Improving Adult Literacy Instruction
Reading and Writing
More than an estimated 90 million adults in the United States lack the literacy skills needed for fully productive and secure lives. The effects of this shortfall are many: Adults with low literacy have lower rates of participation in the labor force and lower earnings when they do have jobs, for example. They are less able to understand and use health information. And they are less likely to read to their children, which may slow their children’s own literacy development.
At the request of the U.S. Department of Education, the National Research Council convened a committee of experts from many disciplines to synthesize research on literacy and learning in order to improve literacy instruction for adults in the United States. The committee’s report, Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Practice and Research, recommends a program of research and innovation to better understand adult literacy learners, improve instruction, and create the supports adults need for learning and achievement.
This booklet, which is based on the report, presents an overview of what is known about how literacy develops, the component skills of reading and writing, and the practices that are effective for developing them. It also describes principles of reading and writing instruction that can guide those who design and administer programs or courses to improve adult literacy skills. Although this is not intended as a “how to” manual for instructors, teachers may also find the information in this booklet helpful as they consider how to plan instruction.
The principles described here apply to all adult literacy learners, including those learning English as a second language and those with learning disabilities. This booklet also includes specific principles to guide instruction for those groups of learners.
The principles and practices offered here reflect the best available research on effective approaches to literacy instruction, and they should be applied now in developing instruction for adults. However, it is important to know that these principles and practices are derived mainly from research with younger students—from kindergarten through high school (K-12)—because little research has been conducted on effective literacy instruction specifically for adults. The principles and practices also reflect the growing literature on adolescent learners, as well as general research on how people learn.
The approaches presented here will need to be modified to account for adults’ unique needs and learning goals. Precisely what needs to be taught and how it is taught will vary, depending on the individual’s existing literacy skills, learning goals, age, motivation, and cultural and linguistic background.
As Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Practice and Research explains in detail, far more research is needed to determine how best to adapt the guiding principles and practices to meet the needs of adult learners. That needed research is described briefly in this booklet’s conclusion. The people who develop, administer, and fund adult literacy instruction and those who prepare instructors will have important roles to play in these studies as they work to help all adults meet modern literacy demands.
Who Are Adult Literacy Learners?
The diverse groups of people who need stronger literacy skills in the United States include:
• recent immigrants who have little education in their native languages;
• middle-aged and older U.S.-born high school graduates who can no longer keep up with the reading, writing, and technology demands of their jobs;
• adolescents and adults who dropped out of school;
• adults who had disabilities that were not fully accommodated in school;
• highly educated immigrants who are literate in their native language but need to learn to read and write in English; and
• underprepared students in colleges.
These groups receive literacy instruction in many settings, including schools, community organizations, community colleges, prisons, and workplaces.