Breaking Through: Contextualization Toolkit

This toolkit, a companion piece to the Breaking Through Practice Guide, provides educators with resources and strategies to help low-skilled adults through the use of contextualized learning. 

R. Arnold
L. Dowd (Contributor)
J. Combes Taylor (Contributor)
R. Pleasants (Contributor)
M Miller (Contributor)
T. Klebacha (Contributor)
M. Flynn (Contributor)
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Jobs for the Future
National Council for Workforce Education
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages

The toolkit was designed to help community colleges and other educators to 1) develop their own contextualized learning programs and 2) accelerate learning for low-skilled adults by integrating career subject matter with precollege skills development. The approach in the toolkit integrates career skill development with basic skills and is designed to promote retention, academic and career skill attainment, motivation, and connection with content in higher-level courses. 

The four main sections of the toolkit include:

  • The types of courses appropriate for contextualized learning
  • Key characteristics of a contextualized learning program with step-by-step guidelines on designing courses and programs
  • Strategies for attracting and retaining students and
  • Suggestions for sustaining the contextualized course or program.
Required Training


What the experts say

Expert 1:  “Contextualization provides the opportunity to create a program or course that meets the distinct needs of the populations being served in Adult Basic Education programs and offers a unique approach for reaching low-skilled adults.  Research and practice indicate that contextualization can motivate students and ease transitions into higher-level academic and career courses.  Moreover, this approach makes it possible to introduce career skill development at the earliest stages of basic skills coursework, rather than forcing students to wait until they complete all basic skills courses.”Contextualization Toolkit

With so many benefits, why are adult educators not contextualizing instruction?  The simple answer is that many adult educators are contextualizing and have been doing so for many years.  The evolution of adult education shows a rich history of contextualizing instruction to meet the unique needs of students, from everyday instruction in the classroom to national initiatives such as family literacy, EL Civics, workplace education, health literacy, financial literacy, etc.  The fact that adult educators do not contextualize is not the issue; the issue is that contextualizing to specific career fields or jobs is more intense and requires more time to develop and implement than general real-life contextualization. That is one reason why this toolkit is so helpful. 

The toolkit offers adult educators a guide to the key characteristics of contextualized learning, concrete steps to take when designing the contextualization approach, strategies to engage students, considerations related to promoting contextualized learning at their institutions, tools to guide their work, and models from the Breaking Through colleges. The toolkit does not propose a single model but offers a variety of options for adult educators to consider, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each.  The toolkit is a “must read” for any state, local program, or adult educator that wants to increase contextualized instruction, particularly contextualization related to basic skills/occupational training integration.

Specifically, the toolkit can benefit state-level administrators in several ways.  For example:

  • The toolkit provides an opportunity for states to engage the field in meaningful discussions through taskforces, regional meetings, webinars, etc. on the key components for effective development of contextualized instruction within career pathway frameworks and transition programs.
  • By getting local practitioners involved in examining the content of the toolkit, state leadership can gain valuable input into the usefulness, adaptability, and feasibility of models and practices most appropriate to local program needs.
  • The toolkit can be used as a framework to inform the design of effective professional development workshops and online courses on contextualized learning.
  • The toolkit can be used to inform state-level decision making on RFP’s for transition and accelerated learning pilot projects.
  • The toolkit can be used to inform necessary revisions to state program standards thereby ensuring that the standards are relevant, current, and responsive to the critical focus on transitioning adult education students to postsecondary education.
  • The Checklist for Starting Contextualized Learning can assist in strategic planning to determine the resources necessary for effective statewide implementation of contextualized instruction.

Likewise, the toolkit can be very beneficial to local practitioners in several ways.

  • The key characteristics listed in the toolkit for effective contextualized learning provide a starting point for local practitioners to examine their current curricular and instructional practices and assess possible options for expansion or improvement. 
  • The six steps and principles to follow when designing a contextualized learning program or course provide clear guidance with helpful tools and examples that can greatly assist in the development process, thereby saving time and effort.
  • Of particular usefulness are the detailed charts for building a local advisory team, determining data needs, and developing a budget.
  • The multiple examples of models and implementation steps from several of the Breaking Through projects provide an array of options that can be adapted to fit local needs.
  • The toolkit includes characteristics to seek in effective instructors of contextualized teaching. This list provides good insight that can help with the local hiring and staffing process.
  • The development of contextualized basic skills/occupational training courses provides a good opportunity for adult educators to demonstrate the value and need of their services to their colleagues in other educational arenas at the postsecondary level (e.g., continuing education, curriculum courses).
  • The toolkit assists in determining necessary professional development, resources, and technical assistance that are critical to the successful implementation of contextualized instruction.

Expert 2:  This product is valuable to the field as a “how-to” guide for designing, implementing, and sustaining contextualized instruction and programming for low-skilled adults in ABE and developmental studies programs.  The table of advantages and disadvantages (p. 6) of three broad types of contextualized learning is particularly useful for planning contextualized programming.  The detailed experiences from the participating colleges provide the reader with a broad range of ideas, strategies, and pitfalls to avoid.  The Toolkit is filled with practical and relevant information that is not only helpful to those embarking on the path of contextualizing instruction, but also to those who are already down this path and are interested in improving upon and sustaining these efforts.

Resource Notice

This site includes links to information created by other public and private organizations. These links are provided for the user’s convenience. The U.S. Department of Education does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of this non-ED information. The inclusion of these links is not intended to reflect their importance, nor is it intended to endorse views expressed, or products or services offered, on these non-ED sites.

Please note that privacy policies on non-ED sites may differ from ED’s privacy policy. When you visit, no personal information is collected unless you choose to provide that information to us. We do not give, share, sell, or transfer any personal information to a third party. We recommend that you read the privacy policy of non-ED websites that you visit. We invite you to read our privacy policy.