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Evaluation Studies of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance

The Impact of a Reading Intervention for Low-Literate Adult ESL (English as a Second Language) Learners

Contractor: AIR, The Lewin Group, Educational Testing Service (ETS), Mathematica, Berkeley Policy Associates (BPA)

Background/Research Questions:

The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) authorizes grants to states to fund local programs of adult education and literacy services. Funded at $554 million in FY 2008, the programs provide instruction in reading, numeracy, GED preparation, and English literacy. The AEFLA also authorizes National Leadership Activities. Such activities, which are designed to enhance the quality of adult education and literacy programs nationwide, include the identification of the most successful methods and techniques for addressing the education needs of adults.

Many learners in federally-funded adult education programs face the dual challenge of developing proficiency in the English language as well as basic literacy skills. However, little research exists to help guide instruction for these learners. This evaluation examined the effectiveness of Thomson-Heinle's Sam & Pat in improving the English reading and language skills of adults in ESL programs who have low levels of literacy in their native language. The study addressed the following key research questions:

  • How effective is instruction based on Sam and Pat in improving the English reading and language skills of low-literacy adult ESL learners?
  • Is Sam and Pat effective for certain groups of students (e.g. native Spanish speakers)?
  • Is there a relationship between the amount of instruction in reading and English language skills and reading and English language outcomes?


Ten sites across four states participated in this study. Across these sites, approximately 30 teachers were randomly assigned to implement Sam & Pat within their classrooms or to deliver their site's usual ESL curriculum. Approximately 1,300 adult ESL learners across two cohorts participated in the evaluation. Learners were randomly assigned to a classroom in which Sam and Pat was implemented or a classroom that delivered the usual ESL curriculum. The study's data collection included teacher background surveys, learner background interviews, classroom observations, classroom attendance logs, and pre- and post-tests of learners' English reading and speaking abilities.

Cost/Duration: $6,554,370 over 6 years (September 2004–December 2010)

Current Status:

The first and final report from the study was released in December, 2010 (see

Key Findings:

  • More reading instruction was observed in Sam and Pat classes, while more English language instruction was observed in control classes.
  • Although students in both groups of classes made gains in reading and English language skills, no differences in reading and English language outcomes were found between students in the Sam and Pat group and students in the control group.
  • There were no impacts of Sam and Pat on reading or English language outcomes for five of six subgroups. For learners with relatively lower baseline levels of literacy, there was suggestive evidence of a positive impact on reading outcomes. Among this subset of learners, Sam and Pat students scored statistically significantly higher on the Woodcock Johnson word attack (decoding) assessment than control group students. However, it is possible that the effect is due to chance.