Adult Reading Instruction —Teach the Reader, Not the Reading

By Guest Writer, Stephen Dolainski, ABE Consultant

Imagine you are an observer in an adult reading classroom. Twenty or so students are present; their reading abilities range from the 4th-grade level to the 8th-grade level. The teacher, like many adult reading teachers, has no specialized training in reading instruction. She relies on a variety of texts and instructional resources and is deeply committed to helping her students improve their reading ability so they can move on to the GED prep class or a job-training program.

On this particular occasion, the students are going to read a selection about cells that is from one of the texts. The teacher puts up a diagram of a cell that is labeled with the cell’s various parts. Before the students read the selection, the teacher asks students to study a vocabulary list that contains words from the selection, such as nucleus, cell membrane, cytoplasm, and vacuole. Next to each word is the definition. At the bottom of the list is a matching exercise. When the vocabulary activity is complete, the teacher conducts a brief discussion with the students about what they already know about cells. Then she has the students silently read the selection and answer a few questions at the end of the reading. After going over the correct answers with the class, the teacher has the students draw a cell and label the different parts.

Based on your “observation,” what can you say about the reading instruction that took place in the class? What activities helped students learn strategies they can use when they are asked to read a different selection, say, about volcanoes in Hawaii or the Civil War? Did studying content–area vocabulary (nucleus, cell membrane, etc.) give students practice in using high-frequency Tier 2 words (e.g., analyze, infer, distinguish, establish) they will encounter in readings in all content areas? Did the students receive instruction or practice that would help them improve their reading fluency? Did the teacher model a comprehension strategy such as questioning?

In other words, what did the teacher teach—the reading or the reader? With the exception of one activity, the teacher did not teach the reader. The discussion about what students already knew about cells was aimed at getting students to connect with their background information, an important comprehension strategy students can utilize no matter what they may read. However, the activity would have had more impact if the teacher had modeled the strategy first before asking students for their ideas.

Struggling readers, like the ones in this imaginary class, lack the skills that good readers practice automatically when they read. These struggling readers may possess basic decoding skills and be able to “read,” i.e., decode, a text, but they have great difficulty making meaning of text. (That is especially true if they have little or no background information to connect to what they are reading.) These adult learners don’t know how to approach text before they actually start reading. They rarely monitor their understanding as they read, and lack “fix-up” strategies to help them comprehend when they don’t understand something.

Time is precious in the adult reading classroom; students are in a rush to reach a goal, and teachers are under pressure to make it happen. Teach the Reader, Not the Reading is an approach that helps struggling readers become independent readers and successful students.


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Jan 11 2013

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