ERIC Identifier: ED312456
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Kerka, Sandra
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Women, Work, and Literacy. ERIC Digest No. 92.
The basic skills requirements of the workplace are increasing; at the same
time, women are entering the work force in larger numbers. Women's success in
the labor force and their economic self-sufficiency depend upon both literacy
improvement and employability training. This ERIC Digest, based on publications
of Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), portrays the extent of the problem of
illiteracy among women, looks at the changing work force and its literacy needs,
and describes a program model developed by WOW to address this issue.
THE LITERACY SITUATION FOR WOMEN
o An estimated 23 million adults in the United States lack basic literacy
skills. o An estimated 23 percent of all adult females have severely limited
literacy skills (compared to 17 percent of all males). o Seventy-five percent of
female heads of households with less than a high school diploma are living in
poverty. o Young women with below average skills and below poverty incomes are
five and one-half times more likely to become teen parents. o Nearly 40 percent
of female single parents and 35 percent of displaced homemakers have an
eighth-grade education or less. o Literacy levels of children are strongly
linked to those of their parents. o The greatest predictor of a child's future
academic success is the literacy of the child's mother. o As the numbers of
families headed by low-literate women increase, the cycle of illiteracy is
THE CHANGING WORK FORCE
o By 2000, 80 percent of women aged 25-54 will be in the work force. Women
will comprise 47 percent of the paid labor force. Two out of three new entrants
to the labor force will be women. o Minority women's labor force participation
will increase--Hispanics by 85 percent and Blacks by 16 percent. o At least
two-thirds of all women with children under 18 will be in the labor force. o One
in eight women workers has less than a high school education--including one in
two single mothers, 56 percent of displaced homemakers, one in three Hispanic
women workers, and one in five Black women workers. o Almost all of the jobs
created by the year 2000 will be in the service sector.
LITERACY NEEDS OF THE WORK FORCE
o A majority of all new jobs will require education or training beyond high
school. o Only 27 percent of all new jobs will be low skilled. o People with
less than a high school education will be able to fill only 14 percent of all
jobs. o More jobs will require basic skills in reading, writing, and
mathematics; higher order critical thinking skills; analytical and
problem-solving skills; listening, speaking, and other communication skills;
basic computer skills; and teamwork skills. (Imel 1989; Watson 1989; WOMEN, WORK
AND LITERACY 1988)
COMBINING LITERACY AND EMPLOYMENT TRAINING
painted by these statistics--of the numbers of women (especially single mothers)
with low literacy levels, of the increased labor force participation of women,
and of the greater literacy needs of jobs--makes the case for the inclusion of a
literacy component in employment programs for women. Linking literacy education
to employment and training programs can be a significant factor in improving a
woman's basic skills and laying a stronger foundation for increasing her
employability. Such programs should strive to be: (1) comprehensive--meeting the
specific needs of low-income and single mothers; (2)
learner-centered--recognizing individual abilities, experiences, interests, and
goals; (3) flexible; (4) standards-based; and (5) policy-linked--incorporating
advocacy activities for public policy issues that will help shape literacy
Wider Opportunities for Women, an organization that seeks to expand
employment opportunities for women through training, placement, and advocacy,
developed a program model (Beck 1988; Hirschoff 1988) based on case studies of
five literacy programs that focus on the needs of low-income single mothers.
(Most of the model can also be used with low-literate women who are not
The model attempts to attack the many internal and external barriers faced by
women in need of both literacy and job training. Among the internal barriers are
(1) low self-esteem, including past unhappy encounters with schooling, lack of
family support for education, and lack of positive role models; (2) self-doubt
about one's ability to learn, perhaps exacerbated by actual learning
disabilities such as dyslexia; (3) powerlessness, including denial of existing
barriers and inability to cope with institutions affecting one's life; and (4)
guilt about taking time from their families for self-improvement.
External barriers may include: (1) environmental instability (housing
problems, domestic and community violence, health and financial difficulties);
(2) need for support services such as child care, transportation, emergency
funds, or personal counseling; (3) inaccessible or inappropriate services--due
to location, schedule, enrollment requirements, inflexible testing methods, or
cost; and (4) failure to set realistic goals.
THE PROGRAM MODEL
The steps of the model (assessing,
shaping the program, getting started, delivering services, measuring impact, and
advocating public policy changes) are influenced by research showing that the
comprehensive needs of the woman and her family must be addressed in order to
have success in both literacy and employment readiness.
Assessment of current programs and the community environment is necessary to
define the population to be served, determine available resources, avoid
possible duplication, and begin building a referral network for the
comprehensive services clients will need. Potential sources of funding for
literacy/job training should be identified (for example, the Adult Education
Act, the Perkins Vocational Education Act, and the Job Training Partnership
Shaping the program includes (1) setting standards to guide activities and
measure impact (especially important is defining literacy and integrating the
notion of literacy as a critical part of employment training into the program);
(2) defining the client population; and (3) establishing a budget.
When getting started, recruitment, intake, and assessment are the important
first contacts women will have with the program. Community-based recruitment is
recommended, using a wide variety of strategies that stress the messages that
training can lead to a better job and economic future and that a mother's
literacy improvement can help her children's achievements. Intake--determining
if the program is right for the woman and vice versa--and assessment to
determine placement within the program should be sensitive to past educational
experiences and test anxiety. Clients should be assisted in setting realistic
short- and long-term goals.
In delivering services, there are several considerations. Program design
should be learner-centered and reinforce self-concept. Staff roles include
literacy instructors, counselors, recruiters, employment specialists, and child
care specialists. Support services should either be provided by the program or
through referral to another agency. Evaluation through testing and staff and
student input should aim at overcoming test anxiety while recognizing the
existence of testing in employment situations. Rewards for student progress
should be noncompetitive and nonhierarchical.
Content of a model program includes literacy components (individualized
remediation plans, small groups, incremental goals, job-related reading,
student-created materials, computer familiarity), employability components (job
readiness, nontraditional skills training, job skills training, internships,
on-the-job training, job search methods, job placement), and life skills
components (program solving, decision making, and goal setting; personal and
career counseling; support services).
Measuring program impact can be accomplished using standardized methods such
as achievement test scores, job placement, and high school equivalency
completion as well as nonstandardized methods such as participant
questionnaires, focus groups, or exit interviews.
Another way to attack barriers is by advocating changes in public policy such
o Increased federal funds for literacy and basic skills initiatives
o Special efforts to ensure that women are equitably served in publicly
o Improved coordination among public systems of literacy service provision
o Expanded joint remedial programs for parents and children
o Authorized federal and state funds for the provision of support services
o Increased flexibility in eligibility criteria for service deliverers
o Provision of opportunities for welfare recipients to receive educational
services in addition to employment and training activities
o Increased funding for research and demonstration projects in literacy
Beck (1988) and Hirschoff (1988) address some additional issues related to
program development that particularly affect women. For example:
o Funding sources such as the Job Training Partnership Act and the Perkins
Act authorize literacy education for those receiving vocational training.
However, their definitions of program completion or success (e.g., job
placement) may be premature for women who may need further education and
o Some women in the target population will be uncomfortable in formal
schooling and testing situations. Standardized tests often contain sex, class,
and race bias.
o Instructional materials should recognize cultural differences, be sex fair,
and take women's daily experiences into account.
o Flexible approaches to absenteeism are needed due to the barriers that may
hinder women's participation.
o Differences between teaching adults and teaching younger students should be
Low-income single mothers and other low-literate women face problems so
overwhelming that they usually cannot focus on literacy as an isolated goal.
Therefore, literacy must be one component of a comprehensive strategy that
provides support services and employment training as well--all of which are
necessary to enable these women to break the cycles of poverty and illiteracy.
Beck, Judy A. "Wider Opportunities: Combining
Literacy and Employment Training for Women. A Program Model." Washington, DC:
Wider Opportunities for Women, Inc., 1988. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service
No. ED 299 397).
Hirschoff, Paula. "Wider Opportunities: Combining Literacy and Employment
Training for Women. Executive Summary of the Female Single Parent Literacy
Project Case Studies." Washington, DC: WOW, 1988. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 300 553).
Imel, Susan. "The New Work Force. Trends and Issues Alerts." Columbus: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Center on Education
and Training for Employment, The Ohio State University, 1989.
Watson, Jennifer. "Women, Work and the Future." [Fact Sheet]. Washington, DC:
WOW, January 1989.
"Women, Work and Literacy." [Fact Sheet]. Washington, DC: WOW, 1988.