According to the 2008 program year statistics from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), 44 percent of the 2.4 million students in the federally funded adult education program in the United States were English as a second language (ESL) students (ED, 2010). Of these, about 185,000 were at the lowest ESL level, beginning literacy. These students, many of whom face the dual challenge of developing basic literacy skills—including decoding, comprehending, and producing print—along with proficiency in English, represent a range of nationalities and cultural backgrounds. Although the majority of students come from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, there are also students from Africa, India, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and the Caribbean (Wrigley, Richer, Martinson, Kubo, & Strawn, 2003).
Adult basic education (ABE) and ESL programs, authorized by the Workforce Investment Act and also funded with state and local funds, are designed to assist students in their efforts to acquire literacy and language skills by providing instruction through local education agencies, community colleges, and community-based organizations. The content of instruction within ESL classes varies widely. It is often designed to assist students in their efforts to acquire literacy and language skills by providing a combination of oral language, competency-based work skills, and literacy instruction (Condelli, Wrigley, Yoon, Cronen, & Seburn, 2003). There is, however, little rigorous research that identifies effective instruction. A comprehensive review of published research studies on the effects of literacy interventions for ABE and adult ESL learners (Condelli & Wrigley, 2004) found that out of 17 adult education studies that used a rigorous methodology (i.e., quasi-experimental or randomized trials), only 3 included adult ESL learners (Diones, Spiegel, & Flugman, 1999; St. Pierre et al., 1995; St. Pierre et al., 2003). Furthermore, among the 3 studies that included adult ESL learners, only 1 presented outcomes for those learners, and that study experienced substantial methodological problems that limited the validity of the findings (e.g., a 40 percent overall attrition rate and different attrition rates in the intervention vs. control groups; Diones et al., 1999).
To help improve research-based knowledge of effective instruction for low-literate ESL learners, the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance of ED's Institute of Education Sciences contracted with the American Institutes of Research (AIR) to conduct a Study of the Impact of a Reading Intervention for Low-Literate Adult ESL Learners. The intervention studied was the basal reader Sam and Pat, Volume I, published by Thomsonvi Heinle (2006). The study team consisted of AIR, Berkeley Policy Associates (BPA), the Lewin Group, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., Educational Testing Service (ETS), and World Education.
The goal of this study was to test a promising approach to improving the literacy skills of low-literate adult ESL students under real-world conditions. In their review of the research on ESL instruction in related fields, including adult second language acquisition, reading and English as a foreign language instruction, Condelli & Wrigley (2004) concluded that instruction based on a systematic approach to literacy development was a promising intervention for low-literate adult ESL learners that would be valuable to study (Brown et al., 1996; Cheek & Lindsay, 1994: Chen & Graves, 1995; Carrell, 1985; Rich & Shepherd, 1993; Roberts, Cheek & Mumm, 1994). Specifically, the factors identified as defining a systematic approach to literacy development included: (1) a comprehensive instructional scope that includes direct instruction in phonics, fluency, vocabulary development and reading comprehension, (2) a strategic instruction sequence, (3) a consistent instructional format, (4) easy-to-follow lesson plans, and (5) strategies for differentiated instruction.
Sam and Pat was selected as the focus of the study because it offers an approach to literacy development that is systematic, direct, sequential, and multi-sensory. It also includes multiple opportunities for practice with feedback. Consistent with characteristics identified as promising by Condelli & Wrigley (2004), Sam and Pat provides opportunities for cooperative learning, real world tasks, and an explicit focus on reading. In addition, the text was developed for and had been used by the developers with students similar to the study population (literacy level ESL learners).
The impact study used an experimental design to test the effectiveness of Sam and Pat in improving the reading and English language skills of adults enrolled in 66 ESL literacy classes at 10 sites. The study addressed three key research questions:
This report describes the implementation of Sam and Pat at the study sites, compares the instruction and student attendance in Sam and Pat classes with that in the standard adult ESL classes, and examines the impact of Sam and Pat on reading and English language outcomes. In addition, the report examines the relationship between instruction, attendance, and student outcomes.
The study produced the following key results: