Adult Literacy Programs Research Paper Starter

Adult Literacy Programs

(Research Starters)

This article presents information on adult literacy programs in the U.S. Literacy is defined as a skill base that includes numeracy acquisition, problem solving, and hinges upon one's functionality. The concept has evolved from the mere acquisition of reading and writing skills to a broader, more encompassing view of literacy that is based on an understanding of how adults function in today's society and the increasingly complex skill base required to perform successfully.

Keywords Adult and Experiential Learning; Adult Basic Education; Community-Based Adult Education; Family Literacy; Functional Literacy; Literacy Education


At one point in time, on a basic level, adult literacy was simply considered the acquisition of reading and writing skills that mature individuals needed in order to function in a developed society. However, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, literacy today "is not a single skill or quality that one either possesses or lacks. Rather, it encompasses various types of skills that different individuals possess to varying degrees" ("National Assessment," 2007, p1). The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 determined that those types of skills might include "an individual's ability to read, write, speak in English, compute, and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual, and in society" ("Workforce," p. 127).

National Institute of Literacy

However, the National Institute for Literacy (NIL) recognizes that there are also "different levels and types of literacy, which reflect the ability to perform a wide variety of tasks using written materials that differ in nature and complexity" (White & Dillow, 2005, p. 3). For example, using the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) instrument, the NIL was able to probe three specific literacy areas in adults: prose, document, and quantitative. Thus, the NAAL tasks reflect "a definition of literacy that emphasizes the use of written materials to function adequately in one's environment and develop as an individual" (White & Dillow, 2005, p. 3). Based on the premise that all adults in this country must perform certain literacy tasks in order to "adequately function," the NAAL measures "the ability of a nationally representative sample of adults to perform literacy tasks similar to those that they would encounter in their daily lives" (White & Dillow, 2005, p. 3). That task might well be the replication of one's ability to read a map, pay the telephone bill, balance a checkbook, or read and understand a few lines of poetry.

Defining Literacy

This broader view of literacy is a more balanced approach and integrates the increasing technology demands of society today, where the skills needed to function include, but far surpass, mere reading and writing. Adult literacy entails a certain proficiency that includes daily problem-solving and perhaps a level of maturity displayed by dialectical thinking or interpersonal savvy. In order to be considered even minimally 'literate,' a person has always needed to maintain a basic level of reading and writing proficiency. Yet, now that the concept itself is much broader in scope, as the world changes and advances, the issue is less one of definition, but more of a consensus as to how literacy might be measured in adults.

While the aforementioned definitions view literacy as one's ability to perform certain tasks in order to achieve certain goals, to develop self and, ultimately, to make one's way in society, these definitions would also seem to indicate that the skills needed to be literate can be readily acquired. Certainly, literacy in a traditional sense is basically about one's ability to read, write and function, but these skills are not acquired acontextually. Literacy is a set of skills required for one to successfully maneuver in society, and this type of successful maneuvering becomes ever more a complex notion, given our global economy and the impact of technology.

Adult Literacy

Researchers involved with the Literacy Practices of Adult Learners Study (1998), focused on and studied those literacy programs that best enabled adult students to read and write. These researchers want to categorize programs throughout the nation whose outcomes feature an adult learner who is encouraged to write and read consistently and with greater complexity. Consistency of the reading material and complexity of the matter become focal points and serve as a gauge or measure of literacy success.

The NIL also focuses on reading ability alone as a key component of literacy acquisition, but not the sole component. This organization's Adult Reading Components Study (ARCS) has produced an assessment tool based on 11 components that contribute to one's total reading and comprehension ability. A pattern or level of reading component is then revealed, since the overarching goal of one's reading is comprehension of that which was read.

Ultimately, literacy may be defined as a skill base that includes numeracy acquisition and problem solving for daily living, but also hinges upon functionality. This is akin to the NIL's three literacy categories mentioned previously: prose, document, and quantitative literacy. Prose literacy refers to the skill set needed to read and comprehend "continuous texts," such as editorials, news stories, and brochures. Document literacy refers to the knowledge required to use "noncontinuous texts" in various ways, such as maps, job applications, or payroll forms. Quantitative literacy would be required for prose or document literacy. It refers to the numbers embedded in certain printed matter, and the numeracy skills that may be required to determine how these numbers fit into the general scheme of the text. Thus, the literate individual is one who is able to meet literacy demands at home, in the workplace, and in the society by performing prose, document, and quantitative tasks (National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 2007).


Certain organizations, such as the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a national non-profit organization that focuses on creating effective learning strategies for working adults, view literacy development through the dual lens of labor and access to postsecondary education. The Council, via its Adult Learning Focused Institution, seeks to help learning adults improve their literacy skills by helping to improve the colleges, universities, and employers who support these adult learners. The Council focuses on the distinct needs of today's adult learner who is unwilling or unable to emulate traditional-aged students either inside or outside the classroom. Adult students have unique needs, especially if they are employed (CAEL, 2006). One of these distinct needs is the recognition of and need for experiential and informal learning methods within the classroom, including assignments that draw upon skills adults use every day, such as composing a shopping list, reading a map, or partnering for mock interviews.

For several years, the concept of lifelong learning has entered the arena of adult literacy development, as well as popular culture. It has been embraced by many as the hallmark of maturity because, in our increasingly complex and layered society with its competitive economy and workforce, learning can never truly end. Thus, lifelong learning is critical for any adult who wishes to become and remain a knowledgeable and viable member of the expanding labor market and a democratic society. To be a literate adult becomes a dynamic concept.

According to the National Center for the Study of Adult Literacy and Learning (NCSALL), "More than 40 percent of working-age adults in the United States lack the skills and education needed to succeed in family, work, and community life today" (NCSALL, 2005, p1). Moreover, the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) states that nontraditional adult students "with limited formal education, who left high school for whatever reason, are most in need of opportunity and encouragement for continued learning" (LSAL, 2007).

Yet, how are adult students provided with the opportunity to develop their literacy skills? Researchers with the 1998 Literacy Practices of Adult Learners Study focus on the kinds of literacy programs that best motivate adult students to read and write often and with greater complexity. However, the purpose or end result of literacy development is not always a simple matter with a single, common bottom line. Some adult program developers and educators view learning as an end unto itself, while others focus on learning as a path to social justice or personal transformation. Adult literacy then becomes a term with special interest and meaning for various groups with their distinct aims and methods.


The purpose for most adult literacy programs be they formal or informal, is to encourage and develop the skills necessary for adults to function in society. The term 'function' has been used frequently, but adult learners engaged in literacy development courses are expected to use what...

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