ERIC Identifier: ED334871
Publication Date: 1991-10-00
Author: Santopietro, Kathleen - Peyton, Joy Kreeft
Source: National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education Washington
Assessing the Literacy Needs of Adult Learners of ESL.
"If literacy is culturally learned and practiced, what is important
is what counts as literacy to different groups and individuals within the
society" (Lytle, 1988, p. 3).
Traditionally, student assessment has focused on measuring learner skills.
Assessment of literacy needs, from the learner's perspective, is also an
important part of an instructional program. This is particularly true for
programs serving adults, who may have very specific and individualized
learning goals and needs. An interest in learner needs assessment reflects
a participatory approach to education, "based on the belief that learners,
their characteristics, aspirations, backgrounds, and needs should be the
center of literacy instruction" (Fingeret & Jurmo, 1989, p. 5).
Although learner needs assessment encompasses both what learners know
and can do (learner proficiencies) and what they want to learn, this digest
focuses on ways to determine what learners want or believe they need to
learn. Many of the activities described can include or lead to assessment
of proficiencies, and many of the sources cited include both types of assessment.
WHAT IS NEEDS ASSESSMENT?
The word "assess" comes from the Latin term "assidere," which means
to "sit beside." Process-minded and participatory-oriented adult educators
"sit beside" learners to learn about their proficiencies and backgrounds,
educational goals, and expected outcomes, immersing themselves in the lives
and views of their students (see Auerbach, in press, for discussion).
A needs assessment for use with adult learners of English as a second
language (ESL) is a tool that specifically examines, from the perspective
of the learner, what kinds of English, native language, and literacy skills
the learner already believes he or she has; the literacy contexts in which
the learner lives and works; what the learner wants and needs to know to
function in those contexts; what the learner expects to gain from the instructional
program; and what might need to be done in the native language or with
the aid of an interpreter. The needs assessment focuses and builds on learners'
accomplishments and abilities rather than on deficits, allowing learners
to articulate and display what they already know and what they already
can do (Fingeret & Jurmo, 1989; Lytle, 1988).
Needs assessment is a continual process and takes place throughout the
instructional program (Savage, 1988), thus influencing student placement,
materials selection, curriculum design, and teaching approaches (Lytle,
1988). "The curriculum content and learning experiences to take place in
class should be negotiated between learners, teacher, and coordinator at
the beginning of the project and renegotiated regularly during the project"
(Burnaby, 1989, p. 20). At the beginning of the program, needs assessment
might be used to determine appropriate program types and course content;
during the program, it assures that learner and program goals are being
met and allows for necessary program changes; at the end of the program,
it can be used for planning the learner's and the program's future directions.
WHY IS NEEDS ASSESSMENT IMPORTANT?
A needs assessment serves a number of purposes:
- It provides information to the instructor and learner about what the
learner brings to the course (if done at the beginning), what has been
accomplished (if during the course), and what the learner wants and needs
to know next.
- It assures a flexible, responsive curriculum rather than a fixed,
linear curriculum determined ahead of time by instructors.
- It aids administrators, teachers, and tutors in developing materials,
curricula, skills assessments, teaching approaches, and teacher training.
According to a study by Bean, Partanen, Wright, and Aaronson (1989),
factors that contribute to learner attrition in adult literacy programs
include inappropriate placement and instructional materials and approaches
that are not relevant to learners' needs and lives. When learners know
that educators understand and want to address their needs and interests,
they are motivated to continue in a program and to learn (see also the
discussion of learner retention in Brod, 1990).
Needs assessments with ESL learners, as well as those in adult basic
education programs, can take a variety of forms, including survey questionnaires
on which learners check areas of interest or need, open-ended interviews,
or informal observations of performance. (For discussion, see Auerbach,
in press; Lytle & Wolfe, 1989.)
o Survey questionnaires. Many types of questionnaires have been designed
to determine learner literacy needs (see Auerbach, in press; Bodman &
Lanzano, 1978; Graham, 1980; McKenzie, 1990; Savage, 1988 for examples).
A portion of a questionnaire might look like this: (in English or the learner's
What do you already know how to read in English?
What do you want to learn to read?
labels in stores
GED textbooks, etc.
Want to learn:
labels in stores
GED textbooks,, etc.
What do you already know how to write in English?
What to you want to learn to write?
notes to school
things for work, etc.
Want to learn:
notes to school
things for work, etc.
(Adapted from Auerbach, in press, p. 218)
A survey developed by Graham (1980) uses the five areas of life-skills
from the Adult Performance Level (APL) Study--government and law, health,
consumer economics, community resources, and occupational knowledge (APL
Project Staff, 1975). Students check their degree of interest in 25 items
under each area.
Where necessary, the questionnaire can be translated into the learner's
native language. For learners with no or limited literacy skills, the questionnaire
can be read aloud (in English or the native language), or pictures showing
different literacy contexts (using a telephone, buying groceries, driving
a car, or taking public transportation) can be shown, and learners asked
to mark the contexts that apply to them (see Liebowitz, 1988, for pictures).
o Learner-compiled inventories of language and literacy use. A more
open-ended way to get the same information as surveys offer is to have
learners keep lists of ways they use language and literacy, which they
o Interviews with learners, either one-on-one or in small groups, in
their native language or in English, can provide valuable information about
what learners know, what their interests are, and the ways they use or
hope to use literacy.
o Review of reading materials. An instructor can spread out a range
of reading materials on the table (newspapers, magazines, children's books,
comics, greeting cards) and ask learners which ones they would like to
read and whether they would like to work in class on any of them (Auerbach,
in press, p. 220). A similar activity can be done with different types
o Class discussions. Showing pictures of adults in various contexts,
the teacher can ask, "What literacy skills does this person want to develop?"
and have learners generate a list. The teacher then asks, "Why do you want
to develop literacy skills?" Learners might be more open if they move from
the impersonal to the personal in this way (Auerbach, in press, p. 116).
o Personal or dialogue journals. Learners' journals, in which they write
freely about their activities, experiences, and plans, can be a rich source
of information about their literacy needs (Peyton & Staton, 1991).
NEEDS ASSESSMENT IN ONE ADULT LITERACY PROGRAM
The assessment process of the Adult Literacy Evaluation Project (ALEP)
in Philadelphia reflects the approaches described above. It focuses on
four areas: (1) the functions and uses of literacy in learners' everyday
lives; (2) learner goals and plans for literacy education; (3) learner
abilities on a range of reading and writing tasks and the strategies used
to accomplish those tasks; and (4) learner beliefs about reading, writing,
and literacy (see Lytle & Wolfe, 1989, for a description of this and
other programs). Planning conferences are conducted with learners when
they enter the program and at regular intervals throughout their study.
Learners describe the contexts in which they use literacy and they participate
in activities that assess their interests and abilities--they choose printed
texts to read and discuss; write texts; and respond to checklists of goals,
indicating which ones they can already do, which are of particular interest
to them, and which are not relevant or important. Learner progress is determined
by: (1) analyzing the difficulty of reading texts learners have chosen,
(2) noting the strategies learners use to approach those texts and their
degree of engagement with them, and (3) reviewing learners' writings, collected
in a portfolio.
Needs assessment can take many forms and can be carried out at different
times during the instructional process. Whatever the focus and format,
the basic purpose is to determine what students want and need to learn.
When curriculum content, materials, and teaching approaches match students'
perceived and actual needs, student motivation and learning success are
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