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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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Reading disability refers to the failure to read adequately despite sufficient instruction, cultural advantage, and measured intelligence. The problem is assumed to stem from within the individual, rather than from the cultural or educational milieu, and to have a biological basis, even though overt neurological signs may be undetectable. It is generally presumed that some essential aspect of mental processing is miswired, and that the malfunctioning or inefficiency of this neurological subsystem impedes the normal acquisition of literacy skills. The precise nature of the underlying problem remains an issue that continues to be a focus of research in the field.

In both research and educational practice, a distinction has usually been made between underachievement and mere low achievement. Only children with poorer reading abilities than

NATIONAL CENTER ON ADULT LITERACY

would be expected on the basis of their general aptitude are typically identified as having a reading disability or, often interchangeably, dyslexia. In contrast, poor readers, who achieve at a level that is not discrepant from their aptitude, have been termed garden variety low achievers (Gough & Tunmer, 1986).

Children whose low achievement is attributable to a lack of social and educational opportunity are considered one type of garden variety poor reader; the label also applies to children who are slow learnen due to low aptitude. These distinctions are founded on the assumption that the nature and causes of the different kinds of reading problems are quite dissimilar, and hence that a different approach to treatment is required for each.

A second distinction that follows from traditional etiological assumptions is between specific (or selective) and nonspecific profiles of deficits in achievement (Benton, 1978; Morrison, 1987).

Dyslexia is thought to be caused by a neurological impairment that specifically interferes with the acquisition of literacy skills, but does not directly impede learning in other areas. Hence, some reserve the term reading disability or specific reading disability for children of average or above-average aptitude whose academic difficulties are confined to reading and writing; in contrast, many believe that across-the-board underachievement is more suggestive of some other basis, such as emotional or attentional problems, than of a localized deficit in neurocognitive processing. Equally poor performance in mathematics, as in reading and spelling, is also usually seen as more characteristic of garden variety slow learners than of true dyslexics.

The conceptualization, identification, and treatment of reading disabilities have traditionally focused on the school years, particularly the elementary grades during which the child's difficulties first become apparent. It is usually the classroom teacher's responsibility to identify children who have more difficulty learning to read than their classmates. A detailed diagnostic evaluation is then conducted by educational professionals. In the years following the 1977 passage of P. L. 94which mandated special educational provisions for all handicaps (including learning disabilities), most states followed the federal lead in using a discrepancy between aptitude and achievement as the primary basis for differentiating reading disabilities from other varieties of low reading achievement (Frankenberger & Fronzaglio, 1991; Mercer, Hughes, & Mercer, 1985). Sensory handicaps, emotional disorders, mental retardation, and disadvantaged backgrounds are also sometimes used as exclusionary criteria that may preclude a child from being TECHNICAL REPORT TR13-71 considered learning disabled. If, according to state and local guidelines, a child is determined to be learning disabled, a specialized plan of instruction must be designed and implemented according to the child's level of need.

The primary responsibility for providing special education for children with reading disabilities has traditionally rested with neighborhood schools, although more affluent families have often sought help privately as well. Special private schools for children with severe learning disabilities have existed in the U.S. for many decades. Remedial programs typically have focused on reading skills, although some approaches have incorporated training in component abilities suspected to underlie reading problems.

Moreover, because a neurological deficit is posited, instructors often presume that some reading and writing skills cannot be acquired in the normal manner and that efforts must be directed to help the child develop alternative strategies to reach the goal of skilled reading. Often, special training or state certification is required for qualification as a provider of special instruction for reading disability.

Finally, it has been presumed that with appropriate remediai instruction, most bright and advantaged children will not become illiterate, but will eventually learn to read adequately, although some degree of persisting difficulty with spelling and reading speed may be unavoidable due to the underlying neurological limitation. Indeed, parents have been n _ssured of the positive prognosis by the evident success achieved by prominent individuals who were thought to have childhood reading disabilities, such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Nelson Rockefeller. Hence, there has traditionally been little consideration by researchers or practitioners of reading disabilities in adulthood, and it has not been deemed necessary to establish criteria for diagnosing adult reading disabilities.





The stereotypic picture of reading disability portrays a child who, unlike her or his classmates, exhibits a specific weakness in reading achievement that cannot be attributed to social disadvantage, low aptitude, weak motivation, or inadequate instruction, and that probably results instead from an intrinsic, biological difference that makes learning to read a particularly difficult task. This child's problem probably has been identified and treated by professional educators and has been expected to be largely overcome in childhood.

NATIONAL CENTER ON ADULT LITERACY 7

B. RECENT CHALLENGES TO

TRADITIONAL ASSUMPTIONS

The fundamental differences in how illiteracy and reading disability have tended to be conceived, diagnosed, and treated are summarized in Table 1. At first glance, it appears that the differences are irreconcilable and that illiterate and readingdisabled individuals might have virtually nothing in common except for poor reading and writing abilities. Some recent advances in understanding both groups, however, suggest that the differences may not ultimately be as wide as they appear at either a practical or theoretical level. In this section, the increasing diversity and changing needs of adults who seek help with literacy problems are examined; then questions are raised regarding the characteristics and adult outcomes associated with reading disability.

1. CHANGES WITHIN THE ADULT LITERACY FIELD: DIVERSITY AND

INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES

As the 21st century approaches, the role of literacy in the lives of society's adults has been changing. Consequently, definitions of what it means to be literate have been, and will continue to be, altered from the point of view both of the individual adult and of the providers of services to adults with literacy problems. The increasing sophistication of and reliance on technology in modern life underlie these changes.

Ironically, strong literacy skills are becoming both more necessary and potentially less necessary than in the past. On one hand, in today's multimedia society, many daily functions can be accomplished without any reading or writing skills. News, information, and entertainment are widely available by listening to the radio and watching television. Instructions fOr acquiring skills and information (carpentry, cooking, gardening, science, travel, etc.) can be obtained on videotape in lieu of in a written manual or book. Business and personal communication can take place orally and can be recorded on tape. Likewise, construction workers, hotel maids, and other workers with weak literacy skills can interact with computers by touching pictures on a screen or by speaking and receiving vocal commands (Bulkeley, 1992). All of this would suggest that the literacy needs of our citizens should be decreasing, as society seems to be becoming post-literate.

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I related skills are increasingly essential for employment, particularly in jobs that ensure middle-class lifestyles and benefits.

Even previously manual jobs, such as working on a manufacturing croduction line, operating machine tools or delivering goods, now involve more interaction between humans and machines, and thus require new literacy abilities, such as reading computer output.

Because literacy is defined functionally as the degree of skill necessary to maintain employment and function in society, reading and writing ability levels that would have been considered literate in the recent past are often no longer adequate for obtaining and maintaining employment. It is now estimated that the equivalent of twelfth-grade reading skills may now roughly correspond to the minimum requirement for functional literacy (Aaron, Chall, Durkin, Goodman, & Strickland, 1990; Chall, Heron, & Hilferty, 1987; Miller, 1988; Stedman & Kaestle, 1987). Whereas in the past, illiteracy implied a lack of basic word recognition abilities, such as reading signs and labels or completing a job application form, today the functionally literate adult must be able to deal with more complicated literacy tasks, such as reading legal contracts, filing and retrieving documents, and issuing commands to a computer. Illiteracy in late 20th century America might be better termed low literacy or semi-literacy (Miller, 1988). As Stedman and Kaestle expressed it, "although only a small percentage of people are utterly illiterate, literacy problems pervade the society" (1987, p. 27).

Because literacy standards rise, so do the challenges facing providers of adult literacy services. More adults find that although they think of themselves as able to read and write, they need to improve skills to compete with colleagues who can read faster, understand more deeply, and write more clearly, and who have successfully earned more advanced educational degrees. The population of adults seeking help has become more heterogeneous in their initial abilities and in the levels of skill to which they aspire. Although adults with disadvantaged backgrounds are still disproportionately represented, the population of adults with literacy problems has also become more diverse with regard to socioeconomic background. Whereas the goal of literacy programs in the past has often been to meet the needs of individuals who had very little exposure to written language by providing them with basic word recognition skills, today's adult literacy educators must now meet the needs of individuals with many more years of education and literacy experience by providing them with high level reading comprehension and writing skills. Increasingly, whether from disadvantaged backgrounds or not, these individuals

NATIONAL CENTER ON ADULT LITERACY 11

are people who failed in their attempts to become skilled readers despite standard educational opportunities.

Although the majority of those seeking assistance consist of self-referred individuals, there is also a trend for individuals to have been identified and referred by institutions. Assessments of adult literacy are often conducted in the military services, some correctional institutions, in the workplace, and in colleges. Often, for those identified as having poor reading and writing skills, participation in a literacy improvement program is becoming mandatory rather than voluntary, because continued employment or college enrollment may be contingent upon achieving a higher level of skill. In some locations, enrollment in adult literacy programs is also required to maintain eligibility for welfare support.

The provision of literacy instruction for adults has also begun to shift gradually from primarily community-based centers to institution-run programs. For instance, as employers discovered that it was becoming harder to find sufficiently skilled workers to fill available jobs, some began to offer literacy programs to upgrade the skills of their existing employees. Often these programs can be specifically tailored to the precise literacy needs within a company or industry. Unlike many traditional programs, these are often conducted at the work site, and are led by hired literacy experts. Adult literacy training, in short, is no longer confined almost exclusively to volunteer efforts within disadvantaged communities, although the need for those programs has never been greater.

For some younger adults, literacy skills may be insufficient because the requirements necessary to obtain a high school diploma have been scaled back; a diploma no longer guarantees a level of reading and writing competence sufficient for college-level academic work or for non-manual employment. As a consequence, both four-year and especially two-year colleges have tried to provide more academic foundations training in reading, writing, and study skills. Again, it is the functional needs presented by these young adults, not just a background of disadvantage, that defines the population served by such programs.



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