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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue D ::: September 2005

Two Ways to Assess Literacy Learners in Prison

by Bill Muth
As corrections educators, everything about our task is complex: the rigors of teaching reading, the needs of the prisoners, the learning spaces in which we teach, the nature of literacy itself. Thus what we need to know about the literacy learners in our classrooms is multifaceted and extensive, yet our instructional decisions and our ability to support learning are only as good as the knowledge we possess about them. For a recent study of federal prisoners, I created a two-pronged assessment protocol to address these needs. The protocol was based on two pioneering projects: The Adult Reading Components Study (Strucker & Davidson, 2003) and the Adult Literacy Evaluation Project (Lytle, 2001). In this article I share some of the results of my study and argue that corrections educators can use similar assessment protocols to gain a wide base of knowledge about their literacy learners.

What do teachers who work in prisons need to know about their students? The answer to this question depends on the stated and unstated purposes of their programs (Moore & Readence, 2001) and the beliefs about literacy and learning that underpin them. I believe that prison-based programs should support such immediate and long-term literacy needs as communicating with children and other loved ones at home, improving reading skills and strategies, earning a certificate of General Educational Development (GED), reflecting on one’s life, and preparing to re-enter society. To support these broad literacy purposes, the assessment protocol described in this article embraces two different, but complementary, ways of knowing about literacy and learning. These ways of knowing pertain to inmates’ strengths and needs across components of reading such as vocabulary, decoding, fluency, and comprehension; and the ways in which they view and practice literacy and learning.

Ways of Knowing About Literacy and Learning

Knowledge about the inmates’ reading strengths and needs is needed to place learners appropriately into programs and to inform instruction. Prisoners display an extremely diverse range of abilities. Many are English language learners; received special educational support in school; are unschooled; or have histories of head trauma, drug abuse, and difficulty paying attention and remembering things (Travis et al., 2001). Assessing inmates’ abilities in key reading component areas — such as decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension — can empower corrections educators to embrace skill diversity by identifying distinct learning profiles and using them as instructional starting points. I assessed federal prisoners’ ability patterns with traditional reading tests and educational history questionnaires.

Traditional tests of reading skills have limitations. They often cannot tell us if readers are actually using the skills they possess, or whether they take spelling risks when they write letters home, or what strategies they use to check comprehension or attack a new word in print. Questionnaires may tell us which literacy practices inmates engage in during leisure time and how often, but they are not designed to assess how learners feel about the prison’s literacy program. Nor are they designed to determine what their personal purposes for learning are, and whether these purposes are consistent with official purposes such as passing the GED exam.

Qualitative interviews enable teachers to understand the views and practices of their students. The need to create structures to assess the views of students may be unnecessary in other settings, but prisons can be places of profound mistrust and miscommunication. Without some understanding of prisoners’ literacy-related beliefs — about, for example, their own abilities and purposes for learning, or what aspects of the program are most threatening — great divides between student and teacher can arise, especially in compulsory literacy programs.

Reading Components

I assessed the reading abilities of 120 prisoners using a protocol adapted from The Adult Reading Component Study (ARCS), which was devised to examine the reading patterns of 955 adult learners from communities throughout the United States. Strucker and Davidson found distinctive patterns among these learners, whose demographics resembled those of federal prisoners (e.g., overwhelmingly minority and poor, linguistically diverse, with limited formal schooling).

Using traditional, easy-to-administer, and relatively inexpensive tests, I assessed three component areas of reading. Tests of phonemic awareness, decoding, and word recognition (in and out of context) measured print skills. Tests of oral expressive and receptive vocabulary measured meaning skills. Tests of rapid naming and a timed oral reading test measured reading rate.

I used a questionnaire, based on the ARCS questionnaire and modified for use with prisoners, in conjunction with the tests to provide background information about prisoners’ first language, education and work history, and other family- and health-related areas.

Qualitative Interviews

To gain an understanding of prisoners’ views about literacy and learning in prison, I engaged six prisoners in open-ended interviews. Each interview lasted one-and-a-half to two hours. My qualitative research questions were based on Lytle’s (2001) theory of adult literacy development. Lytle suggests that development can be measured along four dimensions of literacy: beliefs about literacy and learning, literacy practices (such as helping children with homework, using an ATM machine), the processes used to decode and gain meaning from print, and plans that reflected students’ purposes for learning.

I encouraged the participants — all were currently enrolled in literacy classes — to “tell their story about what it was like to learn here” (in prison). I attempted to ask this question in a neutral way and to keep the conversation on topic. However, I allowed them to take the discussion of their views about literacy in any direction they wished. They described childhood experiences in school, their struggle to stay in touch with family members through letter writing, the trouble that a nephew was currently having in school, the materials they most liked to read and what they got out of it, what it was like trying to process print and get meaning out of various texts. They speculated about how their lives might have turned out if they had completed school, voiced their embarrassment about not being able to read or spell as well as others, and described unsafe prison spaces where ridicule (for being “stupid”) could lead to confrontation, which, in turn, could lead to more prison time. Some resented being forced to attend school but revealed learning purposes and goals that were personal and immediate (e.g., being able to write letters without having to ask others for help; proving to others that they had reformed; reading the newspaper). They noted how infrequently they could express the kind of ideas we were discussing in the interviews, and how they typically kept their personal goals, fears, worries, and hopes to themselves.

Getting Started

Corrections educators can construct their own relatively inexpensive initial assessment protocol that requires about two hours to administer: one hour for tests and questionnaire, and one hour for the qualitative interview. Since teachers often have large classes, meager resources, and little time to conduct in-depth assessments, they will need the support of their administration in order to implement this.

More information on Adult Reading Components Tests and Questionnaires is available from:

More information on qualitative, open-ended Interviews is available from:

  • Muth (2004): Chapter 3 provides an overview of how the author designed his qualitative interviews
  • Weiss (1994): This is an excellent primer on qualitative interviews.

Two Learners

The following examples illustrate how the two-pronged approach to assessment can build a rich knowledge base from which instructional decisions can be made. These decisions are informed by both the strengths and needs of the learners and their personal purposes for learning.

Mark Harrison

Mark was 41 years old at the time of the interview. A white male, he was born in a major port city in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. He experienced extreme difficulties trying to learn to read in the first grade, which persisted through the middle of the eighth grade when he quit school. In the interviews he described how he coped with school, siblings, and peers, knowing that he was not stupid but also knowing that he could not read.

“… When I was a kid …

my sister…used to call me stupid. And then I started to think, hey … something’s wrong with you, you know?

“… She called me this and then sometimes other people would call me it too …

“… If she wanted something, [she’d say] ‘Get that!’ or ‘Do this!’ ‘Don’t ask me dork!’ ‘Stupid!’…you know.

“… [In second grade] I behaved bad because I couldn’t do the work … I had to find a way … when that work was being given out instead of being embarrassed because I couldn’t do it, to do something bad to get out of the way … or sent … to the office, put … in the coatroom … or stand out in the hall.”

Once Mark quit school, he experienced depression but eventually managed to get and keep a well-paying, meaningful job. He compensated for his inability to read by asserting himself and by having a strong memory. Unfortunately, after his mother died he started taking drugs, which eventually cost him his job, his marriage, and custody of his children. The habit also resulted in his imprisonment.

Mark reported ingesting lead-based paint as a child and being in a car accident that left him unconscious. Despite this troubling history, he was intensely motivated to learn to read. Since Mark entered the prison literacy program four years earlier, he had been enrolled in class for six to eight hours a day and reported reading for four hours every evening in his housing unit. He characterized his reading as labored and noted that he frequently had trouble pronouncing words, read very slowly, often forgot what he just read, and lost his place while reading, forcing him to reread the same passage over and over again. Presented below is a profile of his reading test scores, represented in the chart by his scores on the Diagnostic Assessment of Reading (DAR):


Print Skill

Word Recognition GE

Meaning Skill

Word Meaning GE

Grade Equivalent 5.0 10.1

Despite fours years of intense study, Mark’s print skills (Word Recognition Test) were far surpassed by his fairly extensive meaning skills, represented here by his Word Meaning Test score (a measure of oral expressive vocabulary). Mark’s oral reading was labored and slow. While his performance on the untimed Adult Basic Learning Examination (ABLE) Reading Comprehension test was equal to the strongest learners in the study (10.1 GE), his reading rate score was comparable to the lowest-performing inmates.

Mark’s learning profile across key component areas of reading provides a much richer understanding of his actual strengths and needs than could be gained from a single reading comprehension test score. However, silent reading comprehension scores are sometimes the only data available to corrections educators to aid them in placing learners into programs and making initial instructional decisions. (See Strucker, 1997, http://www.ncsall.net/?id=456, for a compelling argument against this practice.)

Mark’s strong reading comprehension test score might indicate that he is ready to take the GED. If oral reading activities were not part of the classroom routine, his extremely slow reading performance might go undetected. His failure to complete tests might suggest to some that he was lazy or just gave up. Yet his learning profile demonstrates how difficult it is for Mark to decode, despite his strong vocabulary knowledge. His educational history suggests that this struggle with print has been going on since first grade. The qualitative data reveal Mark’s profound and sustained drive to learn to read.

When all the data — from tests, questionnaire, and interview — are reviewed, a picture of Mark Harrison emerges: a highly motivated, bright learner who has struggled with decoding and fluency his entire life. We learn that he continues to benefit from explicit instruction that builds on his hard-earned print skills, and that placing him in a GED preparation class (which he would resist, but, based on his reading comprehension scores, might happen) would almost guarantee that his need for intense support to gain print skills would be unmet. We also learn that careful selections of ability-appropriate, authentic texts (Purcell-Gates et al., 2002), such as USA Today and books about his hometown, are excellent ways to reinforce his print knowledge and his budding image of himself as a reader:

“… I was raised on the TV. As soon as I got up in the morning [I] turned the TV on when I was a kid.

It was like, that was the babysitter … until it was time to go to bed or fall asleep in front of the TV … And here [in prison] when the reading started coming to me … I cut down on TV. I sit in the room and read a lot. I try to keep feeding the dog and feeding it, feeding it. Keep reading because that’s what everybody says. It’s like a bike. If you stay on it you get better and better every day … By the time I get off of work, eat, and shower, and go through to the room, [I read from] eight to twelve — four hours a night … I just bought my first $35 book, Small Town, Maryland … It’s got the pictures back from the forties, and thirties and everything. It is awesome.

“[Now, for the first time in my life] in my spare time, any time I can [I read]. I’ll find myself in the bathroom with the toilet paper wrapper that somebody threw down and I’ll [notice the wrapper] and say ‘Hey! This is made in Maryland! …’ …The reading, I wanted to read! I wanted to read! I wanted to see if I was stupid [like] my sister and people call me, [or if] something else is causing it [because] I wasn’t learning right. So, I don’t think I was just stupid. I guess I wanted to prove people wrong. I want to be able to read. I want to be able to look at things and, you know, and read it!

Anne Blanchard

Anne was a 33-year-old African-American woman serving time at a minimum-security camp. She was born in upstate New York but moved throughout the South as a child. Her mother was a migrant worker, and her schooling was frequently interrupted. She reported that she repeated the fourth grade and was enrolled in numerous elementary schools. She left school in the middle of the sixth grade in part because she became pregnant, and in part to escape the embarrassment of being placed in special education classes with second graders. Anne described herself as a “slow learner.” (For more details about Anne’s story, see the College Reading Association’s Twenty-Seventh Yearbook, in press.)

Despite participating in the prison’s literacy program for four years, Anne’s scores remained quite low across print and meaning component areas:


Print Skill

Word Recognition GE

Meaning Skill

Word Meaning GE

Grade Equivalent 1.5 2.0

Anne’s flat learning profile and modest gains contrast surprisingly with the literacy practices she described during the qualitative interview.

Since she entered prison, she read for pleasure at least 30 minutes every day, and she engaged in letter writing and reading as a primary way of remaining connected to, and at the center of, her family of six children. “… All [family news] comes through me. It comes from a letter. They want to write me a lot. And then I write and tell them what they were saying.”

In the interview Anne revealed other strengths. She described the self-control it took to put worries of prison and home beside as she prepared mentally for class.

“Well, when I come in the classroom, I say ‘Okay,’ and some of them have been a lousy day … like [when] I had just lost my mom [in] August…It gets frustrating because, you know, we have a lot of stuff on our minds ... especially home … But … me, I’m a calm person that I would calm it off, and I wouldn’t show my true feelings [in the classroom] ...

Anne described her role as a counselor to new women entering the prison camp. She explained the ‘mother’ and ‘sister’ roles that the female inmates adopted at her prison camp.

“… We have prison mommas, we have prison sisters ... Somebody that you can go to and talk to, and finally show you … a shoulder to cry on. And somebody who’ll be there for you always … ain’t gonna never leave your side … make sure you do well … won’t lead you in the wrong way …”

Anne herself was a prison sister; she described how she helped another prisoner by counseling her to let go of a family problem that was beyond her control.

Anne described how the caretaker of three of her children was also going to assist her when she was released. Travis and colleagues (2001) reported on the numerous logistical hurdles (in addition to other, more fundamental, needs such as literacy, job skills, and drug treatment) that ex-offenders must face from the moment of their release from prison. Anne’s last sentence reflects a good deal of wisdom in this regard.

“He [the caretaker of three of her daughters was a preacher] seem like he’s very nice … He loves the kids … He came from the ghetto, too … He’d say, ‘You kids are living good, you know. They got their own rooms …’ He say, ‘I don’t want your kids, when you get out, me and my wife are gonna try to help you, get you some work so you and your kids can be together.’

“… I need his help, and I’m gonna accept his help because I do need to get back on my feet. Maybe he can find me a job. I can try to get back on my feet and get a nice place to stay … When you get out somebody else has got to lead you.”

The data from the interview give us a new understanding of Anne, quite distinct from the information gathered from the reading tests. Anne’s reading scores might lead even the most caring teachers to believe that her literacy practices would be infrequent. Her education history might reinforce this, since she dropped out of school in sixth grade while functioning at the second-grade level. Yet the qualitative data reveal how Anne views reading and writing letters as essential to her role as mother: a role she strongly, even defiantly, identifies with. Anne’s story suggests that she has numerous assets: the capacity for great self-control; an ability to help other women; social networks that have supported her children and will also be used to help Anne as she re-enters society. Further, she strives to remain a good parent to her children; and she has a strong desire to learn as much as she can (both to prove to others that she is reformed, and to gain a skilled job once she is released).

With this rich knowledge base, we might decide to place Anne in a literacy program with a life-skills orientation. The program might provide support for letter writing, job seeking, and coping with the vast array of forms and other texts she will be encountering in the year ahead (housing applications, bus schedules, legal documents, etc.). Her literacy purposes are well-defined and have immediate importance to her children and her efforts to prepare for release.

“My dream is getting a good job…I want to sit there and be somebody and know how to do things and type [things]. That’s why it’s very important when you got to prison you don’t just sit down and wonder what it’s like in here … Get out there and do something with your life! …”


When only a single test score is used to place learners like Anne and Mark into programs, when we do not have sufficient knowledge of their educational histories, their strengths and needs across the component areas of reading, or their personal beliefs about literacy and learning, we lack the rich base of data required to meet their literacy needs most effectively. When we are equipped with this understanding, our own views might change, as we notice that inmates are both learners with specific needs and whole human beings capable of guiding their own learning.

Lytle, S. L. (2001). “Living literacy: Rethinking development in adulthood.” In E. Cushman, E. R. Kintgen, B. M. Kroll, & M. Rose (eds.), Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook (pp. 376-401). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Moore, D. W., & Readence, J. E. (2001). “Situating secondary school literacy research.” In E. B. Moje & D. G. O’Brien (eds.), Constructions of Literacy: Studies of Teaching and Learning in and out of Secondary Schools (pp. 3-25). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Muth, W. (2005). “Building bridges of literacy.” Yearbook of the College Reading Association (27).

Purcell-Gates, V., Degener, S., Jacobson, E., & Soler, M. (2002). “Impact of authentic adult literacy instruction on adult literacy practices.” Reading Research Quarterly, 37, 70-92.

Strucker, J. (1997). “What silent reading tests alone can’t tell you: Two case studies in adult reading differences.” Focus on Basics, 1B, 13-17.

Strucker, J., & Davidson, R. (2003). The Adult Reading Components Study. A NCSALL Research Brief. National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. Retrieved February 20, 2005, from http://www.gse.harvard.edu/~ncsall

Travis, J., Solomon, A., & Waul, M. (2001). From Prison to Home: The Dimensions and Consequences of Prisoner Reentry. Urban Institute. Retrieved July 12, 2004, from:

Weiss, R. (1994). Learning from Strangers. The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies. New York: The Free Press.

About the Author
Bill Muth is currently the Education Administrator of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In 2004 he received his Ph.D. in adult literacy from George Mason University, where he is now an adjunct professor of reading.

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