Improving Literacy Education Through
Options of Practice and Research:
An Overview for Adult Educators
by Federico Salas-Isnardi, Adult Literacy Specialist, TCALL
In May 2012, the National Academy of Sciences, through its publishing arm, the National Academies Press, published a major report on adult literacy called Improving Literacy Education: Options for Practice and Research which looks at the current status of adult literacy in the United States and makes recommendations to improve outcomes by investing on the instructional infrastructure of adult education, research, professional development, and program evaluation.
Improving Literacy Education defines literacy as "the ability to
read, write, and communicate using a symbol system (in this
case English) and using appropriate tools and technologies to
meet the goals and demands of individuals, their families, and
U.S. society" (p. 2) and starts with the premise that, while a high
level of literacy is necessary to succeed in most aspects of life in
the 21st century, more than 90 million adults in this country don't
have sufficient literacy skills to meet modern demands. The study
makes a sobering acknowledgment that "a significant portion
of the U.S. population is likely to continue, at least in the near
term, to experience inadequate literacy and require instruction
as adults" because, researchers note, "only 38 percent of twelfth
graders performed at or above the proficient level in reading" according
to the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress
with 26 percent of graduating high-school seniors performing at
the lowest levels of literacy (p. 13).
The report indicates, as practitioners in the field know all too well,
that "there is a surprising lack of rigorous research on effective
approaches to adult literacy instruction" (p. 2) and explains that
because of this dearth the researchers made adaptations of research
on learning and literacy with other populations to reach a
number of conclusions that impact the work of adult basic education,
literacy, and ESL instructors.
Conclusion 1: Literacy students are a diverse group - The
first conclusion is one that those of us in the field are familiar
with, namely, that adult learners are a heterogeneous bunch and
that reading and writing instruction must vary to meet the needs
of a very diverse population who are learning in many different
contexts. What is important, however familiar this conclusion is to
us in the field, is to focus on the recommendation that teachers
must "have the requisite tools for instruction and the technical
knowledge and expertise, professional development, and ongoing
supports as needed for effective implementation" (p. 240).
Conclusion 2: We can identify principles of effective literacy instruction - Effective Literacy Instruction is characterized by the following principles:
- [Effective Literacy Instruction] targets (as needed) word recognition, fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension, background knowledge, strategies for deeper analysis and understanding of texts, and the component skills of writing;
- combines explicit teaching and extensive practice with motivating and varied texts, tools, and tasks matched to the learner's skills, educational and cultural backgrounds, and literacy needs and goals;
- explicitly targets the automation and integration of component skills and the transfer of skills to tasks valued by society and the learner; and
- includes formative assessments to monitor progress, provide feedback, and adjust instruction.
For adult educators this means that we must target specific learning difficulties using reading and writing instruction presented in broader contexts; it also means that we must use explicit instruction that facilitates transfer of knowledge and offers opportunities to practice both inside and outside the classroom.
Conclusion 3: Research with youth can inform understanding of adult motivation - The third conclusion of the study is that while "knowledge of effective literacy instruction for adults is lacking, research with younger populations can be used to guide the development of instructional approaches for adults" (p. 241) as long as instruction is modified to account for the experience of adults and the effect of aging on cognitive processes. The study suggests (p. 242) programs must keep in mind that the motivation to read and write is different for adults than for younger populations. Instructors must keep in mind the differences in development between adults and children and should not wait for all gaps in knowledge to be filled before presenting literacy tasks appropriate for the world of education, work, and life.
For practical classroom purposes, this suggests that rather than presenting information as a continuum of increasing complexity, instructors must help learners tackle complex tasks by offering learning supports in the form of visuals, charts, stories, etc., rather than avoiding tasks until gaps are filled. The real life challenges presented to adults are complex.
Conclusion 4: We must identify the instructional approaches that foster persistence - Many factors keep adults from persisting long enough to make significant development of literacy skills. The study also voices a concern with the lack of research indicating what instructional methods are most effective in supporting persistence and recommends that future interventions be developed on the premise that significant outcomes are not achieved because of lack of persistence (p. 243). The study indicates that "technology has the potential to expand time for practice beyond what institutions can afford to provide via human instructors" (p. 244) and suggests that adult literacy programs need to engage in partnerships that will help adult learners access learning technologies.
For adult educators, this means that our approaches and curriculum materials must provide ample opportunities for students to persist in and outside the classroom including providing access to distance education opportunities so that adults who have barriers to participation can persist in their efforts without having to go to a specific location. Access to technology being one challenge, another will be providing sufficient professional development to ensure that programs and teachers are prepared to integrate learning technologies into their instructional delivery options.
Conclusion 5:The principles of effective literacy instruction apply to ESL learners - The fifth conclusion pertains to the teaching of English as a Second Language (ESL) learners and suggests that the principles of effective literacy instruction identified above apply equally to ESL learners as long as instructors keep in mind that the developmental needs of language learners. This includes understanding that the level of first language literacy impacts the development of literacy in the second language, and that "a particular challenge to address in adult literacy instruction for English learners is developing their language and literacy skills at the same time" (p. 246). The researchers indicate that, in adulthood, learning a second language is accomplished better through explicit instruction and is more closely related to reading than it is with younger learners. In the classroom, the study recommends an integrated focus on oral language, reading and writing in meaningful contexts with materials that are relevant to adults.
Conclusion 6: The field needs new comprehensive assessments of adult literacy - The study reports that, currently, there is no instrument able to assess the whole range of literacy skills adult learners already possess and how those skills grow over time and the researchers find that improving literacy programs will require the development of new measures and a comprehensive system of assessments that should include not only the broad range of literacy tasks, knowledge and abilities learners are expected to exhibit but also the variety of outcomes our programs expect both functional as well as psychological. While they don't make claims as how to assess these outcomes, the researchers suggest that these "non-cognitive outcomes contribute to a complete view of the effectiveness of adult literacy instruction" (p. 246-247). The study finds that the use of grade level equivalents to measure adults is inappropriate because of the varied skills that adults exhibit cannot be fit into grade level categories and recommends the undertaking of longitudinal research "to inform the development of valid measures able to account for the variations in the grown of adults' literacy skills across the lifespan" (p. 247).
Conclusion 7: Technology can help with learning, persistence, and assessment - The report suggests that learning technology and social networking tools make it possible to expand delivery of literacy instruction beyond the traditional classroom. Technology can be used to create motivational environments where students acquire literacy skills while engaging in the use of collaborative technologies (p.249). Learning technology can assist with motivation, skill development through scaffolding of literacy activities, tracking progress, and assessment but, to take advantage of the rich opportunities, teachers must receive training on how best to use the technologies.
Conclusion 8: Broader and more complex forms of literacy - as our society evolves, literacy practice has also changed; today an adult cannot be considered literate without the ability to use modern technologies including searching for information and using digital forms of communication for work, education, social or civic participation and other life tasks (p. 249). The study calls for research on how digital media influences performance in online reading, writing, and learning. Three questions specifically related to instruction that need further research, according to the study, are: 1- what are the competencies involved in reading and writing online? 2- what instructional materials and programs are effective in developing digital literacy skills? and 3- should literacy development always start with print-based texts or should it start with texts in multimodal and digital media. The implications of these questions for the classroom are that teachers and programs may have to structure their learning environments to foster familiarity with information and communication technologies (p. 250).
Conclusion 9: There is limited research and funding for new studies is insufficient -The study identifies priorities for research on adult learning based on current knowledge gaps, suggesting that funding for research in adult education has been insufficient and inconsistent. New studies are needed to identify promising approaches leading to substantial improvement; mechanisms must be provided to support those promising programs so that they can be taken to scale, and further research is needed to ensure the applicability of those findings to the broader adult literacy population (p. 251).
Improving Literacy Education makes the following recommendations (pp 251-254):
- To expand the infrastructure of adult literacy education to support the use of instructional approaches, curricula, materials, tools, and assessments of learners consistent with (a) the available research on reading, writing, learning, language, and adult development; (b) the research on the effectiveness of instructional approaches; and (c) knowledge of sound assessment practices.
- To ensure that professional development and technical assistance for instructors are widely accessible and consistent with the best research on reading, writing, learning, language, and adult development.
- Policy makers, providers of literacy programs, and researchers should collaborate to systematically implement and evaluate options to achieve the persistence needed for literacy learning. These options include, among others, instructional approaches, technologies, social service support, and incentives.
- To inform decision making through strategic and sustained investments in a coordinated and systemic approach to program improvement, evaluation, and research about adult literacy learners.
The study concludes with a series of priorities for instructional approaches and materials, persistence, technology, and assessment to help translate the knowledge gained by the recommended research into large systemic implementation initiatives. In its concluding thoughts, the report acknowledges that significant improvement will be difficult because of the lack of investment and the substantial need for instructor training necessary as part of any change in practice. In order to accomplish the proposed changes, the study indicates that the work of Improving Literacy Education in the USA "will require partnerships among researchers, practitioners, curriculum developers, and administrators to systematically build the needed knowledge and tools and to identify and address barriers to implementation. Major employers, existing training and education organizations, faith-based groups, and other community groups will need to be enlisted to help in the effort." (p. 261).
All page numbers cited refer to National Research Council (2012). Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Practice and Research. A.M. Lesgold and M. Welch-Ross, (Eds.) Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. PDF available online from the National Academies Press here.