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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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The first question is one that is both practical and, arguably, a matter of individual preference. That is, independent of possible theoretical distinctions between adults (or children) who are reading disabled and those who are not, what might be gained by invoking such a distinction? Three reasons can be given for choosing to distinguish reading-disabled adults from other struggling readers. First, and most important, once this distinction is made, reading-disabled adults will have different instructional needs, and consequently, their response to standard instruction will be less favorable. Anecdotal reports from literacy instructors suggest that certain adults are far less responsive to instruction than others. The question they have raised is whether these intractable cases are in fact reading disabled (or learning disabled) and hence beyond the kind of help that literacy instructors can provide without special training. To date, there is no evidence to confirm or to refute that those adults who faii to respond are, in fact, reading disabled. This, then, remains an open


question. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe at this point that adults with reading disabilities and other adults of equally limited reading ability should respond differently to different kinds of instruction. Indeed, the evidence from above suggests that it is absolute reading level, and not how discrepant this level is from aptitude, that most strongly determines an individuars prognosis.

A second reason to Consider making a distinction between those persons with a reading disability and others enrolled in literacy classes is the potential benefits that may be provided to handicapped inclividuals. This would have relevance, for instance, to individuals who wish to qualify for untimed testing (this is most relevant to college students) or for hiring and training of the handicapped. Guidelines and mechanisms for handling these situations have already been established in many places. For the more usual situation faced by providers of adult literacy services, however, this concern may not be a central one.

A third reason to make a diagnosis of reading disability is the potential for positive psychological outcomes. This can work in two ways. On the one hand, many adults report feeling relieved to laxxv the source of their difficulties and consequently can move forward to cope with them. For example, although moderately and highly successful adults differed widely in their decision regarding whether to let others know about their disability, Gerber et al., (1992) did find that an acceptance of the disability was an important step to achieving high success. Similarly Bogdan (1982, cited in McGill-Franzen, 1987) found that high school students who had been classified as learning disabled benefited socially and were better off than when they were considered simply stupid. On the other hand, a label for many individuals could create a barrier for just those adults who are working hardest to gain entrance to

mainstream society. As noted by Lieberman (1987):

[Mang bandicapped individuals are able to fade into tbe adult world and lead satisfactory and even fulfilled lives. Tbey would abbor the idea of someone coming along even suggesting that they were handicapped in some way. Tbeir worst memories in life may be tbat being handicapped was tbrust upon them in school. (p. 64).

Lieberman also made the point that learning disabilities may become a book on which to blame every reason for not maxirnizing one's potential. This is consistent with earlier accounts of children in which it was argued that the only difference that could be found between Chapter 1 children (disadvantaged) and TECHNICAL REP ORT TR93-7 learning-disabled children was one of expectations; the Chapter 1 children were expected to catch up to their peers, while the learning-disabled child was expected to have this disability for life.

There is no clear answer from this perspective. Lieberman said, "Learning disabilities in adults are meaningful only if it helps people live....Some people who are LD should be LD adults. It will help them live. Others who are LD, should stay a million miles away from it" (p. 64).

In short, the clearest reasons to distinguish reading-disabled adults from other poor readers would be if it would aid (and not hinder) psychological well-being, if differential instruction would be called for, or if it would allow the individual to gain access to some special privileges or considerations that would prove helpful and that would otherwise be denied.



Among adults presenting themselves for literacy instruction, some have true reading disabilities and some do not. That is, some adults' difficulties undoubtedly stem solely from a lack of prior opportunity or effort, whereas others' problems with learning to read were probably genetic in origin and unrelated to their general cognitive aptitude, access to instruction, and social background.

The existence of etiologically distinct types of reading problems in the adult population, however, does not mean that operational criteria can necessarily be specified to distinguish reliably between them. In this section, the impact of the research reviewed above is examined as reasons to reject several plausible bases for making such distinctions.

To begin with, it is important to note that some pure instances of specific reading disability can be, and have been, identified by applying to adults the diagnostic criteria that conventionally have been used in research with children. When an adult poor reader fits this traditional stereotype (high aptitude, normal math achievement, mainstream social and educational background, absence of sensory deficits, and so forth), then a positive identification can be made. In the larger number of cases in which only some or none of the criteria for reading disability are met, however, one can neither confirm nor rule out the existence of an intrinsic reading disability. Specifically, research suggests that the status of the majority of adults cannot be resolved by applying any of the most obvious approaches that follow.


First, the reading-disabled adult cannot be distinguished from the low-literate adult on the basis of demographic factors. Many attested cases of reading disability are in the lower social strata.

Indeed, because factors associated with socioeconomic status tend to lead to a -negative prognosis for children with reading disability, one is even more likely to see lower social class than higher social class persons in adult literacy classes or in other agencies dealing with literacy issues. Second, prior educational classifications are not reliable for making the distinction. As discussed earlier, many schoolchildren who are classified as learning disabled are not done so based upon established criteria; conversely, children who do meet the criteria often go unidentified by the schools. Third, true reading disability cannot be distinguished from low achievement on the basis of motivational differences. Even if low motivation did not lead to underachievement in the first place, bw achievement will often have reduced one's motivation well before adulthood (the so-called Matthew effects).

Fourth, even actual reading scores do not solve all diagnostic problems. Absolute reading level alone is not a clear indicator because the reading level of the illiterate/low-literate adult and the reading-disabled adult may well be in a similar range. Although some reading-disabled adults remain wholly illiterate, it seems more common for them to achieve at the fifth-grade level or better, and in some of the studies reviewed above, adults with reading disabilities were reading at an eleventh-grade level on standardized measures of reading comprehension. There are also problems with regression-based or discrepancy-based equations, which are often used in adult studies. Because there remains a high correlation between aptitude and reading skill in adulthood, some true cases of reading disability that continue to show discrepancies can be identified. However, IQ testing must be conducted by professional psychologists, is time-consuming and expensive, and is controversialespecially with regard to minority populations.

Furthermore, in several of the follow-up studies reviewed, verbal IQ slipped slightly, but definitely, from childhood to adulthood, consistent with the Matthew effects hypothesis. Persons who would have qualified in childhood would probably not qualify in adulthood, depending on ultimate reading levels. Thus, even where regession measures were taken, and one could be confident about the reliability of the positive classifications deriving from them, one could still potentially misdiagnose many adults as not having a reading disability.

Fifth, a distinction between reading disability and low-literacy cannot easily be made on the basis of the reading or cognitive TECHNICAL REPORT T193-7 AA profile. As reviewed, reading profiles are tied more to absolute level of reading skill than to the disparity between aptitude and IQ.

This is demonstrably the case in children, for whom differences in profile do not distinguish the garden-variety poor reader from the reading-disabled child, and there are many reasons to believe it should be so for comparably defined groups of adults. For example, the reading/cognitive profiles of low-literate prisoners and adult education students were not demonstrably different, except in terms of breadth, than the cognitive profiles of carefully selected samples with specific reading disability based on family resemblance.

In light of the difficulties inherent in identifying the source of adult reading problems, it is interesting to observe that many studies ostensibly focusing on learning disabilities have moved away from a concern with this distinction to focus instead on identifying the specific attributes and needs of adults presenting themselves for instruction. For example, in many of the studies reviewed in Section V, the term learning disabled was applied to any group of adults whose intelligence was average (or lowaverage) and whose reading levels fell below some cutoff, generally at the grade-school level. Although this certainly meets the discrepancy criterion currently applied in most school districts, it leaves aside questions pertaining to the source of the difficulties.

The overarching learning disability label is considered justified on the basis of the similarity in profiles between these groups and other groups where validation has been achieved.

Because the great majority of adults seeking literacy instruction today present limited reading skills concomitant with a more generalized learning problem and/or the motivational and educational disadvantages of a lower socioeconomic status, the multiple factors associated with literacy problems are nearly impossible to disentangle. Based on careful study of these nonspecific learning-disabled adults, this particular combination of factors merits considerable concern. Affected individuals stand to benefit greatly from systematic skills-based reading instruction, but the overall prognosis of persons with a general learning disability is particularly bleak, whether this be defined in terms of educational attainment, employment status, or emotional wellbeing. To suggest that this group does not have special needs due to an unknown source of its current level of function is to deny reality. In sum, unless there is a pressing need to positively identify a person with a specific reading disability (for the reasons suggested in section F.1), there is little to be gained by attempting to make the distinction in most instances.


Independent of whether the literacy community considers distinguishing between adult poor readers who do and do not meet criteria for reading disability, there is an urgent need for a more systematic approach to diagnosing reading problems in adults who present themselves for treatment. There are several, often conflicting, goals for the ideal diagnostic instrument. A first goal is to establish the severity of the reading problem for placement purposes. A second, and related, goal is to provide the instructor with sufficient information to plan treatment that builds on existing competencies and focuses on areas of greatest need. Also related is the need to evaluate progress, both for individual charting of growth and for purposes of program evaluation. These goals are in direct conflict with other needs that must be taken into account in designing a diagnostic instrument. First, as can be verified by anyone who has administered tests to adult poor readers, efforts to preserve dignity are in order. For example, asking adults to read passages aloud may prove more embarrassing than asking them to read passages silently and answer questions. A measure should also allow the examiner to zero in on the locus of the client's difficulties while ensuring more success than failure. Second, the current focus on functional literacy has led to an expressed concern that diagnostic instruments have face validity, such that clients should be asked to read the actual materials (e.g., newspaper ads, driver manuals) with which they may be encountering difficulty, rather than seemingly irrelevant lists of isolated words.

Finally, practical concerns dictate that diagnostic measures be both efficient (complete in a single visit) and relatively easy to score (instructors should not need o be professional diagnosticians).

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