ERIC Identifier: ED259210
Publication Date: 1985-00-00
Author: Imel, Susan - Grieve, Shelley
Source: ERIC 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).


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 skills.

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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.

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