ERIC Identifier: ED350490
Publication Date: 1992-00-00
Author: Imel, Susan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Small Groups in Adult Literacy and Basic Education. ERIC Digest No. 130.
Traditionally, a one-on-one, individualized approach to instruction has predominated in adult literacy and basic education (Bingham et al. 1990; Roskos 1990). According to Ennis (1990), this approach has been supported by the assumption that "confidentiality was a treasured principle...and [it] implicitly helped sustain the notion that literacy is a private matter, a process of individuals developing skills for their own personal use" (p. 105). Recently, the use of groups has been advocated as an effective approach for delivering adult literacy and basic education. Although support for the use of the small group approach is expanding, little empirical evidence exists documenting its effectiveness. However, a growing body of practice-based literature chronicles the experiences of adult literacy and basic education programs that have used the small group approach.
This ERIC DIGEST examines the emergence of the small group approach. First, the rationale underlying the use of groups, including their advantages and disadvantages, is explored. Next, the characteristics of effective groups are discussed and some implementation considerations are raised. The DIGEST concludes with a list of resources that can be consulted for additional information.
WHY USE SMALL GROUPS?
Another set of factors promoting the use of small groups is related to the increased use of language experience or whole language as instructional approaches in adult literacy and basic education. Because these approaches use both written and oral language for "personally meaningful purposes while learning through active processes in the social community of the classroom," they use small groups to incorporate personal experiences into adult literacy development (Roskos 1990, p. 6).
Most proponents of the small group approach do not suggest that it supplant other approaches; rather they suggest that it be used in combination with one-on-one and/or large group instruction (Bingham et al. 1990; Ennis and Davison 1989; Gaber-Katz and Watson 1990). They also acknowledge that the use of small groups has both advantages and disadvantages.
--It allows for integration of critical thinking and other language processes. Talking, listening, writing, and reading can be interrelated, and the spoken word can interact with the written word.
--By creating opportunities for learners to experience and observe the learning of others, it permits them to expand their repertoire of learning strategies.
--It breaks down the isolation and stigma frequently experienced by adults with insufficient literacy skills and provides peer support for their learning.
--It enhances learners' self-esteem by helping them understand that they have much to offer as a result of their experiences.
--Through the collective expertise of the group members, it makes available a wide range of resources, including the thinking, experience, help, and encouragement of other group members.
--It eases the distinction between teachers/tutors and learners by creating a cooperative, participative environment that is less hierarchical than environments produced by traditional approaches.
--Accommodating a wide range of needs and abilities is difficult in a small group. Learners may not only have conflicting goals but also different rates of learning.
--The needs of individuals in a group have to be reconciled with the needs of the group as a whole and thus tension may arise between learner-centeredness and a group-centered or collective approach.
--Negotiating a learner-centered curriculum in a group can be very hard work.
--Compared to one-on-one tutoring, a small group requires more preparation time. Ottoson et al. (1985) suggest it may double preparation time.
--Some learners are simply not comfortable with the idea of group participation.
--In addition to teaching skills, tutors/teachers also need group leadership skills for the group to be successful.
WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF EFFECTIVE GROUPS?
According to Bingham et al. (1990) effective groups are:
--small in size, ranging from 5 to 15 learners;
--learner centered, in that they seek to adapt the curriculum to the needs and interests of learners;
--experiential, in that they seek to incorporate learners' experiences, skills, and ideas in the teaching;
--cooperative, in that learners commonly help each other and work together; and
--participatory, in that learners have a say in what is taught and how it is taught, rather than being passive recipients (p. 2).
In addition, the role of the teacher/tutor is that of a facilitator of learning and leader rather than that of a person conveying information (ibid.).
WHAT ARE SOME IMPLEMENTATION CONSIDERATIONS?
Making appropriate group assignments for learners is another consideration. Both situational barriers, such as time and location, and psychosocial barriers, such as resistance to the idea of participating in a small group, have to be addressed. One program successfully used a monthly orientation session to introduce learners to the small group approach (Bingham et al. 1990).
Use of the small group approach will likely require a greater variety of instructional materials. Because of small groups' learner-centered approach, published curricula may not fit learner interests. For example, in Eastern Tennessee, programs use a substantial amount of teacher-prepared materials that have been developed from learners' interests in conjunction with published materials (ibid.).
Although assessment of individuals may be required for both diagnosis and evaluation, those implementing the small group approach may wish to develop additional, alternative forms of assessing learners' progress. Programs in Eastern Tennessee use a variety of alternative methods of assessment, including sustained silent reading in which the learner keeps track of rate of speed; a portfolio of writing that permits the student to see progress; and student-developed checklists, charts, or graphs for plotting successful uses of literacy (ibid.).
WHAT ARE SOME RESOURCES FOR FURTHER INFORMATION?
Bingham, M. B.; Merrifield, J.; White, C.; and White, L. A TEACHER IN A DIFFERENT WAY: GROUP LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN TENNESSEE. Knoxville: Center for Literacy Studies, The University of Tennessee, 1990.
Cheatham, J., and Lawson, V. K. SMALL GROUP TUTORING. A COLLABORATIVE APPROACH FOR LITERACY INSTRUCTION. Syracuse, NY: Literacy Volunteers of America, 1990. (ED 319 918).
Ennis, R. "Learning in Small Adult Literacy Groups." AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF ADULT AND COMMUNITY EDUCATION 30, no. 2 (July 1990): 105-110.
Ennis, R., and Davison, D. A LIFE OF ITS OWN. ADULT LITERACY WORK IN A SMALL GROUP. Melbourne, Australia: Workplace Basic Education Project, Council of Adult Education, . (ED 330 847).
Gaber-Katz, E., and Watson, G. M. THE LAND THAT WE DREAM OF.... A PARTICIPATORY STUDY OF COMMUNITY-BASED LITERACY. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1990.
Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. A STUDENT-CENTERED APPROACH TO ADULT LITERACY IN ALLEGHENY COUNTY: ADOPTION OF A NATIONALLY-RECOGNIZED MODEL SMALL GROUP INSTRUCTION IN MATH. FINAL REPORT. Pittsburgh, PA: GPLC, 1991. (ED 342 903).
Ottoson, G., and others. TUTORING SMALL GROUPS: BASIC READING. Syracuse, NY: Literacy Volunteers of America, 1985. (ED 292 945).
Roskos, K. A NATURALISTIC STUDY OF THE ECOLOGICAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN WHOLE LANGUAGE AND TRADITIONAL INDIVIDUALIZED LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN ABE SETTINGS. University Heights, OH: John Carroll University, 1990. (ED 329 769).