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Building a Knowledge Base to Teach Adults to Decode


  • Decoding is an essential skill that many low-literate adults have not mastered.
  • Abt helped develop and evaluate a curriculum for adult educators to teach decoding skills.
  • The curriculum and evaluation are available for those involved in adult basic education.
The Challenge

Decoding is an essential skill to read words that a person may only have heard spoken. It is not just important for children. Millions of U.S. adults are non-literate or can perform only simple, literacy tasks. They need decoding skills, too—although they learn in very different ways than young children. What are the best methods?  

The Approach

Abt and the University of Delaware collaborated on an adult decoding and spelling curriculum. We then studied the effectiveness of the curriculum. The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, U.S. Department of Education, and National Institute for Literacy funded the project.

In the evaluation, 16 adult basic education programs in 12 states were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. Our data collection included testing and interviewing 561 adult learners, observing and interviewing 38 reading instructors, and interviewing staff from 23 programs.

The Results

While the curriculum had some positive effects on learning, the study also highlighted the importance of the amount of time spent on the lessons.

The study’s results appeared in three journal articles, and the Making Sense of Decoding and Spelling curriculum is available through the U.S. Department of Education’s LINCS portal.