Adult Literacy Education
The last few years have seen growing interest in the field of adult literacy education, also known as adult basic education and adult literacy and numeracy, with increased attention at national and international levels. This has been partly inspired by the International Adult Literacy Survey of the mid-1990s (and the less influential Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL) of the following decade), which allowed adults’ skills to be compared across countries for the first time. This coincided with the move toward an information economy, allegedly making information management skills such as literacy the bedrock for success. At the same time notions of human capital (where education is the fundamental key to prosperity) were gaining favor with agencies such as the World Bank and UNESCO (Wickens and Sandlin, 2007) so adult literacy education became seen as a central and critical educational sector.
Adult literacy education is marked by a high level of diversity in terms of structure, delivery, and philosophy and performs different roles in different parts of the world, whether industrialized Europe or a developing country. It can take place in church basements, further education colleges, universities, community settings, workplaces, and libraries. It can be delivered by professionally qualified staff, or staff who are qualified in other forms of teaching or unqualified volunteers. Learners can be employed or unemployed, men or women, refugees or indigenous people, full time students, or people who study part-time. Each of these presents a unique context for literacy education, and it is important not to generalize across settings without taking great care.
What Is Adult Literacy?
There are a number of ways of conceptualizing what is meant by adult literacy. These definitions contain assumptions that matter to the focus of education because they imply different understandings of learning (Papen, 2005). Three concepts have been particularly influential: the functional, critical, and liberal concepts of literacy (Table 1).
Three views of literacy education Table 1
|Reason for literacy education||Survival/work||Empowerment||Development of person|
|Participant group||(Potential) workers||Marginalized groups||Everybody|
In this view literacy is seen as a skill that is required for a broad range of activities associated with the individual’s participation in society. There is an assumed correlation between individual skills and the overall performance of the nation in terms of modernization and economic productivity. This is particularly so in the OECD (1997, 2000), where a focus on improving literacy skills as the key to unlocking the benefits of globalization is dominant. Literacy is conceived as a set of neutral, technical skills with little to do with culture and society. Its assumed benefits are believed to include enabling access to information, developing thinking, and improving the individual’s chances of finding employment and income. Reflecting this view, the ALL assessed skills against a suitable minimum for meeting the demands of daily work and life (UNESCO, 2005). The functional model emphasizes individual deficits and sees literacy as a set of discrete skills believed to be universal and transferable to all kinds of situations that require the use of written language (Barton, 1994).
The concept of critical literacy is associated with the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and refers to the potential of literacy for not only reading the word but also reading the world (Friere and Macedo, 1987). It moves away from the functional model, toward a pedagogy intended to allow participants to understand their world in terms of justice and injustice, power and oppression, and how to transform it. Contrary to the functional model, primary purpose of critical literacy is not to help the individual to move up the existing social ladder, but to build a radical critique of the dominant culture and the existing power relationships between social groups (Shor, 1993). This model is often linked to democratic citizenship and the role that education plays in supporting people’s participation in society (Crowther and Tett, 2001). People need the ability not only to decode the literal meanings of texts, but also to read between the lines and to engage in a critical discussion of the positions a text supports.
Liberal Tradition of Literacy
The third view of literacy is informed by a humanist view of education that emphasizes personal development and individual goals. It argues for the right of all citizens to education and goes beyond the functional-skills approach to include areas such as creative writing and access to literature (Papen, 2005). Participants in programs are not limited to the working population but include older people or those who are not part of the workforce.
These different definitions present competing ideologies of literacy with associated assumptions, values, and standards that need to be questioned. However, in much of the world there is an unquestioning emphasis on the functional, vocational approach such asWelfare toWork in the US (Sandlin & Cervero, 2003), resulting in a discourse of literacy as a technical skill and vocational competence.
Social-Practice and Skills Models of Literacy
In addition to diverging perspectives on the purpose of adult literacy education, there are a number of theoretical positions on how people actually use literacies. A functional-skills-based approach focuses attention on the autonomy of the text and the meanings it carries. It searches for universal features of adult literacy and other semiotic sign systems. It leads to narrow definitions of reading, writing, and calculating, and ignores aspects of learning that cannot be dealt with at the individual or cognitive level. It excludes many issues that are important for understanding learner responses. All too often it can support a deficit view of literacy, where those with limited literacy engagement are seen to be lacking in some way, whether in ability or in education.
One approach has moved away from the individually focused cognitive skills model to include the social practices associated with number, reading, and writing (Hamilton et al., 2006). In this view literacy is not seen as a purely individual activity – instead, it sees literacy and numeracy as being historically and socially situated and part of wider cultural and media engagement. The focus of the social-practices approach shifts away from literacy as something learners lack toward the many different ways that people engage with literacy. Social-practices approaches recognize difference and diversity, and challenge how these differences are valued within our society.
Street (1995) describes this as a shift from seeing literacy as an autonomous gift to be given to people to an ideological view of literacy that places it in the wider context of institutional purposes and power relationships. From this perspective adult literacy is part of a range of social practices that are observable in events or moments and are patterned by social institutions and power relationships. Attention is focused on the cultural practices within which written and spoken words are embedded. Not just reading but also speaking and writing, as well as the use of new technologies, become central to the definition of literacy. The social-practices view requires that connections are made between the classroom and the community in which learners lead their lives; with a notion of situated learning; between learning and institutional power; and between print literacy and other media.
There is not just one social-practices theory of adult literacy, numeracy, and language, but a number of different versions.The social-practice approach that has characterized the new literacy studies (NLS) draws mainly on ideas and methodologies from sociology, sociolinguistics, and anthropology rather than themore psychological approach of active problem-solving theory rooted in the work of Vygotsky and others. The NLS involves looking beyond formal educational settings to informal learning, and to the other official settings in which literacies play a key role. Learning does not just take place in classrooms but in everyday life, with meanings, values, and purposes located within a broader literacy framework than the texts themselves.
There are two important principles underlying the implementation of a social-practice approach to literacy. First, a two-way dialog and movement between formal learning and the everyday world is essential. Everyday, situated cultures and practices cannot simply be acknowledged and imported into classroom settings. The boundaries between in and out of education must be blurred so that contexts become permeable.
Second, active learning is assumed by this approach. It characterizes the process of becoming literate as one of taking hold of the tools of writing and language. This has important implications for relationships within the learning process and for reflective and questioning activity on the part of both learners and teachers (Hamilton et al., 2006). The ways in which teachers and learners participate in decision making and the governance of the organization in which learning takes place are crucial, whether through management committees, consultative bodies, and research and development activities. Citizenship is modeled and enacted within such arenas.
Reconciling the Skills and Social-Practices Perspectives
The social-practices approach recognizes the importance of learners’ motivations, goals, and purposes; every literacy task is done for a reason and in specific contexts, hence the challenge to concepts of universal sets of literacy skills. Skills and knowledge acquisition are, however, intrinsic to learners’ purposes and enhance many different aspects of their lives. For example, improving skills for employment may not appear to serve social practices, but skills that are gained in the pursuit of employment or promotion can be applied in other domains of people’s lives, such as helping children with homework, managing the household, or pursuing further learning. Both enhancing skills and recognizing their role within learners’ lives are important and both aspects should be developed in good teaching.
How far might it be possible to reconcile the functionalskills approach and the social-practices approach within policy and practice? Could social practices be seen as encompassing and extending the narrower focus of skills? The idea of two opposing broad approaches is an oversimplification and there are other ways of characterizing the guiding philosophies people bring to literacy, particularly in everyday cultural settings (see Barton et al., 2000). Freebody and Lo Bianco suggest (1997: 26) that effective literacy tuition draws on a repertoire of resources that allow learners to: break the code; actively interpret the meaning of the text; use texts functionally; analyse texts critically. This is a dynamic process as represented in Figure 1 that is an attempt to acknowledge that both skills and critical practices are enmeshed in working with texts.
In the middle circle is the process of actually understanding the words as they are written on the page, and interpreting the meaning. The outer ring represents the social uses of that meaning, which can range from functional to critical. A literacy process that is missing any of these components can be considered as only a partial engagement with the text.
Research in the US is also providing new insights on the interrelations between skills and practices. The 5-year Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) in Portland, Oregon has revealed that both program participation and self-study have positive, time-specific effects on literacy practices (Reder, 2008). The research showed that selfstudy was prevalent among adults of all literacy levels as a means of basic skills development, whether or not they also participated in classes. Self-study appears to act as a bridge between periods of program participation and to facilitate persistence.The mixedmode of learning identified by LSAL seems to bridge social-practices and skills-based approaches. It suggests that learners use a range of resources to enhance the social practices associated with literacy, and that programs are one resource, with the specific role of providing skills to underpin the practices. As we suggest with the diagram above, skills and practices form a self-reinforcing cycle of engagement with literacy and literacy education.
The broad mode of participation suggested by LSAL brings together social-practice and skills approaches. On the one hand, it recognizes that learning involves learners actively using resources as well as programs delivering services. On the other, it indicates that literacy programs appear to have the most direct and immediate impact on literacy practices, underlining the role of skills enhancement.
The Role of Adult Literacy Education
Throughout the world, adult literacy education fulfills a variety of roles. For those in industrialized countries, one common perception is that adult literacy learners are people who have not fully benefited from compulsory education. There are a number of possible reasons, ranging from sociological explanations concerning the tendency of schools to push out certain learners to psychological rationales involving learning difficulties. Overall, the common factor is the view that adult literacy education has an ameliorative role, improving literacy engagement and compensating, to some degree, for the failure of initial schooling (St. Clair and Priestman, 1997).
The ameliorative view assumes that learners have had an opportunity to learn literacy practices, and that this opportunity has not been effective.This can lead to a deficit view of learners, where they are assumed to have some kind of problem that has led to reduced literacy abilities.
One of the reasons that adult literacy education has experienced such variability in funding and policy interest is that it can be viewed as an optional form of provision within the ameliorative perspective. After all, if people have already had a chance to learn about literacy surely giving them a second chance is an act of generosity? It follows that the most effective argument for supporting literacy education is often a moral one. This can lead to a panic about literacy education (or more often illiteracy) with dramatically increased funding followed by gradual withdrawal of support until the next moral panic (Quigley, 1997). Ameliorative perspectives can be unhelpful for the general health and stability of the field.
Despite the dominance of some version of an ameliorative perspective in the industrialized world, there are two other roles that literacy education can play. Each of these roles is particularly relevant to groups with little access to mainstream education. The first is an adaptive role, where individuals from one language and literacy community enter another. This might include economic migrants or refugees, as well as people who have been displaced from one job or life situation into another with different demands, such as older adults attending college for the first time or farm workers following seasonal crops.
In the United States many literacy programs are going beyond people with English as their first language and working to develop initial language skills with speakers of other languages. This is particularly evident in Texas, where more than half the population are Spanish speaking. In the United Kingdom, some adult literacy agencies are working with substantial numbers of refugees to provide initial English language instruction.
Many of these learners will have well-developed literacy and numeracy practices in their first language – in the case of Texas many learners have an excellent Mexican secondary school education, and in the UK refugees are frequently academics, doctors, engineers, and other highly educated professionals. The provision of language education alongside literacy education in programs is generally not widely acknowledged. This can place unpredictable and occasionally unrealistic demands on instructors, resources, and learners themselves. The emphasis on the ameliorative role of literacy education can obscure the adaptive application of literacy learning, perhaps resulting in less appropriate services for this group of learners.
The final role of adult literacy education is foundational. Many countries throughout the world do not have the universally accessible, and generally compulsory, primary education found in the industrialized nations.While UNESCO (2005) has committed itself strongly to literacy as the core of education for all, many people around the world do not gain access to any form of literacy education until later in life. The gross enrolment rate in primary school is below 60% in some African countries, and the age of the child at enrolment may be considerably higher than usual for primary school (UNESCO, 2005). In addition, there is a degree of gender imbalance in school attendance in around 40% of countries, though this is generally reducing quite rapidly (UNESCO, 2005).
For learners in countries without universal access to schooling the ameliorative approach, with its assumption that the conventions and application of education are understood, is inappropriate. New adult learners in this context will be entering classes with little understanding of the nuances and expectations of education, and often will be motivated by economic or instrumental concerns about the care of their family.
There is also a danger of well-meaning aid agencies establishing projects that inadvertently create situations of neo-colonialism, where Western models of literacy education are applied to situations very different from theWestern countries. This can easily come to be seen as the most valuable form of learning, displacing local approaches to text and traditional forms of numeracy. Anexample is drilling learners in rows, teaching literacy practices that then fall into disuse because of irrelevance (Wickens and Sandlin, 2007), or the use of English in post-Colonial settings (Robinson, 2007).
Given the different roles that adult literacy education can fill, some care must be taken when thinking about each situation. It is more complex than assuming that every literacy learner has somehow missed out on elementary schooling, and it is critical to avoid seeing learners as having some deficit.
Accountability and Assessment
There has been a general increase in the resources committed to adult literacy education throughout the world over the last two decades. It remains unclear how long this will last, or what the final results will be, but it has profoundly affected the conceptualization and delivery of literacy education. These changes have resulted in more attention being paid to the outcomes of literacy education. Historically, literacy programs for adults have rarely been strongly concerned with measuring the progress of learners, or indeed the efficiency and effectiveness of the agencies delivering the programs. This is no longer the case in the industrialized countries, resulting in profound transformations of the field.
In thinking about assessment and accountability, it helps to be clear about the two central ideas. Assessment is measurement of learner progress through standardized tests, individual progress reports, or some combination of these and other methods. Accountability is the requirement for programs to demonstrate that they are having a positive impact on the literacy use of learners. There is some confusion around these concepts because assessment data are often taken to be a straightforward measure of effectiveness. In this case, the best strategy for the program is to recruit only very competent learners, meaning they can easily show learners leaving the program with strong results. The issue of assessment leading recruitment and instruction has been tackled very rarely – all too often programs produce what they are asked to measure, potentially at the cost of meaningful learning (Merrifield, 1998).
One recent study (St. Clair and Belzer, 2007) looked at the accountability and assessment systems tied into adult literacy education in the United States, Scotland, and England (the latter have separate educational systems). The study suggested that there are two important dimensions to national accountability and assessment systems. The first is the degree of standardization in the system, meaning the extent to which tests, curricula, and methods are shared among all the programs surveyed. The second is the degree of alignment, meaning the extent to which philosophy, ideas, and approach to literacy are shared among the programs. It is possible to have one without the other, or to have both strong standardization and strong alignment (Table 2).
Alignment and standardization in three national literacy systems Table 2
|Weak alignment||Strong alignment|
|Strong standardization||United States||England|
In the United States legislation of the late 1990s required the creation of a national reporting system, which collates results from across the country. To allow this to happen, a standard reporting approach has been developed, defining the preferred instruments and desired achievement while still allowing the state governments some latitude. This is a weakly aligned but strongly standardized system. In England, the adult literacy system has been standardized in outcomes in a way similar to the US, but in addition the curriculum and tests have been centralized to reflect a single approach to literacy education. This system is both standardized and aligned. In Scotland, there is strong alignment around the social-practices model of literacy discussed earlier, but very little standardization – programs are encouraged to develop their own approaches and resources.
Each of these approaches has its strengths and weaknesses. With high standardization, it is all too easy for programs and instructors to feel limited in responding to local circumstances, whereas low standardization can lead to uncertainty about the quality of the services learners are receiving. A single hierarchy of tests and exams and a requirement that learners demonstrate a certain amount of progress for a certain investment of time and money is not compatible with a social-practices view of literacy. High alignment is most effective where there is genuine commitment to a particular conception of literacy education, and that may be hard to maintain across a national system over any length of time. Despite recognition of the importance of locally tailored programs maintaining effective, learner-led practice may prove to be a significant challenge for literacy educators in the future.
Changes in the Literacy Education Workforce
The last few years have also seen a move toward professionalization of literacy instruction in the industrialized countries. This development, which is supported by many instructors and administrators, is generally accompanied by pressure for adult literacy education to more closely resemble the established educational professions – school teaching in particular. This suggests that a specific qualification for teaching adult literacymay be developed, and that there would be some attention given to providing professional development for core staff.While professionalization would fit well with the agenda of accountability and quality control, it would also raise a number of problems.
One implication of any move to a professionalized workforce would be the loss of volunteers, who currently perform a central role in many systems. If they and parttime workers were expected to undergo substantial training before being able to work with learners, there is a danger that it would be more difficult to recruit. There is also the question of what workers should be taught – if they are only provided with a basic introduction to the field, it is unclear that they would be necessarily be able to deliver better-quality instruction. There is a real possibility that a straightforward, standardized curriculum would be developed for delivery by semi-trained staff, reducing the diversity of practices in the field.
Adult literacy education takes place in a wide range of settings where learners engage in a variety of ways with texts of all kinds. It is critical for effective instruction that both the method and the content of instruction recognize this diversity and that deficit approaches, where the learner is assumed to have something wrong with them, are avoided. Instead, a variety of outcomes of literacy instruction should be valued.
The recent structural changes in the field throughout the world have been substantial, with issues to do with accountability and professionalization rising up the agenda. These changes have tended to move adult literacy education closer to school-based education. At the same time, the importance of having a system that is highly aligned around values and ideology is being more widely recognized, perhaps as a response to the trend for managerialism. Finally, there is real interest in bringing skills and social-practices perspectives together to create a more nuanced understanding of teaching and learning that enables literacy education to be more closely aligned to the practices used in people’s everyday lives.
See also: Adult Basic Education: A Challenge for Vocational Based Learning; Lifelong Learning.