Adult Literacy and Education

Struggling adult readers come from all walks of life, and every learner brings with them a unique set of experiences with reading and education. As a result, it is important to consider each learner's specific strengths, weaknesses, and circumstances in order to help their literacy skills develop. Many educational and research programs are unable to address this issue, and often teach adults with the same strategies and materials that are used with groups kids in school.

Our research seeks to understand what adult learners bring to the table and how we can develop strategies that address the individual needs of each learner. We do this by collecting data on reading skills in a variety of contexts and developing educational technologies that are adaptive and engaging to each new learner. To learn more, click the button to the left to visit our Adult Education hub site, or keep reading below to learn about some specific tools that we've developed.

AutoTutor - ARC

AutoTutor - Adult Reading Comprehension (ARC) is an intelligent tutoring system designed to help adults become functionally literate in a modern environment.

To develop and assess AutoTutor-ARC, the Institute of Educational Sciences has funded a collaboration of researchers from the University of Memphis, Georgia State University, and Educational Testing Service. This project, titled “Developing a Technology-based, Reading Comprehension Instruction System for Adult Literacy Students Postsecondary and Adult Education”, was created to make AutoTutor-ARC as effective as possible for as many people as possible.

AutoTutor-ARC utilizes conversational agents, lessons with practice questions, and embedded assessments to monitor student learning. AutoTutor-ARC also offers instructors a learning management system and teacher dashboard for planning and tracking students’ progress throughout the lessons. The project will evaluate the use of the web-based system as a teacher-led supplement to classroom instruction and as a distance learning platform for adult use outside of the classroom.

You can use AutoTutor-ARC with your students today! It's free, easy, and signing up is a breeze. Click the button to the left to visit our site.


The Sabatini Assessment of Reading Ability (SARA) is a multicomponent literacy assessment which target the fundamental elements of reading. This includes word recognition, vocabulary, morphology, reading efficiency, and overall reading comprehension.

Although many adults in the United States struggle with proficient reading, assessments for adult literacy education are few. For this reason, the Institute of Educational Sciences awarded Dr. Sabatini and his team funds for the project titled “Developing and Validating Web-administered, Reading for Understanding Assessments for Adult Education.” This project aims to create measures of adults’ learning outcomes and progress. Intended for in-class or remote administration, the assessments are web-based with automated scoring. The measures will inform the adults’ instruction, their educational program’s strategy, and institutional accountability.

Digital Skills module

Being literate in today's world means more than just opening books. In fact, most reading is now done digitally - on computers, tablets, and phones. While this opens up a whole new world of accessible text, it also presents a set of new challenges, especially to people who are unfamiliar with digital technology.

Modern literacy is digital literacy. In order to help people develop their functional literacy skills, we're building a module that will complement our other literacy assessments and interventions to ensure that everyone gets comfortable reading both online and off.

Argumentative discussion

This IES project awarded to and led by ETS (PI: Yi Song), is also in collaboration with the University of Delaware (co-PI Ralph Ferretti) and University of Memphis (co-PI John Sabatini).

This exploratory project purposes to address the need to develop students’ argumentative writing skills. To do this, the project will undertake a series of iterative design studies that target hypothesized malleable factors in written (and oral) argumentative discourse. Specifically, we're exploring new capabilities for using online, collaborative environments to identify the factors that impact the development of middle grades students' argumentative writing skills. The results of this program of research will serve as a foundation for developing an instructional program to improve student argumentative writing.

NAEP Trend Gap Analysis

This subaward funded by the Manhattan Strategy Group based on contract with the NAEP National Assessment Governing Board is an effort led by Dr. John Sabatini and done jointly with The Center for Research in Education Policy (CREP) and co-PI Dr. Todd Zobotsky to analyze NAEP data.

Reading scores have declined since 2015, a trend that has become entwined with refreshed debates over the science of reading instruction and learning. The NAEP contextual data can be used to explore how teachers and school administrators implement reading/math curricula. Describing which classroom and school factors related to higher or lower reading scores could help point to locations and approaches that work more effectively in improving students’ reading performance.

Specifically, this exploratory research study is designed to understand the divergent trend lines in the NAEP reading and mathematics data (low-performers slipping and high-performers remaining steady or improving). This research thread could spotlight places where the pattern(s) emerge to a greater or lesser degree and could find common characteristics of such places through the NAEP contextual data.

To address these questions, researchers need access to NAEP data by using the online NAEP Data Explorer tool or through a restricted-data use license.

The 2018 NAEP Oral Reading Fluency Study

Dr. Sabatini was part of the team that developed, administered, analyzed, and reported on the 2018 NAEP Special Study of Oral Reading, which was administered on tablets and scored using automated scoring algorithms. He will be working with the team again as they prepare for a new 2024 replication of the study.

As described in the Introduction of the 2020 report (White et al., 2020)"

"The 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Oral Reading Fluency (ORF) study was conducted to examine the oral reading performance of fourth-grade public school students. The study was administered to a nationally representative sample of 1,800 students between January and March of 2018. It measured students’ oral reading fluency in terms of speed, accuracy, and expression.

"The NAEP ORF study was administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) first in 1992 and later in 2002. In several ways, the rationale and aims of the previous studies are reflected in the current study. As described by Daane et al. (2005), the study was “designed to examine several important components of literacy development that are integrated in proficient reading—reading accuracy, reading rate, and reading fluency—and to compare these to overall reading comprehension as measured in the main NAEP ReadingAssessment.” (p. 2)."

For more information, see:

White, S., Sabatini, J., Park, B. J., Chen, J., Bernstein, J., & Li, M. (2021). The 2018 NAEP Oral Reading Fluency Study. NCES 2021-025. National Center for Education Statistics.

White, T. G., Sabatini, J. P., & White, S. (2021). What Does “Below Basic” Mean on NAEP Reading? Educational Researcher, 0013189X211044144.

Sabatini, J., O’Reilly, T., & Wang, Z. (2018). Relating reading comprehension to oral reading performance in the NAEP fourth-grade special study of oral reading. Reading Research Quarterly.