Conducting the Case Studies
Interviews with these participants were conducted four times by the first author, with one-on-one sessions of one to two hours in length. Sam and Clara were asked to describe their backgrounds, reasons for enrolling in the GED program, feelings about their literacy abilities and progress in learning to read and write, and attitudes regarding their classes, learning materials, and instructors. Both were observed by the first author in their classrooms on two occasions. The observations were conducted to examine the kinds of learning activities in which the two students participated and to determine their efforts at and motivations for accomplishing these activities.
Sam, the proud learner. Sam dropped out of school at 16. He reported that school was always difficult for him because he struggled greatly with reading. Although he felt that several of his teachers had given him extra assistance with reading, most of Sam's teachers simply passed him along from year to year. He recalled that he was exposed to a variety of methods of reading instruction-"from phonics to everything else," but nothing seemed to help. Sam had worked for 30 years for a container company and had risen through the ranks to his current position as packing machine operator. Also, despite his poor reading skills, Sam owned and managed several rental properties, having invested in real estate as a young man.
Two events precipitated Sam's entry into the ABE program. First, because he was "unable to read much of anything," he feared that he would lose his job during a period of instability in his company when many coworkers were being laid off. Second, he recalled having been embarrassed while trying to complete medical forms at his physician's office when another patient in the waiting room had remarked that he must not be able to read very well. Sam was, upon entry into the ABE program, unable to complete the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE). At the time of the interviews, he reported that he was able to read most instructions and memos at work and the grocery shopping lists written by his wife. He anticipated that he will be able to "move up another notch or two" at work before he retires. He reported that he feels "a lot more confident" in his job since he has learned to read and that the ABE program has helped him to achieve his goals.
Sam's class attendance was consistently high, a factor to which the instructor attributed his success. He credited his teacher for providing him with the "right material," and he said that the phonics approach used in the ABE program was a major reason for his success. His instructor noted, and Sam agreed, that he is in large part responsible for the supportive climate observed within the classroom. Sam suggested that successful learners must offer their own experiences as examples to those who are just beginning their pursuit of literacy. Although his educational goal initially was to learn to read better at work, he has since refocused his goal upon getting a GED. He believes that he can achieve this in another year.
Clara, the uncertain learner. Clara dropped out only three months before her high school graduation. Her intense fear of returning to school after so many years nearly prevented her from doing so. Except for her husband and daughter, she did not tell anyone that she was attending ABE classes. Like Sam, she was diagnosed with a learning disability that affects her comprehension of text. Although she can read individual words and grasp the meaning of simple passages, she has difficulty remembering and making sense of what she reads. She frequently described herself as stupid but then corrected herself as she had been instructed to do by her ABE counselor. Upon entering the ABE program, Clara scored at level 6.7 on the TABE; a year later she scored at level 7.1. Despite this gain, Clara was frustrated by some of the class reading materials. She was often observed to call on her teacher to explain the exercises in ways she could understand. Despite her difficulty with the materials assigned to her, Clara reported that her reading skills had improved.
Clara has been employed for several years in the shipping department of a farm implement company and has many friends at work. She reported, however, that "I have sacrificed my social life"-which consisted mostly of meeting her co-workers in a local tavern-because of attending ABE classes. One of the interesting dimensions of her apparent motivation for attending ABE classes was that she was "going to throw a big party" and invite all of her family and friends once she had earned her GED. Clara mentioned her graduation party frequently, as if to remind herself that this was her reason for being in class (rather than to improve her literacy skills). She had very specific plans for how and where the party would be held and who would attend. Interestingly, she would invite the same friends and coworkers from whom she had concealed her participation in the GED program. She could say little about how earning the GED might be of benefit to her, such as improving her chances of getting a better job.