How are You Testing and Teaching Alphabetics (Including Phonics) From a Distance?

Hi Everyone,

I am delighted to welcome you to today’s discussion about testing and teaching alphabetics (including phonics) from a distance.  Please let me introduce community member Marn Frank who will be answering our questions about this important topic. 

Marn Frank is the ATLAS Literacy & STAR Coordinator. She holds an MEd in Special Education from the University of Minnesota and has earned additional licensure in Emotional Behavior Disorders, Specific Learning Disabilities, and Adult Education. In 2010, she completed a rigorous certification process to become a STAR (Students Achievement in Reading) trainer and still retains this certification.

Ms. Frank has 27 years of experience in Minnesota ABE as a teacher, coordinator, specialist, trainer, and presenter. She has developed several materials for the LINCS resource collection including Beginning Alphabetics Tests and Tools , Intermediate Word Study, and Teaching Analogy Phonics.

Welcome Marn!

We know that alphabetics (the ability to correctly identify printed words on a page) is a major component in teaching adults to read.  The Adult Reading Components Study showed that 60 percent of adult students in grade level equivalents 4 to 9 needed alphabetics instruction in order to improve their reading comprehension skills.  Pandemic remote teaching has made assessing and teaching alphabetics even more of a challenge!

I will lead off with a few questions to get our discussion started:

  • Have you encountered student resistance to alphabetics testing or instruction? If so, what did you say or do to overcome it?
  • What online phonics or leveled word reading tests are you using to asses students?

Thanks again so much for your help Marn!

Steve Schmidt, Moderator

LINCS Reading and Writing Community


Thank you, Steve, for this opportunity to talk about my favorite reading component – alphabetics! I want to emphasize that my coordinator role since 2008 has not included instruction of adult readers. However, it has been my privilege to train, talk with, and observe hundreds of dedicated teachers serving struggling adult readers. I have learned from them (and I hope they have learned from me).

Have you encountered student resistance to alphabetics testing or instruction? If so, what did you say or do to overcome it?

Some of the STAR/EBRI teachers I have trained report encountering student resistance to alphabetics testing. However, after all is said and done, most students say they really appreciate the individual testing time, identification of their strengths and weaknesses, and assurance that future instruction will benefit their word and/or text skills.

Understandably, I have encountered some teacher rather than student resistance to alphabetics testing. They are reluctant to conduct even more testing or may question the value of informal tests. I try to convince them with the research evidence that says all-age readers need to be accurate word readers to recognize word meanings, read text fluently, and comprehend intended text meaning. Not being able to ‘get words off the page’ quickly and correctly is frustrating, discouraging, and confidence-damaging (especially over years of struggle). Over time, it can result in total avoidance of reading and writing tasks. Short alphabetics tests will identify who needs instruction, where to start and where to go, and what print or online materials to use.

In general, there is less resistance to alphabetics instruction – especially if there is a connection made to spelling improvements. Students often enjoy learning the patterns (rather than rules) of the English language. It helps to reduce some of the confusion regarding too many spellings, changes in spelling or pronunciation, and pattern exceptions. Many teachers have been surprised at students' enthusiasm for explicit alphabetics instruction!

What online phonics or leveled word reading tests are you using?

For many years, there have been two public-domain resources for testing phonics knowledge and word recognition levels. They are named and briefly described below. Both are freely available on the LINCS and/or ABE Teaching Learning Advancement System ( websites.

  • Sylvia Greene’s Informal Word Analysis Inventory (phonics word lists)
  • Word Reading Test (grade-leveled word lists)

For testing alphabetics from a distance, teachers can screen share the word lists for students to read while they track correct and incorrect responses on a teacher scoring sheet. The Sylvia Greene can also be dictated online or over the phone as a group spelling test. If dictated online, students can type their spellings within an email and send it to the teacher. If dictated over the phone, students can write their spellings on paper and send a photo. Teacher checking and analysis of the unknowns guides starting points for sequential phonics instruction. The Word Reading Test determines a Mastery Grade Equivalent: the highest level read aloud with 70-100% accuracy. This can identify if students have possible phonics needs (Mastery GE 1-3) or are ready for multi-syllable decoding (Mastery GE 4-8).

I look forward to reading your experiences or answering your questions about the alphabetics tests. 

Marn Frank

Marn, thank you for sharing your comments and resources on this important topic, also one of my favorite!

I can understand why testing, that scary word, would be a threat to beginning adult readers or for adults in general! 

I appreciate the format of both tests that you shared. They provide easy, quick, and more importantly, non-threatening  ways to help tutors get students started on their reading journey. Tutors are people, too, and they need all fo the help that they can get! :))))

I also love your emphasis on practicing patterns rather than learning rules! That would help both native speakers and ELLs learn better and faster. Rules might provide tools for some who learn that way, or those who embody Gardner's logical-mathematical intelligence. In that case, those students might want to inductively develop rules of their own based on the patterns that they notice. 

I look forward to learning more from you and others in this dialogue! Leecy


Thank you for your comments. It's always rewarding to hear from another fan of alphabetics! In Minnesota (at least pre-pandemic), I trained many volunteers to assist with informal alphabetics (or fluency, comprehension) testing. Most of them were already engaged in supporting reading instruction, so they were able to make connections between testing and teaching. They also tended to be more matter-of-fact about scoring or judging correct and incorrect. I prefer using the word patterns when talking about alphabetics because they repeat; whereas, rules can be broken (which can be frustrating for some of us). Besides, our brains like learning patterns and find them easier to store in and retrieve from the brain. 

More later,


Thank you so much Marn and Leecy for your comments! 

We do think students are against doing more testing beyond the initial assessment they take when they enter our programs.  When students understand that these more detailed assessments can pinpoint the source of their reading challenges, they are much more willing to do them.   I have heard stories of students crying with relief when their instructors were able to tell them the exact source of their reading difficulties.  After getting this more detailed information, students believe they can learn to read better!

I have a few more questions please Marn:

  • Do you have any tips for remote testing of phonics or word reading levels?
  • Please tell us about the e-Diagnostic Reading Assessment (e-DRA) slides and documents you developed and where we can find them.

Thanks so much!

Steve Schmidt, Moderator

LINCS Reading and Writing Community 

I came to this job in 2001 from being a Language Fundamentals teacher at  The New Community School - immersed in systematic, structured phonics instruction for 5 years ;)   

   I read the 'developmental reading' literature and yes, so many students were struggling with college reading... but phonics was either  not mentioned, or "we knew decoding was not a problem" -- but no assessment. 

    We did a quick Slosson on one of our 098 sections and about 20% of them were doing mad substitutions as soon as the words got more interesting;  many *did* have word attack skills. I cheered for the local schools ;)   -- I scrolled down and found the resources :)   Sweet!!!   Hve you thought about making them Open Educational Resources so we can share and adapt?   
     I had a "babysit this second period class" situation once and... used my Franklin Speller to generate word lists.   It's broken down more finely than most will need but if it's useful (and you don't cringe too much at the typos) --   


    Hoping more folks chime in here! 

Thank you, Susan, for your insights and comments. The Slosson (or SORT?) is very similar to the Word Reading Test (WRT). The difference is that the WRT was developed by adult literacy experts. Some teachers have questioned the use of some of the words (Thursday?). I simply tell them the truth: there is no perfect test :). Our ATLAS website is already wide open to ABE teachers. If you want to make your own test slides, you can start with the originals from LINCS. I kept the slide format very simple so that students could focus on the words and not the design. I will visit your recommended Franklin Speller website. I was a BIG fan of them when I taught adult readers prior to 2008. At the time, they seemed like magic!

   I used mine to look up all the possible words with different spellings... so I would type in *aft.   It would give me all the words in its 83000 word dictionary that ended in -aft.   I'd make sure they really matched (so "waft" wouldn't go in as closed, short a but "raft" and "shaft" would...)   
    It was a perfect task for keeping busy  and keeping an eye on those 5 or 6 students during their teacher's planning period... the games were fun, too!    

Do you have any tips for remote testing of phonics or word reading levels?

In general, I suggest conducting either the Sylvia Greene or Word Reading Test. If you teach Beginning ABE or Beginning-Intermediate ESL students, again, a phonics test will tell you which letter-sound patterns they know and do not know. If you teach Intermediate ABE or Advanced ESL students, again, a word reading test will tell you if they need further phonics testing (typically when the Mastery GE is 1-3) or are ready for multi-syllable decoding (typically when the Mastery GE is 4-8) instruction. 

Before: It is crucial to introduce alphabetics tests (actually, any test) with an explanation of purpose and value (what, why, and how). Here is a simple explanation script (wide open for your adjustment): "For this test, you will read aloud words while I listen and write on another form. I will stop when the words get too hard. This will tell me what you need to learn about sounding out words. Reading words correctly and quickly will help you read more smoothly and better understand sentence and paragraph meaning." 

During: If the student is struggling to read a word, move them along to the next word. The guidelines suggest a correct word reading (or self-correction) within 3-5 seconds.

After: If the student asks how they did, tell them "you did well" or "I know you did your best'. Do not review the lists with them word by word.

Please tell us about the e-Diagnostic Reading Assessment (e-DRA) slides and documents you developed and where we can find them.

My development of e-DRA was in response to STAR/EBRI teacher interest when ABE instruction suddenly shifted from in-person to online (and mostly remains so at this time). They understood the value of DRA for grouping and lesson planning but were overwhelmed with how to remotely conduct individual tests. e-DRA for alphabetics offers two slide sets and documents for simultaneous teacher screen sharing and recording. Below are brief descriptions and direct links:

  1. Sylvia Greene’s Informal Word Analysis Inventory: Slide sets for presenting six sequential lists (a modification of Levels II-II), 2-6 or 1 word at a time, and a Teacher Copy for scoring and tracking known and unknown phonics patterns. Go to:
  2. Word Reading Test: Slide sets for presenting eight leveled lists (GE 1-8), 5 or 1 word at a time, and a Teacher Copy for scoring and determining alphabetics Mastery GEs. Go to:

Several STAR/EBRI teachers who have used the slides remotely shared these tips during a recent webinar:

  • Be prepared that everyone is on different devices (phones? computers?) and may have different needs.
  • Give yourself more time than you think with each student.  
  • Try to know your online platform fairly well before trying to assess students.
  • If it is possible, ask students to turn on cameras.  
  • Give yourself a lot of grace!

Hello Marn, Thank you for sharing your expertise with our communities here on LINCS. Would you speak to how alphabetics should be addressed with English learners at various levels? There are many English learners who come to us with limited formal schooling which means some have limited reading skills in their primary language.  Some of these learners understand and speak English fluently; however, their reading skills in English can be much lower. Other English learners are still learning to understand and speak. How would you recommend approaching alphabetics with English learners who have such diverse needs?

Take care, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP


This is not an easy question to answer! To begin, I will share the introduction to Beginning Alphabetics Tests and Tools, a resource I developed with MN ESL teachers back in 2015.

Developing Reading and Writing, a highly respected booklet based on Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Practice and Research (NAP, 2012), an extensive report from the National Research Council of the National Academies, summarizes evidence-based principles shown to be effective for developing readers. The authors state all the principles “apply to all adult literacy learners, including those learning English as a second language and those with learning disabilities” (page 1). The five principles are: 1. Use explicit and systematic reading instruction to develop the major components of reading - decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension - according to the assessed needs of individual learners. 2. Combine explicit and systematic instruction with extended reading practice to help learners acquire and transfer reading component skills. 3. Motivate learning through learners’ engagement with the literacy tasks used for instruction and extensive reading practice. 4. Develop reading fluency to facilitate efficient reading of words and longer text. 5. Explicitly teach the structure of written language to facilitate decoding and comprehension. 

So, like we have been talking about, there needs to be some level of assessment (or evidence-based assumption) about where English learners along the wide continuum of alphabetics, which can stretch from grade levels K-8! 

  1. Do they need to develop Print Concepts? 
  2. Do they need to develop Phonological Awareness?
  3. Do they need sequential phonics instruction and application to text?
  4. Are they ready for multi-syllable decoding (syllables, prefixes, roots, suffixes) and application to text?

These reading foundational skills do not need to be taught separately. For example, you can combine teaching letter names with their single sounds. Or combine teaching letter names and sounds with known words from spoken language or contexts. At all ESL levels, you need to balance English learners' oral language development with explicit reading instruction. They need to know more words in order to read, recognize, and write more words in isolation and context.

I hope you have something to add to this discussion.  

This has been a wonderfully rich discussion. Thank you so much, Marn! 

Participants who work with English learners may be interested in the free, self-paced online course on LINCS which addresses how to work with those who are emergent readers.

ELL-U: Teaching English Language Learners who are Emergent Readers

"The purpose of this online course is to offer course participants introductory, research-based information about teaching adult English language learners (ELLs) who are just beginning to acquire print literacy largely due to lack of access to formal schooling. This course will clarify how and why this particular ELL population is unique, offer processes for identifying emergent readers, and explore a range of teaching/assessment strategies that build initial literacy in adult ELLs. Finally, course participants will have the opportunity to consider how the information presented in the course applies to classroom language learning practices in a range of settings."

Take care, Susan

We so appreciate your question Susan and your response Marn!

Pandemic remote teaching continues to be a reality for many programs all over the country.  Given this "new normal":

  • How are you transferring your favorite print materials to teach alphabetics from a distance?
  • Please tell us about the e-Advanced Alphabetics slides and activities you developed and where we can find them.

Thanks again so much for sharing your expertise!


Steve Schmidt, Moderator

LINCS Reading and Writing Community

How are you transferring your favorite print materials to teach alphabetics from a distance?

Again, I currently do not provide direct instruction to adult readers. The three ideas below are from STAR/EBRI teachers I have communicated with through emails, webinars, and surveys. They can be used with beginning, intermediate, and advanced alphabetics materials.

  1. Scan selected print material pages and screen share with students. Model and guide practice from the scanned pages.
  2. Create and screen share Google slides or documents based on print materials for remote modeling, guided practice, and application.
  3. If students have a workbook at home from previous in-class attendance, work through selected pages together during phone/video/conference calls or online meetings.

During a recent webinar from the Minnesota Center of Reading Research (MCRR) focused on emerging readers, the facilitator and several participants recommended the use of simple sound boxes. Have students make sound boxes (rows of 3-5 squares) on paper. As the teacher pronounces a 3-5 letter word remotely, they fill in the sound boxes with the corresponding letters. Then the teacher screen shares the correct sound box. This very basic phonics activity could also be done with home sets of letter flashcards or tiles. Another MCRR webinar focused on beginning and transitional readers recommended using Jamboard for word sorting by individual students or small groups. Word sorts can be developed or used across levels -- from simple CVC to multi-syllable words.

Please tell us about the e-Advanced Alphabetics slides and activities you developed and where we can find them.

Like e-DRA, my development of e-Alphabetics was in response to STAR/EBRI teacher interest when ABE instruction suddenly shifted from in-person to online. Many had been enjoying alphabetics instruction with their students using a variety of recommended print materials. I wanted to offer them a “ready-to-use” and original option to keep alphabetics instruction going from a distance.

My “marketing” for e-DRA during a recent webinar included this description:

  • Developed for adult readers at NRS ABE Levels 2-4 and NRS ESL Level 5 and Advanced (and maybe even some pre-GED/GED students).
  • Intends to build multi-syllable word chunking, decoding, meaning-making, and usage in texts.
  • Provides screen-shareable, slides sets for teaching common compound, suffix, and prefix patterns over multiple lessons.
  • Offers a lot of selection: choose any slide sets, any word lists, any activities, and add your own!

All slide sets include incorporate all four steps of explicit instruction:

  • They explain What is a suffix or prefix? What does each one mean? What are the changes in spelling, usage, or pronunciation?
  • They scaffold from modeled decoding of familiar to academic words (with chunking, meanings, examples, or synonyms) to without for guided decoding and discussion
  • They conclude with 2 of 3 application activities: matching, sentence combining, or write to read paragraphs.

Currently, there seven slide sets available for teaching compound words and the common suffixes -ly, -er, -y, -al/-ial, -able/-ible, -ion (and soon -ment and -ful). When I complete suffixes, I will move on to eight common prefixes.

The direct link to this work in progress is: Check back later this month and in December for more slide sets!



Hi Marn and Others!

I am so glad this discussion is taking place!  I have been a STAR trainer for seven years, and a STAR teacher for many more.  I agree with the importance of alphabetics assessments and instruction.  I also agree that more teachers than students have angst about this these assessments.  I taught in corrections for more than eight years and never had a student refuse to participate in any of the STAR assessments.

I appreciate the tips for online alphabetics assessments and can't wait to pass them on to Delaware AE instructors!



As a fellow STAR trainer, I am happy to see (your photo) and hear from you! Thanks for your testimonial from corrections about diagnostic reading assessment. I agree; once students understand the purpose and process of DRA, they are mostly very willing to participate. Time and space permitting, DRA is beneficial for teachers and students. Pass anything and everything along!

Hi Marn,

Thanks for sharing those great resources!  I have one last set of questions, please and thank you!

  • What free online phonics resources or websites do you recommend?
  • What free online multisyllabic decoding resources or websites do you recommend?

We really appreciate your time today! 


Steve Schmidt, Moderator

LINCS Reading and Writing Community

What online phonics resources or websites do you recommend?

Based on past conversations with and recent online surveys of STAR/EBRI teachers, below is a list of free, phonics-related websites. Although developed for children, they have been used selectively and successfully with adults.

What online multisyllabic decoding resources or websites do you recommend?

The most popular and free resources (for scanning and screen sharing) from the same teacher surveys as above included:

This is a slim list of multisyllable decoding resources. I hope you have more print or free website resources to add to our collection! I will check back with anticipation later...

Hi Everyone,

Please take some time and review the discussion we have had over the past two days. Consider your teaching practice and reflect on the following questions. What is something in the discussion that:

1. Reinforced something good that I already am doing?

2. Reminded me of something I used to do and will try again?

3. Gave me a new idea or resource that I plan to try?

We appreciate everyone who contributed their thoughts, comments, and resources!  This discussion remains open, so let's continue the conversation!


Steve Schmidt, Moderator

LINCS Reading and Writing Community