Using Authentic Materials with Adult Literacy Students

Authentic Materials: Items not created or edited expressly for adult literacy learners (including non English speakers) - Nunan and Miller, 1995.

Authentic Materials:

  • Real life images of the topics that are studied (photos, drawings, paintings, cultural items).
  • Additional reading materials from real life situations: brochures, magazines, application forms, advertisement supplements, editorials, comics
  • Props and equipment, such as globes, atlases, bus tickets, rulers and other manipulatives
  • Audio podcasts
  • Videos, ie. YouTube
  • Interactive websites and virtual tours
  • Social media, ie., Pinterest, Facebook
  • Google or other search engines

When to use Authentic Materials:

  • Beginning of unit: Activate prior knowledge and build vocabulary, gaining insight into the new subject to be studied
  • Middle of unit: For reinforcement and building comprehension
  • End of unit: For transferring new language and learning to real life situations and how the new knowledge is actually used, for interpretation and discussion, for immersion, for reflection on what the student still needs to know

Assembling Authentic Materials:

  • Maintain a portfolio of materials
  • Bookmark pertinent sites
  • Using your cell phone camera, film videos or take images

Activities with Authentic Materials

  • Consider the purpose for using the materials
  • Regard the context in which you will you use the materials
  • Predict how your student will interact with the material
  • List what your student will learn or gain 

Story Structure

The idea of teaching story structure is based on the fact that all stories have similar features and all have plots that are organized into episodes. By analyzing a story's structure, the reader becomes aware of the important story elements, and this awareness facilitates comprehension and memory.

To introduce this strategy you might begin with these five questions that represent the basic story elements (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-91).
  1. Who is/are the main character(s)?
  2. Where and when did the story occur?
  3. What did the main character(s) do?
  4. How did the story end?
  5. How did the main character feel?

You should begin with a story the class has read and demonstrate the question-and-answer activity for them. Then the whole class might practice going through the process with another story. Learners also could practice this strategy in small groups or pairs.

To reinforce this kind of thinking and make it more concrete you could have the learners construct another kind of graphic organizer, a story map like the one below.

To make the analysis of story structure more concrete and explicit for struggling readers, you can have them read a story in sections (introduction, body, and conclusion), ask questions about main characters, and setting, record the answers on cards, and line up the cards under the appropriate story sections. Find details on this approach called Teaching About Story Structure Using Fairy Tales in Read, Write, Think.

Story Map






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Question Generating

This strategy requires learners to ask and answer questions about their reading. "The assumption is that readers will learn more and construct better memory representations when self-questions are asked while reading" (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-89).

As active readers we're thinking while we're reading, asking questions and seeking the answers - although we may not articulate the questions. If you pay attention to your thoughts, you may discover that when you are having a "comprehension breakdown" you ask questions like these:

  • What's going on here?
  • Why did the character say that?
  • Why is the author so emphatic about this point?
  • Why did the author include this information? What's the connection with the last section?
  • What's the difference between this plan and the old one?
  • How does this information fit with the article I read yesterday? Are the two authors saying different things? How could the ideas be reconciled?

When you become aware of your own questioning you can model this process by thinking aloud with different kinds of texts: asking questions and demonstrating how you find the answers. You could use QAR analysis again here, thinking about where the answers might be found. Be sure to plan this activity carefully to include examples of different kinds of questions so you can show the different strategies for finding answers.

For example, some of the questions above could be answered by reading on and perhaps using inference to draw a conclusion. Some would require looking back to other parts of the text to recall events in a story or to review information. Still others may require other sources. Sometimes reading raises questions that require further reading.

The question-generating strategy may be used in reading both fiction and nonfiction texts. By showing learners how to be questioners and encouraging them to analyze their questions to decide where the answers may be found, you are helping them to become active readers and thinkers. Research with children offers strong evidence that this strategy improves reading comprehension, as reflected in specific tasks: remembering what is read, answering questions based on the text, and identifying main ideas through summarization (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-88).

As a next step, analyzing questions may be a good skill to transfer to real-life reading tasks. When adults need to read something because they have questions, using this strategy may be helpful, because they figure out where the answers to different kinds of questions may be found. What kind of question is it? Does the notice or manual or letter have all the answers in it, or is it necessary to get more information? They could formulate their own questions and analyze them: deciding for each one if it's a Right There, a Think and Search, or an On My Own question. Then they could read to find answers and check back afterward to see if their analysis was correct.

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Question Answering

This strategy is a modification or expansion of the time-honored approach to comprehension: asking questions. Teachers ask questions during or after learners' reading, and learners may look back at the text to get the answers if they need to.

The goal of question-answering instruction is to "aid students in learning to answer questions while reading and thus learn more from a text" (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-86). This strategy may be especially helpful for school-based learning and test taking, but when questions require higher-level thinking, adults also may apply this kind of thinking to a variety of reading tasks (Duke & Pearson, 2002).

To build higher-order thinking skills you have to ask good questions. Research suggests that if you mainly ask factual questions, readers will learn to focus mostly on facts when they read. On the other hand, if you ask questions that demand higher-level thinking and use of background knowledge in combination with textual information, they will tend to think this way when they read (Duke & Pearson, 2002). Of course, literal comprehension is vital; a reader can't make inferences and draw conclusions without control over the basic facts. Just don't stop there. Ask questions that require learners to think about their reading.

Teaching readers to make inferences. When readers make inferences they put information from different parts of the text together with their own knowledge to arrive at understandings that are not directly stated. Making inferences is sometimes called "reading between the lines."

This kind of thinking while reading doesn't come naturally to all learners, but it is important, and may be especially important for adults in basic education and literacy classes because their general knowledge in academic content areas may be limited. The less a reader knows about the subject matter of a text, the more inferences will be required. If a learner is reading a short article about the Civil War and doesn't have much background knowledge, he may have to infer (for example) that Robert E. Lee was an important leader of the southern army. This reader will have to work harder to figure out "who the players are" than another who knows more about the war.

Adult learners may not understand that readers are expected to make inferences about text. They may not realize that they should make inferences while reading as they do in listening. Explicit instruction may be required. Here is a possible sequence.

Begin by defining inference and explaining why reading between the lines is necessary for full comprehension.

Then use a scenario based on everyday life to illustrate how we all make inferences every day. You might tell this story, for instance,

"People these days stay pretty active even when they get up in years. Yesterday I stepped into the hall to put out some bills for the mailman before the holiday, and I saw my elderly neighbor walking toward the building carrying two big grocery bags. Another neighbor stepped up to help her, and as they came into the building, I overheard them talking. The older woman said, 'Would you look at all this food! And I had to buy such a big turkey! I haven't cooked one in years. I hope I remember how!'"

Then ask the learners, "What do you think is about to happen?" (The older woman is probably having company for a holiday dinner.) "Where do you think these people live?" (They probably live in an apartment building.)

Be sure to ask, "What makes you think so? What clues did you use?"

Explain that as readers we figure out things that are not directly stated by using exactly the same kind of thinking they just used in listening: We use our knowledge of the world or of the subject matter.

Model the thinking process by reading a passage to the group and thinking aloud, demonstrating how you make inferences. Be sure to point out the text clues that support your inferences. Here's an example from the Partnership for Reading booklet for parents, A Child Becomes a Reader: Birth Through Preschool.

The following is a list of some accomplishments that you can expect for your child by age 5. This list is based on research in the fields of reading, early childhood education, and child development. Remember, though, that children don't develop and learn at the same pace and in the same way. Your child may be more advanced or need more help than others in her age group. You are, of course, the best judge of your child's abilities and needs. You should take the accomplishments as guidelines and not as hard and fast rules. (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2003, p. 25)

Here is one way to demonstrate what a parent might infer from this passage:

"It seems like the list that's coming up will tell some things that 5-year-olds can do. I guess that's what they mean by 'accomplishments that you can expect.' But it says children are all different, and I'm the best judge of my child, so I think that means I shouldn't be upset if my child can't do everything on the list."

Next ask pairs or groups to read a passage and discuss their inferences. Be sure they specify the clues (evidence) they used, and encourage them to challenge each other if the evidence seems insufficient to justify the conclusion. Observe and assist the groups if they need help finding these "invisible messages" (Campbell, 2003).

Have individuals practice with another text, and complete a table like the one below (Campbell, 2003), writing information from the text in the left column and the corresponding inference on the right.

Provide feedback on this activity and more practice as needed.

Analyzing questions.
After explicitly teaching this kind of thinking, you may teach learners to analyze questions to see where and how to find the answers. You might try the question-answer relationship (QAR) approach (Raphael & McKinney; Raphael & Pearson, as cited in Duke & Pearson, 2002). Three QARs may be taught:

  • Right There questions, when the answer is directly stated in the text,
  • Think and Search questions, when the reader must do some searchingĂ‘combining information from different parts of the text, and
  • On My Own questions, when the question requires the use of prior knowledge combined with text information.
Analyzing questions in this way helps readers know how to find the answers.

Answering questions may be understood as the foundation for generating questions, the next strategy. Before you can expect readers to ask good questions of themselves, you have to give them examples of different kinds of questions (Curtis & Longo, 1999). It makes sense to first focus on questions you ask. Then, when the learners are aware of different kinds of questions and have practiced finding answers, you might try the question generating strategy, modeling as in the example on page 92.

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Teaching Learners How to Identify an Unstated Main Idea

Of course, most of the time there is no topic sentence, and the reader must infer the main idea. Here are some ideas for teaching learners how to identify an implied (unstated) main idea.

Make a map of the paragraph, leaving the center bubble empty, and writing each idea or piece of information in a separate bubble. Compose a sentence that applies to all the bubble elements and "pulls them all together." Write the sentence in the middle bubble.

Try this three-step procedure (Hancock, 1987):
  • What is the topic of the paragraph?
  • What is the author's purpose in writing about the subject?
  • To define, explain, or describe something?
  • To persuade the reader to agree with an opinion or to take some kind of action?
  • To criticize or defend a person or action?
  • Given the purpose, what is the author trying to make the reader understand about the topic? (If the author is defining something, what is the definition? If the author is trying to persuade, what is the primary argument?)
In working with beginners, you may need to begin by teaching the underlying skills. Composing a main idea statement requires learners to generalize; they must discover what a series of facts or ideas have in common and then choose language that expresses this common theme. You might start with simple tasks, as in the next suggestion.

Generalizing: The underlying skill

Write a series of simple narrative paragraphs in which one person is described as doing several things. In each sentence the person is doing something else. The task for learners is to state the main idea. You give explicit directions: Name the person and tell the main thing the person did in all the sentences.

"Tom cooked two eggs. He poured orange juice into a glass. He put cereal into a bowl. He poured milk into a bowl."

Main idea: Tom made breakfast. (Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1997, p. 249)

When learners are able to do this, make the task a bit more complex by creating sample paragraphs in which different persons do different things. The learners must then decide on a general term to describe the people as well as the actions (Carnine
Other approaches to summarization. The summarization studies reviewed by the National Reading Panel used variations of so-called "rule-based procedures" (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-93; Duke & Pearson, 2002). The example below is a procedure for summarizing a paragraph (McNeil & Donant, as cited in Duke & Pearson).

A rule-based procedure

Rule 1: Delete unnecessary material.
Rule 2: Delete redundant [repetitive] material.
Rule 3: Compose a word to replace a list of items.
Rule 4: Compose a word to replace individual parts of an action.
Rule 5: Select a topic sentence.
Rule 6: Invent a topic sentence if one is not available.

Of course, to know what is unnecessary the reader must already have at least a sense of the main idea of the paragraph, so you might want to have learners create paragraph maps first and/or work with a partner to think through the decisions to delete material. See Appendix D for an example of this procedure.

The GIST procedure
GIST, which stands for Generating Interactions between Schemata and Texts, is another summarization strategy (Cunningham, as cited in Duke & Pearson, 2002 and in Allen, 2004). GIST calls for readers to begin by summarizing the first sentence of a paragraph using no more than 15 words. Then they read the next sentence and create a summary of the two sentences. Proceeding in this way with each sentence, they end up with a summary of the whole paragraph using no more than 15 words.

GIST may be adapted for longer selections and more advanced learners by working with paragraphs instead of sentences. They compose a one-sentence summary of the first paragraph, then do the same for the second paragraph, and then combine the two summaries into one sentence. Working one paragraph at a time in this way, they end up with a short summary of the entire selection.

Summaries of longer texts
More advanced learners may develop both reading and writing skills by composing summaries of a textbook chapter or other lengthy text. A rule-based approach for creating written summaries is suggested below (Sheinker & Sheinker, as cited in Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1997, p. 327).
  • Skim a passage.
  • List key points.
  • Combine related points into single statements.
  • Cross out least important points.
  • Reread list.
  • Combine and cross out to condense points.
  • Number remaining points in logical order.
  • Write points into paragraph in numbered order.
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A summary is "a brief statement that contains the essential ideas of a longer passage or selection" (Harris & Hodges, 1995, p. 247). According to the National Reading Panel report, the aim of summarization instruction is "to teach the reader to identify the main or central ideas of a paragraph or a series of paragraphs" (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-93). Readers first learn how to summarize a single paragraph; then when working with longer passages, they create a summary of the paragraph summaries.

Summarizing is difficult, but research suggests that teaching learners this strategy is worth the effort. Summarization training has been shown to be effective in improving learners' ability to compose summaries and also has important transfer effects. Studies on children indicate that learners have better recall of the summarized information and are more successful in answering questions about the text than those who were not taught to summarize (NICHD, 2000. p. 4-46). Summarization improves comprehension, perhaps, because readers who are asked to summarize spend more time reading and must pay close attention to the text (NICHD, p. 4-92).

Summarization is often applied to expository (nonfiction) texts. It is a valuable study skill because readers cannot remember everything they read, so they need to be sure they focus on the most important facts and ideas. Because most adult learners want to improve their reading for important reasonsÑoften to pass the GED tests or to understand and use work-related materialsÑexplaining this rationale may be a good way to introduce instruction in the summarization strategy.

Almost all of the summarization research reviewed by the National Reading Panel was done with children in grade five and above (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-92). Researchers may have focused on older children because summarization is a difficult skill in itself, and to teach it as a tool for improving reading skills assumes a significant level of existing reading and writing competence. In addition, readers must be able to distinguish important from less important ideas and make general statements that apply to a set of similar/related facts or examples. These are advanced thinking skills.

You may find some of the activities on the next few pages most appropriate for the better readers and critical thinkers in your class. Suggestions for first steps (introducing the underlying thinking skills to beginners) are also included.

Identifying main ideas. A key feature of the summarization process (and the first step in learning to summarize lengthy texts) is identifying main ideas in paragraphs. A main idea statement may be understood as a one-sentence summary of a paragraph (Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1997). To introduce the concept, begin by defining terms:

The topic of a paragraph is its subject, "the general category or class of ideas . . . to which the ideas of a passage as a whole belong" (Harris & Hodges, 1995, p. 258).

It usually can be stated in a word or phrase: tornadoes, mammals, local preschools, a healthful diet, the Vietnam War, or job hunting.

The main idea of a paragraph is a statement of what the paragraph is about - "the gist of a passage; central thought" (Harris & Hodges, 1995, p. 148).

In other words, the main idea is what the writer has to say about the topic.


The topic of the paragraph is local unemployment.

The main idea is that the local unemployment rate has recently increased.

Sometimes the main idea is directly stated in a topic sentence. Recognizing a topic sentence is simpler than inferring an unstated main idea, but learners still may need practice. You will need multiple examples of well written paragraphs that have topic sentences. A good source for these is a comprehension skills workbook. Show several examples of paragraphs with topic sentences at different locations in paragraphs. Explain that readers should not assume the first sentence is the topic sentence.

Of course, most of the time there is no topic sentence, and the reader must infer the main idea. Here are some ideas for teaching learners how to identify an implied (unstated) main idea.

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Monitoring and repair strategies.

You also may teach specific strategies for solving comprehension problems (Davey, 1983; Kibby, n.d.). You describe and demonstrate the different kinds of problems that can arise while reading. Then, taking them one at a time, teach appropriate repair strategies, by modeling, providing guided practice, and independent practice.

Examples of comprehension problems:

I can't read this word.
I don't know what this word means.
I'm confused. I don't get it. This doesn't make sense. This doesn't fit with something I know (from an earlier part of the text or the reader's life experience).
Examples of repair strategies:

Problem--I can't read this word.
Step 1: If it's a short word, try to sound it out. If it's longer, look for familiar rimes or syllables and put them together to sound it out. (Do you recognize the word? Does it make sense in the sentence? If yes, go on reading. If not, try step 2.)
Step 2: Read to the end of the sentence and think of a word that makes sense. (Does this word match some of the letter sounds? If yes, go on reading, but make a note to check on the word later. If not, maybe you don't know the meaning of the word, and that's why you don't recognize it. Go to the next strategy.)

Problem--I don't know what this word means.

Step 1: Read the sentence to the end and see if you can make a guess about the meaning based on context clues (the meaning of the words around it and the rest of the sentence). Hint: Use context clues to decide what kind of word it is. (Is it, for instance, an action word, a name of something, or a word that describes something?)
Step 2: See if the word has any prefixes or suffixes you know or any familiar word parts. Try using those along with context clues to figure out the meaning.
Step 3: If you can't make a good guess about the meaning from context, decide if you must understand this word to understand the text. If not, skip it but make a note to look it up in the dictionary later. If the word is important, look in the dictionary or ask someone.

-->Be aware that none of these repair strategies is foolproof. Some texts contain few useful context clues, and even prefixes are sometimes unhelpful or even misleading. For example, the prefix pro usually means before, forward, or for. Knowing this meaning doesn't help define the word proportion.

Problem--I'm confused. I don't get it. This doesn't make sense. This doesn't fit with something I know.
Reread the sentence or passage.
Read on to see if it gets clearer.
Try reading aloud.

Look at the words in the confusing part. Maybe a word is being used in an unfamiliar way. Check the word(s) in the dictionary or ask someone.
Talk about your problem with others.

-->Even common words have many uses. Pay attention to the words in instructional text and pre-teach words that are used in unfamiliar ways. If a reader encounters such a word that you haven't pre-taught, you may find this a good "teachable moment."

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Coding Text

Readers are actively engaged with the content when they make notes as they read. You can teach a simple shorthand/code that allows the reader to make quick responses to the text. If writing in a book is not an option, learners can use small adhesive notes. The INSERT system is one example of such a code (Vaughn & Estes, 1986). It may be especially helpful as a study strategy.

Interactive Notation System for Effective Reading and Thinking (INSERT)

= -- I agree
X -- I thought differently
+ -- New information
! -- WOW
? -- I don't get it
* -- I know this is important

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Thinking Aloud

One way to teach adults how good readers monitor their understanding is to show them how you do it. In other words, this technique is both a strategy for readers and an instructional approach you can use with any of the other comprehension strategies as well.

Here's how it works: You read a passage to the learners and think aloud about how you process the information (Davey, 1983; Kibby, n.d.). When you run into problems, you express your confusion and talk through your thinking as you solve the problems. Following are examples of strategies you might demonstrate:
  • Stopping to reread or restate a difficult section
  • Summarizing long sentences or other bits of text and putting them in your own words
  • Looking back in the text to locate the person or thing that a pronoun refers to
  • Identifying important or not-so-important information
  • Using various strategies to identify or determine the meaning of an unknown word


Teacher reads aloud (in italics) and thinks aloud (in brackets).

There were three main causes for the uprising.
[OK, I'll be looking for three causes.]

First and most important was the economic situation in the country.
[That's number one, the economic situation.]

(Reading on--further details)

There was also a popular movement gaining strength that centered on a young leader, etc.
[Is that number two? Hmm, I'm not sure. I'd better read on to check.]

(Reading on)
It's clear the uprising was rooted in recent, if not ancient history, as explained by journalist Browne, etc.
[Wait a minute. This is almost the end. Did I miss the third cause? I guess I had better read it again.]

The chaos surrounding the earthquake and concern about the nation's ability to repair and rebuild contributed to the unrest.
[I wonder if this is it. It seems pretty different from the other two. I think that's it. I'll read on and see if I get any other clues. Maybe the writer has more to say about the three causes later on.]

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Components of Reading

What Are the Components of Reading?

Research has identified five components of reading:
  1. Phonemic awareness
  2. Decoding
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Comprehension
Each of the first four components plays an important role in facilitating comprehension, which is, of course, what reading is all about.

What Are the Components of Reading Instruction?

Paralleling the reading components are the instructional components:
  1. Phonemic awareness training
  2. Phonics instruction
  3. Fluency development
  4. Vocabulary development
  5. Comprehension-strategies instruction
How Do the Components Work Together?

Comprehension is the goal of reading instruction. All of the reading components contribute to the development of comprehension.

Alphabetics: phonemic awareness training and phonics instruction

The foundation for reading is the ability to identify words in print. Word identification skills are often called alphabetics. The term alphabetics refers to phonemic awareness, decoding, and sight-word recognition.

Phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to detect individual speech sounds within words. Phonemic awareness is required for developing accurate decoding skills. Some struggling readers have not acquired this ability, so phonemic awareness may need to be directly taught. (See Chapter 4 for details.)


Decoding is a word identification skill that involves using letter-sound correspondences to recognize words in print. Decoding at higher skill levels also includes using larger word parts--like syllables, prefixes, and suffixes. Adults with weak decoding skills need explicit and systematic phonics instruction. (See Chapter 4.)

Sight words are those a reader recognizes automatically and reads rapidly. Some frequently encountered words, especially those that have phonetically irregular spellings, are initially taught to be recognized on sight, to enhance reading speed and fluency. But even if a reader initially identifies a word by decoding, after many exposures the word is stored in memory and can be quickly recognized. In this way all words eventually become "sight words."

The alphabetics skills of phonemic awareness and decoding are necessary but not sufficient for reading comprehension.

Fluency development

Fluency is vital to comprehension. A fluent reader identifies words rapidly and accurately with little effort, and is therefore able to focus on meaning. A fluent reader also "interprets" while reading to determine appropriate phrasing and expression. This aspect of fluency indicates comprehension of the writer's message. Guided repeated oral reading is a recommended strategy for building fluency in beginning and developing readers. (See Chapter 5 for details.)

Alphabetics skills are required to develop fluency. Fluency is necessary but not sufficient to ensure reading comprehension.

Vocabulary development

Vocabulary is important to reading comprehension in two ways. The beginning reader uses decoding skills to "translate" print into words that are already in his oral vocabulary. At higher reading levels, vocabulary knowledge is critical for understanding increasingly difficult materials. Learners not only need to learn new words; they need to deepen their knowledge of words they already know. Vocabulary instruction should involve direct teaching and context-based approaches. (See Chapter 6 for details.)

Vocabulary is vital to reading comprehension at all levels.

Comprehension-strategies instruction

Comprehension strategies enable learners to monitor their own understanding as they read and to solve comprehension problems. Teachers provide direct instruction in monitoring and repair strategies. (See Chapter 7 for details.)

Even accurate, fluent reading does not guarantee comprehension. Specific comprehension strategies may need to be taught.

Teaching the component skills

These components should not be seen as sequential. Students don't learn the alphabetics skills and then become fluent and then develop vocabulary and then focus on comprehension. Although the foundational alphabetics skills are a primary focus of beginning instruction, in fact, all the components reinforce each other, and as a result, often develop simultaneously. Teachers should address all the necessary components (at appropriate levels of difficulty) in reading lessons (Kruidenier, 2002).

In addition, the skills should be taught and practiced not only with drills and workbook exercises, but also with meaningful, authentic (real-life) materials, including texts in content areas like science, social studies, literature, and materials related to work and home life. The National Institute for Literacy's website, Assessment Strategies and Reading Profiles (, clearly makes this point: "Reading is a combination of many sub-skills combined to achieve the common goal of comprehension. Teaching reading sub-skills in an authentic setting ensures that there is never a moment when comprehension is not a factor."

Print-based and Meaning-based Skills

Another way to understand the components is to group them into two categories:

  • Print skills--phonemic awareness, decoding, and fluency
  • Meaning skills--vocabulary and comprehension

Print skills have to do with reading words accurately and rapidly. When use of these skills is comfortable and automatic, the reader can attend to the meaning of the text, which is the focus of vocabulary and comprehension-strategy instruction. This distinction is not only a helpful simplifier; it also reflects common patterns observed in groups of adult learners.

Indications and suspicions cannot substitute for a formal diagnosis, so you must not assume that an adult has a learning disability.

For instance, reading researchers suggest that adults whose meaning skills are significantly stronger than their print skills present a profile associated with reading disability (Chall,1994, as cited in Kruidenier, 2002). We now know that most reading disabilities are related to word reading. You may suspect a disability when an adult struggles with print skills--isolated word identification, phonemic awareness, and decoding--but has an adequate oral vocabulary and is capable of understanding text when it is read to her.

English language learners present the opposite profile. They often exhibit stronger word identification abilities and fluency, with relative weakness in the meaning-based components. What holds them back is more likely a limited English vocabulary, not a reading disability. These two types of learners may have fairly similar scores on a silent reading comprehension test and even on a test of word recognition, yet have very different strengths and needs (Davidson & Strucker, 2002).

One lesson to be taken from these patterns is that you need to be able to assess adult learners' abilities in the component skills. A silent reading test alone often will not suffice. You have an opportunity to uncover problems that may never before have been identified and addressed. Unless you find out exactly what each learner needs, you will not be able to offer a real second chance at learning.

As you can see, research offers important insights about adult readers. It also provides guidance (or at least suggestions) for practice. As we get to specifics about assessment and instruction in the next chapters, you will see frequent references to adult education research principles. The next section introduces this research and includes a complete list of the principles.

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Sight Words

Teaching Sight Words From a Language Experience Story

From: Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check – Found in many K-12 resources. (Phenix, 2001; Snowball, & Bolton, 1999)

  • Ask your student to choose words from his language experience story
  • Print the words separately on index cards
  • Then ask your student to:

1) Look: really look at word.
  • Is it the same as other words you know?
  • Underline or circle parts.
  • What is hard about the word?
2) Say, Spell
  • Say each part.
  • Say the beginning and end sounds.
  • Spell the word.
3) Cover
  • Close eyes.
  • See the word in your head. Like a television screen.
  • Write with finger on TV screen.
4) Write

5) Check
  • Is it correct?
  • If not, start over. Try again.

It is important to refer back to the process frequently. Once the student learns to read the word and spell it, it goes into his word bank, and a new word can be introduced.

From: Helping Adult ESL Students through K-12 Spelling Strategy Instruction
WAESOL Conference Presentation, 2005, Caro Gerber,
Answer Key to Self Check for Unit Three

1. False Most learners do not write because they feel self conscious about their inability to spell, their poor handwriting, or their writing skills in general.

2. False Writing is critical both at work and at home, especially these days when emails have become an essential tool for communication.

3. True In prewriting, learners activate their prior knowledge. They begin to think about the main ideas they want to convey and the vocabulary they will use to express their ideas.

4. False There are many steps to writing, including developing motor skills in order to use a pen or keyboard.

5. False It is important to get the flow of ideas down on paper. Encourage your student to start writing at first. You can show her how to revise in the later stages of writing.

6. True When you encourage your learner to write, you are encouraging her to communicate her own ideas and thoughts on a topic.

7. True Even when your student is not yet able to put her own thoughts on paper, in a language experience story, she will use her own words and ideas to express her thoughts.

8. False Making corrections is a static process; it looks for fault and error. It will completely stop the flow of ideas.

9. True Have your student practice typing on a keyboard or using a pen or pencil so that the actual act of writing becomes easier.

10. True Writing lists and filling out forms are important writing activities that have as much validity as, for example, writing letters or poems.
Answer Key to Self Check for Unit One

1. Even the most motivated adults will be distracted by family obligations and work-related issues.

True 2. Being less dependent on others is one among many reasons, including improving job prospects, helping children with homework, and completing a GED.

True 3. They often hide their inability to read or write from family, friends, and employers.

True 4. This is one of the reasons why one-on-one tutoring is so effective with adults.

True 5. Adults are self-directed and come with a wealth of life experiences. They often know their weaknesses and strengths, and can work alongside a tutor to set personal learning goals.

False 6. Adults have different learning preferences. As a tutor, you must keep in mind all the different learning styles, such as auditory or visual, in preparing a lesson.

False 7. For lessons, choose a neutral setting away from distractions of phones and family. Libraries are excellent choices. Small offices in churches or at the literacy program are good alternatives as well.

True 8. The definition of adult literacy these days includes using the computer or reading complex manuals for electronics. Today’s literacy standards are much more rigorous than they were a century ago.

False 9. Adults are self-directed and prefer experiential, hands-on learning.

True 10. In addition to learning preferences, multiple intelligences (MI) theory suggests that our ability to learn is influenced by a variety of factors, including how we process information.

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Lesson Planning Tip

During a tutoring session, activate your student's interest and prior knowledge by discussing one or several topics and asking her what she likes or which topics interest her.

The next time you meet, decide on the writing topic. Draw a mind map and review the vocabulary. Encourage your student to write a first draft.

In the third session, work on revising, editing and proofing the written piece.

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Link to Learner-Centered Learning

Read a definition of learner-centered learning at:

For more information on the subject, read this article, Using Adult Learning Principles in Adult Basic and Literacy Education (, by Susan Imel.

Below are the Adult Education Principles she discusses:

Involve learners in planning and implementing learning activities. Including learners in the planning and implementing of their learning activities is considered to be a hallmark of adult education. Their participation can begin with the needs assessment process where members of the target population help establish the program goals and objectives and continue throughout the learning activity to the evaluation phase.

Draw upon learners' experiences as a resource. Another often-cited principle of adult education revolves around the idea of using the experiences of participants as a learning resource. Not only do adult learners have experiences that can be used as a foundation for learning new things but also, in adulthood, readiness to learn frequently stems from life tasks and problems. The particular life situations and perspectives that adults bring to the classroom can provide a rich reservoir for learning.

Cultivate self-direction in learners. Self-direction is considered by some to be a characteristic of adulthood but not all adults possess this attribute in equal measure. In addition, if adults have been accustomed to teacher-directed learning environments, they may not display self-directedness in adult learning settings. Adult learning should be structured to nurture the development of self-directed, empowered adults. When adults are encouraged to become self-directed, they begin "to see themselves as proactive, initiating individuals engaged in a continuous re-creation of their personal relationships, work worlds, and social circumstances rather than as reactive individuals, buffeted by uncontrollable forces of circumstance" (Brookfield 1986, p. 19).

Create a climate that encourages and supports learning. The classroom environment should be characterized by trust and mutual respect among teachers and learners. It should enhance learner self-esteem. Supporting and encouraging learning does not mean that the environment is free of conflict. It does mean that when conflict occurs, it is handled in a way that challenges learners to acquire new perspectives and supports them in their efforts to do so.

Foster a spirit of collaboration in the learning setting. Collaboration in the adult classroom is frequently founded on the idea that the roles of teachers and learners can be interchangeable. Although teachers have the overall responsibility for leading a learning activity, in adult learning settings "each person has something to teach and to learn from the other" (Draper 1992, p. 75). Adult learning is a cooperative enterprise that respects and draws upon the knowledge that each person brings to the learning setting.

Use small groups. The use of groups has deep historical roots in adult education, and adults learning in groups has become embedded in adult education practice. Groups promote teamwork and encourage cooperation and collaboration among learners. Structured appropriately, they emphasize the importance of learning from peers, and they allow all participants to be involved in discussions and to assume a variety of roles.

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Learning for Life

For a fascinating discussion about lifelong learning, go to Lifespan Development and Lifelong Learning at infed.

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Tutoring at a neutral site

Why tutoring is encouraged in a neutral site, away from the student's and tutor's home or office:

  1. Fewer distractions from family and phones
  2. Liability issues
  3. Sets the tone for learning
The Tutoring Environment

Keeping in mind the characteristics of your adult learner, make sure that the physical environment you choose for your tutoring session is conducive to learning. In assessing your potential meeting space, ask yourself:

  • Is the lighting adequate? If your student still has difficulty reading under adequate lighting conditions and with large print materials, she might need glasses.
  • Are there any disruptive noises such as traffic outside, a day nursery down the hall, or others using the same room/area?
  • Is the table large enough for me to sit next to my student? This encourages interaction and says subliminally that your student is an equal partner in learning.
  • Can all tutoring materials fit easily on the table?
  • Are the chairs comfortable?
  • Is the site convenient to parking or public transportation?
  • Is the site open at convenient hours?
  • Is privacy guaranteed?

Characteristics of a Good Tutor

A good tutor:

  • Serves as both mentor and role model
  • Encourages participatory and active learning
  • Shows respect and tolerance
  • Is patient, punctual, responsible, and professional
  • Can commit the necessary time and effort to help a student reach her literacy goals
  • Works hard to transfer classroom learning to the real world
  • Has good communication skills
  • Can put a student at ease with a positive attitude and a sense of humor
  • Is well-trained and competent

Answer Key, Teaching an Adult to Read

1) It is possible for your student to have passed tests in high school without comprehending much of the text. (Yes, review the Marlup Activity)

False 2) Activating prior knowledge means introducing new concepts to your student before she starts reading. (It means activating what your student already knows.)

True 3) Poor readers start reading a text without reading the title or skimming the text beforehand. (These skills need to be taught during pre-reading activities)

True 4) The KWL activity will help set a purpose for reading and keep your student engaged. (You will practice using KWL activity several times during this course)

False 5) Good readers need to employ only one reading strategy to comprehend the text. (Good readers employ a variety of reading strategies, including sight words, sounding out letters, and context clues)

True 6) The four components of reading instruction are: alphabetics, fluency development, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension.

False 7) Teaching adults to read is the same as teaching a child to read. (Among some of the differences, adults are more self-directed, bring a wealth of life experiences, and are goal oriented)

True 8) Poor readers need to be taught pre-reading strategies. (We have provided a checklist to help you teach your student to use these strategies)

True 9) It is important for tutors to think out loud, and teach their reading strategies to their students. (This technique helps your student understand which strategies a good reader uses in order to check on their understanding)

True 10) Directed Reading Thinking Activity and KWL Activity check on a reader's comprehension. (They check on a reader's understanding by engaging them in the text before, during, and after reading)

True 11) Graphic organizers help visual learners understand the text. (We have provided several links to graphic organizer templates to help you get started with your student)

False 12) It is vital to correct your student's grammar during a Language Experience activity. (It is important to write down exactly what your student dictates, and to spell the words correctly)