ERIC Identifier: ED259210
Publication Date: 1985-00-00
Author: Imel, Susan - Grieve, Shelley
Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Adult Literacy Education. Overview. ERIC Digest No. 40
Adult illiteracy is a growing problem despite efforts to curb it. Each year,
an estimated 2.3 million persons join the pool of those 23 million adults
considered to be functionally illiterate. This number includes high school
dropouts and "push-outs," legal and illegal immigrants, and refugees (United
States Department of Education). The cost of illiteracy in increased
participation in welfare programs and unemployment compensation is estimated to
be $6 billion a year (Wellborn 1982).
WHAT IS ADULT LITERACY?
Defining literacy is problematic. Historically and culturally relative, the
term is impossible to define in isolation from a specific time, place, and
culture. Illiteracy can only be understood in relation to a culture's definition
of literacy because it is a lack of a certain set of characteristics.
Definitions of literacy commonly emphasize reading, writing, and computation
skills, but disagree on the criteria for establishing skill level. Statistics on
the extent of illiteracy can vary widely, depending on the definition used.
Definitions of literacy have changed over the past 50 years primarily because
policymakers want to count illiterate adults. In the 1930s and 1940s, literacy
was considered to be simply the ability to read and write a message. More recent
definitions have focused on the effective or critical applications of these
The concept of "functional literacy" has emerged to describe the use of basic
skills in specific contexts. The concept of functional literacy is
controversial, however. Because functional literacy is determined by external
standards and criteria, it removes the literacy judgment from the individual's
cultural group and social setting. Critics feel such external criteria tend to
reflect the bias of their developers rather than the values and norms of the
individual's social and cultural group.
WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF ILLITERATE ADULTS?
The literature has tended to portray illiterate adults from a deficit
perspective, embedded in a culture of poverty. Although illiterate adults may
have a fully developed language system, the literature more frequently mentions
that they fear failure in teaching-learning situations, have low self-esteem and
self-confidence, and resist change. They may be characterized as inarticulate
and unable to cope or think abstractly. A tone of mission and concern for the
less fortunate (for example, rehabilitating the malfunctioning adult into normal
society) tends to dominate these characterizations.
However, a new picture of illiterate adults is beginning to emerge.
Qualitative studies in which the adults were provided opportunities to share
their own perspective give a more balanced and accurate view. Although they may
lack formal schooling, many have educated themselves through life experiences.
This emerging portrait also reveals that many illiterate adults are frustrated
with educators and the programs designed to develop their literacy skills.
WHAT ARE THE PURPOSES OF LITERACY EDUCATION?
Because literacy programs are developed in response to differing
perspectives, they have differing purposes. Two common models are (1) personal
development and (2) empowerment and social change.
The personal development model, which predominates in this country,
emphasizes individual development. In this model, literacy is viewed as a skill
that will enable the adult to change. The role of the educator in the personal
development model is that of instructor and counselor.
The empowerment (increasing group or individual ability to control their own
lives) and social change model emphasizes making illiterate adults critically
aware of social and political realities so that they can make changes in the
existing system. In this model, the educator plays the role of facilitator and
change agent. While not common in this country, the social change model has been
used widely abroad.
The delivery systems for adult literacy programs in this country generally
correspond to either the personal development or the social change model.
WHAT TYPES OF PROGRAMS SERVE THE INDIVIDUAL?
Currently, there are two primary systems for literacy programs serving the
individual. The first is the federally funded adult basic education (ABE)
program. Through the Adult Education Act of 1966, each state receives funds to
provide literacy programs at the local level. The ABE program is designed for
adults 16 years or older with less than 12 years of schooling who are not
currently enrolled in public schools. Despite consistent enrollment increases
since the mid-1960s, this program is only to serve a very small percentage of
its target population.
National volunteer literacy efforts such as those sponsored through Literacy
Volunteers of America (LVA) and Laubach Literacy Action (LLA) also focus their
attention on the individual. Most of these programs use volunteer tutors in a
one-to-one situation. Many frequently work in conjunction with ABE programs to
provide choices for potential clients.
Employers are emerging as a third delivery system providing literacy training
for individual development and are increasingly providing basic skills training
for employees. According to a recent study, BASIC SKILLS IN THE UNITED STATES
WORK FORCE, 75 percent of the companies responding indicated that they provided
some type of remedial training (Henry and Raymond 1982).
WHAT ARE COMMUNITY-ORIENTED PROGRAMS?
Literacy education is usually only one aspect of services offered by
community-oriented organizations, which are independent, community-controlled
agencies that provide assistance in areas identified by community members. These
organizations are committed to empowerment.
Such organizations frequently work successfully with those persons who do not
participate in more traditional programs serving individuals. The programs are
characterized by a collaborative process in which mutally agreeable goals are
worked out between the instructor and the students. Frequently, this process is
more important than the end product.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Fingeret, A. ADULT LITERACY EDUCATION: CURRENT AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS.
Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, The
National Center for Research in Vocational Education, The Ohio State University,
1984. ED 246 308.
Henry, J. F., and S. Raymond. BASIC SKILLS IN THE U. S. WORK FORCE: THE
CONTRASTING PERCEPTIONS OF BUSINESS, LABOR, AND PUBLIC SECTOR. New York: Center
for Public Resources, 1984. ED 229 456.
Mark, J. L. "On Current Literacy Efforts." LIFELONG LEARNING: THE ADULT YEARS
6 (April 1983):25-26.
U.S. Department of Education. "Fact Sheet on Nationwide Functional Literacy
Initiative." Washington, D.C.: Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S.
Department of Education, no date.
Wellborn, Stanley N. "Ahead: A Nation of Illiterates?" U.S. NEWS AND WORLD
REPORT (May 17, 1982):53-57.