A Review of Theory and Research
Learning disabilities is a topic of concern among adult literacy providers, and this publication will probably fuel some heated and productive discussions. Nearly 200 research studies are reviewed in this report. The authors use the results to focus on the issue of whether reading-disabled adult learners can, or even should, be distinguished from other adult learners with poor reading skills.
FUNDAMENTAL ASSUMPTIONS: TRADITIONAL VS. RECENT
The term specific reading disability has often been used interchangeably with the term dyslexia. Traditionally these terms refer to "the failure to read adequately despite sufficient instruction, cultural advantage, and measured intelligence" (p.5). This condition 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" (p.6). But the fraction of people with dyslexia is extremely small.
In other words, it is far more likely that adult learners are not dyslexic than that they are. Generally low-literate readers or "garden variety poor readers," on the other hand, have reading difficulties that are assumed to stem from a variety of causes, such as lack of social or educational opportunity, insufficient motivation, or low aptitude for learning.
Recent research challenges traditional assumptions about these two groups of readers:
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH TELL US ABOUT THE READING-DISABLED ADULT?
Two major conclusions have been consistently found across studies of adults with reading disabilities:
WHY IS IT DIFFICULT TO DISTINGUISH THE READING-DISABLED ADULT FROM THE LOW-LITERATE ADULT?
Literacy programs that attempt to identify reading-disabled or dyslexic learners through their intake processes will find it difficult to distinguish them from other low-literate adult learners. The reason for this is that many criteria traditionally used to identify reading disabled learners are not valid for the adult learner population.
Discrepancy between reading level and aptitude. "IQ testing must be conducted by professional psychologists, is time-consuming and expensive, and is controversial-- especially with regard to minority populations" (p.66). Moreover, lack of reading ability leads to lack of exposure to written materials and this "may have a deleterious effect on IQ" (p.46). Finally, "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" (p.66).
Mainstream social and educational background. "One is ... more likely to see lower social class than higher social class persons in adult literacy classes or in other agencies dealing with literacy issues" (p.66). Prior educational classifications are not useful either. "Many school children 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" (p.66).
Consequently, "the multiple factors associated with literacy problems are nearly impossible to disentangle" (p.67). "In sum, unless there is a pressing need to positively identify a person with a specific reading disability, ...there is little to be gained by attempting to make the distinction" (p.67).
ARE THERE ANY GOOD REASONS WHY READING-DISABLED ADULTS SHOULD BE DISTINGUISHED FROM OTHER POOR READERS?
Do they have different instructional needs? Although "well-controlled studies of treatment programs for adults are notably lacking" (p. 74), "there is no reason to believe...that adults with reading disabilities and other adults of equally limited reading ability should respond differently to different kinds of instruction" (p.64).
Will they qualify for accommodations provided for persons with handicaps, such as untimed testing? In some cases, this may be an important consideration. Someone who is diagnosed as learning disabled qualifies for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Will being classified as reading- disabled have psychological benefits for the learner? Psychological effects can be positive for some learners and negative for others. For example, some may be relieved to know why they have had so much difficulty in learning to read. Others may view "reading disabled" as a damaging label. And, too, the label might be used as an excuse by either learners or their teachers.
The research reviewed in this report can be used to answer the question posed in the report's title: Should reading- disabled adults be distinguished from other adults seeking literacy instruction? The authors' answer is that "there are few compelling reasons to make such distinctions in practice" (p.78), although they do note that in a very few cases "some practical advantage [may] be gained" (p.78).
Anne E. Fowler & Hollis S. Scarborough Technical Report TR93-7, National Center on Adult Literacy