Improving Adult Literacy Instruction
Learning and Motivation
Virtually everyone needs a high level of literacy in both print and digital media to negotiate most aspects of 21st century life—succeeding in a competitive job market, supporting a family, navigating health information, and participating in civic activities. Yet according to a recent survey estimate, more than 90 million adults in the United States lack the literacy skills needed for fully productive and secure lives.
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 instruction for those served in adult education in the U.S. The committee’s report, Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Practice and Research, recommends a program of research and innovation to gain a better understanding of adult literacy learners, improve instruction, and create the supports adults need for learning and achievement.
This booklet, which is based on the report, describes principles of effective instruction to guide those who design and administer adult literacy programs and courses. It also explores ways to motivate learners to persist in their studies, which is crucial given the thousands of hours of study and practice required to become proficient. The booklet concludes with a look at technologies that show promise for supporting individual learners and freeing busy adults from having to be in a particular place in order to practice their literacy skills. Although this booklet is not intended as a “how to” manual for instructors, teachers may also find the information presented here to be helpful as they plan and deliver instruction.
The principles and practices described in this booklet reflect the best available research on learning and motivation, and they should be applied now in developing instruction
for adults. However, it is important to keep in mind that these principles and practices are derived mainly from research with K-12 students and general research on how people learn. So far, little research has been conducted to determine how best to incorporate this knowledge into more effective literacy instruction for adults.
The approaches explained here need to be modified to account for adults’ unique needs and learning goals. Precisely what needs to be taught and how will vary depending on the individual’s existing literacy skills, learning goals, age, motivation, and cultural and linguistic background.
As the report 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. Those who develop, administer, and fund adult literacy instruction, those who prepare instructors, and teachers themselves will have important roles to play in these research studies as they work to help all adults meet modern literacy demands.