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Focus On Basics

Volume 8, Issue B ::: May 2006

Adult Literacy Research Network

Research in ProgressIn September 2002, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD), the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), and the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) of the US Department of Education awarded six research grants to institutions and principal investigators to study the effectiveness of adult literacy interventions for low-literate adults. An additional grant was added to the network with funding from the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), bringing the total to seven. These projects seek to improve the reading instruction of adult basic education (ABE) students whose reading is between grade equivalent 4 and 8. Classified as intermediate adult readers, these students currently make up 60 to 70 percent of the ABE population. Based on descriptive studies, a consensus now exists that their reading difficulties are caused by dysfluent word recognition and/or lack of a literate meaning vocabulary. As a result, they make slow progress toward high school levels of comprehension. Each of the network’s projects has been making significant strides in understanding the constellation of factors that influence adult literacy learning and in using that knowledge to create effective and sustainable adult and family literacy programs. Short descriptions of these studies are included here. Although the studies are not yet completed, Focus on Basics would like to familiarize you with them. Their findings will be important to your work.

Research on Reading Instruction for Adults

This three-component study focuses on adult learners whose word reading grade equivalency levels range from 3.0 to 5.9. The first component evaluates the degree of explicitness necessary in teaching reading to adults. Learners (60 per approach) are being taught using one of the following instructional approaches: decoding and fluency; decoding, reading comprehension, and fluency; extensive reading; decoding, reading comprehension, extensive reading, and fluency. Outcomes on reading measures of individuals in each of these groups will be compared to each other and to a control group of adult literacy learners who are taught using other approaches. All reading instructional approaches are of equal length (100 hours), similar format, and independently monitored for integrity. Students are encouraged to attend each class. Absent students are contacted frequently by phone, and students receive motivational certificates after one month of class attendance, 50 hours of class attendance, and at the final day of scheduled class sessions. To date, 263 learners have been pretested, and 157 learners have completed class sessions.

In the second component of the project, data will be analyzed to identify subtypes of adult literacy learners and whether these subtypes respond differentially to the different instructional approaches. The third component, which has two aspects, includes using brain imaging (fMRI) technology. The first provides a systematic evaluation of the different components of the neural circuitry of adult poor readers compared to adult expert readers. Adult expert readers and adults who have difficulty reading will undergo fMRI studies of basic reading processes. The second aspect is to evaluate whether fMRI may provide a neurobiological index of the impact of instruction on adult learners. At the end of this study, results will be shared in journals and at conferences in the field of adult literacy.

Daphne Greenberg,
Georgia State University

Testing Impact of Health Literacy in Adult Literacy and Integrated Family Approach Programs

This research compares the relative impact on adult literacy gains of the integrated family approach (IFA) Even Start programs with those of adult literacy (AL) programs. This study uses a randomized design across more than 50 sites in Illinois. The study includes all sites in Illinois that offer a classroom-based adult literacy program in which adults have a choice to participate in all four components of a family literacy program or just an adult education component. The study also tests the effects of exposure to an explicit, research-based health literacy curriculum on both literacy and health literacy outcomes in Illinois participants. Separate, but content-equivalent, adult health literacy curricula were created based on 13 priority objectives for health established by national experts and are being tested, under both the AL and IFA conditions for English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) and native English speakers. More than 2,000 adults have participated in the study. These include native English speakers from six educational functioning levels, ranging from 0 to12.9 grade level equivalency; and ESOL speakers from six educational functional levels, ranging from 0 to10 student performance levels. The literacy measures required by the state of Illinois (TABE, BEST Literacy, and CELSA) are used to measure literacy gains. Adults are tested at the beginning of the study, and again after 42 hours of instruction. Other instruments created from the Health Literacy curricula based on the theory of planned action, social cognitive theory, and process measures of curriculum fidelity and implementation are used to chart learners’ health knowledge and behavior change. Four fundamental assumptions are being tested: (1) the IFA will prove more effective in addressing adult literacy needs than AL programs; (2) adult literacy curricula that include a health literacy component will prove more effective in improving adult literacy than adult literacy curricula that do not include a health literacy component; (3) IFA programs using a health literacy curriculum will be more effective in improving literacy than AL programs using the same curriculum or programs using a standard AL curriculum, and (4) in ESOL programs, the IFA will prove more effective in improving adult literacy than traditional AL programs when using the same health literacy curriculum. Other important outcomes include gains in adult perceived health knowledge, behaviors, and beliefs.

Preliminary results indicate that in all conditions in which the health literacy curriculum has been used there has been a significant impact on learners’ health knowledge and self-efficacy belief/behavioral intention. The literacy differences have been positive in all conditions, showing no harm in literacy gains as a result of the use of the curriculum. The last wave of participants will finish in late spring 2006. Results will be available in early 2007. For additional information on the design of the study, see: Levy, S.R., Rasher, S.P., Mandernach, J.B., Bercovitz, L.S., Berbaum, M.L, Deardorff Carter, S. (2004). Adult literacy research and field-based practice: Piloting an experimental health literacy curriculum for full-scale field implementation. Family Literacy Forum, 3 (1), 32-35.

Susan Levy
University of Illinois

Building a Knowledge Base for Teaching Adult Decoding

The purpose of this study is to expand the knowledge base about the design of effective instruction in decoding for adults reading at the low-intermediate level (4th to 7th grade equivalent levels). This study is examining the efficacy of teaching decoding using structured approaches derived from K-12 instruction and customized for use with adults. During the first two years of the study, we designed and pilot-tested instructional methods based on theories about language learning and methods created for K-12 education. Based on the results of these design studies, we formulated an enriched and accelerated decoding curriculum that teaches metalinguistic concepts about phonology and orthography, includes both spelling and decoding, applies decoding skills to multisyllabic words from the beginning, and teaches cognitive and meta cognitive strategies to support application of new skills in reading. This curriculum is being assessed in an experimental study involving 45 adult reading classes in 23 adult literacy programs in 12 states across the United States. Of these classes, 16 were randomly assigned to receive either the enriched curriculum or to continue their existing reading instruction. Seven of the 23 programs were selected because they were already using published decoding curricula; these programs serve as an alternate treatment group. In addition to reading measures, the project is collecting extensive information about the learners, instructors, and the operation of the adult basic education (ABE) programs to enable analysis of the relationships among learners’ characteristics, instructional methods, ABE program characteristics, and learners’ development of reading skills. The results, which we anticipate will be ready for dissemination in 2007, will contribute to knowledge about effective reading instruction for adult learners with low skills.

Charles MacArthur
University of Delaware

Judith Alamprese
Abt Associates

Deborah Knight
University of Delaware

Improving Literacy Instruction for Adults

This study applies the knowledge garnered with younger populations to address adults’ literacy needs. The goal is to validate the use of instructional reading strategy interventions proven to be effective for children and adolescents with adults with limited literacy proficiency. The project employs a multidisciplinary, systematic, and programmatic research plan with three aims. The first used multiple predictors of reading proficiency, three outcome measures, and a background questionnaire to assess 319 adult education students to determine the learner characteristics and the reading skills needed for success on the outcome measures and researched what component skills for reading are incorporated within CASAS, NAEP and GED, which are common assessments of literacy (see Hock, M., & Mellard, D. 2005. Reading comprehension strategies for adult literacy outcomes, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49(3), 192–200). This aided in the selection of effective reading interventions linking reading components and interventions to global adult literacy outcomes. The investigators are specifically interested in enhancing adult learners’ component skills of word analysis, fluency, and reading comprehension.

In the second aim, the investigators adapted interventions from the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning’s reading strategies to the adult learner and adult instructional settings. Rigorous tests of these interventions are occurring under randomized control group trials. Eight adult education programs provide the setting for the study. The intervention is taught in small groups with class sizes averaging three students. Intervention classes are taught three to four days a week for one to two hours each day, depending on the site. All the control students receive instruction as they normally would. The total number of students who have participated in the study to date is 162. Participating students are provided a monetary incentive for pre- and posttesting as well as when they reach specified attendance milestones.

The final aim addresses the issue of successfully translating research findings into practice by using adult education staff to implement the interventions. These studies will examine the effectiveness of these interventions on learners’ outcomes when the research controls and supports are reduced from what was available in the second aim. In addition, researchers are looking at the relationship of program characteristics to learner outcomes. The data from all aims provide an opportunity to answer a wide variety of questions regarding adult literacy skills, reading instruction, and adult education. Articles are currently being written to address some of those questions and readers may find them in journals relating to reading instruction, adult education, and health literacy within the next year.

Daryl Mellard
University of Kansas – Lawrence

Relative Effectiveness of Reading Programs for Adults

In this project currently underway, supplemental instructional programs that directly target decoding and fluency are being compared with regard to their effectiveness in improving foundational reading abilities of adult learners. The interventions are all adult-appropriate adaptations of programs with demonstrated value for enhancing reading abilities of children with skill levels equivalent to those of low-intermediate adult readers. The programs vary primarily in the relative emphasis given to the teaching of decoding and fluency. The participants are being drawn from the population of native English-speaking adults who have word recognition skills at the 2nd to 6th grade equivalent level. The population also includes native Spanish-speaking adults whose oral language proficiency in English is considered low-advanced. All participants have sought assistance at large, urban adult education centers; the reading tutorials supplement their classes. The various sites have enabled the researchers to yield a sample of approximately 400 learners who have been assessed to date, and about 100 learners who have completed tutorials. The final sample size of those completing the instructional programs is estimated to be approximately 300 socioeconomically, ethnically, and linguistically diverse learners. Instructional sessions may last up to 60 instructional hours, but learners are evaluated at various intervals throughout the instructional period. To examine gains resulting from the interventions, numerous reading skills and related cognitive-linguistic abilities are being assessed before, during, and after the instructional period. The findings will provide valuable information about what kinds of literacy instruction are most effective for raising the reading abilities of low-intermediate adult readers, how to identify these adults’ instructional needs accurately and efficiently by using an appropriate battery of assessments, and how literacy instruction might be tailored to the specific needs of individual adults in the target population.

John Sabatini
Educational Testing Services

Improving the Instruction of Adult Basic Education Intermediate Readers

Accelerated growth in reading has been documented with older adolescents reading at the 4th to 8th grade level, using an approach developed at Girls and Boys Town. (See http://www.ncsall.net/?id=466 “Reversing reading failure in young adults” in Focus on Basics 1B for more on the model.) We have adapted this approach for use by adult intermediate readers, and refer to our adaptation as Adult Fluency and Vocabulary. This research represents the first systematic attempt to assess the program. Because lack of practice time is a persistent problem for ABE students, the effectiveness of Soliloquy Learning’s Reading Assistant, a speech recognition reading tutor, is also being evaluated as a means of providing distributed practice in fluency and vocabulary (for more on Soliloquy Learning, see http://soliloquylearning.com/product/dr.ager.html).

We have employed a quasiexperimental longitudinal research design in which 24 intermediate ABE classes (totaling about 300 learners) have been randomly assigned to one of four instructional conditions at seven sites in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. The study lasted only one semester to minimize the effects of student dropouts, which occurred at an acceptable rate of about 25 percent. The four instructional conditions are: Adult Fluency and Vocabulary and Reading Assistant practice; Adult Fluency and Vocabulary and hard copy practice (same texts as used by the Reading Assistant); traditional curriculum and Reading Assistant practice; traditional curriculum and hard copy practice (same texts as used by the Reading Assistant). Students have been pre- and posttested in word recognition, fluency and rate, oral vocabulary, and reading comprehension. A similar battery will be administered in a follow-up interview in the fall of 2006.

Teachers in all four conditions received comparable amounts of training, and classrooms in all four conditions were observed regularly to monitor accuracy of the intervention and to document activities. After 10 months, follow-up observation and interview with each teacher will also be conducted (in the fall of 2007) to assess any possible impact of the interventions on instructors’ practice.

Data are being analyzed using a hierarchical nested design combined with individual growth curve analyses. In addition to investigating the effective ness of Adult Fluency and Vocabulary and the Reading Assistant, we also expect to shed some light on how fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension occur and interact in this under researched, yet numerically and socially significant, population of adult learners.

John Strucker
Harvard University Graduate School of Education

Mary E. Curtis
Lesley University Center for Special Education

Marilyn Jager Adams
Soliloquy Learning

Young Adult Literacy Problems: Prevalence and Treatment

Functional illiteracy in the young adult population (ages 18-35) is not only a drain on the nation’s economic productivity but also documented as a major obstacle to access to adequate health care and a major independent risk factor for depression and suicide. This project has two major phases: to determine the prevalence of poor reading skills in the young adult population, and to compare treatment regimens for efficacy. The latter is accomplished by a design that will permit the isolation of effective types of instruction in areas known to be crucial to reading outcome in children, and suspected to be so in adults: phonological decoding (sounding out words), vocabulary, and text comprehension. It is expected that the direct types of instruction will be differentially effective for persons with different skill profiles.

Frank Wood
Wake Forest University of the Health Sciences

Web Resources

For a review of extant literature on adult literacy, go to http://www.nifl.gov/partnershipforreading/

For a discussion of research needs and future directions in adult and family literacy, see http://www.nichd.nih.gov/

The Adult Literacy Research Network is introduced on http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ovae/pi/

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL