Adult Literacy Education: Emerging Directions
in Program Development. ERIC Digest.
by Imel, Susan
"The one-size-fits-all programming for [adult literacy students] that
has predominated in the past should not and indeed cannot continue in the
future if practitioners are to be responsive to learners' needs. Rather,
practitioners must meaningfully assist adults in learning to read not only
the word but their world." (Sissel 1996, p. 97).
"Why don't more adults take advantage of available opportunities to
improve their basic skills?" is one of the more perplexing questions confronting
the field of adult basic and literacy education. Only 8 percent of eligible
adults participate in funded literacy programs and, of those who do, most
(74 percent) leave during the first year (Quigley 1997). "What other area
of education could live with such figures?" asks Quigley (ibid., p. 8).
A large number of adults with low literacy simply choose not to participate
in available programs, and they are sometimes referred to as nonparticipants
or resisters. The reasons these adults do not see literacy education as
a viable alternative are complex but recent research has focused on the
connection to previous school experiences (Velazquez 1996). Many adults
equate literacy education with school, and, even though they have positive
attitudes about learning and education, they choose not to participate
in adult basic and literacy education programs (Quigley 1997; Velazquez
1996; Ziegahn 1992).
Since most adult literacy education programs still resemble school (Quigley
1997; Velazquez 1996), adult literacy educators must begin to change how
programs are structured and delivered if they are going to attract nonparticipants.
Fortunately, a growing number of practitioners, researchers, and policy
makers in the field of adult literacy education are dissatisfied with the
status quo and are proposing changes based on research and practice. This
Digest presents emerging perspectives about adult literacy program development.
First, it reviews current ideas about the relationship between learners
and program development and then presents recommendations for program development
based on the literature.
PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT: LISTENING TO LEARNERS' VOICES
How can literacy programs become less like school and more appealing
to adults, especially to nonparticipants? Two areas that hold potential
for answering this question are discussed here. The first is connected
to program content and the second revolves around greater consideration
of the differences among students.
BEYOND READING AND WRITING
Literacy education must be conceptualized as more than reading and writing
(Auerbach et al. 1996). According to Fingeret (1992), "our understanding
of literacy has changed from [a] focus on individual skills, separated
from meaningful content...to see[ing] that literacy is connected to the
social, historical, political, cultural, and personal situations in which
people use their skills" (p. 3). It is true that the desire to read and
write motivates many adults to enroll in literacy education, but Ziegahn
(1992) found that the nonparticipants in adult literacy strongly associated
reading and writing (literacy) with schooling. Furthermore, they saw their
own learning as separate from reading and writing.
Many adult literacy students understand that literacy is more than development
of individual skills. When more than 1,500 adult literacy students responded
to a question about the kind of skills and knowledge they need, their responses
were categorized into the following purposes:
--Literacy for access and orientation--to have access to information
and orient themselves in the world.
--Literacy as voice--to give voice to their ideas and opinions and to
have the confidence that their voice will be heard and taken into account.
--Literacy as a vehicle for independent action--to solve problems and
make decisions on their own, acting independently as a parent, citizen
and worker, for the good of their families, their communities, and their
--Literacy as bridge to the future--to be able to keep on learning in
order to keep up with a rapidly changing world. (Stein 1995, pp. 4, 10)
In reflecting on the responses from adult learners, Stein suggests that
their words "have the power to radically change the approach to adult literacy
instruction"...because adults see reading and writing not as goals in and
of themselves, but "as a necessary starting point for engagement in the
world" (p. 24).
When literacy educators base their programs on the assumption that literacy
is only about developing discrete skills such as reading and writing, they
are delivering a message that equates literacy with schooling (Ziegahn
1992). They are also presenting literacy education as having very narrow
goals and purposes that are inappropriate for the expressed needs of the
broad spectrum of current and potential adult learners.
THE REALITIES OF LEARNERS' LIVES
Closely related to the recognition that literacy is more than the development
of discrete skills is the growing recognition that programs must be structured
in ways that address the diverse groups of learners and that reflect the
contexts in which people use their skills (Fingeret 1992). Within literacy
education, a great deal of attention has been focused on individualizing
instruction to meet individual needs. Although there is nothing inherently
wrong with this notion, preoccupation with serving individuals can suppress
issues of gender, race, and class, issues that reproduce the realities
of the lives of many adult literacy students (Campbell 1992). Many nonparticipants
associate literacy educators' lack of attention to the broader contexts
in which they live their lives with schooling. To them, school is simply
a place that transmits the values of the mainstream society and they find
How such issues intersect with and affect literacy education is a complex
subject. Among other things, it affects how literacy educators view adults
with low literacy skills. For example, are they seen as victims who have
exercised little control over the circumstances of their lives or as individuals
whose low literacy is just one of the negative outcomes of their gender,
race, class, and culture (ibid.)? It also affects decisions about program
development and implementation. Programs that are structured around these
realities are much different from those which are not.
A growing number of adult literacy educators are advocating for understanding
learners both as individuals and as members of their cultural groups or
communities (Sissel 1996). Even in groups of learners that share a common
characteristic such as sex, educators must be aware that "differences of
race, culture, and class may contribute to differences in...goals" (Cuban
and Hayes 1996, p. 10). Literacy programs that attract and retain learners
are sensitive to the individual and cultural/community differences in learners'
lives and address them in the planning and implementation stages of program
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT
Adult literacy education is a complex undertaking. The ways adults think
about their learning as well as their perceptions of the skills and knowledge
they need are intertwined with their lives both as individuals and as members
of communities and cultural groups. Since most nonparticipants "have never
stopped valuing an education" (Quigley 1997, p. 198), adult literacy educators
must become more sensitive to what they want. Some recommendations for
how this can be accomplished include the following:
--Involve adults in program planning and implementation. The need to
consult adults is a theme that is woven throughout the literature (e.g.,
Auerbach et al. 1996; Fingeret 1992; Sissel 1996; Velazquez 1996). Adult
literacy educators frequently give lip service to the importance of learner
involvement, but they do not always follow through. In the instance of
nonparticipants, their actions speak louder than their words. They must
listen to what these adults say about their previous educational experiences
and their current learning goals and use this information in program development.
--Develop an understanding of learners' experiences and communities.
Because work with adult learners begins by respecting their culture, their
knowledge, and their experiences (Auerbach et al. 1996), adult literacy
educators must seek to understand learners' individual and community contexts.
Talking to current and potential adult learners and other members of the
community can provide helpful insights. However, literacy educators must
not depend just on community members but also seek to educate themselves
through films, fiction, autobiography, and poetry (Hayes 1994). Only by
understanding the experiences and communities of the adults they wish to
serve can adult literacy educators develop viable programs.
--Hire program staff who share the culture and life experiences of the
learners. Ideally, these staff should be teachers. In the event that hiring
teachers who reflect the learners' community is not feasible, then other
program staff should be recruited from the community. All staff should
receive training that familiarizes them with the social and cultural contexts
of the learners (Auerbach et al. 1996; Peterson 1996; Velazquez 1996).
--Be clear about philosophy and purpose. Quigley (1997) suggests that
programs not try to be "all things to all people." Teachers and staff need
to be clear about their working philosophy and purpose and share them with
potential students. Students with dissimilar goals can be referred to other
programs. Programs may also be able to match students with teachers who
share similar goals. For example, some teachers are philosophically oriented
toward preparing students for work, and they can be matched with those
students whose goal is to get a job. Quigley (ibid.) describes one small
(three teachers) program that tried the "matching" approach, and, as a
result, experienced a 36 percent increase in its retention rate over the
previous 3 years.
If adult literacy educators are to be successful in attracting and retaining
more adults in their programs, they must change how they think about their
programs (Quigley 1997). The schooling model that predominates must be
exchanged for one that is based on adults' perceptions of their goals and
purposes and that addresses the realities of their lives.
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