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A Case Study in Teaching Reading to the Adult Learner

Dwayne Hess

Coppin State University



This case study will show the observation of a dyslexic literacy student over a four month period of intensive reading instruction. The student has lacked reading and writing fluency throughout his adult life. Even though he has attended adult reading classes he has continued to read at around a first grade level. During the study, the student used several different types of reading materials including the Wilson Reading System and the Davis Method. In addition, the student took several tests, such as the TABE and the Wide Range Achievement Test at the beginning, middle and end of the study to determine grade level and assess growth in phonemic awareness. The standardized test scores showed minimal increases in grade level and phonemic awareness. Informal assessments also showed growth including several important points related to motivation and self-confidence. Furthermore, the study has several implications for the adult learner and for teachers of adult learners.


The Question


After working as an English instructor for nearly 15 years teaching high school, middle school and adult students and discovering a significant number of students who have difficulty reading and writing, I’ve been on a quest to discover effective methods that help these students overcome the difficulties they encounter with the written word. Reasons for such roadblocks include a range of possibilities for these students. Is it because they did not have a good education? Is it because they had unstable home lives? Or is it because they had a learning disability? Or perhaps it is more complicated than that. No matter what the reason for the trouble with reading and writing, the question remains: what can help these students become functional or even flourish as readers and writers in a society that depends so much on the printed word?


Review of the Literature

         All teachers, including special education teachers, should have a vast knowledge of how to address reading issues, since The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) (2007) reports that at least 15% to 20% of the United States' population has a reading disability. Educators will find that what works for one student may not work for another.  And while one method addresses one area of the problem, another method may address something else in this complex area of reading disabilities.

There are a wide range of reading disabilities related to phonemic awareness, syntax errors and comprehension.  Sometimes reading disabilities are given names like dyslexia which can refer to a specific set of reading issues, or a broader vague interpretation of reading disabilities. Ronald D. Davis (1994) calls dyslexia a “gift” in his book, The Gift of Dyslexia. Davis suggests that the cause of a dyslexic’s frustration with two-dimensional printed material is often an advantage for special ways of seeing things that may enhance abilities with art, mechanical work or other three dimensional activities. Davis, dyslexic himself, developed a method to overcome the frustrations that accompanied his attempts to read and write. The focus of his method is on “orientation counseling” which helps students learn to control the disorientation that seems to occur when presented with written material. In her study with children in South Africa, Rene Engelbrecht (2005) reports success with the Davis Method for children with reading disabilities.

         Shelley Miller-Shaul and Zvia Breznitz (2004) note some of the long-held beliefs about dyslexia. Their study attempted to answer some of the questions related to neurology and dyslexia, confirming that students with dyslexia showed slower speeds for

phonological processing. On the other hand, their study showed little to no difference in comprehension between those with dyslexia and those without it. According to Rachel Davies (2005), dyslexia “affects spelling, writing, numeracy, and functions such as working memory or sense of time and direction.” Kristina Moll (2005) further clarifies that dyslexia’s difficulties are phonological but become apparent as “inefficiency and not as inability.”

         So what can be done for students with dyslexia? Some methods seem to focus on phonics and language processing, such as the Wilson Reading System by Barbara Wilson (2002). The Wilson system is a twelve-step program that teaches students how to increase phonological awareness by studying syllabic formation. Wilson, like many methods, is based on an Orton-Gillingham approach. According to www.orton-gillingham.com, these approaches are often meant to coincide with a regular school program. Students get special instruction in a multi-sensory, phonics based approach while continuing a mainstream curriculum.

         Other methods, like Davis’ method, seem to call for a combination of direct language instruction, mixed with neurological counseling. Could it be that each student with a reading disability might need a different approach? Elizabeth Wadlington and Patrick Wadlington (2005), in Reading Improvement, discuss the importance of preparing instructors to know best how to relate to and teach methods that actually make sense for dyslexic children. Their research showed that ill-prepared teachers often added to the problem because learning-disabled students, already faced with shaken confidence, find their teacher’s attitude another possible road-block.

         In any case, it is important to remember that adults are also different than children. Roffman (2000) points out how learning disabilities are a big focus for children at school academically, while for adults, the learning disabilities can surface in all areas of life. Shapiro and Rich (1999) further explain that adults who want to get help with reading disabilities are often at such a diverse range of stages in life and learning. One adult may be taking college classes while another may have never learned to read at all. Dyslexic adults have made use of inefficient strategies their whole lives. Some who seek help later in life have been using coping strategies to survive with few reading skills for a very long time.



The Use of a Case Study

                           case study differs from other types of research in a number of significant ways. One difference is in purpose. The most significant
                           reason, perhaps, to use a case study is that each person who struggles with literacy might have a unique answer for why they
                           struggle and what to do about it. A case study allows the researcher to embark on a holistic exploration that may lead to
                           a broader understanding of a person or a problem. According to Patton (1990) in Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods,
                           “The case study [makes] accessible
                           to the reader all the information necessary to understand that person or program. The case study presents a holistic portrayal
                           of a person or program.” 
               The format for the presentation of a case study is also quite different from that of quantitative
                           research and even other types of qualitative research.  Glanz (1998) says, “Case
                           studies are written descriptively and objectively…” while Yin (2003) states that, “A single narrative is
                           used to describe and analyze the case. You may augment the narrative with tabular as well as graphic and pictorial displays.”
                            Therefore, what follows is an attempt to thoroughly view and understand one person’s
                           situation with as much care and insight as possible.
               Although there is not a wealth of similar case studies readily available, this is not the first time
                           a case study has been conducted with an adult learner who has been identified as dyslexic. In 1990, Stephen Migden conducted
                           a case study with a dyslexic male adult. He looked at how emotional and psychological factors in the students’ life
                           affected or compounded his issues with reading and writing. Moll (2005) also conducted a case study with a similar client.
                           However, she focused on the speed at which the student processed language from a neurological point of view.

The Subject

            The subject is a 48-year-old African American male who has been trying to learn to read more or less his whole life. He remembers having trouble spelling his name in elementary school. His mother tells him that she knew there were learning problems early on, and that he was hyper and couldn’t sit still. He attended a special school operated by Johns Hopkins University for his first year. While there he started taking Ritalin which he took for a number of years in elementary school. He doesn’t really remember any particular effects of the medication but does remember that he was still restless and had a hard time focusing on one thing at a time.

            After that first year, he attended Baltimore City Public Schools until graduating in 1968. During elementary and middle school, the student was placed in special education classes. He recalls “showing off” and getting sent to the corner. While he seemed to do OK at math, he remembers always having a hard time with reading. Still, he went to school every day and had a positive experience and mostly good memories.

            However, by the time he got to middle school, he says he was not ready for it. His middle school had a separate building for special education students. He spent time in both the special education building and the regular education building. He still wasn’t reading functionally and found it difficult to participate in the regular classes. He would sometimes ask his sister for help with school work, but she told him, “No.” His father helped him frequently but didn’t have a lot of patience. He would yell at his son for forgetting things that he had just told him. He didn’t go to his mother much because she had trouble reading herself. Still, he finished middle school and was promoted to high school.

            He attended Woodrow Wilson High School, which was a vocational technical school for boys in special education where he studied auto mechanics. It was a small school with strict discipline. The student remembers getting smacked with a ruler. Unfortunately, the school closed the year before he was to graduate, so he was transferred to another special education high school, Samuel Gumpers High School and graduated as scheduled.

            After graduating from high school, the student started a career in auto mechanics. He did not continue formal schooling for about two decades. He continued to find reading difficult and often relied on family members or girlfriends to read important documents such as bills or other mail. He feels frustrated asking people for help because he is usually a pretty independent guy. Although he has continued to work as a mechanic throughout his adult life, he is often frustrated that he can’t really advance. Furthermore, as cars have become more and more computerized, reading has become more and more vital to advancement in the field. Still, the student would be considered quite successful by many standards. He not only purchased and fixed up his own home, but has since acquired several other properties and manages them as a landlord.

            In his late thirties, the student finally heard of an organization that could possibly help—The Dyslexia Tutoring Program. He applied, was tested, and after a lengthy process and waiting period, was placed with a tutor soon after turning 40 years old. He has since worked with a tutor from the Dyslexia Tutoring program off and on until the present time. When he started the tutoring sessions, he was not able to write the alphabet completely.



            I met with the student twice a week for four months for one hour sessions each time. For the first session we filled out paperwork and the student completed the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE). He also took the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT) during the first week. Within the first two weeks we also completed an educational history of the student.

            After the initial tests and interviews, we were able to focus on direct instruction. The student tested on a 1.9 reading grade level and demonstrated immediately that he had issues with phonemic awareness. Although each session was slightly varied, we began to focus on phonemic awareness, specifically phoneme segmentation and manipulation.

            We used the Wilson Reading System each session. The Wilson Reading System includes a set of twelve readers and workbooks, each focusing on different levels of phonemic awareness. This system includes word lists of real and nonsense words, sentences, and short stories that highlight specific areas of phoneme segmentation and manipulation. The Wilson workbooks include direct activities that help the student practice phoneme segmentation. For example, the student was given a four letter word such as “bath” and asked to divide the word into its three phonemes, /b/ /a/ /th/.  The student had already worked through the workbooks for the first two levels, but was still studying the material from both books. Instead of starting the third level, we spent this period reviewing the first two levels. During our sessions we typically spent time with one word list of real or nonsense words. If time permitted, we also used a sentence or short story activity to reinforce the skill emphasized on the word lists.

We also used Wilson flash cards each session. These cards use repetition to help students memorize and retain phonemes and their association with real words. For example, if the student saw the card with the letter b, he would say, “/b/, boy.” When we started our research period, the student was already familiar with approximately 20 phoneme cards. Since he demonstrated at least 90% accuracy with those cards, I decided to add 6 new phoneme cards throughout the study. I added three new cards the first month, and three new cards the second month. I used this deck each session as a flash card test. I flipped through each card and the student pronounced the phoneme and a word to go with it. If I had to help or prompt the student, I put the card aside and reviewed it with him at the end of the test.

I also used some initial consonant tests described by Gunning (2001) in Assessing and Correcting Reading and Writing Difficulties. These tests focus on a single or blended consonant sound at the beginning of each word or nonsense word (for example /z/: zab, zack, zace, etc.) We used initial consonant lists once or twice each week. Each list had eight words or nonsense words on it. I used two or three lists each week. After introducing the exercise, I added one new list each time I used the test, and repeated or reviewed one or two previously used lists. These tests allowed me to isolate initial consonant sounds that the student had mastered or with which he had trouble. These tests were especially helpful toward the beginning of the study in order to diagnose the student’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to phonemic awareness. However, I also used the tests to track progress throughout the study.

Similarly, I also used a phonogram phonics test, outlined by May and Rizzardi (2002) in Reading as Communication, called a "High-Frequency Phonogram Test" several times over the four month period.  This type of test uses the same phonogram in each word with different ending letter patterns to go with it. They also used repetition of sounds, but could include vowels or consonants, onsets or rimes. I used some of the same lists once each month to track the student’s improvement. I used this because the test helped me notice how well the student could recognize patterns of letters at the beginning or end of syllables.

I often assigned random writing samples to check on the student’s writing and compare it to what he was focusing on for his reading practice. For example, if he was practicing reading closed syllable, one syllable words, I would ask him to write a random list of closed syllable, one syllable words. Other times I asked him to write sentences similar to a journal entry. Still other times I asked him to write rhyming words. If I gave him the word “tap” I’d ask him to write three other words that rhymed with “tap” and so on.

Previous to this particular study, the student had participated in a mental alignment exercise outlined by Ronald Davis (1994) in his book The Gift of Dyslexia. According to Davis, this exercise helps the student establish a mental point of reference. When having trouble reading, students can pause and find this point of reference mentally for the rest of their lives as needed or useful. For our sessions I regularly asked the student to pause reading to utilize this alignment technique. Davis suggests that dyslexic readers and writers experience a kind of disorientation especially when set off by trigger words or letters. The alignment exercise can help ease frustration and bring a sense of focus. Therefore, I used this technique when the student showed frustration or repeatedly could not pronounce a word or syllable.

A one hour session would look something like this from week to week. The first five to ten minutes we spent chatting about the day and what was going on. The next five minutes would be used to complete the flash card test. After that, we’d spend about twenty minutes using the Wilson Reading reader or workbook. The next ten minutes would be used for the phonics tests. Any remaining time would be used for writing samples.

Table 1: Daily Schedule

5-10 Minutes

5 minutes

15 minutes

10 minutes

10 minutes


And discussion

Flash Cards

Wilson Reader

And workbook

Phonics test(s)

Writing samples



Throughout the four-month period, I used field notes to document my observations about the student’s attitude, effort, likes, dislikes, and progress or lack thereof. I also collected work samples from the student and kept track of the results of the various tests that I gave the student. From time to time we also looked at some paperwork or other reading material that the student brought to the session in order to get help with comprehension. At the end of the four month period, I gave post tests for the TABE and the WRAT.


Observations and Findings


            The student showed little progress on his standardized test results over the four month period. His initial reading score for the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) in January, 2008 was grade level 1.9. His post-test score in May, 2008 was 2.2. While this shows a slight increase, it is not dramatic enough to conclude very much about the effectiveness of the methodology used. Perhaps if the same methods were used over a period of years instead of months, a steady increase in the TABE reading score would indicate more about the effectiveness of the methods.

            Furthermore, the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT) score did not show any significant change from the pretest to the post-test. The grade equivalent in January was 2.5 and the grade equivalent in June was 2.6. While the score did not drop, it did not show an increase that would point to some specific area of methodology as the reason for the increase. This does not mean that the student did not learn anything or that the student did not grow. However, it does indicate that the WRAT was probably only good for an initial assessment, but that it did not measure the kind of growth that took place during this case study.


Table 2: Standardized Test Results


TABE Grade Equivalent

WRAT Grade Equivalent

January, 2008



May, 2008




            One of the assessments that was used each time I met with the student was the Wilson Reading System’s flash cards. Each time we met I gave the student a flash card test. He recalled the phonemes he had been practicing before the study began with 90 to 100% accuracy each time. During the study we added about six new phoneme cards. When I first introduced the new phonemes he would recall the phoneme and its target word with about 30% accuracy. The level of accuracy steadily increased throughout the study and was at about 75% accuracy by the end of the study. One of the phoneme cards, e, seemed more difficult than the others to remember. The sound associated with the e card was long e and the word to remember was “me.” One of the reasons he may have had problems with this card is that he had already been studying the long e sound with a y card (as in “candy”) and with the ee card (as in “jeep.”)  In general, the student also had days when he seemed “on” and days when he was a little bit “off.” When he had “on” days, his overall accuracy with the cards including the cards he’d been studying before the case study began could approach 90%. During an “off” day, his overall accuracy could drop below 80%.

            The initial consonant tests also showed small but steady gains over the four month period. His overall accuracy with the word lists at the beginning of the study was at 50% on the first try. By the end of the study, he pronounced the words with 65% accuracy on the first try. In addition, he needed help with 15% of the words at the beginning of the study, but by the end of the study he was able to self-correct all the words he mispronounced on the first try.

I have been very intrigued by the results of using the Davis Method of mental alignment. While the student has not shown dramatic improvements in grade level, I have noticed obvious differences that this particular method can make in his reading. There have been numerous times during the study when I would ask the student to stop and do the realignment exercise in his mind. I often asked him to do this when he was most frustrated. For example, he would be trying to sound out a word with a consonant blend, such as “string.” Instead of saying /string/ he would say any number of wrong combinations of letters resulting in a nonsense word or a completely different word. Many times he seemed to try harder and harder, becoming more and more frustrated. About ninety percent of the time that I asked him to stop and do the realignment exercise, he was able to come back to the paper and pronounce the word he was having difficulty with in one more try.



While the nature of a case study is a bit limited in its scope, it does give a window into the life of an individual that may mirror the lives of many others. It seems that there are few resources for the adult learner who really has difficulty learning. This particular study did not yield any miraculous results. However, it confirmed that there are a number of valuable resources that are useful in teaching students who are diagnosed as dyslexic or who have any number of difficulties reading.

The standardized tests were important to show where the student started at the beginning of the study. And while there were no significant gains in the standardized test results, the post-test scores highlight the seriousness of the struggle that this particular student and perhaps many other students face. The fact that the student was unable to make a lot of measurable gains on standardized testing may point to the fact that this particular student needs a higher volume of hours in order to make more significant gains. Furthermore, this student may need not only more hours per week, but may also benefit from longer sessions. On the other hand, standardized test results are probably not the most important results to study in this case.

The Wilson Reading System flash cards activity gives a window into an area where the student has made some significant progress. Not only was the student able to add six phonemes to his list during this period, but it also seems that he has committed nearly forty important phonemes to his long-term memory. Having a word associated with each phoneme is helpful for reading. On a regular basis, when trying to decode a certain phoneme, the student will refer to the word he associates with the phoneme in order to remember the correct pronunciation of that phoneme. In the long run, he will hopefully automatically associate the sound with the phonograph, but in the meantime, having this mechanism helps him to correctly recall the pronunciation of certain phonemes.

The initial consonant tests and the High Frequency Phonogram tests show that the student is able to apply what he is learning to real syllables or words. Although useful for diagnosing levels and evaluating progress, these tests might also be an ongoing tool to reinforce the learning of consonant blends or other phonemes and help the student commit them to long term memory. It’s easy to create and modify these tests, so a teacher or tutor could quickly change the list to help reinforce new words with the same phoneme. If the student has been practicing a list with the blend /br/ new words with /br/ could be substituted easily to ensure that the student is able to apply what he is learning to new words.

The results of using the Davis alignment exercise have been some of the most intriguing, partly because the results are less easy to explain or understand. I noticed that the student did not stop and do the re-alignment exercise unless I prompted him. Was this because he simply did not think of it, or was there some other reason? In either case, the benefits of this exercise suggest there is more to explore. What if the student were to have regular training and practice with this exercise? With more practice, it seems that the student may be able to internalize the process so that he no longer has to be prompted to do it.


            The most obvious limitation of this study already mentioned is the fact that it only shows one particular case as any case study would do. While this allows for an in-depth look at one particular student, it also omits the fact that another student may have responded completely differently to this study. Therefore, it would be wrong to conclude that any particular method is or isn’t effective for a large number of people based on this study. A follow-up study could apply the same methods and procedures to a wider range of students to compare and contrast differences.

            Another limitation worth noting is the amount of time spent with the student on this project. Creating blocks of time is a natural way of limiting any activity and is not necessarily good or bad. However, it is important to think about how different amounts of time could affect the study. During this study, I met with the student no more than one hour at a time. Spending two or more hours at a time may have had a different affect on the outcomes of the various tests and activities.  The student may have benefited differently from a longer period of repetition for one or more activities. In addition, this study does not include the possibility of what kind of growth would take place if the student were enrolled in school full-time, getting this kind of instruction on a daily basis for hours at a time.

            Age can also be a limitation of any study since the ability to learn academically, especially in regards to language acquisition, is affected by age. Again, this could be addressed with a subsequent study that included a diverse group of students of various ages.



            Despite the limitations of this case study, there have been quite a few benefits for the subject and the researcher. The subject has gained a significant number of hours in his quest to improve his reading and writing. In addition, he has made measurable gains in his phonemic awareness, and discovered some tools that will continue aiding him in his academic endeavors if he should choose to use them.

            As a researcher, I have also gained some tools that will be able to benefit other students I work with in the future.  Instead of just reading or theorizing about specific methods of instruction, I was able to get some in-depth experience with those methods. This research has allowed me the chance to broaden my instructional practice and improve my skills. Not only will I be able to grow in effectiveness with the subject of this case study as we continue to meet together, but I will also be able to apply what I have learned in this study to other students.

            It is also my hope that this information will be useful to others who are teaching reading across the curriculum to students who struggle with reading. In a country that is known for the “melting pot” metaphor, it is important that educators do not make the mistake of lumping students together, making assumptions that everyone learns or should learn the same. Instead, as this study suggests, the best reading teacher will have a variety of methods from which to draw upon when teaching reading to any population. And, in fact, she or he will have tools to meet any reader, no matter what issues or struggles that student may carry from past educational experience.




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