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February 2, 2012 / Thinknology

5 Questions to Ask When Choosing Materials for Adult Learners

Choosing instructional materials for adult learners can be a daunting and time-consuming task for a number of reasons. Adult learners are a diverse audience with regard to age and demographics so one size does not fit all. The students have a lot going on in their lives so the materials must be engaging and motivating or they will not stay with program. As we know, student persistence is a major issue in many adult education programs. Although there is no magic bullet, here are some tips from a long-time developer of educational materials about what to look for in quality materials for adult learners.

  1. Are the materials written for adults? This is the first question you should ask. Since many adult learners struggle with reading, math, and language arts, they need instruction that is written at levels 3 through 8. However, most of the materials on the market at these levels are written for kids and are a major turnoff for adult students. Even if the publisher tries to pass it off as appropriate for adults, take a look at the illustrations and read the text. Stories about kids for kids and juvenile pictures are a dead giveaway.
  2. How old are the materials? Check the copyright date. If the materials are more than five years old you can be sure the content is not relevant in today’s world and the stories are old and stale. Adult learners, like all adults, want to work with content that is fresh, timely, and relevant to their lives. If they’re reading an article about Ronald Reagan as our current president, you can be sure they will be turned off. It is worth your time to find new and engaging content, your adult students will be forever grateful.
  3. Will the way content is delivered engage my students? Adult students have technology all around them with computers, smartphones, tablets, and laptops. So, nothing could be less motivating to a new student than walking into a classroom and have to learn from a workbook or photocopies of workbook, and probably an old one at that. To be sure, books will always be a part the learning process, but the blended instruction model is being implemented more often in many programs. Be careful. There are technology-based programs that are all sizzle and no steak. Check the content and make sure the program is not just glitzy technology with a lot of bells and whistles with no substance. Also, if extensive training is offered as part of the package, the program is probably not that easy to use.
  4. Is the program based on sound research? Teaching adults is very different from teaching kids so be sure the program’s research base in grounded in adult learning. The Literacy Information and Communication System (LINCS) is a great resource for all kinds information and data about adult education and students.
  5. What is the cost? This is the most basic question of all. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules here, everyone’s budget is different. When buying books, the publisher should offer discounts based on the quantity purchased, usually for 10 or more. When buying technology, look for flexible pricing and avoid long-term contracts or complex site licensing arrangements. The best pricing offers flexibility by length of time and number of students and not being penalized if a student drops out. Finally, there is the cost associated with consumable materials that have to be replaced every year vs reusable materials that don’t have to be replaced.

What has been your experience in choosing the right materials for your students? Let us know.

January 25, 2012 / Thinknology

State of the Union: Workplace Skills

One the highlights of President Obama’s State of the Union address focused on training skilled workers. He cited businesses that want to hire in the United States, but cannot find workers with the right skills. He went on to say that, in the science and technology industries, there are twice as many job openings as we have people who can do the jobs. This is unacceptable at any time, especially in times of high unemployment.

The president provided an example of a mechanic who was laid off, but was later retrained for another job with same company. The company provided training through a partnership with the local community college and is a model for partnerships between local businesses and educational institutions.

This is great for keeping jobs in this country and to increase the employability of skilled workers, but we cannot forget about the unskilled workers that make up a large part of our adult basic education population. These adults often lack the  basic skills needed to look for a job, get a job, and keep a job without any formal job training. And they will doing double duty as they work toward a GED while conducting a job search and trying to hold onto the job they get.

Many adult learners will be ideally suited for entry-level jobs that do not need extensive job training, but rather a strong work ethic, basic academic skills, and reliability. Every so often we hear about a company executive who started out in the warehouse and worked his way up the ladder.

Going back to the President’s example, there is no reason someone can’t start an entry-level job, learn the skills for that job, and then be retrained for another job. He or she just needs the basic tools to get the first chance on the ladder to success.


January 18, 2012 / Thinknology

Transition to College: Admissions

As reported in a recent article in the New York Times, early admission to top colleges is now being pursued by a much broader and more diverse group of students, including students from abroad and minorities. There are several possible reasons for this shift.  Schools are looking for  a more diverse public school student population and/or they are seeking international students who pay full price. Why should ABE students be concerned?

While this change is currently at the top, it could  have a ripple effect down the line on all students applying for college, whether for early admissions or regular admissions. Students who are deferred for early admissions at a top-tier school will enter the pool for regular admissions. This may force out students who will end up having to apply to second- and third-tier schools, and so on down the line.

In time, adult learners working toward their GED and aspiring to go to college may be impacted by this ripple effect. As college admissions becomes more competitive, students interested in attending a four-year college or university will need to focus on the admissions process while still working on their GED.

Admissions come into play in this arena along with SAT preparation and financial aid. Students working toward their GED and hoping to go to college need to be aware of the importance of the higher-level skills they will need in order to perform well in college. GED preparation is the time to acquire and work on those skills. These same skills will help students perform well on all aspects of the admissions process such as attaining a high SAT score and writing the college application essay.

In short, the  shifts in the college admissions landscape for one segment of the student population will more than likely impact ABE students seeking to attend a four-year college or university. They need to be prepared for stiffer competition.
January 11, 2012 / Thinknology

Idaho and Computers in the Classroom

Recently, the New York Times published an article titled Teachers Resist High-Tech Push in Idaho Schools. Last year, the state legislature overwhelmingly passed a law that requires all high school students to take some online classes to graduate, and that the students and their teachers be given laptops or tablets.

The policy makers want Idaho to take a leadership role in bringing technology into the classroom. To fund the initiative, they may be shifting funds away from educators’ salaries. Teachers are understandably opposed to this for reasons that go beyond financial. Most teachers don’t want technology forced into the classroom without providing the proper training or forcing a shift to teaching methods that are unproven. Others believe that the policy makers are in bed with the technology companies.

We agree with the educators, that you can’t have technology for technology’s sake. Yes, it is important and there is a wealth of knowledge on the Internet. But the question is how are teachers supposed to mine and sift through the information and make it accessible and meaningful for specific students in  specific situations?

As I’ve written before, there must be a blend of technology and content in order for teachers to implement the instruction into the learning environment. For example, there is a lot of content on the web for students to read and learn. However, someone must determine if the  readings are at the appropriate level, well-written, and have the practice around them to apply, practice, assess skills. Teachers should be teaching, not developing products.

I believe this is an unreasonable expectation for teachers, no matter how tech savvy they may be. Instead, developers of instructional materials should be developing the products that blend technology and content so teachers can incorporate them into the classroom.

December 6, 2011 / Thinknology

What are we reading?

We can find out the answer to this question simply by perusing any number of bestseller lists found in publications and websites such as the New York Times, Amazon, USA Today, and Barnes & Noble. The answer to this question is the foundation of sound reading instruction.

The bestseller lists represent a microcosm of the topics and stories that all adults like to read. This includes job search, mysteries, self-help, finance, thrillers, health, romance, biographies, history, and so on. So, it stands to reason that adult learners would have the same reading interest as the adult population, as a whole.

Of course, the logical and reasonable response to this premise is that most, if not all, of these publications are beyond the reading level of the adult learner. However, the topics and themes can certainly be used as the basis for teaching adults to read.

Adult learners have a better chance of building their reading and vocabulary skills if they’re absorbed in what they’re reading. Not to mention, sticking with the program.

The passages in Think60 reading lessons represent an eclectic and wide variety of topics.  For example, lessons include Found Money (murder mystery), Credit Scores (personal finance), Jack’s Moment of Truth (romance), and Tornadoes (natural disasters).

Think60 passages also reflect feedback from adult educators nationwide about what adult students like to read. What do your students like to read or, more to the point, what do they want to read?

Let us know and, who knows, you just may find it in a Think60 lesson down the road.

November 28, 2011 / Thinknology

Text-to-Speech Audio and Online Reading Instruction

Think60 delivers online reading instruction for adult learners at levels 3-8. As we developed the program, the use of audio was an ongoing topic of discussion. Certainly audio is one of the obvious features that a technology-based program can offer that a print product can’t. But what should it be? How would it be used? A traditional recorded voice? Or a less natural text-to-speech?

What we kept coming back to in the development of Think60, was always how best can a product support a student working independently. Students working independently need to have a way to move forward if they get stuck because they can’t understand a phrase, sentence, or paragraph either in the reading itself or the exercises. If they can simply listen to audio for any given part of the lesson, it would allow them to keep learning.

The second piece of our decision was to use text-to-speech audio, which is not a real person speaking. It does not account for inflection, tone, or emphasis as one would find in ESL instruction. But because Think60 is designed to teach reading, and audio was included as support, we did not want to have students listening to what amounts to an audiobook. We wanted to have them reading.

To date, we have received a wide range of feedback from adult educators, but most has been in support of our text-to-speech decision. The beauty of a web-based product is that it is constantly evolving. Our discussions with users inform the decisions we make going forward and are a key component in the development and growth of Think60. We’re interested to hear what you think.

June 1, 2011 / Thinknology

Teaching to the Text Message

Andy Selsberg, who teaches English at John Jay College, recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Teaching to the Text Message.

Selsberg opens the column by saying:

“I’VE been teaching college freshmen to write the five-paragraph essay and its bully of a cousin, the research paper, for years. But these forms invite font-size manipulation, plagiarism and clichés. We need to set our sights not lower, but shorter.

I don’t expect all my graduates to go on to Twitter-based careers, but learning how to write concisely, to express one key detail succinctly and eloquently, is an incredibly useful skill, and more in tune with most students’ daily chatter, as well as the world’s conversation. The photo caption has never been more vital.”

He goes on to say that writing short is not necessarily a shortcut. Being concise and to the point is the key to getting your point across. The fact is that most students are already doing this through text messages, Twitter, and other forms of electronic communication.

Of course, longer writing should not be eliminated but things like the cover letter can be streamlined into a much shorter networking email.

Think about our adult learners as you read this article. Is it really that important that they answer questions in complete sentences or write the five-paragraph essay or know how to set up a business letter?

As we teach writing and critical thinking skills, we must consider how people are communicating now and build on that.