research from the fields of literacy, learning, cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral and social science, and education. The committee identifies factors that affect literacy development in adolescence and adulthood in general and examines their implications for the populations in adult education programs.
In keeping with its charge, the committee defined 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. Thus, literacy skill includes but encompasses a broader range of proficiency than basic skills. The focus of the committee is on improving the literacy of individuals ages 16 years and older who are not in K-12 education; this focus is consistent with eligibility for federally funded adult education programs. The report includes research with adolescents of all ages but discusses the implications of this research (as well as research with children and adults) for instruction to be used in adult literacy education.4
There is a surprising lack of rigorous research on effective approaches to adult literacy instruction. This lack of evidence is especially striking given the long history of both federal funding for adult education programs and reliance on the nation’s community colleges to develop and improve adults’ literacy skills. Sustained and systematic research is needed to (1) identify instructional approaches that show promise of maximizing adults’ literacy skill gains; (2) develop scalable instructional programs and rigorously test their effectiveness; and (3) conduct further testing to determine for whom and under what conditions those approaches work.
In the absence of research with adults whose literacy is not at high levels, the committee concluded that it is reasonable to apply findings from the large body of research on learning and literacy with other populations (mainly younger students and relatively well-educated adults) with some adaptations to account for the developmental level and unique challenges of adult learners. The available research provides guidance about principles of effective reading and writing instruction, principles of learning and motivation, and promising uses of technologies and other supports for learning.
Effective literacy instruction addresses the foundational components of reading—word recognition, fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension, background knowledge, strategies for deeper analysis, and understanding of texts—and the component skills of writing. It combines explicit teaching
4Given the sponsor’s primary interest in improving adult literacy education, we did not address the question of how to prevent low literacy in the United States. Although the report does not have an explicit focus on issues of prevention and how to improve literacy instruction in the K-12 system, many of the relevant findings were derived from research with younger populations and so they are likely to be relevant to the prevention of inadequate literacy.