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Focus On Basics

Volume 8, Issue B ::: May 2006

Learners on Learning to Read

by Alisa Belzer
Recent efforts to synthesize the research base on adult reading instruction have revealed a significant need for more information on how to teach reading to adult developing readers (Belzer & St. Clair, 2005; Kruidenier, 2002). One source of information that has not yet been tapped is adult learners themselves. Despite calls to “authorize” student experiences and perspectives so that they can have a direct impact on policy formation and improved practice (Cook-Sather, 2002), adult literacy research has not done this in any systematic way, especially when it comes to reading instruction. Such an effort would be congruent both with the principles of participatory literacy education and with theories and research about the capacities of adult learners to direct their own learning. As a small, preliminary step in the process of learning from learners, I interviewed 15 adults who have made significant progress in their reading development and asked: To what do they attribute their success?

I recruited the participants from multiple adult literacy practitioner-oriented electronic discussion lists. Subscribers were asked to nominate current or past students who had entered their programs reading below the 4th grade level equivalency and who had made very significant progress in their reading. Rather than try to quantify their progress, we focused on the quantity and quality of literacy practices. Therefore, we operationalized our definition of a learner who has made significant progress as a reader who has attained the competence and desire to read comfortably and as a normal part of his or her day-to-day life.

This effort identified 10 women and five men from 11 programs in 10 states. They ranged in age from 21 to 66 years. One participant had never attended school, two had attended sporadically until age 13 and 14, five had completed between the 5th and 8th grades, two had finished 9th or 10th grade, and four had completed high school. Six were employed full-time, six were employed part-time, and three were unemployed. When I interviewed them, eight had completed their adult basic education programs, all but one very recently. The programs used a wide range of instructional approaches to teach reading.

The interviews, conducted by phone and both tape-recorded and transcribed, lasted from 30 to 70 minutes. Using open-ended questions, I asked participants to discuss their reasons for entering the program, their assessments of their progress, the main ingredients of their success, and their previous experiences with learning to read. I also interviewed an administrator or instructor who had recently worked with them (except for the participant who completed her program years ago) about the learning context in which the learners participated.


An initial analysis of the data on the factors that contributed to adult literacy learners’ success in reading development indicated four key ingredients: (1) their own motivation and determination; (2) program features, including relationships with an instructor, instructional strategies and materials, and structures and formats; (3) reading practice; and (4) supports. Only rarely did students suggest that one factor was solely responsible for their success. More commonly they acknowledged that a combination of factors was important.

Motivation and Determination

Students stated that they could not have succeeded without an inner drive pushing them to do so. Some described this kind of motivation using words such as excitement, hunger, willingness, push, desire, and faith. One participant, Ruth, said, “It’s on you to want to learn how to read. It’s called desire. You desire a change in your life ...If you’re going to learn how to read, you’ve got to take matters in your own hands. Here are the tools. You want it, you’ve got to get it. [The program] can only present it to you. You’ve got to take it the rest of the way ...The student has to be thirsty for this.”

Another participant, Susannah, had a similar sentiment: “You really won’t learn anything [unless] you want it deep inside. If you want it, you will go after it. You will stay with it, like I did.”

Both women indicated that some of the specifics of instructional strategy and format may be irrelevant to students who lack a clear sense of purpose. This implies that programs can do little to boost learners’ chances of success if learners themselves do not have a strong internal drive to succeed. However, Comings and Cuban (in press) argue that this type of learner represents just one path to persistence (and, ultimately, to success) and that programs need multiple ways of supporting learners who come with less focus. Because program staff described many of the learners I interviewed as significantly more motivated than their peers, it may be useful to help all learners understand the very important role they play in their own success.

Program Features

Students had the most to say about the role that aspects of their programs played in their success. Their responses focused on the importance of relationships with teachers, and the ways in which instructional strategies, materials, and formats (such as one-on-one, small group, or class instruction and frequency of meetings) supported their learning. While their ways of describing instructional relationships were quite consistent, their descriptions of other key program features were not. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that they were limited to what they had experienced, and the programs were quite different. However, it is also likely that the diversity of responses can be attributed to the diversity of learners; no cluster of strategies is going to feel most effective for everyone.

Personal connections with instructional staff
The learners stressed that the human connection their instructors made with them played an extremely important role in their success. When they were afraid, frustrated, or flagging in their own motivation, their instructors helped them feel safe, boosted their confidence, and assisted them in working around problems that were deterring them. The study participants’ descriptors for their instructors and the connections they had with them included kind, helpful, encouraging, nice, compassionate, patient, trustworthy, reassuring, and affirming. The emphasis that the students placed on personal relationships with their instructors suggests the importance of a commitment to the individual above and beyond the content and technique of instruction. Delores explained, “If it hadn’t been for them, the books and tapes, all that wouldn’t have done me any good. I feel that it’s the personal contact with other people that helped me.”

While not the sole ingredient in their success, the relationships they described were often an important element for the learners. The emotion with which several students described the meaningful ways their instructors had reached out to them seems to reveal the “primacy of the caring relation and of dialogue in educational practice” (Witherell & Noddings, 1991, p. 5). Demonstrating a deeply caring stance towards learners may be a necessary, but likely not a sufficient, ingredient in success. Staff in every program had professional training (i.e., more than a “degree in caring”) and many years of experience upon which to draw.

Instructional strategies and materials
In the case of instructional strategies, learners’ perceptions seemed shaped by what they had experienced and reflected the diversity of the programs in which they had participated. Some methods and strategies, however, came up again and again: the use of technology; practices such as repetition, not putting students on the spot, and confirming that they truly understand; spending one-on-one time with students even in class-based instructional settings; making connections among teaching, learning, and learners’ lives; and the use of interesting and relevant materials.

The participants offered a range of specific strategies for reading that they thought were important, such as syllabic chunking or sounding words out. One learner explained that “a lot of people get scared and they don’t like to go through with it ...But I would say sound it out. That’s the most important thing I learned, how to break down a word and ‘sound it out’.” Others mentioned developing a larger sight word vocabulary or learning to skip over and return to unknown words. Some considered that reading aloud had been important, while others praised their program for putting time aside for silent reading.

The learners’ identification of specific strategies that worked for them is not scientifically based, but does indicate that students appreciate at least some direct skills-based instruction. The responses in this area also suggest that a range of instructional approaches, sets of skills, and strategies can be used successfully with adult learners; it is also likely that no one approach can work for everyone.

Several students noted that reading interesting, adult, and relevant materials had been important to them. Chuck stated, “Someone has to read something that they’re interested in ...If you’re not interested in it, you’re going to sit there and day dream.” Sally explained that reading adult materials that were of interest to her opened her eyes to new information, representing access that she valued highly. She said, “The material was interesting and I was learning things. I remember we’d be reading stuff and I’d be like, ‘Oh, wow! I didn’t know this’”

Program formats
Similar to their assessments of instructional strategies, learners tended to highlight program formats with which they were familiar. One format was noted across several different programs: being able to read aloud and discuss texts in small groups with other students. According to the learners, this format provided communal support, enabled them to get immediate assistance on an as-needed basis, helped them to maintain focus and gain a better appreciation for the meaning of texts.


There was considerable agreement on the important role that daily reading practice outside of class time played in their success (for more on this, see page 14). Carlos gave advice: “[If you read] everyday, you’re definitely going to get it. I mean when we learned how to walk, we didn’t learn how to walk right away.”

Chuck stated, “If you want to learn how to read, you just got to read, read, read, and you got to read something you’re interested in.”

Unfortunately, adult literacy learners do not always have or act on this knowledge (Belzer, 2006). Given the relatively few hours most adult learners can spend actually reading during formal instructional time, they may not have sufficient time to practice there. Therefore, instructors should use every tool at their disposal to make explicit the importance of outside reading as a way of maximizing development and to assist learners in working around technical difficulties and personal obstacles. These might include helping them develop strategies for: reading independently, rethinking their attitudes about reading, and finding time in the day to read.


Beyond relationships with teachers and internal motivation, the learners I interviewed mentioned family and friends’ cheering them on and showing pride in their accomplishments as integral to sustaining their motivation. Being able to help family members by using her developing skills was also viewed as an important ingredient by at least one student, Cora. She explained that she and her granddaughter helped each other, but “when [my granddaughter] runs into a problem [and I can help her], that’s why I think I progressed so much, because I could help her.” In addition, three learners cited their religious faith as extremely important to their success.

Practitioners cannot create family- or faith-based support where there is none, but they can heed the importance of building informal support within the program. Several study participants commented that feeling like they were part of a group of adults with similar goals and needs was extremely important to them. Fellow students helped each other when they were stuck and never made fun of their colleagues. For example, when asked what one of the most important ingredients of her success was, Brenda said, “It’s people getting together and helping each other ... Everybody can help each other... Everyone in the class, they feel good and clap for each other. I’ve noticed that that makes everybody feel better about actually being there.” Statements like this indicate that even in individualized programs, it may be important to provide some opportunities that encourage learners to connect with each in ways that are mutually supportive and encouraging. (For more on the role of the cohort in adult learners’ educational experiences, see “The power of a cohort and of collaborative groups” in Focus on Basics, 5(B), available at www.ncsall.net/index.php?id=254.)


Successful students’ discussions of what helped them accomplish so much may not provide precise, technical information on how to teach reading. They may not tell us anything that experienced, knowledgeable practitioners do not on some level already know. They do, however, highlight factors that may sometimes get lost in the rush to meet accountability standards, serve as many learners in as diverse circumstances as possible, and respond to the latest findings of evidence-based research. Adult learners’ perspectives reinforce the value of the human element in learning how to read: they know this better than any teacher or researcher can. The knowledge and experience of successful learners about what helped them are available to every practitioner who asks for it. So too are those of the students who are still struggling. Learners’ perspectives can and should inform our practice, policy, and further research in meaningful and substantive ways.


Belzer, A. (2006). “Influences on the reading practices of adults in ABE.” Focus on Basics, 8(B), 14-18.

Belzer, A., & St. Clair, R. (2005). “Back to the future: Implications of the neo-positivist research agenda for adult education.” Teacher’s College Record, 107(9), 1393-1412.

Comings, J., & Cuban, S. (in press). “Supporting the Persistence of Adult Basic Education Students.” In A. Belzer (ed.), Toward defining and improving quality in adult Basic Education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cook-Sather, A. (2002). “Authorizing students’ perspectives: Toward trust, dialogue, and change in education.” Educational Researcher, 31(4), 3-14.

Kruidenier, J. (2002). Research-based Principles for Adult Basic Education Reading Instruction (472 427 ed.). Portsmouth, NH: RMC Corporation.

Witherell, C., & Noddings, N. (1991). “Prologue: An invitation to our readers.” In C. Witherell & N. Noddings (eds.), Stories Lives Tell: Narrative and Dialogue in Education (pp. 1-12). New York: Teachers College Press.

About the Author
Alisa Belzer is an assistant professor of adult literacy education at Rutgers University. She began working in adult literacy education in 1987 and has been a program coordinator, tutor trainer, class room teacher, and tutor. Her research interests have been in the areas of authentic assessment, professional development and teacher research, policy, learner beliefs, and adult reading development.

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