Literacy development is a complex skill that can require thousands of hours of practice to reach the levels needed for full opportunity in modern life, yet many adults do not persist long enough to achieve the literacy skills needed in today’s world. The most significant challenge in designing literacy development opportunities for adults is motivating them to participate and persevere.
Because of competing demands in most adults’ lives, convenient instructional times and places may be critical to supporting persistence. Increased access to child care and transportation and other social services, such as counseling, may help learners stay in programs and persist in practice. At the same time, because time for instruction competes with time available for work, financial support and incentives may be necessary even for highly motivated learners. Technologies can support classroom instruction and can allow instruction and practice to be free from a particular time or place, making it easier for adults to fit literacy study into their schedules.
There are known instructional approaches that enhance motivation. For example, although the goal of instruction is to stretch learners’ skills in order to develop the specific literacy competencies they need—for education, work, community engagement, etc.—instruction that begins by connecting to the knowledge that students already have and value can be motivating and thus may support persistent reading and writing practice. Opportunities to collaborate during reading also can increase motivation to read, although more needs to be known about how to structure collaborations effectively.
Research shows that instruction that fosters motivation and engagement:
• develops self-efficacy and perceptions of competency;
• helps learners set appropriate and valuable learning goals;
• sets expectations about the amount of effort and practice required to develop literacy skills;
• helps learners develop feelings of control and autonomy;
• fosters interest and develops beliefs about the value of literacy tasks;
• helps learners monitor their progress and regulate their behavior toward attaining their goals;
• teaches students to attribute successes and failures to their own effort rather than unchangeable aptitudes;
• provides learners with opportunities for success while providing optimal challenges to develop proficiencies;
• fosters social relationships and interactions known to affect learning;
• uses classroom structures and selects texts that can counter any past negative experiences with schooling;
• removes barriers to participation and practice so that learners have the motivating experience of making progress; and
• gives learners access to knowledgeable and skilled teachers and appropriately designed materials.
Because the motivation to engage in extensive practice is so important for developing literacy, a separate companion booklet, Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Supporting Learning and Motivation, explores this topic in greater depth.
Priorities for Research on Motivation and Persistence
Studies of motivation and persistence have not usually included adolescents and adults who need to develop their literacy. Research that involves those who design, teach, and participate in adult literacy instruction is needed in several areas to:
• identify instructional approaches that promote engagement and persistence with learning for low literacy adults;
• develop measures to assess learners’motivation, which will allow researchers to test hypotheses about how to motivate persistence;
• identify ways to support persistence depending on the factors affecting the learner’s engagement, which may include issues related to work, family, health, age, and culture;
• examine how the various components of motivation relate to one another to affect persistence in the context of adult instruction;
• assess how the texts and tasks made available to adult literacy learners affect their motivation to persist;
• identify group differences and similarities in the factors that influence motivation to persist;
• identify technologies that motivate persistence and the best ways to introduce them and support their use;
• understand the conditions and incentives that motivate learners to enroll and persist in literacy courses; and
• develop and implement support systems for motivating persistence, and evaluate their effectiveness.