International Encyclopedia of Education || Adult Literacy Education

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  • Adult Literacy EducationL Tett, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UKR St.Clair, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK

    2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.The last few years have seen growing interest in the field ofadult literacy education, also known as adult basic educa-tion and adult literacy and numeracy, with increased atten-tion at national and international levels. This has beenpartly inspired by the International Adult Literacy Surveyof the mid-1990s (and the less influential Adult Literacyand Life Skills Survey (ALL) of the following decade),which allowed adults skills to be compared acrosscountries for the first time. This coincided with the movetoward an information economy, allegedly making infor-mation management skills such as literacy the bedrock forsuccess. At the same time notions of human capital (whereeducation is the fundamental key to prosperity) were gain-ing favor with agencies such as the World Bank andUNESCO (Wickens and Sandlin, 2007) so adult literacyeducation became seen as a central and critical educationalsector.

    Adult literacy education is marked by a high level ofdiversity in terms of structure, delivery, and philosophyand performs different roles in different parts of theworld, whether industrialized Europe or a developingcountry. It can take place in church basements, furthereducation colleges, universities, community settings, work-places, and libraries. It can be delivered by professionallyqualified staff, or staff who are qualified in other formsof teaching or unqualified volunteers. Learners can beemployed or unemployed, men or women, refugees orindigenous people, full time students, or people who studypart-time. Each of these presents a unique context forliteracy education, and it is important not to generalizeacross settings without taking great care.What Is Adult Literacy?

    There are a number of ways of conceptualizing what ismeant by adult literacy. These definitions contain assump-tions that matter to the focus of education because theyimply different understandings of learning (Papen, 2005).Three concepts have been particularly influential: the func-tional, critical, and liberal concepts of literacy (Table 1).Functional Literacy

    In this view literacy is seen as a skill that is required for abroad range of activities associated with the individualsparticipation in society. There is an assumed correlationbetween individual skills and the overall performance ofthe nation in terms of modernization and economic pro-ductivity. This is particularly so in the OECD (1997,2000), where a focus on improving literacy skills as thekey to unlocking the benefits of globalization is dominant.Literacy is conceived as a set of neutral, technical skillswith little to do with culture and society. Its assumedbenefits are believed to include enabling access to infor-mation, developing thinking, and improving the indivi-duals chances of finding employment and income.Reflecting this view, the ALL assessed skills against asuitable minimum for meeting the demands of daily workand life (UNESCO, 2005). The functional model empha-sizes individual deficits and sees literacy as a set of discreteskills believed to be universal and transferable to all kindsof situations that require the use of written language(Barton, 1994).Critical Literacy

    The concept of critical literacy is associated with theBrazilian educator Paulo Freire and refers to the potentialof literacy for not only reading the word but also readingthe world (Friere and Macedo, 1987). It moves away fromthe functional model, toward a pedagogy intended toallow participants to understand their world in terms ofjustice and injustice, power and oppression, and how totransform it. Contrary to the functional model, primarypurpose of critical literacy is not to help the individual tomove up the existing social ladder, but to build a radicalcritique of the dominant culture and the existing powerrelationships between social groups (Shor, 1993). Thismodel is often linked to democratic citizenship and therole that education plays in supporting peoples partici-pation in society (Crowther and Tett, 2001). People needthe ability not only to decode the literal meanings of texts,but also to read between the lines and to engage in acritical discussion of the positions a text supports.Liberal Tradition of Literacy

    The third view of literacy is informed by a humanist viewof education that emphasizes personal development andindividual goals. It argues for the right of all citizens toeducation and goes beyond the functional-skills approachto include areas such as creative writing and access to107

  • Table 1 Three views of literacy education

    Functional Critical Liberal

    Skills Understanding Tools

    Reason forliteracy



    Empowerment Developmentof person








    108 Adult Education Domains and Provisionliterature (Papen, 2005). Participants in programs are notlimited to the working population but include older peo-ple or those who are not part of the workforce.

    These different definitions present competing ideolo-gies of literacy with associated assumptions, values, andstandards that need to be questioned. However, in much ofthe world there is an unquestioning emphasis on the func-tional, vocational approach such as Welfare to Work in theUS (Sandlin & Cervero, 2003), resulting in a discourse ofliteracy as a technical skill and vocational competence.Social-Practice and Skills Models ofLiteracy

    In addition to diverging perspectives on the purpose ofadult literacy education, there are a number of theoreti-cal positions on how people actually use literacies. Afunctional-skills-based approach focuses attention on theautonomy of the text and the meanings it carries. Itsearches for universal features of adult literacy and othersemiotic sign systems. It leads to narrow definitions ofreading, writing, and calculating, and ignores aspects oflearning that cannot be dealt with at the individual orcognitive level. It excludes many issues that are importantfor understanding learner responses. All too often it cansupport a deficit view of literacy, where those with limitedliteracy engagement are seen to be lacking in some way,whether in ability or in education.

    One approach has moved away from the individuallyfocused cognitive skills model to include the social prac-tices associated with number, reading, and writing(Hamilton et al., 2006). In this view literacy is not seen asa purely individual activity instead, it sees literacy andnumeracy as being historically and socially situated andpart of wider cultural and media engagement. The focus ofthe social-practices approach shifts away from literacy assomething learners lack toward the many different waysthat people engage with literacy. Social-practices ap-proaches recognize difference and diversity, and challengehow these differences are valued within our society.

    Street (1995) describes this as a shift from seeing liter-acy as an autonomous gift to be given to people to anideological view of literacy that places it in the widercontext of institutional purposes and power relationships.From this perspective adult literacy is part of a range ofsocial practices that are observable in events or momentsand are patterned by social institutions and power rela-tionships. Attention is focused on the cultural practiceswithin which written and spoken words are embedded.Not just reading but also speaking and writing, as well asthe use of new technologies, become central to the defi-nition of literacy. The social-practices view requires thatconnections are made between the classroom and thecommunity in which learners lead their lives; with anotion of situated learning; between learning and institu-tional power; and between print literacy and other media.

    There is not just one social-practices theory of adultliteracy, numeracy, and language, but a number of differentversions. The social-practice approach that has characterizedthe new literacy studies (NLS) draws mainly on ideas andmethodologies from sociology, sociolinguistics, and anthro-pology rather than themore psychological approach of activeproblem-solving theory rooted in the work of Vygotsky andothers. The NLS involves looking beyond formal educa-tional settings to informal learning, and to the other officialsettings in which literacies play a key role. Learning does notjust take place in classrooms but in everyday life, with mean-ings, values, and purposes located within a broader literacyframework than the texts themselves.

    There are two important principles underlying theimplementation of a social-practice approach to literacy.First, a two-way dialog and movement between formallearning and the everyday world is essential. Everyday,situated cultures and practices cannot simply be acknowl-edged and imported into classroom settings. The bound-aries between in and out of education must be blurred sothat contexts become permeable.

    Second, active learning is assumed by this approach. Itcharacterizes the process of becoming literate as one oftaking hold of the tools of writing and language. This hasimportant implications for relationships within thelearning process and for reflective and questioning activ-ity on the part of both learners and teachers (Hamiltonet al., 2006). The ways in which teachers and learnersparticipate in decision making and the governance of theorganization in which learning takes place are crucial,whether through management committees, consultativebodies, and research and development activities. Citizen-ship is modeled and enacted within such arenas.Reconciling the Skills and Social-Practices Perspectives

    The social-practices approach recognizes the importanceof learners motivations, goals, and purposes; every literacytask is done for a reason and in specific contexts, hence thechallenge to concepts of universal sets of literacy skills.

  • Adult Literacy Education 109Skills and knowledge acquisition are, however, intrinsic tolearners purposes and enhance many different aspects oftheir lives. For example, improving skills for employmentmay not appear to serve social practices, but skills that aregained in the pursuit of employment or promotion can beapplied in other domains of peoples lives, such as helpingchildren with homework, managing the household, orpursuing further learning. Both enhancing skills andrecognizing their role within learners lives are importantand both aspects should be developed in good teaching.

    How far might it be possible to reconcile the functional-skills approach and the social-practices approach withinpolicy and practice? Could social practices be seen asencompassing and extending the narrower focus of skills?The idea of two opposing broad approaches is an over-simplification and there are other ways of characterizingthe guiding philosophies people bring to literacy, particu-larly in everyday cultural settings (see Barton et al., 2000).Freebody and Lo Bianco suggest (1997: 26) that effectiveliteracy tuition draws on a repertoire of resources thatallow learners to: break the code; actively interpret themeaning of the text; use texts functionally; analyse textscritically. This is a dynamic process as represented inFigure 1 that is an attempt to acknowledge that both skillsand critical practices are enmeshed in working with texts.

    In the middle circle is the process of actually under-standing the words as they are written on the page, andinterpreting the meaning. The outer ring represents thesocial uses of that meaning, which can range from func-tional to critical. A literacy process that is missing any ofthese components can be considered as only a partialengagement with the text.

    Research in the US is also providing new insights onthe interrelations between skills and practices. The 5-yearLongitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) in Portland,Oregon has revealed that both program participation and

    Break the code

    Actively interpretthe meaning oftext

    Analyse texts critically

    Use texts functionally

    Figure 1 An approach to literacy instruction reconciling theskills and practices approaches.self-study have positive, time-specific effects on literacypractices (Reder, 2008). The research showed that self-study was prevalent among adults of all literacy levels as ameans of basic skills development, whether or not they alsoparticipated in classes. Self-study appears to act as a bridgebetween periods of program participation and to facilitatepersistence.Themixedmode of learning identified byLSALseems to bridge social-practices and skills-based approaches.It suggests that learners use a range of resources to enhancethe social practices associated with literacy, and that pro-grams are one resource, with the specific role of providingskills to underpin the practices. As we suggest with thediagram above, skills and practices form a self-reinforcingcycle of engagement with literacy and literacy education.

    The broad mode of participation suggested by LSALbrings together social-practice and skills approaches. Onthe one hand, it recognizes that learning involves learnersactively using resources as well as programs delivering ser-vices. On the other, it indicates that literacy programs appearto have the most direct and immediate impact on literacypractices, underlining the role of skills enhancement.The Role of Adult Literacy Education

    Throughout the world, adult literacy education fulfills avariety of roles. For those in industrialized countries, onecommon perception is that adult literacy learners arepeople who have not fully benefited from compulsoryeducation. There are a number of possible reasons, rangingfrom sociological explanations concerning the tendency ofschools to push out certain learners to psychological ratio-nales involving learning difficulties. Overall, the commonfactor is the view that adult literacy education has anameliorative role, improving literacy engagement and com-pensating, to some degree, for the failure of initial school-ing (St. Clair and Priestman, 1997).

    The ameliorative view assumes that learners have hadan opportunity to learn literacy practices, and that thisopportunity has not been effective. This can lead to a deficitview of learners, where they are assumed to have somekind of problem that has led to reduced literacy abilities.

    One of the reasons that adult literacy education hasexperienced such variability in funding and policy interestis that it can be viewed as an optional form of provisionwithin the ameliorative perspective. After all, if peoplehave already had a chance to learn about literacy surelygiving them a second chance is an act of generosity? Itfollows that the most effective argument for supportingliteracy education is often a moral one. This can lead to apanic about literacy education (or more often illiteracy)with dramatically increased funding followed by gradualwithdrawal of support until the next moral panic (Quigley,1997). Ameliorative perspectives can be unhelpful for thegeneral health and stability of the field.

  • 110 Adult Education Domains and ProvisionDespite the dominance of some version of an amelio-rative perspective in the industrialized world, there aretwo other roles that literacy education can play. Each ofthese roles is particularly relevant to groups with littleaccess to mainstream education. The first is an adaptiverole, where individuals from one language and literacycommunity enter another. This might include economicmigrants or refugees, as well as people who have beendisplaced from one job or life situation into anotherwith different demands, such as older adults attendingcollege for the first time or farm workers followingseasonal crops.

    In the United States many literacy programs are goingbeyond people with English as their first language andworking to develop initial language skills with speakers ofother languages. This is particularly evident in Texas,where more than half the population are Spanish speaking.In the United Kingdom, some adult literacy agencies areworking with substantial numbers of refugees to provideinitial English language instruction.

    Many of these learners will have well-developed liter-acy and numeracy practices in their first language in thecase of Texas many learners have an excellent Mexicansecondary school education, and in the UK refugees arefrequently academics, doctors, engineers, and other highlyeducated professionals. The provision of language educa-tion alongside literacy education in programs is generallynot widely acknowledged. This can place unpredictableand occasionally unrealistic demands on instructors, re-sources, and learners themselves. The emphasis on theameliorative role of literacy education can obscure theadaptive application of literacy learning, perhaps resultingin less appropriate services for this group of learners.

    The final role of adult literacy education is founda-tional. Many countries throughout the world do not havethe universally accessible, and generally compulsory, pri-mary education found in the industrialized nations. WhileUNESCO (2005) has committed itself strongly to literacyas the core of education for all, many people around theworld do not gain access to any form of literacy educationuntil later in life. The gross enrolment rate in primaryschool is below 60% in some African countries, and theage of the child at enrolment may be considerably higherthan usual for primary school (UNESCO, 2005). In addi-tion, there is a degree of gender imbalance in schoolattendance in around 40% of countries, though this isgenerally reducing quite rapidly (UNESCO, 2005).

    For learners in countries without universal access toschooling the ameliorative approach, with its assumptionthat the conventions and application of education areunderstood, is inappropriate. New adult learners in thiscontext will be entering classes with little understandingof the nuances and expectations of education, and oftenwill be motivated by economic or instrumental concernsabout the care of their family.There is also a danger of well-meaning aid agenciesestablishing projects that inadvertently create situations ofneo-colonialism, where Western models of literacy educa-tion are applied to situations verydifferent from theWesterncountries. This can easily come to be seen as the mostvaluable form of learning, displacing local approaches totext and traditional formsof numeracy.Anexample is drillinglearners in rows, teaching literacy practices that then fall intodisuse because of irrelevance (Wickens andSandlin, 2007), orthe use of English in post-Colonial settings (Robinson, 2007).

    Given the different roles that adult literacy educationcan fill, some care must be taken when thinking abouteach situation. It is more complex than assuming thatevery literacy learner has somehow missed out on ele-mentary schooling, and it is critical to avoid seeing lear-ners as having some deficit.Accountability and Assessment

    There has been a general increase in the resources com-mitted to adult literacy education throughout the worldover the last two decades. It remains unclear how long thiswill last, or what the final results will be, but it hasprofoundly affected the conceptualization and deliveryof literacy education. These changes have resulted inmore attention being paid to the outcomes of literacyeducation. Historically, literacy programs for adults haverarely been strongly concerned with measuring the prog-ress of learners, or indeed the efficiency and effectivenessof the agencies delivering the programs. This is no longerthe case in the industrialized countries, resulting in pro-found transformations of the field.

    In thinking about assessment and accountability, ithelps to be clear about the two central ideas. Assessmentis measurement of learner progress through standardizedtests, individual progress reports, or some combination ofthese and other methods. Accountability is the require-ment for programs to demonstrate that they are having apositive impact on the literacy use of learners. There issome confusion around these concepts because assessmentdata are often taken to be a straightforward measure ofeffectiveness. In this case, the best strategy for the programis to recruit only very competent learners, meaning theycan easily show learners leaving the program with strongresults. The issue of assessment leading recruitment andinstruction has been tackled very rarely all too oftenprograms produce what they are asked to measure, poten-tially at the cost of meaningful learning (Merrifield, 1998).

    One recent study (St. Clair and Belzer, 2007) looked atthe accountability and assessment systems tied into adultliteracy education in the United States, Scotland, andEngland (the latter have separate educational systems).The study suggested that there are two important dimen-sions to national accountability and assessment systems.

  • Table 2 Alignment and standardization in three nationalliteracy systems

    Weak alignment Strong alignment

    Strong standardization United States England

    Weak standardization Scotland

    Adult Literacy Education 111The first is the degree of standardization in the system,meaning the extent to which tests, curricula, and methodsare shared among all the programs surveyed. The second isthe degree of alignment, meaning the extent to which phi-losophy, ideas, and approach to literacy are shared amongthe programs. It is possible to have one without the other, orto have both strong standardization and strong alignment(Table 2).

    In the United States legislation of the late 1990s requiredthe creation of a national reporting system, which collatesresults from across the country. To allow this to happen, astandard reporting approach has been developed, definingthe preferred instruments and desired achievement whilestill allowing the state governments some latitude. Thisis a weakly aligned but strongly standardized system. InEngland, the adult literacy system has been standardizedin outcomes in a way similar to the US, but in addition thecurriculum and tests have been centralized to reflect asingle approach to literacy education. This system is bothstandardized and aligned. In Scotland, there is strong align-ment around the social-practices model of literacy discussedearlier, but very little standardization programs areencouraged to develop their own approaches and resources.

    Each of these approaches has its strengths and weak-nesses. With high standardization, it is all too easy forprograms and instructors to feel limited in responding tolocal circumstances, whereas low standardization can leadto uncertainty about the quality of the services learnersare receiving. A single hierarchy of tests and exams and arequirement that learners demonstrate a certain amountof progress for a certain investment of time and money isnot compatible with a social-practices view of literacy.High alignment is most effective where there is genuinecommitment to a particular conception of literacy educa-tion, and that may be hard to maintain across a nationalsystem over any length of time. Despite recognition of theimportance of locally tailored programs maintainingeffective, learner-led practice may prove to be a signifi-cant challenge for literacy educators in the future.Changes in the Literacy EducationWorkforce

    The last few years have also seen amove toward profession-alization of literacy instruction in the industrializedcountries. This development, which is supported by manyinstructors and administrators, is generally accompaniedby pressure for adult literacy education to more closelyresemble the established educational professions schoolteaching in particular. This suggests that a specific qualifi-cation for teaching adult literacymay be developed, and thatthere would be some attention given to providing profes-sional development for core staff. While professionalizationwould fit well with the agenda of accountability and qualitycontrol, it would also raise a number of problems.

    One implication of any move to a professionalizedworkforce would be the loss of volunteers, who currentlyperform a central role in many systems. If they and part-time workers were expected to undergo substantial train-ing before being able to work with learners, there is adanger that it would be more difficult to recruit. There isalso the question of what workers should be taught ifthey are only provided with a basic introduction to thefield, it is unclear that they would be necessarily be able todeliver better-quality instruction. There is a real possibil-ity that a straightforward, standardized curriculum wouldbe developed for delivery by semi-trained staff, reducingthe diversity of practices in the field.Conclusion

    Adult literacy education takes place in a wide range ofsettings where learners engage in a variety of ways withtexts of all kinds. It is critical for effective instruction thatboth the method and the content of instruction recognizethis diversity and that deficit approaches, where thelearner is assumed to have something wrong with them,are avoided. Instead, a variety of outcomes of literacyinstruction should be valued.

    The recent structural changes in the field throughoutthe world have been substantial, with issues to do withaccountability and professionalization rising up theagenda. These changes have tended to move adult literacyeducation closer to school-based education. At the sametime, the importance of having a system that is highlyaligned around values and ideology is being more widelyrecognized, perhaps as a response to the trend for man-agerialism. Finally, there is real interest in bringing skillsand social-practices perspectives together to create amore nuanced understanding of teaching and learningthat enables literacy education to be more closely alignedto the practices used in peoples everyday lives.

    See also: Adult Basic Education: A Challenge forVocational Based Learning; Lifelong Learning.BibliographyBarton, D. (1994). Literacy: An Introduction to the Ecology of WrittenLanguage. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

    Barton, D., Hamilton, M., and Ivanic, R. (eds.) (2000). SituatedLiteracies: Reading and Writing in Context. New York: Routledge.

  • 112 Adult Education Domains and ProvisionCrowther, J. and Tett, L. (2001). Democracy as a way of life: Literacy ascitizenship. In Crowther, J., Hamilton, M., and Tett, L. (eds.) PowerfulLiteracies, pp 108118. Leicester: NIACE.

    Freebody, P. and Lo Bianco, J. (1997). Australian Literacies Part II: Whata National Policy on Literacy Should Say. Canberra: LanguageAustralia.

    Friere, P. and Macedo, D. (1987). Reading the Word and the World.London: Routledge/Kegan Paul.

    Hamilton, M., Hillier, Y., and Tett, L. (2006). Introduction: Social practiceof adult literacy, numeracy and language. In Tett, L., Hamilton, M.,and Hillier, Y. (eds.) (2006) Adult Literacy, Numeracy and Language:Policy, Practice and Research, pp 118. Maidenhead: OpenUniversity Press.

    Merrifield, J. (1998). Contested Ground: Performance Accountability inAdult Basic Education. Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Studyof Adult Learning and Literacy.

    Papen, U. (2005). Adult Literacy as a Social Practice. New York:Routledge.

    Quigley, B. A. (1997). Rethinking Literacy Education: The CriticalNeed for Practice-Based Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

    Reder, S. (2008). Dropping Out and Moving on: Life, Literacy andDevelopment among School Dropouts. Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press.

    Robinson, C. (2006). Context of key language in four adult learningprograms. International Journal of Educational Development 27,541551.

    Sandlin, J. A. and Cervero, R. M. (2003). Contradictions andcompromise: The curriculum-in-use as negotiated ideology in twowelfare-to-work classes. International Journal of Lifelong Education22(3), 149165.

    Shor, I. (1993). Education is politics: Paulo Freires critical pedagogy. InMcLaren, P. and Leonard, P. (eds.) Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter,pp 169176. New York: Routledge.

    St. Clair, R. and Belzer, A. (2007). National accountability systems.In Campbell, P. (ed.) Accountability in Adult Basic Education,pp 159206. Edmonton, AB: Grass Roots Press.

    St. Clair, R. and Priestman, S. (1997). Whats the good of adulteducation? North West Philosophy of Education Conference.Vancouver: December.

    Street, B. (1995). Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy inDevelopment, Ethnography and Education. London: Longman.

    UNESCO (2005). Education for All: Literacy for Life. Paris: UNESCO.Wickens, C. M. and Sandlin, J. A. (2007). Literacy for what? Literacy for

    whom? The politics of literacy education and neocolonialism inUNESCO and World Bank sponsored literacy programs. AdultEducation Quarterly 57(4), 275292.Further ReadingBelzer, A. and St. Clair, R. (2003). Information Series Number 391:Opportunities and Limits: An Update on Adult Literacy Education.Columbus, OH: The State University of Ohio Center on Educationand Training for Employment.

    Binkley, M., Matheson, N., and Williams, T. (1997). Working Paper No.97-33: Adult Literacy: An International Perspective. Washington, DC:US Department of Education, National Center for EducationalStatistics.

    Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Harmondsworth:Penguin.

    Graff, H. J. (1995). The Labyrinths of Literacy. Pittsburgh, PA: Universityof Pittsburgh.

    OECD (1997). Education Policy Analysis. Paris: OECD.OECD (2000). Literacy in the Information Age. Paris: OECD.Stephens, S. (2000). A critical discussion of the new literacy studies.

    British Journal of Educational Studies 48(1), 1023.Tett, L., Hamilton, M., and Hillier, Y. (2006). Adult Literacy, Numeracy

    and Language: Policy, Practice and Research. Maidenhead: OpenUniversity Press.Relevant Websites Lancaster Literacy Research Centre,Research and Practice in Adult Literacy (RaPAL). National Center for the Study of Adult Literacyand Learning (United States). National Literacy Trust (UnitedKingdom). National Research and Development Centre(United Kingdom). United Nations Educational, Scientific andCultural Organization. World Bank on Education for All.

    Adult Literacy EducationWhat Is Adult Literacy?Functional LiteracyCritical LiteracyLiberal Tradition of Literacy

    Social-Practice and Skills Models of LiteracyReconciling the Skills and Social-Practices PerspectivesThe Role of Adult Literacy EducationAccountability and AssessmentChanges in the Literacy Education WorkforceConclusionBibliographyFurther ReadingRelevant Websites


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