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The Impact of a Reading Intervention for Low-Literate Adult ESL Learners

NCEE 2011-4003
December 2010

The Adult ESL Literacy Intervention: Sam and Pat

The Sam and Pat textbook (Hartel, Lowry, & Hendon, 2006) is described by the developers as a basal reader or textbook that tailors the methods and concepts of the Wilson and Orton-Gillingham reading systems developed for native speakers of English (Wilson & Schupack, 1997; Gillingham & Stillman, 1997) to meet the needs of adult ESL literacy level learners. 3 Sam and Pat was designed to incorporate the following components of the Wilson/Orton-Gillingham systems:

  • A focus on moving students systematically and sequentially from simple to complex skills and materials;
  • The use of multisensory approaches to segmenting and blending phonemes (e.g., sound tapping);
  • An emphasis on alphabetics/decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension;
  • The use of sound cards and controlled text (wordlists, sentences, stories) for practicing skills learned; and
  • Continual review (cumulative instruction) of letters, sounds, and words already learned.

However, when writing Sam and Pat, the developers made variations on the base reading systems to make the text useful and relevant to the adult ESL literacy population for which the text was designed. Specifically, Sam and Pat differs from the base reading systems on four dimensions:

  • The sequence in which the sounds of English are taught;
  • The words chosen for phonics and vocabulary study;
  • The simplification of grammar structures presented; and
  • The added bridging of systematic reading instruction to ESL instruction.

Building on the components of the earlier reading systems, Sam and Pat was therefore designed to (1) sequence the teaching of English sound and spelling patterns to ESL students by moving from a focus on simple to complex literacy skills and materials, (2) provide a controlled basal that follows this sequence of patterns, (3) use a simplified grammar, (4) embed a controlled vocabulary that is relevant to the lives of this population of students, and (5) include a collection of stories that are based on simplified themes from daily life.

There are two volumes of Sam and Pat, and the Volume 1 literacy textbook was evaluated by this study. It is organized into a total of 22 multi-component lessons. The lessons follow what the developers consider to be an optimal sequence for introducing English phonics and high-frequency English sight words to non-native speakers of English. However, the sequence in which English vowels and consonant sounds are introduced has been modified from that usually used in approaches such as the Wilson and Orton-Gillingham reading systems. For example, like the Wilson System, Sam and Pat begins with the short-a sound, but short-a is followed several lessons later by short-u, rather than short-i. This modification was made to provide the maximum sound contrasts for the short vowel sounds that are notoriously challenging for English language learners to discriminate.

Although the current study was a large-scale effectiveness study, we took measures intended to facilitate the implementation of Sam and Pat. The Sam and Pat developers provided the teachers assigned to the Sam and Pat group with training and technical assistance on implementing Sam and Pat. The training was developed specifically for the study, and included a 3-day training before the start of the fall 2008 term and a 2-hour refresher webinar before the start of the winter 2009 term. The technical assistance provided to all Sam and Pat teachers included a site visit to observe and provide feedback early in the fall term, biweekly phone calls during the first 2 months of the fall term, and additional assistance as needed in response to phone calls and e-mails from teachers. The developers also provided 1 day of individualized assistance in person early in the winter term to teachers who appeared to be having difficulty implementing Sam and Pat.


3 Although there is no available research on the effectiveness of Sam and Pat, the textbook and its accompanying training and technical support is based on these two reading systems (Wilson & Orton-Gillingham), which have shown promise in teaching struggling readers (Adams, 1991; Clark & Uhry, 1995; Kavenaugh, 1991; Torgesen et al., 2006).