Aconceptual model to describe how literacy develops is shown in Figure 1. It shows several key factors that affect learners’ literacy development—the learning context, texts and tools, literacy activities, and the learner—and it also shows the aspects of each of these factors that are possible to influence through instruction. The following brief section discusses several of these factors, along with research-based guidance on how to influence them to support learning.
FIGURE 1: Model of the development of literate practice
Literacy texts. Developing readers need to confront texts that are challenging, meaningful, and engaging. Texts should allow learners to practice component literacy skills (described below) and support them as they stretch beyond existing skills. Instructors should carefully select texts with the appropriate level of difficulty: texts that both draw on knowledge students have already mastered and also present challenges. Instructors also should provide prompts and other forms of support to learners as they work their way through challenging texts.
Effective instruction uses a variety of texts because when learners acquire knowledge and skills across multiple contexts, they are better able to retain what they learn and transfer it to new tasks and situations. Unfortunately, there are few reading materials that are designed to foster the component skills of developing readers while offering interesting and useful content to adolescents and adults. A priority for research is to develop and evaluate materials and texts that can support this key element of effective instruction.
Literacy tools. Being literate demands proficiency with current tools and practices that require reading and writing—including digital and online media used to communicate with others and to gather, evaluate, and synthesize information. It is important, therefore, to offer reading and writing instruction that incorporates the use of both print and digital methods of communication. This type of instruction prepares learners to accomplish important reading and writing tasks that are indispensable in today’s world.
Literacy activities and purposes. Novice learners require thousands of hours of practice to develop expertise in complex domains such as reading and writing. Even those who are not novices require substantial practice using reading and writing skills for particular purposes. To motivate learners to persist for the long time it takes to develop expertise, it is important for instructors to understand the component literacy skills that learners need to meet today’s social, educational, workplace, and personal demands, and plan instruction with activities that develop those skills.
This type of instruction, which helps learners develop component skills as they perform practical literacy tasks, also increases the likelihood that literacy skills will be used outside the classroom. Research on learning has shown that the likelihood of transferring a newly learned skill to a new task depends on the similarity between the new task and the tasks used for learning. Therefore, literacy instruction is most likely to lead to durable, transferable learning if it incorporates real-world activities, tasks, and tools.
In addition, activities that integrate reading and writing instruction contribute to the development of both skills. Reading and writing require some of the same knowledge
and cognitive and linguistic processes—such as knowledge of vocabulary, spelling patterns, text structures, and syntax—and so learning and insights in one area can lead to learning and insights in the other. In fact, research has shown that reading improves with frequent writing.
Characteristics of the learner. Adult literacy learners vary in many ways—in their literacy development needs and goals, education levels, economic status, culture, linguistic background, and social, psychological, and neurobiological characteristics. To be effective instruction should be adapted for different groups of learners.
The varying ages of adult learners also has implications for instruction. Although most adults who receive literacy instruction are in their 20s and 30s, along with an increasing number of youth who have dropped out of high school, a significant portion of learners—18 percent—are over 40. That percentage can be expected to increase during economic downturns and shifts that require adults to further develop their skills to meet the literacy demands of available jobs. Understanding this older group of learners is important because adults as young as mid-30s may experience some age-related changes in brain processing. Though most of the processes involved in reading and writing appear to be largely unchanged in later adulthood, older adults do experience declines in areas affected by visual perception and speed of processing—changes that might need consideration when planning instruction and practice.
Other age-related shifts may occur as well. Although word recognition appears to be fundamentally unchanged throughout the adult lifespan, with age, readers tend to rely more on recognizing a whole word as a unit instead of decoding it using phonics skills. This characteristic is important because a facility with phonics is essential for reading new words. Yet in both spoken and written communication, aging learners may increasingly rely on the context to recognize individual words. Memory declines can contribute to difficulties in connecting different parts of context needed for comprehension. Older adults might find it necessary to use such strategies as making notes and rereading parts of texts, for example. On the positive side, however, the knowledge that adults accumulate over their lifetimes can aid comprehension.
Literacy in a Digital Age
In today’s world, expectations for literacy include the use of digital and online media to communicate and to produce, find, and evaluate information to meet educational and work demands. Strong reading and writing skills underpin valued aspects of digital literacy in many key areas of work and daily life, such as:
• presenting ideas, including organizing a compelling argument, using multiple media, and integrating media with text;
• using online resources to search for information, evaluate the quality of that information, and organize information from several sources; and
• using basic office software to generate texts and multimedia documents, including writing documents, taking notes, and preparing displays to support oral presentations.
Researchers are only beginning to identify the literacy skills related to technology use and to study the kinds of instruction that can develop them for learners of all ages. Until more is known about those skills, however, using technologies for literacy study can offer practical benefits to learners who will need to use digital tools in education settings and for their jobs.