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Focus On Basics

Volume 8, Issue B ::: May 2006

Instructional Practices of ABE and GED Teachers

by Perrine Robinson-Geller & Anastasiya A. Lipnevich
What are teachers doing in their classrooms? As part of a line of research pursuing this question, the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) team based at Rutgers University conducted an online survey of teachers. One of the purposes of the survey was to describe the spectrum of instructional practices in adult basic education (ABE) and General Educational Development (GED) classes; the other was to validate the typology developed in an earlier study on classroom dynamics (Beder & Medina, 2001), described in the box at the end of this article.

This article focuses on the first purpose of the study, providing a snapshot of ABE and GED instruction in some states; the findings cannot be generalized to the ABE system in the United States. However, the study does provide some insight into what may be going on in the classrooms where student/teacher interactions take place. The survey has some limitations: it did not examine outcomes and therefore cannot address which instructional practices are better than others. It was based on self-report; observation of classrooms might yield different results. The states were not chosen at random, although an effort was made to use states that varied in their location, size, and most common type of sponsoring agency. There were 598 complete responses to the survey; statistical validity of the responses therefore high.

The Survey

The survey was conducted entirely online: in each state, a state-level literacy official e-mailed the ABE teachers in his or her databases and asked them to complete the survey. A total of 695 teachers from 12 states complied, the majority (94.5 percent) of whom were from six states (CA, NY, WI, OH, OR, and MA). Of the 695 responses, 598 were complete and appropriate for data analysis. The respondents taught classes from beginning-level ABE through preparation for the GED. More than half of the participating instructors taught in GED classrooms, one-third in advanced ABE, and one-sixth in beginning ABE. Teachers of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) were excluded because the ESOL context is considered to be significantly different from that of ABE. Confidentiality prevented us from collecting data on the number of different institutions represented in the data. Table 1 presents the number of respondents by state and by class type.

The survey asked teachers to answer 29 questions about their classroom practices on a five-point scale from Almost Never to Almost Always. The questions were in the form of statements such as Teachers initiate and terminate class discussions or Learners work in small groups. Another 14 questions covered demographic and background information such as: What level was the class? and What type of agency sponsored the class (public school, community college etc.)? The questions were written based on the behaviors observed in two studies: one on classroom dynamics and one on engagement (Beder et al., 2006). A pilot study had validated the survey instrument. No questions were changed after the pilot, so the pilot data were incorporated into the final data.

The Results

The findings of the collective data from all 12 states are discussed here. We did not have enough data for each state to make individual state analysis statistically meaningful.

Categories/Types of Instruction

table 1

Three categories of types of instruction — teacher-led group (TLG), basic skills; individualized group instruction (IGI), basic skills; and meaning making — emerged from factor analysis. Factor analysis organizes the data by combining those that highly correlate with each other to create categories.

Table 2

Table 2 shows which survey items were grouped into which instructional category. To determine what proportion of respondents could be classified into each instructional type, we analyzed the data further. We found that the respondents often could be classified into more than one of the instructional types. The distribution of respondents is shown in Table 3. Some 76 percent of respondents incorporated the basic skills instructional type in their classroom and 53 percent of respondents incorporated meaning making. We did further statistical analysis (cross-tabulations) to explore the relationship among instructional types and several background variables. The background variables in the survey included class type, sponsoring agency, full-time or part-time teachers, frequency and duration of class, paid professional development time, paid preparation time, and class size. We found statistically significant relationships between instructional type and the background variables instructional level, sponsoring agency, and enrollment type. The background variables of full-time/part-time teacher, paid preparation time, and paid professional time did not show statistically significant relationships with instructional type.

Table 3

Instructional Type and Instructional Level

Beginning ABE, Advanced ABE, GED (Graph 1)

Graph 1

For beginning ABE, the prevailing instructional type was meaning making and almost no combined IGI, basic skills & TLG, basic skills. For advanced ABE the prevailing instructional type was combined meaning making & IGI, basic skills and the use of combined IGI, basic skills & TLG, basic skills increased. At the GED level there was less use of meaning making and the most prevalent types were combined IGI, TLG, basic skills TLG, basic skills or the all three type (combined meaning making, IGI; TLG, basic skills; and basic skills). That IGI, basic skills were almost nonexistent at the beginning ABE level was consistent with other NCSALL center research which suggests that IGI may be problematic at the lowest levels of learners (Beder et al., 2006; Robinson-Geller, in press).

Instructional Type and Sponsoring Agency

Community College, CBO, Public School, Other (Graph 2)


There was significant variation by sponsoring agency. Teachers from community-based organizations (CBO) were much more likely to use meaning making (or a mixed type that included meaning making) than any other instructional type. A limitation of the survey was that data about the kind of CBO were not collected. Teachers in community colleges were about equally likely to use meaning making and the mixed type IGI, basic skills & TLG, basic skills and they use these two more often than any other instructional type. Public school teachers were more likely to use the mixed type of all three, IGI, basic skills or the mixed type meaning making & IGI, basic skills.

Instructional Type and Type of Enrollment

Continuous or Managed (Graph 3)


There was significant difference in instructional choices made by teachers with managed-enrollment classes compared to those with continuous-enrollment classes. Those with managed enrollment were more than twice as likely to use meaning making or meaning making & TLG, basic skills as those with continuous enrollment. Conversely, teachers with continuous-enrollment classes were more than four times as likely to use IGI, basic skills or IGI, basic skills & TLG, basic skills than teachers with managed- enrollment classes. This is consistent with Robinson-Geller's (in press) findings that coping with the challenges of continuous enrollment is one of the reasons to use an IGI approach. Meaning making requires more negotiation and dialog between teachers and learners, which is more difficult when new students are continuously entering and leaving the class. This may explain why meaning making is markedly more prevalent in managed-enrollment than in continuous-enrollment classes.


The study has provided an initial framework for thinking about instructional practices in the ABE/GED classroom and is valuable for the following reasons:

This survey has identified instructional types used in ABE/GED classes and has posed some interesting questions regarding their use. Questions around efficacy and outcome need to be asked next. Which type is best? For whom? Under which conditions? What is the relationship between sponsoring agency and instructional type? How can under standing instructional types affect the practice of program directors, staff developers, and teachers? The answers to these questions would move the field ahead substantially.


Beder, H., & Medina, P. (2001). Classroom Dynamics in Adult Literacy Education. NCSALL Reports #18. Retrieved October 21, 2004, from http://www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/

Beder, H., Tomkins, J., Medina, P., Riccioni, R., & Deng, W. (2006). Learners' Engagement in Adult Literacy Education, NCSALL Reports #28. Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.

Robinson-Geller, P. (in press). "Individualized group instruction: A reality of adult basic education." In J. Comings, B. Garner, & C. Smith (eds.), Review of Adult Learning and Literacy Volume 7, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

About the Authors
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. Anastasiya Lipnevich is a PhD student in educational psychology at Rutgers University. She has a master's degree in counseling psychology from Rutgers University and a master's degree in psychology and education from the University of Minsk. Her research interests include self-esteem, motivation, and self-regulation.

The Classroom Dynamics Study

The classroom dynamics study focused on ABE classrooms. The researchers observed 20 adult literacy classes in eight states and interviewed the teachers of these classes. The purpose of the study was to examine what happens in adult literacy classrooms. The researchers were specifically interested in the content of instruction, how that content was structured, what social processes characterized interactions within the classroom, and what outside forces shaped classroom behavior. One of the results of this study was a typology of instruction. This typology classified ABE instruction into two major types: meaning making and discrete skills. Meaning making classes are characterized by the following:

  • Problem-solving skills, critical thinking, creativity, and social awareness in addition to reading, writing, and mathematical skill development.
  • An emphasis on process over structure and lessons that are less likely to be discrete units bounded by time.
  • Considerably more collaboration between teachers and learners than in discrete skills classes.
  • For the most part, authentic materials rather than commercially published ones.
  • Teachers tend to function more as facilitators and process managers than as conveyors of information.
  • Authority relationships between teachers and learners are more level than those in discrete skills classes. All teachers in this category negotiated curricular content with learners to some extent.
  • A high level of learner engagement is present.
  • Communication occurs between learners as well as from teacher to learner and learner to teacher.
  • Spontaneous expression of learners’ feelings and opinions occurs. (Beder & Medina, 2001).

In the classroom dynamics typology, discrete skills, called basic skills in this article, are characterized by:

  • Teacher-prepared and teacher-delivered lessons focusing on conveyance of factual information and literal recall from learners.
  • A predominance of commercially published materials for reading, writing, math, and GED instruction.
  • Lessons, each with a clear beginning and end, organized into distinct time periods.
  • A focus on the discrete skills that encompass traditional subject areas. Reading, for example, is divided into comprehension, inference, facts, and opinions. Math is divided into addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and the rules governing mathematical operations are emphasized.
  • A high degree of teacher-to-learner and learner-to-teacher interaction and a low degree of learner-to-learner interaction. (Beder & Medina, 2001)

As shown in Table 3, the items included in each of the three primary instructional types identified in the survey, meaning making, IGI, basic skills, and TLG, basic skills, correspond very closely with the Beder and Medina typology. The meaning making instructional type corresponds to the meaning making category in the Beder and Medina typology. IGI, basic skills and TLG, basic skills instructional types both correspond to the discrete skills category of the Beder and Medina typology. They represent different ways in which instruction is delivered. The implication is that the typology, which was derived through observation and analysis, has been validated by this survey.

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