How to Teach Adults Basic Reading Skills

Written by sandy fleming
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How to Teach Adults Basic Reading Skills
Adult reading students learn best when skills connect to everyday life. (Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images)

Teaching an adult to read can be rewarding, but teachers and mentors need to be sensitive to the students' unique needs during lessons. Adult learners are generally highly motivated but may have a low threshold for frustration and a history of failure with reading. They often have a clear goal and want an efficient and straightforward path to achieving that end. It is important to approach reading instruction respectfully and to use materials designed for adult learners instead of books and activities designed for younger students working on similar skills.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy

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Things you need

  • Grade level passages for assessment
  • Comprehension questions for assessment
  • List of sight words for assessment
  • List of phonic concept nonsense syllables for assessment
  • Paper and pencil
  • Newspapers, trade books, signs or magazines
  • Adult reading curriculum materials (optional)

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  1. 1

    Assess the adult student's reading skill level. Simple assessments include reading text at increasingly difficult levels, reading common words in isolation and reading nonsense syllables that illustrate common phonic skills. Graded passages can be taken from books with known reading levels or typed into a word processor and evaluated using the grammar check feature. It is important to monitor comprehension as the student reads, so be sure to ask questions that involve recalling details of the text, sequencing of events and understanding of the passage's main idea. These activities should give the teacher a clear picture of the skills that the reader has mastered and those that need to be reviewed or retaught.

  2. 2

    Secondly, engage the student in a discussion of goals and reading history. Adult students generally are goal-oriented and choose to improve reading skills as a means to an end. The student's goals should be clearly connected to each lesson. Many have been unsuccessful at reading during their school years and have become convinced that reading is difficult. Therefore lessons must also be presented in small increments with a great deal of reinforcement and practice provided before moving to new skills. Move at a pace comfortable for your student instead of a pace dictated by curriculum.

  3. 3

    Lessons can be taken from a formal adult curriculum or created for individual students and circumstances based on your understanding of the sequence of development of reading skills. Design lessons with clear practical application to the student's daily life or goals. One model for a lesson includes a warm-up or review exercise that has guaranteed success for the student, a time to work on sight words, phonics or fluency, a reading passage with a comprehension task that is meaningful to the adult and a final activity that closes the lesson and reviews new concepts. Comprehensive skill lists, suggested teaching order and activity ideas can be found in most adult remedial reading curriculum packages and many tutor guides produced by reputable literacy associations.

  4. 4

    Keep adult students engaged by making lessons practical and meaningful, starting and ending each lesson with a successful experience and monitoring progress on student-selected goals. Use materials the student encounters in daily living, such as bus schedules, recipes, newspapers and assembly instructions. Use clear and graphic symbols of progress such as checklists, graphs and charts. Be sure to save a record of the student's first lessons and compare his current performance with his earlier performance regularly so that the student can clearly see the progress being made. Maintain a portfolio of student assignments and accomplishments so that the student can note progress toward the goals selected.

Tips and warnings

  • Hold lessons in a quiet, private area with good lighting, a smooth work space and access to reading materials.
  • Incorporate multiple modalities of learning into each lesson (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) until you are certain of the student's dominant learning style.
  • Maintain the student's privacy and confidentiality.
  • Avoid making assumptions about a student's ability, skills, experience or motivation.
  • Never tell a struggling student that a difficult concept should be "easy" for him in an attempt to provide assurance. The learning may be difficult for him, no matter how obvious it seems to you.

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