practice” in Focus on Basics, 5A (

FOB: You offer group instruction and individualized time, and students can opt to spend group time working alone if they would like. Do you use any other models?

Kitty: Sometimes I have the students work in small groups or in pairs. For example, [in my GED class] we did some newspaper reading. I organized them into pairs. Students started asking me questions. I asked them to ask each other. They were timid at first but then they opened up. If we make the students feel comfort a ble in the classroom then their level of anxiety goes down and they’re free to ask questions and share ideas with each other.

Anne: Our evening classes meet twice a week. Because the instructional time is limited, these classes are more like some college models, with primarily whole group instruction. The classes are divided both into skill levels and into reading, math, and science/social studies content areas. Students are scheduled into two classes and are assessed for progress as a group every six weeks. Learners change schedules when appropriate.

We initiated this latest learning model in July, 2004, and are still smoothing out some bumps. Because we operate on an open-entry basis, we found that some students felt over whelmed; they didn’t have the slow adjustment period that a four-day program can allow. Some also felt unprepared to do the academic work. We revised and lengthened our orientation to address these issues. We now provide conference time to discuss normal feelings and apprehensions. We give them a menu of what to do if they feel their needs aren’t being met. We don’t want them to “vote with their feet” and walk away. We want them to talk to us about their learning.

FOB: What made you decide to offer content area group instruction at night?

Anne: When we looked at last year’s statistics, we saw a revolving door. We are a big center; we should have had people attending more consistently and for longer periods of time. With our new schedule we have eight different classes taught at one of three skill levels: fundamental, inter mediate, or transitional. The level descriptions are vague, so people feel encouraged about their placement. The curriculum is circular and ongoing; it spirals. We are teaching a similar curriculum every six weeks, but embedding new skills or using the skills in a new context. For example, if the math instructor teaches perimeters, some pairs of students might be working with situations that require only whole numbers, while others might work with a perimeter application that uses fraction or decimals. If students don’t progress out of a level, they repeat the class, but the curriculum spirals up a bit so they don’t feel unsuccessful.

FOB: Can you describe the initial changeover from a learning lab to individual classes and then to group instruction?

Nonie: I came on board after the change had been made to individ ual classrooms, but the teacher who had my classroom was not doing group instruction. The students missed their former teacher, were accustomed to their own quiet independent work, and were not highly receptive to a new teacher and a new style of learning. Anne was encouraging me to start group instruction, and I was very willing, but I couldn’t get much cooperation from the learners in forming small groups to work together. One day Anne asked again, and I heard myself tell her that I was going to start whole group instruction the next day. In truth, I had no clue how to persuade the students to try something new. The next morning, however, I said “I would like everyone who has not passed the GED writing test to join me over at the black board.” The entire class looked stunned and suspicious, but slowly got up and came over to join me. We simply had a class, and then the next day, everyone took his seat by the blackboard in readiness for the class. The transition was that easy.

FOB: To pick up on a theme you mentioned earlier, the group instruction model helps build — and probably depends upon — community in the classroom. Do you do things consciously to set the stage, to build community ?

Nonie: I address every student by name every day and use names in c lass frequently, so everyone picks up on names right away. Of course I model supportive behaviors and talk about that when necessary: “Remember that reading is not a performance; we’re all going to get stuck on difficult words from time to time. Be sure you give the reader enough time to think about pronouncing a word before you help out. Reader, let the class know when you’d like some help — we’re all learning together, and asking for help is one way to learn.” I find that adult learners tend to be patient and helpful with each other, but I am always modeling those behaviors myself.

Kitty: I do the same thing. When we had the large learning lab, it was quiet. Now it’s wonderful to hear the students share stories with each other about their jobs and children, help ease new students into the class routine, and support each other in their quest to meet their goals. I try to remember the students’ birthdays, and I ask about their families and their jobs. I try to make the class room a comfortable and welcoming place to learn.

FOB: Students can enroll at any time at your center. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the model you use in terms of open enrollment?

Kitty: One of the weaknesses is that we get new students weekly, and those students then join the groups already in progress. Sometimes the students feel as if they need to catch up, especially in math. Since I can’t keep re-teaching the same skill over and over because the existing students are ready to move on, I try to begin each lesson with a quick review and then move on. Sometimes this leaves students frustrated. They tell me that they feel as if they’re not catching on to what I’m teaching at the time. I assure them that they just need to try to understand the concept to the best of their ability, and that if they continue to feel frustrated after a week or so, they can work on their own. I also offer to help them individually in the afternoons. Most students deal with it very well, though. Other students are always eager to help the new ones, and this definitely helps ease the transition period.

One of the positives is that we can accommodate people who have jobs, young children at home, and difficult life situations. We’ve found, though, that sometimes open enrollment can keep students from making a strong commitment to their schooling. When students know that they don’t have to come to school every day, they can find reasons for not attending. This happens a lot with some of the younger students and with those not totally committed to furthering their education. It’s one thing for them to say they want their GEDs and quite another actually to be disciplined enough to come to school every day in order to see those dreams realized. As a teacher, having t he same students every day is an appealing idea, but we have very aggressive enrollment goals given the funding we receive. We are, however, looking carefully at other options.

Nonie: I agree with Kitty that “open” works well. Although it can be a bit chaotic at times and is definitely not perfect, it does work, and we have yet to come up with something better to suit students’ needs.

Anne: Finding out which teaching practices are most effective with adult learners is a process. We talk about it; we discuss ways to improve instruction all the time. In the last five years we have evolved from the learning lab model to classes and then to group instruction. We now include strategic teaching, modeling, guided practice, cooperative learning, and the posing of open-ended questions that encourage learners to think, discuss, and share ideas with one another in our repertoire of teaching tools. We don’t have it perfectly right yet, but we are always looking at how we can improve our instruction.


For more on changing from one mode of delivery to another, see “Getting into Groups” by Michael Pritza, in Focus on Basics 2A,, and “Implementation Isn’t Easy” by Janet Geary, in Focus on Basics 7A,


Meryl Becker-Prezocki is the Ahrens resource teacher who works with both teachers and learners in the area of special learning needs. She has a background in special education, and more than 30 years in elementary, middle, high school, and ABE.

Diane Graybill, a reading teacher at the Ahrens Center, has taught in ABE for 10 years, starting in a welfare-to-work program, and moving onto a GED program.

Anne Greenwell, program coordinator, started at Ahrens in 1990 after having taught high school English, and moved from teaching to coordinating nine years ago.

Kitty Head started in ABE in 1986, integrating handicapped adults into an ABE program, and three years later started teaching in the GED program, which she continues to do.

Nonie Palmgreen has been working in ABE for 17 years, including three and a half years teaching job readiness skills and the remainder of the time focusing on GED and upgrade instruction.


1 Quigley, A. (1997). Rethinking Literacy Education: The Critical Need for Practice-Based Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

2 Kruidenier, J. (2002). Research-Based Principles for Adult Basic Education Reading Instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.