Can adult literacy programs help high school students who are struggling to read? In this article, Kevin Feldman, Ed.D., addresses this question.

I haven’t seen any research one way or the other. I’m certainly positively predisposed to public libraries in general and to anything that’s organized through the local public libraries. They tend to use local people, and they tend to have high credibility. But I haven’t seen any specific research looking at that, so I can’t say unequivocally, “Oh, yes, this is exactly the way to go.” But that would certainly be one of the resources, adult literacy programs.

To be honest with you, adult literacy hasn’t really gotten near the airplay that beginning reading and supporting students in the elementary grades has. I was just reading the current issue of Scientific Studies of Reading. It’s a special issue on reading development in adults. And in the introduction to it, Venezky and Sabatini talk about this issue of reading development in adults — really meaning late teens — and that that [particular] struggle with reading hasn’t been given near the attention that it needs. It’s really a burgeoning field. But it really looks like many of the issues are the same [as those for younger students].

But a major, major difference is this issue of attitude or the “scars”— the baggage of having failed at something that’s so important and the defense mechanisms [that are part of that]. One of the major problems with adult literacy programs is the dropout rate. People go once or twice, maybe looking for the simple solution, the magic answer, the quick fix, and they “don’t get the cure,” and they leave when it’s a long-term commitment. It would be akin to, I don’t know, learning a foreign language, a musical instrument, losing weight. It doesn’t happen over night; it really takes a sustained effort.

So, there is no one program that is going to do this for all kids, but a lot of programs that could be helpful to kids, is that right?

Absolutely. The main thing is sticking with it and making sure that you have reason to believe that [the program you select] is a fit for your child’s needs. If you know, for example, that your child is a reasonably accurate decoder — meaning they can figure out words, they can read them — but they read so laboriously, that it’s really the fluency and automaticity [that’s the problem], then I would ask, say, the local reading clinic or the adult literacy class, “Will you be directly addressing this issue?” So I think part of it is making sure that there’s a match between what is being done and the needs of my son or daughter. While there are many programs out there that have a track record — programs like Lindamood-Bell, Orton-Gillingham, The Wilson Reading Program — research has told us no one program works for all kids. What we need are [reading instructors] who understand that and who are flexible enough that they can match what they do to the assessed needs of the individual kid. It’s important to identify exactly where the breakdown occurs, because it’s discouraging for kids to have to go through something simple that they already know.

And particularly with adolescents, [we have] to make sure that they’re not treated like, sort of passive recipients, or like they’re just automatons on an assembly line. It should be like [consulting] an expert doctor, who really explains exactly what’s going on and works in partnership with you: “Here’s your role. Here’s my role. Together we can really make a lot of progress here.”

So it’s very important that young people understand why we’re doing, say, the guided or overheard reading. Or why we’re working on sight words, or why we’re working on pre-reading strategies of chapters, or whatever it is. So they understand the rationale, so they feel treated respectfully and in a way appropriate to young adults, not treated in a babyish or a remedial kind of way.


  • Venezky, Richard L. and John P. Sabatini. “Introduction to This Special Issue: Reading Development in Adults.” Scientific Studies of Reading, July 1, 2002 v6 i3 p217(4).