Why the Adult Education World Is Overdue In Embracing the Science of Reading

Phillips: While educators bemoan the reading crisis and decry Balanced Literacy icons, the discourse has all but avoided the adult education world.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

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I had exciting news for my students. I had found someone who could teach them to read. 

This was late in the aughts, when I had just begun working with adults who couldn’t read. I had no materials, no guidance, no mentors — just a slowly growing group of students who kept finding my GED-prep program and coming back night after night to wait patiently, wearily, for me to figure out how to teach them to read. I’d quickly discovered this challenge was beyond my untrained, intuitive approach.

But now I had a solution! An experienced reading tutor had offered to work with two students. The catch — they would have to travel to her library in another part of the city.

One of these men, Nelson (student names have been changed to protect privacy), was a fierce guy in his early 30’s. He had a shaved head, a gold earring, and a stony, unsmiling face. The other, Joseph, was in his 60’s, tired and worn out from the stress of caring for his aging father and his sick grown daughter on the wages of a man with no reading skills. The two had become friends; I relished the thought of them working with this experienced tutor. I assumed they’d share my excitement, but they just stared blankly back at me. I jumped around trying to explain the qualifications of this tutor and what a lucky break this was. They didn’t budge. Finally, I asked, “Why aren’t you excited about this?”

Nelson glared furiously at me; Joseph finally offered, “We can’t get there unless someone takes us first.” The deep impact of low literacy skills was first revealed to me in this moment. Unable to read directional signage, these able-bodied grown men couldn’t even pursue a solution to their predicament. 

In my 15 years of working with adults who can’t read I’ve seen and heard countless examples of the limitations that low literacy skills impose on adults. But while educators across the country bemoan the reading crisis and call for the heads of Balanced Literacy icons, the discourse entirely avoids the adult education world. 

Those two-thirds of American 4th graders who can’t read at grade level? They will soon be adults who can’t read. 

The 95% of 8th-graders in Detroit who can’t read proficiently? Same. 

And then what? 

It is long past time for the adult ed world to embrace the evidence and catch up to the Science of Reading. There are obstacles, of course. Adults are not only less cute than children; fewer education dollars are allotted to them, fewer teachers and schools are concerned with them, and absolutely nobody is making bank writing books to entice them to read. There is no Captain Underpants or Dr Seuss for adults reading at a 1st or 2nd grade level.

Forty-eight million adult Americans read below the third grade level. Forbes Magazine reported in 2020 that the plague of low literacy skills could be costing the US $2.2 trillion annually in health care, social services, and lost wages. Worse, low literacy is handed down to children; the biggest indicator of a child’s literacy fate lies in the mother’s reading level. 

Economics aside, virtually everyone, on both sides of the aisle, wants adults to be able to read. Clearly this is an issue worthy of our attention; naturally we would expect that the reading wars, the push for evidence-backed methods, the revolution that has taken down the shibboleths of the last decades are impacting the world of adult ed, right? 

You tell me. Let’s look.

Imagine your spouse or parent or neighbor can’t read

You know about the Science of Reading. You listened to “Sold a Story”. You believe that Whole Language is a discredited theory and that Balanced Literacy is not an effective way to teach reading.

You set out to find services. You look at libraries, literacy centers, or maybe your local municipal website. You make the happy discovery that many of these sites offer basic literacy services for adults. But when you click on the links you discover the next layer: that phrases like “adult literacy classes” and “adult basic literacy” actually mean classes in computer-training, ESL, job certifications, or GED. Lovely and essential programs, but what about those 48 million who need to learn to read? Where are the structured phonics programs for adults? 

Some literacy centers are clear that they simply don’t offer services for readers below the 4th grade level. Others aren’t so clear. In New York City, the Mayor’s Office website offers various Adult Basic Ed links for adults who want to learn to read, but when you click to learn more there are circular links and even broken links. A prominent adult literacy foundation names its core methodology for teaching reading as Whole Language, which is like a state-funded health clinic listing blood-letting as one of its services. 

Back in the aughts, under pressure from the students in my program who were so desperate to learn to read that they wouldn’t leave, I began asking around: How do you teach reading to adults? The response from education directors, foundation presidents, teachers, and advocates was dismaying. “Are they retarded?” a director of adult education programs asked. “They probably need to work harder,” said one adult ed program manager.

“We let the students pick their own curriculum,” the local director of a regional literacy program that serves hundreds of students told me. I was confused. “You’re teaching higher level students, then?” I said. “They can read?”

“No, they can’t read,” she said. “But they’re adults so they get to choose what they want to work on.” By then I was several years into learning how to teach reading, and as a literate college graduate I was still struggling to figure it out. But this program expected low-skilled readers to direct their own hero’s journey. 

Where are the materials? 

My early group of adult students was so desperate to learn to read that they tolerated my clumsy early efforts. I cringe to remember what I put them through. The children’s books, the random workbooks, the naïve assumption that I could just show them how to sound out and that would do the trick. Here’s what I know from years in these trenches: for most of these students learning to decode is extremely difficult.  

Adults who didn’t learn to read are often the most dyslexic, had the least effective teaching, and are the most impacted by socio-economic factors. Some, if they are immigrants, never went to school at all, or they may have dropped out in second or third grade.

If raised in the U.S., most either dropped out at the earliest moment or languished for years in special education classrooms.  

All of them now have adult lives, usually with jobs (or job searches), families, and health issues. They have adult brains, often weary, and rigidly attached to ineffective decoding strategies.

The most popular strategies 

Short on decoding skills, most adults come up with strategies. First, they memorize as many words as they can by sight. Second, they use the context to make a guess. Third, they stare in frustration at the word and wait for it to pop into their head. Of course there are unique flourishes. One student would re-write the word repeatedly while sternly admonishing herself: “Get it, girl. Come on, get it.” Many will unleash a chaotic, seemingly panicked jumble of guesses.

The one thing every single one of the adult basic literacy students I’ve met shares is a complete lack of awareness of the reading code. Not one has come into my program with the understanding that sounds are more relevant than letter names or even that sounds are a thing. 

They are, as a group, a case study in the importance of direct instruction of phonemic awareness and phonics.

As much or even more than any group they require the best teaching methods.  

Why then the almost total absence among adult ed programs of evidence-backed basic literacy programs?  Why the attachment to Whole Language principles? Why the undying love for Paolo Freire, who gives us zero specific strategies for teaching reading to adults? 

Is it any wonder that basic literacy students are often considered impossible to retain for more than a few months and not really worth the trouble to run a program for? Look at what they are offered. Why stick around?

I was lucky. 

Carried along by the persistence of that first group of students, I stumbled upon the concept of evidence-based methods for teaching reading — to children. I got certified and brought the program back to my tutoring center. Through the years I kept tweaking the curriculum to better serve both adult students and volunteer tutors until I finally re-wrote the whole thing, making a simple, scripted structured phonics curriculum that volunteers can be trained to use and that follows the evidence to the best of my ability. 

Those two men I mentioned were in my program too early to reap the full benefits. They were subject to the low end of my expertise curve. But they did learn. Nelson, the younger man, told me he’d never known there was anything to reading besides memorizing all the words. He learned slowly and painstakingly to tap and blend the sounds of simple words. He came in one day trying not to smile as he told us that his uncle had left him a note, and he’d read it. Another time he told me he’d gotten lost and started reading street signs. His ex-wife, on the phone with him trying to help, started shouting, “You can read!” He told me, “Words jump out at me everywhere I go.” He was a volatile young man, often disappearing for weeks on end and then shaking his head slyly when I’d ask what he’d been up to. One day he never returned. 

Joseph learned, too, also slowly. He later said that the entire first year of tutoring gave him an excruciating headache. It was worth it. From all of our students I hear the same thing: “Why didn’t they teach us this when we were young?”

If the numbers of children currently reading below grade level are correct, we are heading into an even worse adult literacy crisis than we have now. The rallying cry for effective instruction methods for children is loud and clear. But it is time to sound the bell for the refugees of the broken reading education system as well: all those children who didn’t learn and are now adults, still not reading.

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