Reading a Grocery List

Ellen is about sixty years old and lives alone in a rural community. She has raised children and been active in her community despite very limited reading skills. After more than 30 years of marriage, she has become widowed and is feeling the loss of her husband's assistance in this area of her life. At her program intake session, Ellen was very clear about what she wanted - to learn to read so that she could function independently in specific ways, especially grocery shopping . The tutor turned to the EFF Read with Understanding Standard to organize the information she gathered about Ellen, and to begin planning instruction .

Read with Understanding

What I know about the student's performance

Determine the reading purpose.

Ellen determined during her first session at the learning center that she wanted to learn to read in order to more easily go grocery shopping. She has also discussed a larger purpose relative to her lifelong feelings of inadequacy because of her inability to read.

Next steps: Talk to Ellen about why knowing your reading purpose matters.

Select reading strategies appropriate to the purpose.

Ellen explained that she wanted to learn the alphabet including the sounds of letters. She had tried to learn some of this in the past but became frustrated and gave up. I introduced the idea of using actual newspaper grocery ads and began to assess Ellen's ability to read environmental print - signs, logos, pictures in ads, etc.

Next steps: Lessons will include a combination of drill and recognizing letters/words in context. We also agreed to begin a list of grocery words using the names of groceries Ellen commonly purchased.

Monitor comprehension and adjust reading strategies.

Ellen is willing to discuss openly and even joke about her negative self-criticism. She is aware that she becomes irritated and sarcastic whenever she makes even the slightest mistake. At this point, she places full responsibility for the fact that she didn't learn to read squarely on her own shoulders. Though I can guess from what she has told me that there are contributing factors from her family, social, and school situation, Ellen seems to believe that these are minor and that her own "thick-headedness" is the real reason that she hasn't learned to read. She does, however, identify emotional distress as a barrier.

Next steps: Work on noticing and interrupting the self-criticism and focus on expanding the number of reading strategies she knows. Document in Read with Understanding Diary .

Analyze the information and reflect on its underlying meaning.

Ellen has demonstrated her ability to sort out accuracy, truth, and usefulness of oral information. Since she can read numbers accurately and do computation, we have been able to combine numbers and text to do some comparison shopping with newspaper ads, and have discussed deceptive advertising.

Next steps: Work on doing this sort of analysis more independently, without so much coaching from me.

Integrate it with prior knowledge to address reading purpose.

Each week, we discuss what Ellen has learned and how she uses it. Last week, she said that she was using her practice grocery list to make one to use for shopping.

Next steps: Continue making these connections.

Learning activities :

  1. Noting how hard Ellen was on herself whenever she made a mistake, the tutor suggested that they talk a bit about barriers that get in the way of achieving our goals. They did an activity to name some of the current barriers and ways they might address them. Ellen's list included:

    Barrier Strategies
    Reading problems and coming to the program are a secret, so sometimes it's hard to get away to come to class.

    Hypoglycemia - if diet isn't managed well she doesn't think well.

    She's not sure she can do it; she feels stupid and mad at herself.

    Ellen was not interested in addressing this barrier at this time.

    Make a plan to bring healthy snacks to class.

    Identify progress at the end of each session

    When she catches herself putting herself down, she can remind herself, "I don't need to do that."

  2. The tutor gave Ellen continual practice in alphabetics , often in context, using words that appear in the world. She brought in labels from products on Ellen's list. Ellen decoded words from the labels themselves and then from word lists the tutor made. Sometimes the tutor used decontextualized activities. She made flashcards of the combinations of consonants and vowels Ellen needed to learn. Even in these decontextualized activities, the tutor used words that related to Ellen's goal of building a sight vocabulary of food items.

  3. To build on the alphabetics work, the tutor used the Language Experience Approach (LEA), an approach by which students create their own reading materials by dictating text to the tutor. Ellen drew from her list of grocery vocabulary to dictate sentences such as, "I love tomatoes, but I don't like cucumbers," or "Every Monday I buy fresh bread." With these sentences they could: look for all the words that have a particular consonant sound at the beginning or end; look for particular vowel sounds; find words on flyers that matched words in the sentences, make word substitutions to create new sentences, etc. The tutor had tried to create practice materials by simplifying text from other sources, but that didn't work nearly as well as using Ellen's own words.

Thinking about Assessment

Ellen's sense of progress came mostly from decoding a growing number of sounds with ease, and they kept careful track of this. The tutor was aware, however, that along with increased knowledge and fluency, progress can be noted through increased independence and the ability to use a skill in a growing range of situations (see EFF's Four Dimensions of Performance). Thinking about this, and looking again at the Standard for guidance, the tutor drafted a list of items that she would look for to gather additional information about Ellen's progress, and created a rubric that she could use to periodically evaluate her performance .

Ellen can:

Not evident



  • Discuss information she has gathered
  • Articulate her reading strategies
  • Repeat a strategy that she has tried previously
  • Use an increasing numbers of strategies
  • Match a strategy with a problem situation
  • Identify internal and external barriers to comprehension and to recognize which can and cannot be addressed
  • Apply strategies for overcoming barriers
  • Critically analyze information (i.e. ads)
  • Give examples of the ways she applies her learning to her daily life (i.e. using a grocery list, reading ads)










Student: Ellen



11/17 - Today Ellen recognized 100% of the upper case alphabet. She also reported that she is beginning to use her practice grocery list to make a list to use when shopping.

12/1 - Ellen had several breakthroughs. For the first time, she got the connection between consonants and their sounds. She did this by looking at pictures and saying just the initial sound of each word. She got a lot of pleasure from this discovery. She knew all of her grocery list words in and out of order with no assistance and 100% accuracy, and talked about wanting a new list.

These changes signal her ability to use an increasing number of strategies and a growing awareness of her learning and thinking ( metacognition ) [link to support.metacognition]; an improving attitude toward her own learning; and increased understanding of printed language.

12/8 - Ellen continued with sound associations as listed in 12/1. There was some hesitation on "h", "l", and "y." Ellen's performance in looking at actual newspaper grocery ads was similar to her performance with the phonics text. Ellen discussed the strategies she used to identify sounds and identify words in ads.

She is demonstrating that she can repeat the strategies she has learned, such as sounding out words, comparing typed grocery lists to the words in the ads, etc. She is still having inconsistent success identifying certain sounds, especially when she gets tired.

1/20 - Ellen returned after a month's absence due to the holiday and illness. We proceeded with her stated priorities: to review the sounds of 17 letters and to review her grocery lists. Ellen retained letter recognition and sounds with very little assistance (in and out of order). In her lesson evaluation Ellen stated that she had learned the sounds better than before. We discussed her strategies for identifying letter sounds and how she might carry these strategies over to her new goal of reading her bills .


In our reassessment of goals activity Ellen identified a new purpose for reading - reading her bills -- and noted that she wanted to continue with the LEA activities (Step 8). This readiness to move on to a new goal is a sign of her increasing confidence.