A high level of literacy in both print and digital media is required for negotiating most aspects of 21st-century life—supporting a family, education, health, civic participation, and competitiveness in the global economy. Yet a recent survey estimates that more than 90 million U.S. adults lack adequate literacy.1 Furthermore, only 38 percent of U.S. twelfth graders are at or above proficient in reading.2
Adults who need literacy instruction receive it in two main types of settings: (1) adult education programs, for which the largest source of federal funding is the Workforce Investment Act, Title II, Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), and (2) developmental education courses in colleges for academically underprepared students. Adults in adult education programs (an estimated 2.6 million in federally funded programs in 2005) show variable progress in their literacy skills, and for many, their gains are insufficient to achieve functional literacy.3
This report responds to a request from the U.S. Department of Education to the National Research Council (NRC) to (1) synthesize research on literacy and learning, (2) draw implications for the instructional practices used to teach reading in adult literacy programs, and (3) recommend a more systemic approach to research, practice, and policy. To inform its conclusions and recommendations, the Committee on Learning Sciences: Foundations and Applications to Adolescent and Adult Literacy reviewed
1Estimate from Kutner et al. (2007).
2According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2010).
3Information from Tamassia et al. (2007).
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.
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. It explicitly addresses the automation and integration of component skills and the transfer of skills to tasks valued by society and the learner. Effective instruction includes formative (ongoing) assessments to monitor progress, provide feedback, and adjust instruction.
Students who have not mastered the foundations of reading and writing require instruction targeted to their skill levels and practice in amounts substantial enough to produce high levels of competence in the component skills. A large body of research with K-12 students provides the principles and practices of literacy instruction that are equally important to developing and struggling adult learners. Additional principles have been identified to help those with learning disabilities overcome specific areas of difficulty. The available research on accommodations for adults with learning disabilities, conducted mainly with college students, also warrant application and further study in adult education settings to remove barriers to learning.
Although findings from research specifically on effective literacy instruction for adults is lacking, research with younger populations can guide the development of instructional approaches for adults if it is modified to account for two major differences between adults and younger populations. One is that adults may experience age-related neurocognitive declines that affect reading and writing processes and speed of learning. The second is that adults bring varied life experiences, knowledge, and motivations for learning that need attention in the design of literacy instruction for them. Compared with children, adolescents and adults may have more knowledge and possess some literacy skills while still needing to fill gaps in other skills, acquire content knowledge, and develop the level of literacy needed for education, work, and practical life.
Research on learning and motivation can inform the design of supportive instructional interactions and environments. This research has not included low-literate adults: translational research is needed to design and evaluate instructional approaches consistent with these principles for this population. Although basic principles of learning and motivation apply to learners of all ages, the particular motivations to read or write are often different at different ages. Instruction for adolescents and adults may need to be designed differently to motivate these populations.
Literacy is a complex skill that requires thousands of hours of practice, but many adults do not persist in adult literacy instruction long enough or have enough time to practice outside the instructional setting to reach their goals. The problem of high attrition needs to be resolved for adults to receive sufficient practice and instruction and for rigorous research to accumulate on effective instructional methods. The available research suggests ways to design motivating instructional approaches and environments, cre-
ate more time for practice, and ensure the time is efficiently used: they will need to be tested rigorously. Technologies for learning have the potential to help resolve problems of insufficient practice caused by time and space constraints. Technologies also can assist with multiple aspects of teaching, assessment, and accommodations for learning. Translational research is needed to develop and evaluate promising technologies for improving adult literacy and to demonstrate how these can be part of coherent systems of instruction.
The population of adult literacy learners is heterogeneous. Consequently, optimal literacy instruction needs to vary according to adults’ goals, motivations, knowledge, assessed skills, interests, neurocognitive profiles, and language background. The population of adults who need to develop their literacy ranges from recent immigrants with only a sixth grade education in their native country, to middle-aged and older U.S.-born high school graduates who find they can no longer keep up with the reading, writing, and technology demands of their jobs, to adults who dropped out of school or whose learning disabilities were not fully accommodated in school, to highly educated immigrants who need to learn to read and write in English.
The largest subgroup of adults enrolled in adult education is adults learning English as a second language. This population is very diverse. Some are immigrants who are well educated and highly literate in their first languages. Others are recent immigrants with low levels of education and first language literacy. Another large subgroup is people who were born in the United States or came to the United States as young children but have grown up with a home language other than English. Although educated in U.S. schools, these adults often need to develop higher literacy skills for postsecondary education or work.
There has been virtually no research on effective literacy instruction for adults learning English as a second language. The available research with other populations—young second language learners and relatively well-educated students in high school or college—suggests practices that warrant further study with the larger population of adult learners. Although general principles of learning and literacy development can be applied to second language learners, literacy instruction needs to be adapted to the learner’s education level, degree of literacy in the first and second language, and familiarity with U.S. culture.
Good systems of assessment to improve student learning consist of (a) diagnostic assessment to inform instructors about skills the learner possesses and needs to develop; (b) formative assessment of skills being developed that need further improvement as instruction progresses; and (c) accountability assessment to inform administrators, policy makers, funders, and the public of how well the program and systems that serve adult liter-
acy learners are working. The assessments need to be aligned with common goals for learning. Assessments of literacy need to be suitable for adults, assess all the important dimensions of reading, writing, and language, and assess a range of print and digital functional literacy skills that society demands and values.
Adult literacy education is offered in a mix of programs that lack coordination and coherence with respect to literacy development objectives and instructional approaches. In addition, learning objectives for literacy lack alignment across the many places of adult education and with colleges and K-12 instruction. Literacy instructors need sufficient training and supports to assess adults’ skills, plan and differentiate instruction for adults who differ in their neurobiological, psychosocial, and cultural and linguistic characteristics, as well as their levels of literacy attainment. Yet, the preparation of instructors is highly variable and training and professional development limited. These factors, as well as high attrition from adult literacy programs, present challenges to the systematic implementation and study of effective adult literacy instruction.
The committee’s conclusions led to four overarching recommendations.
First, federal and state policy makers should move quickly to build on and 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.
Second, federal and state policy makers need 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.
Third, 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.
Fourth, to inform local, state, and federal decisions aimed at optimizing the progress of adult learners, the committee strongly recommends strategic and sustained investments in a coordinated and systemic approach to program improvement, evaluation, and research about adult literacy learners. Translational research should be conducted in four areas: (1) instructional approaches and materials grounded in principles of learning and instruc-
tion, (2) supports for persistence, (3) technologies for learning, and (4) assessments of learners and their instructional environments. The research will need a strong instructor training component with instructor supports. To ensure investments of the appropriate scale, a sequence of research should be undertaken that includes exploration, innovation, efficacy testing, scaling up, and assessment development.
Basic and applied research is recommended in several priority areas. First, the characteristics of adult literacy learners should be studied to define instructionally meaningful subgroups to provide a strong basis for differentiating instructional approaches. Second, an empirical basis is needed to help define the literacy skills required in today’s society to meet educational or career milestones and for full social and civic participation. Third, more research is need on the cognitive, linguistic, and neural influences on learning for both typical adult learners and those with learning disabilities. Fourth, the various forces that interact to affect typical and atypical literacy development across the life span—cognitive, linguistic, social, cultural, instructional, and systemic—need to be better specified.
Information about the literacy of adults in the United States rapidly becomes outdated, and adequate information is not available about the literacy instruction provided to adults or its effectiveness. The committee recommends that information about the literacy skills of the nation’s adults and in the diverse systems that offer adult literacy instruction be gathered and analyzed on a continual and long-term basis to know (1) whether the population is becoming more literate and (2) whether efforts to improve literacy are effective at a macro level as well as in specific individual efficacy studies. These efforts should track progress on the components of reading and writing that have been identified in research and on proficiency in performing important functional literacy tasks. The information collected on instructional programs should include learning goals and objectives and the practices, materials, tools, and assessments in use. This information is needed to better understand current practices, plan the appropriate professional development of instructors, create effective out-of-classroom learning opportunities, and better match literacy instruction to emerging literacy demands for work, education, health, and functioning in society.
Implementation of these recommendations will require strong leadership from specific entities in the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Labor. Given the scope of the problem, partnerships need to be developed between researchers, curriculum developers, and administrators across the systems that serve adult learners. It will also be important to enlist business leaders and faith-based and other community groups in the effort. The committee urges particular attention to three issues noted above: (1) variability of instructor preparation, (2) the existence of many different
types of programs that have varied literacy development practices and that lack alignment with K-12 education and college systems that offer literacy instruction, and (3) the instructional and other supports that enable adults to persist in programs and practice skills outside the classroom. These factors affect the quality of instruction to be implemented, the feasibility of conducting the needed research, and the potential for broad dissemination and implementation of the practices that are identified as effective.