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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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In addition to the increasing diversity of adults seeking help, there are other new challenges facing providers of adult literacy instruction. Of particular relevance to the topic at hand is the growing acknowledgment of individual differences not only in initial skill levels and functional needs, but also in response to instruction. As noted earlier, it has traditionally been assumed that TECHNICAL REPORT TR93-7 when low literacy is the result of a lack of educational opportunity, all that is required for remediation is the provision of adequate instruction to a motivated individual in a supportive and meaningful context. Even programs that mainly serve adults from socially disadvantaged backgrounds have come to recognize, however, that learning does not always progress rapidly and easily under such circumstances. This has prompted some concern about the possibility that some, perhaps many, of the adults seeking help today are hindered by an intrinsic reading disability, and that those individuals' problems may be more intractable or may require different instructional methods than those arising simply from lack of educational opportunity. Widely varying estimates (from 30% to 80%) have been made of the prevalence of specific reading disability among adults served by literacy improvement programs (Malcolm, Polatajko, & Simons, 1990), but there is agreement that the proportion is significant. Consequently, there is increased interest on the part of the adult literacy community about current theories, findings, and treatment of reading disability.




As noted, it was traditionally presumed that discrepancy-based, specific reading disability and garden variety poor reading have distinctly different etiologies, characteristics, and educational requirements. One basis for this distinction was, and to some extent continues to be, that both clinicians and researchers (as well as lay persons) feel strongly that children who are just slow learnersi.e., whose low achievement in reading and writing is commensurate with their low achievement and aptitude in other respectsand children whose reading levels reflect a lack of educational opportunity, are more common and more understandable than children with a specific reading disability. In other words, a stark dissociation between aptitude and reading achievement, in and of itself, is sufficiently rare and interesting to be considered by many to be a distinct problem that must be traceable to an isolated underlying deficit or difference in processing (Crowder & Wagner, 1992; Frith, 1985). Furthermore, because such children tend to be bright, and because they have experienced success in learning other subjects, it is presumed that these strengths can be effectively called upon in treating reading disability but not other kinds of reading problems.

Consistent with these intuitively held views, some early findings indicated that, in comparison to garden variety poor readers, /9


children with specific reading disability were about four times as likely to be male, made smaller gains over time in reading achievement despite larger gains in mathematics achievement, and were more prevalent than would be expected on statistical grounds if one did not assume that students with a specific reading disability were a distinct segment of the population (e.g., Yule, Rutter, Berger & Thompson, 1974; Rutter & Yule, 1975). Early research, based on the hypothesis that deficient interhemispheric interation in the brain is the root cause of dyslexia, also suggested that these children were especially likely to be left-handed, and that they made characteristic directional errors, such as reversing the orientations of letters and the order of letters within words, during reading and spelling (Orton, 1937). These early claims have been scrutinized in recent years, and each has been weakened by contrary empirical evidence. For instance, it is now clear that a strong preponderance of males is rarely seen in objectively defined samples (Naiden, 1976; Pennington & Smith, 1991;

Shaywitz, Shaywitz, Fletcher & Escobar, 1990) and that neither lefthandedness nor reversal errors are strongly associated with reading disability (Annett & Manning, 1990; Collette, 1979; Nelson, 1980; Pennington, Smith, Kimberling, Green & Haith, 1987; Taylor, Satz & Friel, 1979). Persuasive alternative accounts of the distributional data on the incidence of achievement-aptitude discrepancies are also now widely accepted (Rodgers, 1983; van der Wissel & Zegers, 1988).

It should be noted, however, that while the existence of these purported differences would support the hypothesized distinction, their non-occurrence does not dictate against it (Ellis, 1985; Frith, 1980). For example, while different sex ratios suggest distinct etiologies, equivalent sex ratios are equally consistent with hypotheses for and against the distinction, because the very same surface characteristics can arise for different reasons. By emphasizing the similarities, it is not meant to dismiss this possibility.

It has also traditionally been presumed that the process by which reading is acquired, and hence the nature of the reading process itself, is disrupted differently for children with true reading disabilities than for generally slow learners. It has become increasingly clear from recent research, however, that the way poor readers read is remarkably similar in many respects, regardless of whether the child has a specific or garden variety profile. As will be reviewed in Section IV below, a large body of evidence has been accumulated showing that the aspects of reading that are most problematic, the kinds of errors that are made, the cognitiveTECHNICAL REPORT T193-7 linguistic processes that are also impaired, and the effectiveness of various intervention procedures are rarely found to be notably different for the two kinds of poor readers. Consequently, even though it is still possible that there may be important etiological differences underlying specific reading disability and other types of poor reading, the nature of the problems themselves may be so similar as to make the distinction of little practical importance.

Furthermore, in actual practice, the distinction between underachievement and generally low achievement is apparently not adhered to. That is, schools are expected to -provide different educational services for different groups of low achieving childrenregular classroom instruction for garden variety slow learners, compensatory (Title I, Chapter 1) programs for children whose low achievement is attributed to concomitants of social disadvantage and special education programs for children with true reading disabilities. In actuality, however, the differences between regular, compensatory, and special education programs with regard to the assumptions about causes, prognoses, and instructional needs, have become quite blurred. Several studies have shown that the purported eligibility criteria for learning disability classifications are actually not met in perhaps as many as half of the children who receive such classifications, and conversely that many children who do meet strict discrepancybased criteria for a specific reading disability are not provided special education services, even when their reading skills are as poor as children from the same schools who are so classified (McGill-Franzen, 1987; Rivers & Smith, 1988; Shaywitz, Escobar, Shaywitz, Fletcher, & Makuch, 1992; Ysseldyke, Algozzine, Shinn & McGue, 1982). Instead, students in need of help are assigned to programs in which teachers perceive they will be better off, regardless of whether the child is technically eligible for that program (Moore, Hyde, Blair & Weitzman, 1981).

The proportion of poor readers who receive special education for a learning disability has more than doubled in the past 15 years, while the proportion in compensatory programs has shrunk correspondingly (McGill-Franzen, 1987; Frankenberger & Fronzaglio, 1991). Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that there appear to be few meaningful differences in the types of instruction provided or in the levels of performance achieved in regular, compensatory, and special education programs (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1978; Ysseldyke et al., 1982). Practically speaking, therefore, by calling a slow learner or disadvantaged child learning disabled, that child may have access to better funded programs at the elementary level, and may later be entitled to


special considerations (e.g., untimed examinations, oral rather than written assignments) that allow at least the appearance of a successful completion of secondary schooling. The upshot is that as today's children become adults, their educational histories will provide little clue as to the true nature of their childhood reading problems.

Another trend in recent research on reading disabilities is the growing consideration of so-called Matthew effects (Stanovich, 1986; Walberg & Tsai, 1983). That is, it is now acknowledged that having a reading problem can have many negative consequences for a child, and that those consequences may interact and tend to accumulate over the school years. For example, because the child is likely to receive different instruction, less challenging and probably fewer kinds of reading materials will be read, leading to progressively less exposure to print over time (Allington, 1983).

Because reading itself is an important route to learning vocabulary and general information (Fielding, Wilson & Anderson, 1986; Nagy, Herman & Anderson, 1985). the child is likely to show slower acquisition of these skills also. Because IQ scores reflect acquired knowledge of this sort, measured IQ may decline (Bishop & Butterworth, 1980) to the point that the child with an initially large aptitude-achievement discrepancy may appear later to be a garden variety poor reader. Similarly, because achievement in other subject areas (math, science, social studies) increasingly depends on reading and writing abilities, performance in these previously stronger areas may begin to suffer, perhaps to the point that the child who initially had a specific problem now exhibits an acrossthe-board achievement deficit profile. Later on, moreover, the adolescent with reading problems may be placed in lower academic tracks, may be discouraged from pursuing demanding careers, or may otherwise be made aware that others have lower expectations for his or her vocational success.

In addition to the educational and cognitive consequences of early reading problems, there are probably affective and interpersonal sequelae as well. Teachers, parents, and classmates may come to alter their perceptions and expectations, and this does not go unnoticed by the child. Lowered feelings of self-worth, reduced motivation to learn, school conduct problems, and a host of other personal problems would be likely consequences of such perceptions, and indeed such sequelae have indeed been found to be associated with reading problems (Wel, 1988; Oka & Paris, 1987).

In short, even for children with specific reading disability, Matthew effects may serve to expand an initially isolated problem into a pervasive one, which may be indistinguishable in breadth and TECHNICAL REPORT T193-7 depth from the stereotypical cluster of motivational, skill, and interpersonal problems that had previously only been associated with generally slow learning or lack of educational opportunity.

Again, in practice if not in theory, there may be little reason to differentiate specific ;eading disability from other kinds of poor reading.

Another change in the reading disabilities field is increased interest in the study and treatment of dyslexic adults. Some of the new research has been conducted in a behavior genetics context, in which family aggregation of reading problems has been studied to test models of genetic transmission. This research and other work which has directly addressed the questions about the diagnosis and characteristics of adults with current or past reading problems will be discussed in Section V. Suffice to say here that there is considerable evidence that individuals who had childhood reading problems continue to have weaker reading and spelling skills as adults, compared to peers whose backgrounds were similar in other respects. On the practical side, there appears to be an increase in requests by adults for identification and treatment of their reading disabilities. For some of these adults, the goal is not so much to improve their skills but to give a name to, and explain, their lifelong problems. Because a learning disability classification was unusual prior to the passage of P. L. 94-142 in 1977, very few adults now in their thirties or older were ever so classified, so many wish to be retrospectively. For those generations of students, poor readers were unfortunately often perceived as stupid or just lazy. For some, it is a great source of satisfaction to finally be able to say that they had or have dyslexia. Whether such individuals can, or should, be differentiated from other adults seeking literacy instruction will be discussed later.


In response to broader changes in workplace requirements and educational standards, the population of adults served by literacy improvement programs is steadily becoming more diverse with regard to initial reading level, socioeconomic background, and educational history. More of them, furthermore, are observed to have unusual difficulties in improving their skills despite apparently adequate motivation and assistance, a pattern that is suggestive of the traditional conception of a specific reading disability.

Paradoxically, however, traditional assumptions about the validity of the distinction between specific and nonspecific reading problems with regard to ca ises, correlates, and consequences have


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