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Characteristics of Adult Learners

Characteristics of Adult Learners in Reading Intervention

Characteristics of Adult Learners

Adult learners are qualitatively different than younger learners. You certainly can “teach an old dog new tricks” by understanding the cognitive and social characteristics of adult learners. Using the right instructional strategies to maximize the learning advantages and address the learning challenges of adult learners can make all the difference in their success. This is particularly true with respect to remedial reading programs.

Reading intervention programs designed to differentiate instruction by building on the adult’s prior knowledge and allowing adult learners to move at their own pace have been found to be much more successful than one-size-fits-all canned programs.

Years ago after receiving my master’s degree as a reading specialist, I part-timed at the reading center of American River College in Sacramento. The counselors administered reading and math assessments and helped place students in the appropriate classes. Many students wound up in the Reading Center to learn to read or brush up on their literacy skills. I quickly learned that my adult students did not learn how my middle school and high school students learned.

True, the adult learners needed the same content and skills as did my younger learners, but for me to engage these adult learners I had to teach them differently.

In an interesting 2015 study regarding the effectiveness of two instructional approaches to remedial reading instruction for community college students (traditional textbook-based and strategic-reading instruction), the results were as follows:

The findings showed that both methods of instruction were equally effective in improving the reading comprehension skills of community college students in a developmental reading course. Based on the findings, community college leaders are encouraged to assess the effectiveness of the instructional methods used in developmental courses to ensure at-risk community college students are receiving the most beneficial instruction Nicole Lavonier (2015) Evaluation of the effectiveness of remedial reading courses at community colleges, Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 40:6, 523-533, DOI: 10.1080/10668926.2015.1080200.

The instructional approaches showed no statistically significant differences in the results. The one variable determining success and/or failure is the instructor-student relationship. Adult education and community college professors teach students, first and foremost, and subject and/or skills, secondarily.

Adult Learner Cognitive Characteristics

Generally speaking, most adult learners share the following characteristics:

  1. Tend to be self-directed and want control over their own learning
  2. Have self-imposed cognitive barriers due to years of academic failure and lack self-confidence
  3. Can be resistant to new ideas or approaches–are less open-minded than youth
  4. Under-estimate their ability to learn
  5. Desire pragmatic and relevant instruction that they perceive as valuable
  6. Are intrinsically motivated
  7. Interpret new learning in the context of old learning
  8. Learn at a slower pace than that of youth
  9. Are very concerned about the effective use of their time

Adult Learner Social Characteristics

Generally speaking, most adult learners share the following characteristics:

  1. Can be resistant to group work
  2. See teachers as peer partners in the learning process
  3. Demand teacher availability and easy access
  4. Want flexibility and see learning as secondary to other pre-occupations in their lives

Adult Learner Instructional Strategies

  1. Adult learners need to be actively included in their own evaluation of assessment data. Students set personal goals and use learning activities that directly address assessment deficits and demonstrate incremental progress toward their short-term and long-term goals. Reading workshops can easily be individualized to allow adult learners to work at their own pace.
  2. A few talking points may be helpful to bolster the confidence of adult learners and to provide the motivation needed for their success:

“Unfortunately, some of your past reading instruction was poor; it’s not your fault that you have some skills to work on.” a.k.a. “blame someone else”
“You can learn in this class. If you come to class willing to try, you will significantly improve your reading, I promise.” I will be flexible and work around your schedule.
“I know you have tried before, but this time is different.”
“You will be able to chart your own progress and see what you are learning in this class.”
“Don’t give up. Adult learners can learn. Although they sometimes learn a bit more slowly than children, they learn at a deeper and more memorable level. The pay-off will be huge for you when you complete this class.”

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug. Your adult readers will appreciate the mature plot themes of these resources.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

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