Describing ABE Level 1 Learners :
Supporting Research and Implications for Teaching
John Strucker, Ed. D
Describing ABE Level 1 Learners
The designation of ABE Level 1 applies to learners whose reading abilities range from Grade Equivalent 0 -1.9 (GE 0-1.9). The National Reporting System (NRS) of the US ED Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) refers to this level as “Beginning Literacy.” In 2004-05 (the latest year for which there are figures), Beginning Literacy learners made up about 9% of the total ABE/ASE enrollment nationwide (OVAE, 2007). Although Level 1 encompasses GE 0-1.9, very few native-born adults in developed countries like the United States actually have “GE 0” reading ability – meaning they possess absolutely no reading skills. In their everyday lives, most U.S.-born Level 1 learners are able to function to a limited degree in the world of print: they can usually identify some food and product labels, they operate electronic devices like cell phones, TV remotes, and video games, and they are aware of the purposes and uses of books, magazines, and other forms of print communication (NAAL, 2003). And, nearly all U.S.-born Level 1 learners were exposed to some reading instruction in school, and as a result most retain some basic reading skills. For example, learners in the ABE Level 1 clusters in the Adult Reading Components Study (ARCS) (Strucker & Davidson, 2003) knew the names of most of the letters, could identify some of the letter sounds (phonemes), and were able to read a few sight words.
Although most Level 1 learners possess a few reading skills, their most relevant characteristic is their lack of masteryof those skills. Most importantly, they have not mastered alphabetics, the set of early reading skills that support the decoding of printed language into its spoken language equivalents. Alphabetics includes rapid letter identification, phonemic awareness (the awareness that speech is made up of a sequence of sounds that can be isolated and manipulated—changed, added, or subtracted—to form different words) and word analysis or phonics (the relationships between the sounds of words and their spelling).
Most Level 1 learners also lack speed and automaticity with critical basic decoding skills such as instant and automatic letter recognition. Although Level 1 learners can usually identify nearly all of the letters of the alphabet, many of them are only able to do so slowly and laboriously. Many cannot even generate the letters of the alphabet in proper sequence - a, b, c, etc. And, while they may be able to produce a few of the letter-sounds when presented with printed letters, their knowledge of those sounds is slow and halting rather than automatic and precise. This makes it slow and exhausting for them to use their knowledge of those letter sounds to sound out words.
Important point: Practitioners should not assume that when Level 1 learners exhibit partial knowledge of alphabetics that this means those skills do not need to be taught, reviewed, and practiced.
Not only have Level 1 learners not mastered alphabetics, they experience great difficulty acquiring these skills even after they enroll in ABE classes. Most Level 1 adults in the ARCS reported difficulties with reading beginning in kindergarten and first grade, the years when children are first acquiring alphabetics. Not surprisingly, most of those who attended U.S. public schools from the 1960s on reported receiving extra help in reading in the form of pull-out programs like extra tutoring, Title 1/Chapter 1, and Special Education, suggesting that their teachers recognized that they were struggling readers who needed extra help (Strucker & Davidson, 2003). This level of severe and persistent difficulty acquiring the basic sound-symbol relationships - also called the “core phonological deficit” - is regarded by reading teachers and researchers as the main characteristic of reading disability or dyslexia in children and adults (Shaywitz, 1996; Bruck, 1990; Swanson & Hsieh, 2009).
Because Level 1 learners find it so difficult to acquire sound-symbol relationships, they need carefully-paced, step-by-step instruction that includes many opportunities for practice and review. So, for example, simply explaining the silent-e rule and giving them a few examples of silent-e words will neither lead to their mastery of the silent-e pattern nor their ability to recognize it in new silent-e words. In fact, for many Level 1 learners, such brief exposures to alphabetics are often not retained from one class to the next.
Of course, Level 1 learners’ needs in reading extend beyond alphabetics. Because they have not been able to read to gain information and concepts, their vocabulary is often stuck at conversational levels (GE 4 or below), and their background knowledge about science, civics, and literature is also severely limited (Strucker & Davidson, 2003). As a result, even when higher level texts are read to them (eliminating the need for decoding), they still may have difficulty comprehending passages about unfamiliar topics because they lack the necessary concept development, content-specific vocabulary, or background of knowledge. In recognition of the range of challenges faced by Level 1 learners, the Massachusetts ABE Level 1 Standards for the Revised Reading Strand not only include topics in alphabetics and decoding such as word identification and fluency, but the additional topics of vocabulary, comprehension strategies, informational reading, and literary reading.
Given that Level 1 learners face challenges in every aspect of reading, what should be their instructional priorities, and how should their instructional time be allotted? One way to approach this issue is to consider the reading process itself. It begins when the reader recognizes a string of letters as a word, accesses its spoken language equivalent (pronunciation), and its meaning. Proficient readers accomplish all of this within ? second per word, and carry this process effortlessly forward from word to word, phrase to phrase, and sentence to sentence - almost as if the text is “talking to them” (Adams, 1990; Rayner, 1998). Moreover, for proficient readers these activities occur with little conscious effort, leaving their minds free to think about what the text is saying, compare it to previous information, and make judgments about its relevance and accuracy.
However, because of their severe difficulties with alphabetics, Level 1 readers are blocked during the initial ? second of the reading process in which letter strings are recognized as words and their spoken language equivalents are accessed. As Chall (1983) put it, their main priority is “unlocking print,” literally learn ing to read, meaning they must learn the basics of how to decode words and recognize them quickly. This inability to decode has prevented them and continues to prevent them from being able to read to learn – that is, being able to use reading to acquire new vocabulary, information, and knowledge. Therefore, the primary goal of Level 1 instruction should be developing learners’ mastery of basic decoding skills.
Important point: The amount of space devoted to the various topics in the Level 1 Standards is emphatically not an indication of the proportion of instructional time that should be devoted to the topics. Specifically, while the topics pertaining to alphabetics (word identification and decoding and fluency) occupy less than one-third of the Level 1 Standards’ text, alphabetics would normally occupy at least two-thirds of the instructional time. That is, about two-thirds of Level 1 learners’ class time should be spent on letter/sound relationships, word analysis, sight word practice, oral reading of texts for fluency and accuracy, and writing and spelling the words they are learning to read. The remaining one-third of the instructional time should be used to address the topics of vocabulary, comprehension strategies, informational texts, and literary texts. As will be discussed below, because Level 1 adults’ decoding ability is severely limited, many of these topics can best be addressed via oral language activities and the discussion of informational and literary texts that are read to the learners.
What approaches work best for teaching alphabetics to Level 1 Learners?
Although few “what works” studies have been done with ABE Level 1 readers, we can generalize from what is known about children who struggle with alphabetics, because, after all, most of our adult beginners were once struggling young readers. But first, let’s consider what doesn’t work: there is strong research evidence that struggling beginning readers do not fare well when decoding skills are taught piecemeal or incidentally – e.g., teaching a phonics principle only when it crops up randomly in a text or language experience story. Instead, what works best are direct and systematic approaches to teaching word analysis and decoding (NRP, 2000; Kruidenier, 2002; McShane, 2005). Direct and systematic approaches to teaching decoding are usually referred to as “structured language approaches” (SLAs). Most SLAs share these features:
· Direct, explicit teaching of decoding principles, i.e., readers are taught the pronunciations of letters and spelling patterns directly, not asked to infer them from their similarities in lists of words or based on their context in a sentence.
· Systematic instruction, i.e., well-designed formats and templates for activities that are repeated and reused from lesson to lesson. This helps learners to concentrate on what is being taught, rather wasting energy or worrying about learning new procedures for every class.
· An optimal sequence for teaching phonics, i.e., a sequence based on linguistic analyses of the structure of English sounds and spelling, starting with the smallest units (sounds, letters, letters and sounds together) and moving to the spelling patterns and their pronunciations in words and syllables.
· Emphasis on teaching decoding using the synthetic phonics approach, i.e., in which the reader converts letters into sounds, then blends those sounds to produce recognizable words, e.g., /c/-/a/-/t/ = cat. Research has found synthetic phonics to be the best approach to employ with reading disabled children and adolescents (NRP, 2000). Among its advantages, it proceeds from left-to-right like the movement of our eyes as we read, and it directs the reader’s attention to each letter in turn, skipping none.
· Ample opportunities for practice, review, and mastery, sometimes called “over-learning” or “learning to automaticity.”
Most SLAs also employ some multi-sensory techniques (Birsch, 2005); for example, practicing the spelling of sight words by “sky-writing” them in the air or finger-tapping letter-sounds when decoding or spelling words.
A number of SLA approaches are used in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the U.S. for Level 1 learners, including (in alphabetical order):
* Lindamood-Bell damoodbell.com/
* Orton-Gillingham on-gillingham.com/
* Reading Horizons dinghorizons.com/
* The Wilson Reading System sonlanguage.com/.
These approaches are very similar in their broad contours, and all owe much to Orton-Gillingham, the original SLA. All employ instruction that is direct, systematic, sequential, and multi-sensory – with many opportunities for review, practice, and over-learning. All require extensive training for teachers, including in some cases supervised practica leading to certification. Most of them are also designed as complete packages with assessment/locator tools, sequenced lesson plans, and complete instructional materials, which in some cases include computer-based activities and support.
In addition to these SLAs, Sylvia Greene’s Basic Literacy Kits I and II (Greene, 1996) should be mentioned. Greene, a Wilson-trained teacher at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, MA, developed these materials specifically for ABE Level 1 learners. They include informal word analysis and sight word assessments, sequenced phonics lessons, sample exercises and worksheets, and a controlled basal reader, Sam and Val. In the next section, the topics and benchmarks that comprise the Level 1 Standards will be discussed in the order in which they appear in the Revised Massachusetts ABE Reading Standards and Benchmarks (2010).
STANDARD 1 (READING FOUNDATIONS): Learners will integrate knowledge, skills, and strategies related to word identification/decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension to construct meaning from informational and literary texts
The Research Basis for Standard 1
The four Reading Foundations topics listed below are derived from research about the reading process and how reading develops:
· Topic A: W ord I dentificatio n and D ecoding (the ability to recognize and pronounce words);
· Topic B: F luency (the ability to read smoothly, accurately, and with expression);
· Topic C: V ocabulary (knowledge of word meanings);
· Topic D: Comprehension Strategies (a range of conscious strategies - from basic to higher order - that readers use to improve their understanding and retention of what they read).
These four topics are important components of reading that are known to contribute to reading comprehension, which is the ultimate goal and purpose for reading. The National Reading Panel (NRP) (2000) defined reading comprehension as “…an active process that requires an intentional and thoughtful interaction between the reader and the text” (NRP, p. 13). Note that the Revised Standards make a distinction between reading comprehension (the goal and purpose for reading) and the Foundation Topic D, Comprehension Strategies (the conscious strategies employed by readers to improve reading comprehension).
Although proficient readers experience reading as a seamless process - as if the text were talking to them – reading researchers and teachers have found it useful to separate reading into its component parts in order to first understand which aspects of reading are causing difficulties for struggling readers and then address those aspects through focused instruction. In the case of ABE Level 1 learners, as discussed above, their word identification and decoding problems block the reading process at its start and prevent fluent reading from developing, and without fluent reading, comprehension of text is almost impossible.
Topic A: Word Identification and Decoding
As discussed previously, without doubt this is the most important topic for Level 1 learners. Notice that Level 1 Topic A Word Identification and Decoding includes many more benchmarks than are included in Levels 2 and beyond. That is because Level 1 learners need to master all of the preliminary building blocks of reading such as automatic and fluent identification of letters and letter sounds- benchmarks that are expected to have been mastered by readers at Levels 2-6. The benchmarks under Topic A are were ordered in the approximate sequence in which they would usually be acquired by Level 1 readers. However, the Topic A benchmarks are not meant as a curriculum; they do not include all of the skills Level 1 learners need to acquire, nor do they cover all of the intervening steps in their instruction. For that information teachers should turn to the actual curricula employed in one of the aforementioned structured language approaches.
Benchmark R1.1a refers to rapid automatic letter recognition – literally the ability of a learner to say the names of the upper and lowercase letters quickly and accurately when they are presented randomly (as opposed to in alphabetical order) on a page.
R1.1.b refers to the ability to provide the sounds made by the letters – again, quickly and accurately. Note that the letter sounds include the consonants, short and long vowels, and common consonant digraphs such as /ch/, /sh/, or /th/ where two letters make one sound.
Some SLAs provide practice on the letter names and their sounds together. For example, the Wilson Reading System uses “Key Word Cards” that teach learners to associate the letter’s name, a key word beginning with the letter’s sound, and the sound itself. Whether letter names and sounds are practiced together as in Wilson or not, the goal is for learners to be able to produce the letter names and letter sounds quickly and accurately. Again, it should be stressed that the Level 1 benchmarks are not a curriculum, much less a step-by-step teaching guide. For example, most SLAs provide opportunities for learners to use the first ten or so letter sounds to read and spell a few simple words, rather than waiting until after they have mastered all the letter sounds.
Benchmarks R1.1.c and R1.1.d address aspects of phonemic awareness (PA). Phonemic awareness is the awareness that speech is made up of a sequence of sounds that can be isolated and manipulated—changed, added, or subtracted—to form different words, e.g., sick, slick, slim, slam. A large body of evidence indicates that practice with PA games and activities in kindergarten and first grade helps all children learn to read better and appears to reduce the number of children who experience early reading failure (Adams, 1990; NRP, 2000). There is a much smaller body of evidence suggesting that exposing ABE beginners to PA training can facilitate their learning to read as well (Kruidenier, 2002; McShane, 2005). However, studies of struggling adult learners show that even after they have learned to read at 4th grade level and above, most are never able to master the more challenging aspects of PA, such as the manipulation of single phonemes within words (Bruck, 1990; 1991; Strucker & Davidson, 2003). Their difficulty mastering the more challenging aspects of PA is probably a manifestation of the core phonological deficit that defines their reading disability or dyslexia (Bruck, 1990; Johnson, 1987; Read, 1988).
What does this mean for phonemic awareness (PA) instruction for ABE Level 1 learners? Although their reading disability will usually prevent them from mastering many aspects of PA, time spent working with letter-sounds (i.e., without the letter symbols) is still likely to be beneficial. But teachers need to be careful not to overdo PA instruction, or to feel they must delay teaching phonics until all aspects of PA are mastered, because that may never happen. The PA benchmarks R1.1c and R1.1d were chosen because they are achievable for most Level 1 readers and, more importantly, because they involve PA skills that are directly related to two of the skills that readers actually use in the decoding process.
R1.1c, “providing the initial consonant sound when a one-syllable word is presented orally (pronounced for the learner),” directs learners to be able to separate the onset (initial sound) from the rime (the rest of the word). This can help learners to recognize spelling patterns or word families and thus enable them to read more words by analogy (e.g., ham, clam, Sam, tram, etc.).
R1.1d, “blending sounds to pronounce complete words (e.g., /s/-/a/-/d/ = /sad/; /t/-/r/-/i/-/p/ = /trip /),” is the PA pre-cursor of synthetic phonics. And, as mentioned above, synthetic phonics is the preferred method of teaching decoding in which learners learn to sound out words letter-sound by letter-sound and blend the sounds to pronounce complete words.
Important point: Because the Massachusetts Adult Proficiency Test does not cover ABE Level 1, the TABE 9 -10 Level L has been mandated for Level 1 learners. Like any other standardized test, the TABE L should not be used as a guide for what to teach. This is especially true when it comes to phonemic awareness: although 25% of the items on the TABE L are focused on PA, teachers should definitely not take up 25% of class time with PA, nor should they attempt to reproduce some of the PA tasks that appear on the TABE L. Instead, it is recommended that teachers follow the PA activities that embedded in whatever SLA they are using. Instructional time that could be fruitfully employed on phonics, sight word reading, and oral reading fluency should not be wasted teaching to the TABE L PA items.
Benchmark R1.1 e addresses word analysis or phonics, the ability to “[a]pply knowledge of common spelling patterns to decode one-syllable words including CV, e.g., ‘me’, CVC., e.g., ‘met’, CVCC, e.g., ‘melt’ or ‘much’, CCVC, e.g., ‘slip’ or ‘chip’, CVCV, e.g., ‘mate’, and CVVC, e.g., ‘meat’.” These skills focus on the basic word and syllable patterns that Level 1 learners need to master to unlock print. SLAs usually start with the CVC pattern because it is very consistent and occurs in many English words and syllables. Sylvia Greene’s controlled basal reader Sam and Val is written using mostly CVC words, supplemented by a few necessary sight words (see below) such as live or work.
For Level 1 knowing a learner’s GE score in phonics is far less important than identifying which specific phonics principles (e.g., CVC, CVCV, etc.) a learner knows on entry and which need to be reviewed and taught. The various SLAs use proprietary diagnostic phonics assessments that are directly linked to the phonics sequence they teach, and they employ ongoing phonics assessments to monitor a learner’s progress as instruction proceeds. Sylvia Greene’s Basic Literacy Kit I and II includes her Informal Word Analysis Inventory (IWAI) that can also be used to identify a learner’s knowledge of basic phonics. The learner reads words exemplifying various phonics patterns from a list, and a key explains to the teacher what principle of phonics a miscue on a given item might represent. Information from assessments like the IWAI can also be used by ABE programs to help decide whether a learner should be placed in a Level 1 or Level 2 class; for example, a learner who reads almost all of the IWAI words correctly and with little hesitation is probably ready for Level 2, at least in terms of his phonics ability. Greene’s informal inventory is available free on the LINCS ASRP website at: .gov/readingprofiles/SG_All_Docs.pdf.
R1.1. f refers to the ability to “[a]utomatically identify 100-150 basic high-frequency sight words, including basic personal information words (e.g., name, address) and signs (e.g., stop, exit) and especially safety/survival words (e.g., danger , poison ).” For the purposes of the MA Standards, the term “sight words” refers both to the many common English words that do not lend themselves to phonetic decoding (e.g., the, one, was, right) as well as words that are phonetically decodable, but whose instant recognition is critical for day-to-day functioning and survival (e.g., name, exit, danger, stop). Sight words can be practiced through memorization using flash cards and lists, and by spelling them using “air writing” or tracing. Fortunately, many sight words occur so frequently in text that readers get multiple exposures to them when they read, and this makes them somewhat easier to learn. Two free sight word lists are available from the LINCS ASRP website: the widely-used Dolch Basic Words (.gov/readingprofiles/Dolch_Basic.pdf) and Edward Fry’s Instant Words (.gov/readingprofiles/Instant_Words.pdf). The latter arranges the words in the order of their frequency in English print. Sylvia Greene’s Basic Literacy Kits I and II (1996) also includes a sight word list comprised of non-phonetic sight words and important functional/survival words.
Topic B. Fluency
Although Topic B Fluency contains only one concisely-worded benchmark, R1.1f , “Read aloud text written at approximately 1.9 GLE with accuracy, appropriate rate, and attention to punctuation and phrasing,” the importance of fluency cannot be overstated. Level 1 readers require abundant opportunities to practice oral reading fluency for several reasons. First, learners need to practice reading words in meaningful text in order to consolidate the phonics principles and sight words they are learning. Simply practicing the words on lists is not enough to enable learners to retain and master them; learners need to encounter them while reading for meaning. Second, fluent oral reading involves expression - making the printed words sound like natural speech. To accomplish this, the reader has to pay attention to meaning, rather than pronouncing the words monotonously as if they were on a list. In This sense, oral reading with appropriate expression mirrors what good readers do when they read silently. Third, Level 1 readers need the feedback they get from oral reading – both the reinforcement they get in hearing their own voices as they read and the feedback they get from their teachers when they hesitate or make a miscue. Quite rightly, Level 1 learners seem to prefer oral reading over silent reading, perhaps because they realize that the feedback oral reading affords is necessary and because oral reading helps to build their confidence.
Every Level 1 lesson should provide opportunities for oral reading, but the reading must be accessible in terms of its decoding difficulty. Text that is too difficult, no matter how potentially interesting, will not allow them to consolidate their skills and it may discourage them. For this reason, the SLAs and the Sylvia Greene kits include carefully controlled texts that offer accessible material linked to the sequence of phonics and sight words they are being taught. Controlled texts also tend to focus on familiar topics where the patterns of the writing are repeated and predictable. If the text follows a familiar topic and uses simple, repeated patterns of writing, such as Greene’s basal Sam and Val, it is easier for learners to detect their own mistakes because they can detect that the mistake doesn’t make sense in the story. Teachers should avoid giving Level 1 learners material for oral reading practice that is above their level or material that contains words and syllable types that have not yet been introduced. Such materials can be used from time to time for comprehension discussions, but only when they are read to the learner s . It is a waste of time to ask Level 1 readers to practice oral reading of texts which they have little chance of reading fluently and where the teacher has to repeatedly supply pronunciations for words.
Oral reading fluency does not come easily for Level 1 learners. At first, even the simplest texts can be challenging. Repeated reading of passages until the learner can read a brief text fluently has been shown to be effective with children, so ABE teachers should employ this method as well. When practicing oral reading with groups of learners, the teacher should remember to take turns herself to model reading with expression and appropriate pace. Choral reading (where the learners read with the teacher) can be useful, but it is important that learners also get plenty of opportunities to practice independently of the “chorus.” Contrary to many teachers’ assumptions that beginning readers will be too embarrassed to read out loud, in reality most learners are not only eager, but insistent on doing so. Potential embarrassment can be avoided by assigning each member of the class a particular sentence in the text, and providing time for everyone to read his or her sentence silently first. This makes collaborative oral reading go more smoothly and facilitates comprehension as well.
Some teachers may be concerned that learners will become bored by having to practice basic skills - either for phonics, sight words, or repeated oral reading fluency. This issue can be tackled head-on by explaining to learners that as with learning a sport, the role of the coach (i.e., reading teacher) is to create practice routines that build strength and proficiency. Like sports coaches, some SLA teachers also use games for practicing skills, taking care that the game’s rules are not so complicated that they overshadow the skill being practiced. To develop speed, some teachers time learners’ practice, saying to a learner, “You’ve just read the list of words in 15 seconds. Good job! Now let’s try it again to see if you can do it even faster.” Because Level 1 learners are often unaware of the progress they are making, they can become demoralized. Tracking their speed and accuracy can help them to see that their repeated practice really is leading to improvement. In addition, interest can be maintained by teaching the same principles using a variety of materials (worksheets, 3” x 5” cards, crossword puzzles, and computer-based programs like Lexia (2011) and a variety of techniques (students underline and label aspects of words, students take turns reading words out loud, teacher says “Circle the word that says “coat,” teacher says “I’ll read this line of words, but you raise your hand if you hear me make a mistake”).
Topic C. Vocabulary
ABE Level 1 learners who are native or fluent non-native speakers of English know the meanings of many more words than they can read. For example, the native speakers in the ARCS Level 1 clusters averaged GE 4 in their knowledge of word meanings on an oral vocabulary test. Given the basic nature of the texts they will be reading, Level 1 learners averaging GE 4 in vocabulary will encounter few if any unknown words through their reading. For more advanced readers at ABE Levels 2 - 6, the texts they are able to read become increasingly important sources for strengthening their vocabulary knowledge. But until their reading improves, Level 1 learners will only be able to strengthen their vocabulary primarily through oral language activities and discussion.
Before examining the vocabulary benchmarks in greater detail, let’s consider the role of vocabulary assessment, especially when it comes to making the decision about whether a non-native speaker of English (NNSE) should be placed in an ABE Level 1 class or an ESL class. The federally-mandated BEST Plus test and informal oral interviews can provide information about a non-native English speaker’s ability to understand and speak English in the classroom. In addition, programs may want to administer a brief oral vocabulary assessment, such as the Word Meaning Test of the Diagnostic Assessments of Reading (DAR) (Roswell, Chall, et al., 2007) or the similar Davidson-Bruce Word Meaning Test (2002). (The latter is downloadable free from the LINCS ASRP website: .gov/readingprofiles/WMT_All_Docs.pdf).
With both the DAR and Davidson-Bruce word meaning tests, the teacher asks the learner to tell what a word means and scores his responses as correct or incorrect. If the learner defines at least four out of five words at a given grade equivalent correctly, he is said to have mastered that level of vocabulary, e.g., GE 1, GE 2, etc. On the Davidson-Bruce test, the five GE 1 words are house, train, confuse, start, and climb. A non-native speaker who can’t provide basic meanings for four out of five of these GE 1 words might be better placed in an ESL class where basic words at that level will be taught, rather than placed in an ABE class where knowledge of words at this level would be assumed. This is because most native English speakers in ABE Level 1 start with word meaning knowledge at a much higher level including words such as connect, interruption, ruin, candidate, and inventor (from Level 4 of the Davidson-Bruce Word Meaning Test).
Benchmark R1.1g “Demonstrate orally an understanding of the meanings of everyday words likely to be found in simple texts” is not focused on whether a learner knows the meanings everyday words - this knowledge is assumed if he is a native speaker or fluent non-native speaker of English. Instead it refers to a learner’s ability to give thorough and reasonably precise oral definitions of everyday words. This ability is important because it lays the foundation for talking about words with more precision and clarity, a skill learners will need when they begin to encounter more challenging vocabulary through further reading and their continuing adult education. In addition, many of the oral language activities associated with the benchmarks in Vocabulary (Topic C) and Comprehension Strategies (Topic D) Standard 2 (Informational Reading) and Standard 3 (Literary Reading) are meant to help strengthen Level 1 learners’ capacity to participate in decontextualized or distance communication, a key attribute of literacy (Snow, 1991).
Benchmark R1. 1h “Recognize synonyms and antonyms for basic words (e.g., large/big; poor/rich )” is not meant to suggest that instructors should teach lists of pairs synonyms and pairs of antonyms. Rather its purpose is to ensure that learners are aware of the concepts of synonyms and antonyms via oral language activities. As a result, these concepts learned with known words will be familiar when learners begin studying more challenging words at Levels 2 and above, synonyms such as (lengthy / extended) or antonym prefixes (e.g., pro- / anti-).
Benchmark R1.1i “When words whose meanings are known are presented orally or via pictures, be able to classify them into appropriate categories (e.g., categories of animals: reptiles, birds, mammal s or categories of transportation: land, sea, and air)” is aimed at introducing learners to the concept that words can be organized into classes or groups or categories according to their meanings, uses, shared characteristics, physical features, etc. Although this benchmark appears under Topic C Vocabulary, the ability to classify words could also be thought of as part of Topic D Comprehension Strategies because it is directly related to the skill of getting the main idea (comparable to choosing a category) and distinguishing it from supporting details (comparable to the words within a category).
Topic D: Comprehension Strategies
For the reasons discussed above under Topic B Fluency, much of the reading that Level 1 learners engage in should employ simple texts; i.e., texts that are controlled in terms of the phonics principles and sight words they use and predictable because of their repeated sentence patterns and highly familiar subject matter. The purposes of reading simple controlled texts are to help a reader to perfect and become confident in his decoding and word identification and thus translate the printed symbols on the page into natural-sounding language. The comprehension challenges of these simple texts are kept to a minimum to allow the learner to concentrate his attention on decoding, word identification, and fluency. As a result they are usually of limited use in strengthening comprehension strategies.
But teachers can still help Level 1 learners to develop some of the comprehension strategies they will need later by introducing those skills through oral language activities. Teachers can read higher level texts to learners (or have them listen to books on tape) and follow those activities with comprehension discussions. As learners’ skills begin to strengthen their decoding ability, they may also be able to read with minimal support from the teacher simple texts that are not tightly controlled, such as GE 1-2 fiction and non-fiction texts written for explicitly for adult beginning readers (e.g., Reiff, 2011). In particular, fiction texts at that level may lend themselves to discussions of character, plot, and theme.
Benchmark R1.1j states “Identify and understand uses of the following conventions of written language (e.g., how to hold a book, that print goes from left to right, visual markers of a sentence (starts with a capital letter, ends with a final punctuation mark); the punctuation symbols (period, question mark, exclamation point, quotation marks) and their uses; the title of an article, book, or chapter; the function of captions and sub-heads and the relationship of pictures and other visuals to nearby text).” Proficient readers may not consider their knowledge of the “conventions of written language” as part of their repertoire of comprehension strategies. However, many Level 1 learners are unaware of their purposes and unable to make use them – so much so that their lack of knowledge of them is a basic impediment to comprehension.
Benchmark R1.1k states, “Use pre-reading strategies to determine or refine the purpose for reading (identify type of text, purpose and intended audience; preview title/headings/ visuals; ask self “What is it about? What do I know about this? What do I want to know?;” make predictions).” Some of these pre-reading skills can be introduced and practiced with the simple and familiar texts learners read for fluency. Sam and Val, the controlled basal reader that is part of Greene’s Basic Literacy Kits, I and II, contains chapter numbers and headings, numbered pages, and illustrations. Before beginning to read a chapter of such a book, the teacher can draw learners’ attention to the illustrations and ask some of the pre-reading questions that are part of this benchmark. Once they are into the book, the learners can be asked to summarize the story so far, discuss the previous chapter, or make predictions about what will happen next.
Higher level materials such as the GE 5-6 level adult new readers’ newspaper News For You (2011) can be used to initiate comprehension discussions. Before reading an article to the learners the teacher can direct their attention to its accompanying photos and headlines and ask the learners to reflect on “What do I already know about this?” and “What do I expect to find out?”