LISTENING AND READING IN ADULT LITERACY
According to the developmental model of literacy outlined in the introduction to this Compendium, children typically acquire considerable competence in listening and comprehending speech before they develop competence in reading and comprehending the written language. Indeed, the whole idea behind the teaching of "phonics" and other" word attack" techniques is that the learner's main task is to learn how to "decode" the written language to recover the spoken language which can then be comprehended as usual.
The idea that listening competence develops first and then reading competence permits the learner to understand in writing that which could earlier be understood only in the spoken language leads to the concept of "reading potential." Figure 83 illustrates the concept for school children. The general notion is that children enter school at the first grade with two types of communication abilities: listening and reading (there are, of course, other communication abilities, but they are not the object of discussion here). By definition, the average listening ability of first graders is designated as first grade listening ability. The average reading ability of first graders is designated as first grade reading ability. These are the "normative" designations of listening and reading skills.
Figure 83 shows the hypothetical case of a child with normative listening and reading levels at the second grade. However, as the figure illustrates, if the child could read as well as he or she listens, then the "reading potential" score would be at the third grade level.
The concept of "reading potential" is important for adult literacy for at least two reasons. First, whether people are designated as "learning disabled" or not is generally based on the idea that on some measure, such as an "intelligence" test, the people are at their appropriate age level or above, but on a reading measure they are two or more years behind. In other words, they are not reading "up to their potential." Listening tests are one way of assessing people's "reading potential."
The second reason that the concept of "reading potential" is important in adult literacy education is that it is frequently thought that adults in need of literacy education have lived a reasonably long time and developed fairly high levels of competence in oral language, including vocabulary and comprehension ability for listening. Therefore, unlike children, whose oral language skills are not well developed yet and who must acquire higher levels of vocabulary while also learning to read, adults will be able to acquire a fairly high level of literacy in a brief time, relative to that required by children. This leads to the expectation that the adult's literacy problems may be solved fairly quickly with a relatively brief period of training in some form of decoding the written word to recover the vast amount of competence already possessed in the oral language.
However, as the data for Figure 84 indicate, when some 2,000 adults were assessed to compare their skills in both listening and reading, the anticipated higher level of listening ability, particularly at the lower levels of reading as indicated by the GatesMacGinitie reading test, did not emerge when listening to comprehend paragraphs. While the vocabulary tests did show greater skill by listening, it appears that that was due to the fact that in the listening vocabulary test, the test was administered both by listening and by reading. In this case, then, people were paced to complete the entire vocabulary test by the spoken words on the listening test. This appears to have provided an indication of greater vocabulary ability than when vocabulary was assessed only by reading.
The data of Figure 84 were obtained using group administered tests in which the listening and reading measures were equated as closely as possible in content, time to listen or read, and difficulty of the questions, which were all multiple-choice requiring recall of factual information.
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