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
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
WHY USE SMALL GROUPS?
A number of factors have converged to
stimulate the use of small groups in adult literacy and basic education. A
desire to provide a learning environment that is more learner centered and
collaborative has been a major catalyst for the use of small groups. Advocates
of this approach also suggest that small groups more accurately reflect the
contexts in which adults generally use literacy skills. Use of this approach
acknowledges that literacy is a social process (Bingham et al. 1990; Ennis
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.
Major advantages of the small group approach,
synthesized from a number of sources (Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit 1982;
Bingham et al. 1990; Cheatham and Lawson 1990; Ennis 1990; Ennis and Davison
1989; Gaber-Katz and Watson 1990), include the following:
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.
creating opportunities for learners to experience and observe the learning of
others, it permits them to expand their repertoire of learning strategies.
breaks down the isolation and stigma frequently experienced by adults with
insufficient literacy skills and provides peer support for their learning.
enhances learners' self-esteem by helping them understand that they have much to
offer as a result of their experiences.
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.
eases the distinction between teachers/tutors and learners by creating a
cooperative, participative environment that is less hierarchical than
environments produced by traditional approaches.
Major disadvantages of the small group
approach, synthesized from several sources (Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit
1982; Bingham et al. 1990; Gaber-Katz and Watson 1990; and Ottoson et al. 1985),
include the following:
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.
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.
a learner-centered curriculum in a group can be very hard work.
to one-on-one tutoring, a small group requires more preparation time. Ottoson et
al. (1985) suggest it may double preparation time.
learners are simply not comfortable with the idea of group participation.
addition to teaching skills, tutors/teachers also need group leadership skills
for the group to be successful.
WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF EFFECTIVE GROUPS?
meeting in a small group does not constitute an effective learning environment.
Cheatham and Lawson (1990) suggest that adult literacy and basic education small
groups often fall into one of four categories: dysfunctional (no participation
from members); leaderless (no exchange of ideas); on-task (willing to talk and
listen but no sharing of meaningful information); and functioning (on-task and
involved). The ideal is functioning because there is a sense of trust and an
expectation that learning will occur. Most groups go through several stages,
however, before they meet the definition of a functioning group.
According to Bingham et al. (1990) effective groups are:
in size, ranging from 5 to 15 learners;
centered, in that they seek to adapt the curriculum to the needs and interests
in that they seek to incorporate learners' experiences, skills, and ideas in the
in that learners commonly help each other and work together; and
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?
Among the many
areas that need to be considered when implementing the small group approach, the
most important are selecting and training leaders, assigning learners to groups,
choosing materials, and assessing learner progress. Not every teacher/tutor may
possess the characteristics or skills necessary to be an effective group leader.
Facilitating a small group requires a willingness to adjust one's leadership
style to the developmental stages of the group. For example, the early stages of
a group's life may demand a more directive style, whereas in later stages a more
participative style would be appropriate (Ottoson 1985). Initial training and
ongoing staff development should be available to support teachers/tutors in
assuming new roles (Roskos 1990).
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
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
WHAT ARE SOME RESOURCES FOR FURTHER INFORMATION?
All of the
references listed here will provide additional information about the small group
approach. Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit (1982), Cheatham and Lawson
(1990), and Ottoson et al. (1985) contain guidelines for implementing small
groups. Bingham et al. (1990) is based on first-hand accounts of the experiences
of both leaders and learners in the small group approach. In addition to general
information about the small group approach, Ennis and Davison (1989) contains
reports of a variety of small groups that were implemented in Australia. These
descriptions contain examples of instructional materials. The Greater Pittsburgh
Literacy Council (1991) report describes the use of the small group approach in
math instruction. Although the research studies by Gaber-Katz and Watson (1990)
and Roskos (1990) are not specifically about the small group approach, both
contain information that supports the method.
Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit. TEACHING
GROUPS. A BASIC EDUCATION HANDBOOK. London, England: ALBSU, January 1982. (ED
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).