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Knowing the learner

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Last updated 28 May 2013 12:44 by NZTecAdmin

Teachers of adult learners will want to know about learners’ experiences of reading, their reading behaviours and habits, and their reading strengths and needs. This section includes three approaches you can use, singly or in combination, to find out more about learners. You can consider each approach and decide which would be most useful to use or adapt to meet your own information needs and those of learners. The three approaches are:

The first two approaches do not provide hard data to map against the progressions. They are used to help you find out the feelings and thoughts that learners have about reading and the reading process. The questioning used in the focus groups and survey is similar in many ways, but both provide the means to gain information from a group or individuals. Use your judgement to decide which will best suit the needs of your learners and your teaching.

The diagnostic assessment process provides data that can be used to profile a learner against the progressions for reading. It has been developed primarily to help tutors make rapid decisions about whether or not learners would be able to cope with the demands of the texts they need to read as part of a course of study. Because it is evidence-based, it allows you to identify learners’ strengths and needs.

These approaches are not intended to be rigorous, comprehensive assessments of reading: they have been developed by educators as practical guides, suitable for a variety of adult learning contexts.3

Reading focus groups

The purpose of reading focus groups is to gather anecdotal information about what adult learners do when they read. This is done through a semi-structured conversation with learners. A focus group will give useful information about learners and some indication of how they handle areas of reading as described in the progressions. The focus group discussion is also a great way for learners and tutors to get to know each other as they develop a learning community. You should be aware, however, that the information gained is not ‘hard data’. It cannot be used to provide a baseline or to show where a learner ‘fits’ in relation to the learning progressions.

The process described here can be carried out in one or more discussion sessions. It may be followed by a later discussion to check on the teaching and learning that has taken place.

Preparing for the discussion

  • Allow one to one-and-a-half hours for the discussion. Print off a copy of the focus group questions (Appendix C.1) and have them with you, giving copies to the learners, too, if you wish. You may also want to have a pad and pen for recording information and ideas.
  • Form small groups of approximately four to six people. Where possible, put learners who seem to have a similar level of reading skills in the same focus group. Plan to meet with each group at a different time.
  • Have the group sit in a small circle, where everyone can see and hear each other.
  • Spend a few minutes chatting and putting people at their ease. You may want to ask an opening question and allow two minutes of conversation around the topic, as a warm-up activity.

Suggestions for introducing the discussion

These suggestions may be adapted to meet the needs of your learners, but try to include all the information.

“I’d like to invite you to participate in a conversation on reading. The conversation should take around half an hour.” (This gives learners an opportunity to opt out of the conversation if they wish.) “It is important to understand there are no right or wrong answers. This is a discussion to share reading experiences so that I can improve my teaching of reading.”
“Does anyone have any questions at this point?”

During the discussion

Lead the focus group conversation by asking some or all of the questions (Appendix C.1) and facilitating the discussion, ensuring everyone has the time and opportunity to respond to each question. The questions are provided in three sections. Specific suggestions for prompt questions are included.

The following general prompts can be used as required to clarify and extend people’s responses:

“Can you tell me more about that?”
“Can you give me an example?”
“Can you give me some more details about …?”
“Can you tell me about a time when …?”
“Are there any other things you do when …?”

Notice how the learners talk about their reading behaviours and the strategies they use. Remember that you are trying to get the learners’ own words, thoughts and concepts about reading, so do not give them suggestions that do not arise from what they say.

Recording the discussion

A recording form is included in Appendix C.2. It is not easy, however, to conduct a conversation, pay attention to what people are saying and make notes at the same time. For this reason, we suggest that you either tape the interview (with the learners’ permission) or ask one of the participants or another tutor to make brief notes.

After the discussion

Reflect, with the group and as a tutor, on the information that has been provided, and consider the implications for the group’s interests and learning needs. Use this information to help plan the next stages of teaching and learning.

Following up at a later stage

After teaching and learning has taken place (perhaps at the end of the semester or course), reconvene the group and ask them the questions in Part D of Appendix C.1 and Appendix C.3). Reflect on the information you gather, and consider the implications for your future teaching or training.

‘Attitude to reading’ survey

A detailed survey can be used with individuals or small groups to gain a better understanding of learners’ attitudes to reading and their reading behaviours and habits. The information provided in the survey may be quite specific and will be useful for helping you to identify the issues that the learners themselves recognise, and to begin to understand how they approach the aspects of reading described in the progressions. It is not ‘hard data’, however; it cannot be used to provide a baseline or to show precisely where a learner ‘fits’ in relation to the learning progressions.

Ways to use the reading survey

Use the attitude survey in the way that works best for you and the learners. For example, you could select one of these options:

  • Work with one learner at a time. Read the questions aloud and write down the answers.This will be the most suitable method for learners whose reading and/or writing skills would prevent them from completing a written survey by themselves.
  • Make copies of the survey and give learners one each. They can complete the survey, then hand it in. Use this method if you are sure the learners will be confident reading the form and writing their responses unaided.
  • Work with small groups to discuss the questions and record the responses. This method will allow for a discussion that may help reluctant learners to respond. You will need to decide how to record responses and whether you want to identify individual responses or to construct a collated, group response.

Although the focus group questions and those in the reading survey are similar, the survey can provide a more detailed written record. This means that you and the learners can keep copies to reflect on, highlight areas for a learning focus, and return to at different times during a course or programme.

If some questions are not relevant, or if you wish to add others, you can tailor the survey to meet particular needs and circumstances. The survey form is in Appendix C.4.

Using a diagnostic assessment process based on the progressions

This process has been developed to fill an interim need (identified by tutors) to reflect and complement the learning progressions for reading. It can be used with the authentic, connected texts that your learners will be expected to read as part of their studies, and will give you an indication of where a learner’s strengths and gaps might lie.4

This diagnostic assessment process is a general screening tool, not a comprehensive assessment. By using course materials for the assessment, you can find out if the learner will be able to cope with the demands of the course or if the learner is going to need support. The assessment will indicate the specific areas (progressions) where support and/or instruction will be needed. If the assessment shows that the course material is too challenging for a learner, reassess using easier or modified material. Where it is clear that the learner would be unable to complete the course with the support and instruction you have available, alternatives may need to be considered: literacy tutors can assist here.


To familiarise tutors with using the Read with Understanding progressions to:

  • make decisions about learners’ strengths and needs, and to identify their next learning steps
  • recognise that learner profiles may be ‘spiky’ (strengths in some areas but not in others)
  • confirm impressions gained from other less formalised methods, such as a focus group, and ‘attitude’ survey, or informal observations.


The process described here is based on the assumptions that assessment should:

  • be evidence-based
  • include information about learners from the five progressions in the Read with Understanding strand
  • take no more than 10 minutes to administer, and be easy to administer and evaluate
  • be able to be used by vocational tutors
  • be able to be extended by literacy tutors.

It is expected that literacy tutors will work with vocational tutors to analyse answers and/or go into further detail. Literacy tutors could use more in-depth and specialist assessment processes based on areas of concern that might be identified in this assessment (for example, if a learner’s needs are complex or inadequately covered by this process).



You will need to have first used the learning progressions (Read with Understanding) to map three authentic texts the learner wants or needs to read. Typically, these will be course requirements or supporting materials. See Knowing the demands, for information on mapping texts, and Appendices B for examples of mapped texts.

By using mapped texts for the assessment process you will be able to tell how well the learner copes with the text. The assessment will indicate the areas (progressions) where the learner is independent, needs support, or is not yet at this step. With this information, you can decide what to do next (the next teaching steps) to support learning.

In these assessments, we suggest checking for knowledge of language and text features first. This is because these features can often be discussed even if the learner is unable to read the text. This discussion helps ‘warm up’ the learner for the rest of the assessment.

If you know that decoding is NOT a problem for a specific learner, focus on the other areas for assessment, particularly comprehension. You may wish to develop further questions to check for comprehension (based on the text) in more depth.

Before the assessment (preparation)

  1. Use the learning progressions to map three authentic texts the learner wants or needs to read. You will not need to map whole texts – approximately 300 words, or no more than one page, of each text is enough.
  2. Make two copies of the assessment form (Appendix C.5) for every text you will use with a learner. One will be for recording your model responses; the other will be for recording the learner’s responses.
  3. Count the first 100 words of each text and put a mark after the hundredth word on the text.
  4. Locate five suitable key vocabulary words in the mapped text and list them on both copies of the assessment form.
  5. Write model responses to the assessment questions in the Vocabulary, Language and Text Features, Comprehension and Reading Critically sections on your model responses copy of the assessment form.

During the assessment

  1. Introduce the task by saying to the learner: “These are examples of the sort of reading we’ll be doing in our course. Choose one you’d like to work with now.” Alternatively, you can make the selection and give the text to the learner.
  2. Ask the learner to take a few minutes to look over (skim or read) the text silently then ask the questions in the Language and Text Features section of the assessment.
  3. Ask the learner to re-read the first 100 words (as marked) aloud. Stop the learner if the text is obviously too hard (see Note below, and the Decoding section of the assessment).
  4. Now ask the learner to read through the text silently, then ask the remaining questions.
  5. Write down the learner’s responses to the whole text but do not evaluate them during the assessment. As the learner responds, you may need to check as you record, for example, you might say, “Did I get that down right? You said …”. Be careful not to change or add to the learner’s response.

Note: What is a decoding error?

A decoding error is the result of the learner not being able to recognise the printed word, or read it aloud in a way that makes sense to the listener. The learner may have trouble sounding out a word, or may be confused about the sounds that letters represent. It is not an error if the learner self-corrects. We count it as an error if the learner’s final attempt at the word is not correct.

After the assessment

  1. Thank the learner for participating. Use the boxes at the end of each progression section to evaluate the learner’s responses. You may need to try an easier or more difficult text to find the best match for the learner: use the same process.
  2. Use the recording sheet (Appendix C.6) to compare the results with the mapping of the text. For each of the progressions, you will now be able to identify if the learner can read the material independently or if they need support. Alternatively, you will be able to identify that the text may be too demanding for the learner. Summarise this as a profile: download the related example below.
  3. Share the information with the learner and discuss any concerns the learner may have.
  4. Based on the profile, make decisions about the teaching and learning goals and materials that will best support the learner’s reading development. Make notes on the recording sheet.
  5. If you are a vocational tutor, you may wish to consult a specialist literacy tutor for further analysis or assistance with .

3 A comprehensive reading assessment tool is currently in development and is due to be trialled in 2009.

4 A comprehensive reading assessment tool is currently in development and is due for trialling in.



C.6 Reading diagnostic recording sheet (PDF, 32 KB)
C.5 Reading diagnostic assessment (PDF, 36 KB)
C.4 Attitude to reading survey (PDF, 42 KB)
C.3 Focus group recording form (Part D) (PDF, 24 KB)
C.2 Focus group recording form (Parts A, B, C) (PDF, 24 KB)
C.1 Focus group questions (PDF, 34 KB)
B.4 Internal combustion engine (PDF, 63 KB)
B.5 Restaurant review (PDF, 117 KB)
B.6 Road code (PDF, 53 KB)
B.7 Fire safety (PDF, 564 KB)



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