ERIC Identifier: ED321966
Publication Date: 1990-06-00
Author: Ferrell, Susan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Adult Literacy Programs in Rural Areas. ERIC Digest.
The literacy of rural adults is receiving renewed attention nationally.
This Digest examines the stated goals of rural literacy programs and the
types of programs that have been effective in the past. It includes the
various definitions of literacy applied in effective rural literacy programs.
It also examines the conditions that support--or limit--the widespread
influence of effective programs in rural areas. Basic research about rural
literacy is scanty. This Digest, however, synthesizes findings from the
available literature to help inform both concerned practitioners and policymakers.
CONCERN FOR ADULT LITERACY IN RURAL AREAS
The level of concern over adult literacy in rural areas varies with
economic, social, and political changes. In the United States, policymakers
express greatest concern when the need for economic development or recovery
seems most pressing, as in the present rural economic crisis.
Many policymakers believe high rates of adult literacy to be a condition
of rural economic development. Hence, their concern logically addresses
the literacy of citizens with the most visible need to improve their economic
well-being, the poor. In the United States, many poor citizens live in
remote rural communities. Moreover, throughout the world the rates of both
poverty and of adult illiteracy are highest in rural areas (for example,
THE GOALS OF ADULT LITERACY PROGRAMS IN RURAL AREAS
Knox (1987) reports that adult basic education--including instruction
for improved literacy--serves one of four purposes. These purposes are:
(1) promoting economic productivity; (2) stimulating political change;
(3) increasing social equity; and (4) enhancing quality of life. In the
United States, literacy efforts on behalf of rural citizens most frequently
address the first of these purposes.
Akenson (1984) develops this theme in his comparison of the Southern
Literacy Campaign (1910-1935) with current efforts to promote literacy
in the rural South. "Industrial efficiency" was a prime concern of the
earlier programs. Today, similar results are expected from programs to
prepare rural workers for the "information age." Both efforts emphasize
the improved productivity of rural economies (Akenson, 1984).
Another goal of literacy efforts has been to support democratic political
reform. The work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire with rural peasants
best represents this approach. By helping peasants label both their anger
and their dreams, literacy campaigns of this type help citizens define
their own political destinies. In more highly developed nations, such efforts
have also been proposed to address the needs of an emerging underclass
(for example, Aronowitz & Giroux, 1985).
Closely related to the political aim of literacy work is the goal of
promoting social equity. This goal confronts a particularly vexing challenge.
Literacy workers have noted that the nation's poorest citizens, whether
rural or urban, are those least likely to participate in programs (Quigley,
1990). According to this view, literacy efforts can actually widen the
gap between the "haves" and the "have nots."
Some writers note, however, that this effect is rare: even the poorest
citizens get some benefits when the literacy of their somewhat more fortunate
neighbors improves. Cameron (1987, p. 175) reasons, "As programs prepare
better qualified and motivated people for occupational advancement, lower-level
jobs become available for less skilled or less experienced workers."
A final perspective on adult literacy, however, rejects the logic of
both of these competing views. Supporters of this view (for example, Kozol,
1985) see literacy as a worthy end in itself. They interpret literacy--like
oral language--as the birthright of all humans, and they stress the role
literacy plays in cultivating human potential. They believe all political,
economic, and social improvement depends on universal literacy. In rural
areas, this view may have special meaning for post-literacy programs, discussed
in the next section.
RURAL PROGRAMS THAT ADDRESS VARIOUS TYPES OF ADULT LITERACY
Literacy programs in rural areas vary with the definitions of literacy
they adopt. Chall, Heron, and Hilferty (1987) identify three types of programs
that define literacy in different ways. Volunteer programs work mainly
with illiterate adults. They serve adults whose reading achievement is
below the fourth-grade level. Competency-based programs, on the other hand,
work with adults who already have basic reading skills. These adults, however,
need more advanced academic skills if they are to become functionally literate
by modern standards. Competency-based programs usually define literacy
as the minimum skill required for a high school diploma or its equivalent.
Fingeret (1984, p. 23) describes programs of these first two types as
"individually oriented programs." She faults them for approaching adult
illiteracy as deficits of individual persons. These programs, she claims,
offer instruction that emphasizes reading skills in isolation from meaningful
Both Chall and Fingeret distinguish the first two types of programs
from programs based in the community. Rather than valuing just one kind
of learning, community-oriented programs help adults determine their own
learning needs, based on the norms of their communities. These programs,
therefore, provide instruction that may or may not have an academic focus.
A variety of post-literacy options helps sustain the effectiveness of
the three basic types of literacy programs. Post-literacy programs offer
newly literate adults the chance to continue their education, practice
new skills, and make positive changes in their lives.
Such programs are extremely important for sustaining literacy gains
in rural areas. They may be especially critical in rural areas when limited
economies keep literate adults from applying their new skills in new jobs.
If adult students can see literacy as worthy in itself, then they may be
more likely to continue to maintain and develop their literacy, whatever
the local economic situation. Hence, programs in rural areas with enduring
economic problems might better view the development of literacy in terms
of quality of life.
EFFECTIVE RURAL LITERACY PROJECTS IN THE UNITED STATES
Among adult literacy programs in rural areas of the United States, some
offer a single service (Lucas, 1985). Alaska's Centralized Correspondent
Study Handbook for Grades 1-12, for example, provides the framework through
which rural residents can complete correspondence course work at no charge.
Teleteacher, a telephone-based system in Virginia, enables rural residents
to have access to academic assistance 24 hours a day.
Other rural literacy programs, however, provide a variety of services
(Lucas, 1985). For example, a program in Alabama uses a statewide educational
television network, learning centers, and home tutors. This plan offers
three different ways to reach adults in rural areas. A weekend program
in New Jersey offers a variety of counseling services, sponsors independent
study projects, and administers subject area examinations.
Some projects offer a wide range of services to large numbers of students
(Lucas, 1985). Project Communi-Link, for example, reaches 26 selected rural
communities in 14 western states. Communi-Link is a system that structures
working relationships among a variety of organizations. It works to help
rural communities improve the social and economic well-being of residents
through expanded opportunities for Adult Basic Education and GED preparation.
Two Pennsylvania projects--Regional Utilization of Resources to Aid Literacy
(RURAL) and Grass Roots Alternative Diploma Study (GRADS)--are also examples
of this approach.
Finally, technology increases the potential to reach adults in rural
areas. Literacy programs are developing out-of-school strategies that use
media to deliver instruction. These media include films, newspapers, radios,
records, audiotapes, various periodicals, and satellite broadcasts. In
addition, some literacy and post-literacy programs have direct ties to
business and industry, and others make use of resources available in two-
and four-year colleges (Chall et al., 1987; Hone, 1984).
Conditions that support--or limit--effective rural literacy programs:
Though effective programs exist, their impact may be limited in rural
areas. Some conditions limit the scope, and sometimes threaten the survival,
of such programs. Inadequate funding reduces the potential impact of literacy
efforts (Kozol, 1985). The funding that does exist may be divided among
a variety of agencies, all competing for a share of it. This competition
makes it difficult for agencies to coordinate their efforts.
Moreover, the clear goal of many rural literacy programs--improving
rural economies--poses a potential threat to even the most effective programs.
Despite their goals, these programs nonetheless tend to define their success
in terms of increased literacy, not economic improvement. If the advertised
economic benefits fail to develop, these programs can lose the support
of external funding sources.
Despite these problems, however, rural literacy programs manage to persist
and to succeed. Successful programs share certain common features. According
to Hone (1984), effective programs address local needs, satisfy the expectations
of their clients, entail cooperation among agencies, and promote program
benefits in clear language. Kozol (1985) highlights one additional source
of success. Involving community members in the development, promotion,
and evaluation of literacy programs gives rural residents a stake in making
these programs work.
Akenson, J.E. (1984, November). The Southern literacy campaign 1910-1935:
Lessons for adult learning in an information society. Paper presented at
the National Adult Education Conference, Louisville, KY. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 252 726)
Aronowitz, S., & Giroux, H. (1985). Education under siege. South
Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.
Behrstock, J. (1981). Reaching the rural reader. Journal of Reading,
Cameron, C. (1987). Adult education as a force toward social equity.
Adult Education Quarterly, 37(3), 173-177.
Chall, J., Heron, E., & Hilferty, A. (1987). Adult literacy: New
and enduring problems. Phi Delta Kappan, 69(3), 190-196.
Fingeret, A. (1984). Adult literacy education: Current and future directions.
Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 246 308)
Hone, K. (1984). Serving the rural adult: Inventory of model programs
in rural adult postsecondary education. Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University,
University for Man. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 256 527)
Knox, A. (1987). International perspectives on adult education. Columbus,
OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 290 931)
Kozol, J. (1985). Illiterate America. New York: New American Library.
Lucas, G.S. (1985). Non-traditional community-based GED programming
outreach efforts. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 254 678)
Quigley, B.A. (1990). Hidden logic: Reproduction and resistance in adult
literacy and adult basic education. Adult Education Quarterly, 40(2), 103-115.