Contributor: Valerie Shay, Fayetteville Technical Community College.

Many students at Fayetteville Technical Community College are juggling life, work and education. As an instructor with a strong background in teaching at-risk youth, migrant children, and Spanish-speaking only students, it was important for me to modify my teaching strategies to fit the needs of the adult learners at the institution. Students are plagued with serious holes in understanding derived from poor secondary schooling, and many are desperate to fill the gaps with the knowledge they are lacking. However, families, bills, and personal issues swarm and encase them creating an endless struggle between continuing their education and life’s duties.

Adult learners who come into our classrooms professing, “I hate reading,” are often repeating a mantra that they have been chanting to themselves for several years, if not decades. They believe they are unable to read. Many adult learners get bored easily, daydream while reading, re-read passages several times before fully understanding, and have been told they are not good readers or they simply read too slowly. My goal as an educator is to reintroduce reading as a vehicle for both pleasure and knowledge. I begin each semester by asking my students “who dislikes reading?” We then begin to share our experiences. In an effort to promote conversation and equality, I always arrange my classroom into a circle. We spend several minutes talking about their “negative” reading experiences. After a bit of time reflecting on the negative, I shift the focus of the conversation by leading them into a visual exercise taking them back to their elementary years. In fact, I encourage my students to imagine themselves in their favorite teacher’s classroom; anywhere between kindergarten and sixth grade. I set the stage by drawing a mental picture of what reading was when they were younger. As children, we would smell the room and look around at the posters and the bright colors, and all the children would gather together on the floor in a circle for the teacher to read to them. Recalling this memory reminds my adult learners that they didn’t always hate reading. In fact, many of them cherish the memory of being read to by a favorite teacher or family member, but had simply forgotten.

I reinforce the impact of the memory through journaling, goal setting, and classroom activities. After journaling about our happy memories of reading as a child, we set some reading goals for the semester via a letter to a loved one. We address the letter to a child, sibling, or partner expressing our need to fall back in love with reading and why reading is an important part of our lives as both a student and a parent/sibling/partner. Setting goals plays a large role in student success. We revisit our goals at least 3 times throughout the semester to ensure we are making progress, revising set goals, and create new goals. Displaying the bigger picture by rebuilding my student’s relationship with reading through memories shows them that somewhere along the way they were turned off from something they enjoyed.

During classroom activities, I incorporate documents that they encounter on a daily basis in their home. Telephone bills, job applications, and other real-life technical documents help students see the importance of reading in gathering information. Keeping students engaged is critical to their own success, and I have found that varying your reading material helps to keep up enthusiasm. To keep my students engaged, I often use several short stories, such as Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin and Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway, to teach irony and implied main ideas and inferences. Adult developmental students love to read these stories because the stories are adult in nature, yet short enough not to bog them down with length. Halfway through the semester I introduce a novel. We read most of the book together in class, but unfinished chapters are to be completed at home.

I also use many other classroom activities to ensure that all of my students experience reading through a more hands on approach. Remembering processes and linking coherent information aids reading comprehension, and in my classroom I often use mnemonic devices to assist students with memorization of critical reading skills. One that is quite popular among my students is my acronym for paragraph annotation. First, I explain to them that UNCP no longer stands for the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. For the rest of their academic careers it will now stand for Underline, Number, Circle, and Paraphrase. Together we read Mortimer Adler’s essay, How to Mark up a Book and I teach them to underline (or highlight) only the main idea of each paragraph. We discuss how a main idea is usually in the first two sentences of each paragraph, but there are many exceptions. I point out key phrases throughout the essay that my students should look for to determine the main idea, such as ‘for many reasons’, ‘various causes’, and ‘several factors’. I explain how to number any series of items or sequence of events by looking for keywords and enumerations and often plug in a mini-lesson on transitional words. We circle any words that are boldfaced or italicized and discuss why authors use these tools and the importance of those tools in reading comprehension. Lastly, at the end of each paragraph, I ask them to write a word or phrase – in their own words – that captures the essence of the paragraph. Creating paraphrased excerpts for each paragraph allows students to easily revisit the information provided in throughout the passage.


Valerie Shay is currently a Developmental Reading and English Instructor at Fayetteville Technical Community College in Fayetteville, North Carolina. A graduate of Claremont Graduate University and a former Title I school district instructor in Ontario, California, Valerie has accumulated a wealth of knowledge including ample teaching strategies on how to work with at-risk students. The techniques and theories she uses are derived from a combination of her graduate studies and her participation in a multitude of workshops, conferences, professional development sessions, and Beginning Teacher Support Assistance (BTSA) programs. She believes that instructional mentoring and feedback have been the most instrumental in making her the educator she is today.


How do you inspire a learning mindshift in your courses? Share your ideas in the comments.