The message below is from Val Yule (vyule@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx).
From: Val Yule <vyule@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Subject: Can adults read?
> Tom Sticht posted an article in 2003 on How Well Can U. S. Adults
Read? Government-Centered vs. Learner-Centered Estimates
> Can adults read? Here is a simple test of comprehension anyone can do.
> THE PROBLEM TO INVESTIGATE
> Concerns about literacy standards have not extended to concern for
how well literate adults can read. Yet observation and pilot experiments
suggest that most adults do not read accurately.
> Authors are often enraged by copy-editors or by distortions of their
letters edited in the press, and people often find it hard to understand
others’ point of view, since they interpret what they read according to
their own biases.
> What is the extent of this problem
> Most reading tests today are designed for quick computer scoring, yet
multiple choice can allow people to achieve good scores, even without
reading a text at all.
> This open-ended test requires personal scoring, but gives more valid
results than multiple choice.
> Material: Take any short 7 paragraph article - I have used a
biography of the scientist, Sir Peter Medawar for adult testing, and a
short legend for children. I can supply both for comparative research.
After readers read each paragraph of around 130-150 words, they jot down
three items of information from that paragraph, in three phrases or
sentences of their own words. They are allowed to look back.
> The score is the number of items with errors in them. The best
readers make no errors.
> FINDINGS FROM PILOT EXPERIMENTS
> 1. First year undergraduates at a front-rank British university were
asked to read through a seven-paragraph article, and after each
paragraph to write down the gist of the paragraph or three items of
information from it, in one to five lines. This was not a speed test.
The article was the biography of a scientist, Sir Peter Medawar, written
at a junior secondary level. One paragraph only that described his
research was more difficult, in that it used words like 'immune system'.
> RESULTS Very few students made no errors. Yet they were writing down
what they themselves had understood as the gist of each paragraph, and
what they had freely chosen to write.
> Errors were of three main types.
> a). Syntactic errors. Pronouns were misallocated. and who did what
were confused. Negatives were left out, or put in where there were none
- for example, 'He did' could be read as 'He did not'.
> b). Errors in reading content. i) Names and events were described
> ii) Errors from incorrect expectations and interpretations. There
were misinterpretations when students read according to their expectations.
> iii) And there were the inventions, where the reader inferred or
added what the text did not say or support.
> 2. Adults from the general public. Findings were similar, except that
there were more errors, and a proportion of the respondents did not
complete three responses for each paragraph.
> Their errors illustrate how adults misread in real life.
> It would be interesting to try this test on opponents in political
debates, to see if they can actually read correctly what the other has
written. Subeditors could see how they make out. It would be interesting
to see who were the more accurate readers - those who have been trained
to guess and those who have been trained in word decoding, and those who
> Even University undergraduates are likely to make mistakes. On a
standard reading test with multiple-choice questions, these students did
quite well. Such tests overestimate how people really read, because they
are about recognition more than recall, and because a series of
multiple-choice questions inevitably give clues to their answers. It has
been shown that in most multiple-choice tests, a person using native wit
can answer up to 50% or more of the questions accurately without even
having read the text at all.
> Over-estimating the reading ability of the adult population occurs
for other reasons too. Tests before leaving school are misleading,
because after that so many people become rusty or even ex-literate
through lack of continued practice. Hardly any adults are tested for
reading thereafter, except in occasional surveys which are given
frightening or reassuring headlines. Adult literacy courses do not like
to assess their students, or even their progress, because they feel that
the students' past experiences of failure will make such tests too
stressful and demotivate them.
> However, there are many pointers to a decline in reading ability in
the section of the adult population that can read. I am not going to be
drawn into arguments about comparisons with the quality of literacy
around in the past. My concern is about the current quality as well as
quantity of the 'top twenty per cent'.
> In the 1930s a survey reported that a third of primary teachers in
Victoria, Australia, said that they did not like reading. That is, those
entrusted with the teaching of reading. In the 1970s teachers taking an
in-service course in Special Education complained that they found
articles in the major quality newspaper too difficult to understand.
> The English-language publishing industry here and abroad is reflects
worsening trends. Most learned journals can maintain their smaller print
and economical format, because they know that their readers will have to
try to read them, but many of the professional and elite journals that
must appeal to keep their readership have changed within the past two
decades. Their print has expanded to twice its former size, and it is
cushioned with plenty of spacing and illustrations. This has happened to
major journals for reading teachers and classroom teachers. It was
suggested to the editor of the Education Department journal for teachers
in an Australian State that he might include one serious article of
around 1500-2000 words in smaller print to complement its glossy menu of
large-print snippets of up to 500 words. He replied that he already
copped too much flak from teachers because he still printed the official
Gazette section in its traditional smaller print - the size that was
once standard for the whole journals.
> Books pour from the presses - but bookshop displays, the Guide to New
Australian Books, and Australian Books in Print give an idea of the
ratio of serious-content books to 'decorative' and hobby books, outside
academia. What are essentially picture-books for adults outnumber the
once-far-stretching rows of solid print in Penguins or Everymans. There
are many whopping block-buster novels - but exploration of how people
read them shows the degree to which they serve as 'Airline books' to fly
with, snacking between the food. There are some pages that publishers
expect to be thumbed more closely - if I wrote a novel I would put all
the and torture in one chapter, so that the other chapters could be
'read for themselves alone', if not omitted. From discussions with many
people who buy these large paperback novels and thrillers, it appears
that many readers never follow the plot, are vague about the main
characters, and are really only dipping along from incident to incident
rather like channel surfers.
> I would like to know what has happened in France, where the love of
reading was once visible in bookshops full of books all with dull beige
paper covers. Books were as essential as meat, and so, except for
labels, the covers were as relevant as butcher's paper.
> Newspapers are in decline, and as they throw in more and more
supplements, people have less time to read them. There is far too much
print around for even the greatest reader of Cornflakes packets to be
able to read even everything that comes through the mail. There is a
surfeit of bumf - and this too affects people's attitudes to reading.
The pursuit of learning is not just a paperchase. It is conducted in a
snowstorm of printed words.
> Concern for literacy
> There is a cottage industry producing written arguments that it is
not necessary for most people to be literate these days. But there are
good reasons why literacy is essential to a civilised civilisation, and
why universal literacy is desirable. Among the literate population who
do not read properly are journalists who can't write up a piece without
making serious errors.
> WHAT CAN BE DONE?
> The number of research articles on Reading that were listed in the
ERIC data-base for 1982-1993 alone was 32,293. On the other hand, until
the 1920s, almost all people who have ever learned to read in the world,
as well as all those who left school still unlettered, were taught by
untrained teachers, and in Scandinavia children have been expected to
arrive at school at age seven already able to read, taught by their
families. The subject of reading is not entirely specialist, like
astrophysics, and the public can contribute to its understanding and
> The response to most problems is to look for money to throw at them.
To suggest simple ways to hack at all the Gordian knots can invite the
criticism of oversimplification, or the instinctive committee response
of thinking of ways why ideas would not work, so they need not be tried.
I think a great deal can be attempted at every point, a battery rather
than a single cannon.
> valerie yule
> formerly schools psychologist, clinical child psychologist and academic.
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