Adult Reading Assessment and Instruction: Highlights from the Activities of the Nifl/ncsall Adult Literacy Research Working Group

By Kruidenier, John R.; Bell, Sherry Mee | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Adult Reading Assessment and Instruction: Highlights from the Activities of the Nifl/ncsall Adult Literacy Research Working Group


Kruidenier, John R., Bell, Sherry Mee, Perspectives on Language and Literacy


The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) completed a comprehensive assessment of adults' reading ability in 2003, administering a reading test to a representative sample of more than 19,000 people over the age of 16 in households (and prisons) in the United States. Applying its findings to the total adult population (222 million in 2003), the NCES concluded that 27 to 31 million adults are "Below Basic" readers and lack the skills needed for simple, everyday literacy activities. Below Basic readers are unable to consistently read and understand information in short, commonplace texts and simple documents, such as news articles, pamphlets, bus schedules, and food labels. This is roughly the level at which the average high school graduate reads. Many of these adults are unable to complete even simpler reading tasks like locating specific information in short, commonplace texts (Kutner, Greenberg, & Baer, 2005).

According to the NCES, another group of 50 to 60 million adults is able to perform these tasks with varying degrees of consistency. The best readers in this "Basic" group can read at the high-school level. However, they have difficulty reading texts that are more dense and complex. Summarizing, making inferences, determining cause and effect, and recognizing an author's purpose are all difficult tasks for Basic readers (Kutner et al., 2005).

These findings are very troubling for a number of reasons. Low literacy correlates with a host of difficulties, such as low income (Barton & Jenkins, 1995), poor job prospects (Reder & Vogel, 1997; White, Strucker, & Bosworth, 2006), poor health (Baker, Parker, Williams, & Clark, 1997; Kutner et al., 2005; Kutner, Greenberg, Jin, & Paulsen, 2006), and even longevity (Baker et al., 2007). Those who track the needs of employers know that the vast majority of jobs now require workers who are able to read at the highschool level or better (White et al., 2006).

The U.S. Department of Education provides funding to states for adult education programs that include literacy instruction for adults who did not graduate from high school. Out of a total target population of about 40 million adults, states provide services for about 2.5 million (Lasater & Elliott, 2005). The 25-30 million adults with severe reading difficulties identified by NCES, along with a large group of immigrants whose first language is not English, make up the bulk of those in the target population who are eventually served in literacy programs for adults who read anywhere from a beginning level up to a 12th grade level. A significant proportion of this group includes those who have a learning disability, mostly in reading. Three to four percent, or roughly 7 to 9 million adults, report having a learning disability. Four percent of the NCES Below Basic readers report having a learning disability (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993; Kutner et al., 2005).

To help address this vast problem of adults with low literacy skills, the National Institute for Literacy (the "Institute") in collaboration with the National Center for the Study of Adult Literacy and Learning (NCSALL) established the Adult Literacy Research Working Croup. This group of approximately 40 experts in adult education and reading has met a number of times to work on identifying and disseminating effective researchbased practices for the assessment and instruction of adults in adult literacy programs. This issue of Perspectives on Language and Literacy highlights some of the activities of the Working Group and several of its members.

In the introductory piece, John Comings and June Crawford provide context by describing the Working Group in detail and how it relates to the Institute's and NCSALL's missions. They also describe U.S. government supported resources identified for dissemination or actually developed by the Working Group. These include four of the resources described in this issue: a summary of the scientific research in adult reading instruction (Kruidenier, 2002); a professional development resource based on these findings (McShane, 2005); a website for teachers on assessing adult readers in preparation for instruction (Davidson, Strucker, & Bruce, 2003); and a tool designed to assess adult educators' knowledge of validated reading assessment and instruction practices (Ziegler, Bell, & McCallum, in press). …

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