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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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Other cognitive-linguistic deficiencies associated with developmental dyslexia have sometimes, but not consistently, been observed to characterize adults with reading disability. With regard to the perception of spoken words, Blalock (1981) reported that 12 of her subjects had particular difficulty in identifying words presented against a background of noise; but Pennington et al., (1990) failed to find such a deficit in either his familial or clinical sample. There is also some evidence of the persistence of some linguistic and metalinguistic weaknesses beyond the phonological level in disabled adult readers. Poor syntactic skills (Duques, 1989),


grammaticality judgments (Blalock, 1981; Kean, 1984), and morpheme awareness (Liberman et aL, 1985; Rubin, Patterson, & Kantor, 1991) have all been observed in adult samples of poor readers. This area has not received sufficient attention, however, for fum conclusions to be drawn.

In sum, the profile of the reading-disabled adult looks remarkably similar to the profile of the reading-disabled child with regard to the cognitive-linguistic deficits that tend to accompany poor achievement in reading. Phoneme awareness and rapid lexical naming are consistently found to be weak in both nonspecific and specific cases of reading disability, and the severity of the reading problem is associated with the severity of these associated problems. Verbal short-term memory weaknesses, however, appear to be more prevalent among nonspecific cases of reading disability. Finally, reading disability may or may not be accompanied by general verbal comprehension deficits, but this appears to be more directly related to reading comprehension than to word recognition.



Although studies of academic and cognitive-linguistic abilities have revealed many commonalities between reading-disabled adults and reading-disabled children, other areas of functioning do not necessarily show such parallels. Adulthood itself introduces many new circumstances having to do with educational, vocational, social, and personal adjustment. If individuals with reading disabilities have difficulty meeting these new challenges, they may come to resemble less the traditional image of the successful adult dyslexic and more the traditional image of the illiterate adult. As will be reviewed, however, there is considerable variability among and between samples of poor readers with regard to the success with which they deal with the choices and demands of everyday life.

First, beyond the school years, academic achievement is not among the typical adult's central concerns, such that individual reading problems may be disregarded or underestimated in many cases. In fact, several studies have found that adults rank reading problems below other, more pressing, needs. For example, according to a survey of 562 learning-disabled adults belonging to the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (Chelser, 1982), the most frequently mentioned need item was social skill training; a need to overcome dependence was also frequently cited. Help with reading and spelling, on the other hand, was not se TECHNICAL REPORT TR93-7 viewed as often as a primary concern. Similarly, other samples of adults with reading problems have been described as most concerned with "daily living skills" (Blalock, 1981) or as having "a lack of adequate social and personal relationships" (Gerber & Reiff, 1992, p.

Recent research has shown that, some notable successes notwithstanding, most adults with reading disabilities do indeed experience a wide range of difficulties in coping with daily life.

Compared to normally-reading peers of the same age and social background, they are less likely to complete high school, have more difficulty obtaining and retaining jobs, and tend not to marry, such that many end up living with and remaining dependent on their parents, with their social lives confined to the family circle (DeBettencourt et al., 1989; Gerber & Reiff, 1992;

Malcolm et al., 1990; McCall et al., 1992; McCue et al., 1986;

Minskoff et al., 1989).

Although it is generally the case that a childhood reading disability places adults at risk for a broad range of problems in social, emotional, and vocational functioning, there is nevertheless considerable heterogeneity of outcome. As pointed out by Horn et al., (1983), at one.extreme are samples like Rawson's in which 100% completed college, and at the other extreme are samples like Frauenheim & Heckert's (1978), in which 92% were still reading below the fifth-grade level. Why such heterogeneity exists has been of considerable interest to many investigators and reference to the reader is made to some thorough and interesting recent reviews of this issue (e.g., Gerber & Reiff, 1992; Horn et al., 1983; White, 1992).

Drawing firm conclusions about the determinants of successful and unsuccessful outcomes is hindered somewhat by several aspects of the research pertaining to this issue. First, in different studies, outcome evaluations have been conducted at different ages during adulthood. A younger adult not only has had less time to find his or her niche but also faces a rather different economic situation than an older adult. Second, comparing follow-up studies to adult-identified samples could be problematic, because the latter are selected for study precisely because they are experiencing difficulties. Third, interpreting negative outcomes particularly regarding social-emotional functioningis hampered in some cases by the lack of appropriate comparison samples of equivalent social class, education, and so forth, so that it is not clear to what extent such problems can be attributed to the reading disability itself. Fourth, when outcome assessments are based on interviews with the affected individuals (or other informants, such


as parents), the accuracy of the information obtained can be questioned.

Despite these drawbacks, the research converges in identifying several important factors affecting the educational, vocational, personal, and social development of individuals with reading problems. In general, more successful outcomes have been found to be associated with a variety of factors including IQ in childhood, greater access to appropriate intervention, higher levels of educational attainment, more supportive home environments, and greater fmancial resources. As summarized by Gerber and Reiff (1992), "the profile that emerges of the successful adult with learning disabilities reflects a moderate to mild impairment, a relatively affluent family background, and a positive educational experience" (p. 12). A similar conclusion was reached by Horn et al., (1983), who report that adult outcome is affected by age at diagnosis, initial severity, IQ, and social class. Indeed it seems that those with the most successful outcomes had advantages on all of these counts (Rawson, 1968), while problems in any one of these areas could lead to a negative outcome.

One way to interpret these findings is to note that all of these factors are strongly associated with sodo-cultural status. Several investigators have been led to just that conclusion (e.g., Gottesman, 1975). Horn et al., (1983) noted that of ten studies of middle-class children, 50% reported a favorable outcome; of four studies of working-class children or those of lower social class, 100% had unfavorable outcomes. It certainly seems that the combination of a reading disability and low social class is particularly deleterious.

Although socioeconomic status obviously contributes to these various factors, it does not tell the whole story, as there is considerable variability within as well as between social class groups.

A more potent, though not wholly unrelated, factor is the initial severity of the deficit, which incorporates not only the actual level of reading, but also aptitude (Horn et al., 1983) and the generalizability of the deficit to areas other than reading (Frauenheim & Heckerl, 1978; Siegel, 1992). For example, in the Rawson study, where social class differences had been controlled for, there was a high correlation ( r -.68) between reported adult reading outcome and severity of childhood diagnosis. A study of a quite different sample found that it was not socioeconomic status, aptitude measures, or disparity between aptitude and achievement, but rather high school grades (perhaps the best measure of the absolute severity of the deficit) that predicted outcome thirteen years later (McCall et al., 1992).


Siegel (1992) has suggested that absolute severity of the reading deficit, generalizability to other academic domains, and general aptitude measures may be confounded. She compared adults with pure reading, pure math, and combined reading and math deficits.

Although IQ scores were comparable in the pure reading and pure math samples, the combined deficit groups had lower IQ and more generalized cognitive deficits. At the same time, reading was even more impaired in the combined disability than in the pure disability. What does seem clear from these studies is.that disparity is not the marker of prognosis, but rather absolute function in reading; this is entirely consistent with the findings from childhood treatment studies discussed above. Horn et al., (1983) came to the same conclusion in their review, pointing out that the more severe outcomes were those referred to childhood Clinics;

those derived from school records alone were probably less severe to begin with, hence explaining the more favorable outcomes. In sum, the best predictor of reading success in adulthood is absolute severity of function in childhood. This single measure is in turn affected by socioeconomic status, initial IQ and instructional opportunity and is reflected in such measures as the specificity of the deficit, a clinic versus school diagnosis, and age of diagnosis.

Two very recent studies have moved beyond those external factors, which are largely outside the control of the subjects themselves, to look at personality factors that discriminate between greater or lesser success when socioeconomic status, intelligence, and severity are held constant. To "ascertain patterns of successful functioning that promote high levels of vocational success," Gerber, Ginsberg, & Reiff (1992) conducted in-depth interviews of highly successful adults (n - 46) and moderately successful adults (n - 25) with learning disabilities; these groups were matched in age, parental socioeconomic status, and severity of reading disability in childhood and adulthood. What they reported is consistent with studies of higher achievers in other populations without learning disabilities: high success individuals were characterized by a belief in an internal locus of control and were goal driven, persistent, accepting of their disability, and adaptive to it with a variety of compensatory strategies. McCall et al., (1992) reached a similar conclusion in their comparisons of high school underachievers and generally poor achievers. Although absolute level of performance was the single most important predictor of outcome, poor grades may in turn reflect locus of control factors.

They suggested that underachievers had consistently experienced failure and had developed tendencies to give up in the face of challenge or adversity.


In sum, research on adult outcomes of reading disability suggests that although the disability itself persists in adulthood, there is considerable variability in the severity of the ultimate deficit and its impact on overall functioning. Adult outcomes are not so much a function of the size of the IQ-achievement disparity, but rather of overall level of function (especially childhood verbal IQ), associated areas of dysfunction (whether or not math was also impaired), instruction (good instruction certainly does not seem to guarantee success; its absence seems to ensure failure), socioeconomic factors (a learning disability and low socioeconomic status is a particularly negative combination) and positive coping style. Across all studies, the most significant determinant of later success, however it is defined, is absolute level of performance in childhood; the less severe the problem, the better the prognosis, independent of IQ and socioeconomic status.

–  –  –

A rising concern in the literacy community, and the impetus for this paper, is the recognition that many of the adults arriving for literacy classes are there not just because of prior lack of motivation or educational opportunity, but because of a reading disability that may impede further progress and/or require special instruction (Gottesman, 1992). Two related questions are of central concern: (1) Should adults with a reading disability be distinguished from other poor readers who present themselves at literacy programs? (2) Can these groups be distinguished? The argument can be made that reading disability research has much to offer regarding two other important questions as to whether a distinction should be made between adults who are disabled and those who are not: (1) How should one assess the instructional needs of the low-literate adult? (2) What instructional methods should be brought to bear? What needsincluding assessment and treatmentare shared by the reading-disabled adult and others without a reading disability?



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