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«DOCUMENT RESUME ED 363 732 CE 064 960 AUTHOR Fowler, Anne E.; Scarborough, Hollis S. TITLE Should Reading-Disabled Adults Be Distinguished from Other ...»

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ED 363 732 CE 064 960

AUTHOR Fowler, Anne E.; Scarborough, Hollis S.

TITLE Should Reading-Disabled Adults Be Distinguished from

Other Adults Seeking Literacy Instruction? A Review

of Theory and Research.

INSTITUTION National Center on Adult Literacy, Philadelphia,


SPONS AGENCY Office of Educational Research and Improvement (ED), Washington, DC.


AVAILABLE FROM National Center on Adult Literacy, Dissemination/Publications, University of Pennsylvania, 3910 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-3111 ($7; checks payable to Kinko's Copy Center).

PUB TYPE Information Analyses (070) EDRS PRICE MF01/PC04 Plus Postage.

DESCRIPTORS Adult Basic Education; *Adult Literacy; Adult Reading Programs; Dyslexia; Educational Diagnosis;

Educationally Disadvantaged; Illiteracy; *Language Acquisition; Learning Problems; *Literacy Education;

*Reading Ability; *Reading Difficulties; Reading Failure; *Reading Instruction


A fresh look should be taken at the traditional distinction between adults with reading disabilities and those with little or no literacy skills. Although the distinction may still be valuable for theoretical purposes, it may not be as useful as it once was for practical situations. Many adults seeking literacy instruction today have limited reading skills concomitant with a more generalized learning problem or the motivational and educational disadvantages of a history of failure and a lower socioeconomic status. It is nearly impossible to disentangle the multiple problems contributing to and stemming from the reading difficulty. Research suggests that, if a person remains a poor reader in adulthood, it matters little whether the problem stemmed initially from a localized intrinsic limitation, a general learning problem, or inadequate educational opportunity. Their reading abilities appear to be hindered by weaknesses in the same components of the reading process that have been shown to pose the greatest challenges to children learning to read. To plan effective instructional programs for adults seeking literacy assistance, a sensitive diagnostic battery should be used that will be informative about which aspects of the reading process are most problematic for an individual. The most effective approach to adult reading instruction would be a skill-based one that is tailored to the client's current levels of skill in word recognition, decoding automatically, reading comprehension, and listening comprehension. (Contains 85 references.) (YLB)





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This work was supported by funding ppm the National Center on Adult Literacy at the University of Pennsylvania, which is part of the Education Research and Development Center Program (Grant No. R117(10003) as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U. S.

Department of Education, in cooperation with tbe Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. Tbe findings and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the position or policies of tbe National Center on Adult Literacy, the Office of Educational Researcb and Improvemeru, or the U. S. Department of Education.

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Abstract Recent research on the nature and treatment of reading disabilities during childhood and adulthood is reviewed and examined in relation to the characteristics and needs of the changing population of adults wbo seek assistance in improving their literacy skills. This study suggests that, in practice, if not necessarily in theory, there are fewer differences than traditionally has been assumed between adults with reading disabilities and adults with reading problems tbat are thought to stem from a lack of educational opportunity or from a generally weak aptitude for learning. Consequently, the argument can be made that much of what has been learned from research on reading disabilities may be pertinent to tbe identification and the literacy development of adult learners generally. In particular, this paper emphasizes the need to focus on improving adults' persistent difficulties with low-level word recognition skills, in addition to assisting with otber impediments to successful reading comprehension.


Although both the adult learning disability community and adult literacy community deal with adults whose limited reading skills interfere with daily living, the pedagogical approaches of the two communities have differed markedly in terms of traditional assumptions, target population, and treatment. This study analyzes why the dichotomy between illiteracy and reading disability may not be as useful as it once was and considers what is to be gained (or risked) by understanding illiteracy from a reading disability1 perspective. Specifically addressed is how recent research on the causes, diagnoses, and treatment of reading disability in both children and adults may be applicable to detecting and working with illiterate or low-literate adults who may or may not be reading disabled.

Many readers of this study will be more knowledgeable than the writers about historical and current issues in the adult literacy field but may not be as familiar with some developments in the reading disabilities field. In what follows, therefore, the primary focus is on recent research concerning disabled readers, with the greatest emphasis on findings most relevant to the questions posed above.

The preview given below outlines the contents of this study, s!n ce the paper is long and all sections will not be of equal interest to different readers. First, sections A and B detail the logic of the argument that the two independent fields have much to gain from each other. Second, a brief summary is given of the historical differences between how illiteracy and reading disability have been conceptualized, studied, and treated. Third, recent shifts are reconstructed to emphasize what has occurred within both fields to result in an increasing overlap in ideas and practical goals. Fourth, sections E and F outline contemporary views of reading acquisition and reading disability in childhood. The size and scope of these sections reflect the intense amount of activity in this area of research; the casual reader or one already well-versed in the literature on reading in children may wish to refer only to the summary statements. Fifth, a review of the research on reading disability in adulthood is given; this research is obviously most germane to the major question of this paper. Finally, the implications of reading disability findings for understanding and working with low-literate adults are discussed.






Historically, when families depended heavily on the contributions of labor and wages from children, there were many individuals who received little or no schooling and hence never learned to read or write skillfully. Accordingly, literacy was viewed as a direct outcome of educational and cultural opportunity. To be illiterate was virtually synonymous with being unschooled, and years of schooling was taken as a reliable index of reading level.

Once laws were passed to outlaw child labor and to mandate universal schooling, corresponding decreases in illiteracy were seen, as expected (Miller, 1988; Stedman & Kaestle, 1987).

Although, at present, the vast majority of U.S. residents have received more than a few years of schooling, it is estimated that about 20% fail to reach a level of skill in reading and writing sufficient "to understand and use the printed material one normally encounters in work, leisure, and citizenship" (Stedman & Kaestle, 1987). To explain the persistence of such functional illiteracy, it is necessary to consider the quality and context of schooling experiences rather than their mere availability. Today's illiterate adults are likely to come from culturally and economically defined subgroups of the population in which the education that is provided, the resources allocated to it, and its perceived role/function/value in the community is different from those of mainstream society. When functional illiteracy rates are examined in different sociocultural segments of the population, large differences emerge. For instance, 42% of African-American inner city youth, compared with only 9% of Caucasian-American 17-year-olds, did not meet literacy criteria in one notable investigation of such differences (Mullins & Jenkins, 1990). Despite universal schooling, "literacy remains inextricably tied to the social structure [and reflects chronic differences among groups as well as the distribution of power in our society" (Stedman & Kaestle, 1987).

Growing out of this tradition, adult literacy programs have aimed to serve non-mainstream communities with high rates of


illiteracy. Services have focused largely on self-selected individuals who choose to attend programs offered in the community, at the workplace, or elsewhere. Regardless of their childhood educational histories, many of these adults are likely to be better motivated to learn than they were in childhood because they now perceive that job advancement or other personal goals can be achieved by improving their reading and writing skills.

The diagnostic goals are two-fold: to determine an individual's level of literacy skill and to identify his or her broader treatment needs. With regard to the first goal, recent measures have been developed to assess literacy levels on the basis of functional skills, such as reading a prescription, completing a jot) application, writing a business letter, or understanding a technical manual.

Functional literacy tests, such as the Test of Adult Literacy Skills (TALS, 1990), are currently used in national surveys as well as in the military and in adult education settings. With regard to the second goal, while knowing the individual's current skill level may serve as a starting point for literacy training, it is also important to evaluate the client's need for training more broadly in order to address not just skills development, but also the effective deployment of those skills to achieve broader objectives. (Venezky, Bristow, & Sabatini, in press, provide a fuller discussion of adult literacy measures.) Instruction has been carried out by community volunteers, often on a one-to-one basis. Given that clients' needs may encompass not just literacy training but also personal growth and vocational planning, the contributions of the volunteer often extend beyond the role of teacher to include that of counselor, advocate, and friend as well. The fundamental assumptionrarely made explicitis that all people can learn to read well if motivational and cultural barriers are removed. According to this view, no special instructional techniques or curricula are as important as the personal support provided by a caring person with stronger literacy skills. Miller (1988) described illiteracy as "a form or ignorance, not stupidity. Anyone intelligent enough to master spoken language should be intelligent enough to master written language" (p. 1290). The possibility that individuals in such programs may suffer deficiencies internal to themselves is usually considered of lesser importance (Fingeret, 1984). According to Miller, the actual "fraction of people suffering from this neurological condition [of dyslexia] is extremely small" (Miller, 1988, p. 1296).

Although illiteracy is traditionally viewed as an adult problem, it is presumed that its roots are embedded in early childhood experiences. Studies show that the gap in literacy achievement

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between advantaged and disadvantaged groups becomes progressively wider over time, with relatively small differences at the outset of schooling gradually increasing to as much as a fouryear difference in reading level (Mullins & Jenkins, 1990). While adult literacy programs aim to reduce illiteracy in the adult population, the prevention of widespread illiteracy in future generations has been the focus of several federal educational programs for children, including Head Start as well as Title I (since

1965) and Chapter I (since 1981). These programs are intended to compensate for the effects of social disadvantages on literacy acquisition by increasing the cognitive and attitudinal preparedness of children at risk for poor academic achievement and by providing sufficient, meaningful instruction in reading, writing, and other skills to prevent children from falling behind and to assist those who do.

The stereotypic picture of illiteracy portrays an adult who, like many other members of his or her social group, did not learn to read and write adequately during the school years, even if he or she attended school regularly. Inadequate schooling, weak personal incentives for achievement, and low expectations probably contributed to the failure -to learn earlier in life. When improved literacy skills are seen as important for career advancement or other personal goals (such as being able to assist one's children with schoolwork), the illiterate adult may seek help through a community-based program in which successful outcomes depend on the mature desire and willingness to learn, coupled with the sensitive guidance of an instructor who can tailor a piogram to the client's individual needs.


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