The ideal culmination of successful learning, including literacy learning, is the development of expertise. The expert learner forms conceptually rich and organized representations of knowledge that resist forgetting, can be retrieved automatically, and can be applied flexibly across tasks and situations.
For example, in order to comprehend a text, the expert reader must be able to decode words fluently and automatically so that attention can be given to understanding and remembering the text. Expert readers also use their knowledge of the topic, sentence structure, and genre to make sense of a given text. In addition, they monitor whether they are comprehending the text and select appropriate strategies—for example, rereading specific sections or mentally summarizing or elaborating main ideas—and adapt the strategies as needed to improve their understanding and recall of the text.
Expertise is usually difficult to achieve—experts tend to have 1,000 to 10,000 hours of experience in a given area—and for a complex skill such as literacy, expertise requires many hours of practice over many years. With respect to literacy expertise taught in schools, an hour per day from kindergarten through twelfth grade amounts to about 2,000 hours in total, which is at the low end of the range needed to gain expertise. Adult literacy learners can be assumed to have missed out on many of these hours and to need substantial additional practice.
Given the hours of practice needed to develop literacy skills and the competing demands in adults’ lives, instruction should be designed to proceed as efficiently as possible. This section will explore general principles of learning that can guide the design of literacy instruction for adults.
Helping Learners Acquire, Retain, and Transfer New
Knowledge and Skills
A number of approaches can help learners retain what they learn and transfer it to new situations. For those who teach adults with low literacy skills, following these guide-lines is especially important for ensuring that new concepts are absorbed.
Choose the appropriate level of difficulty. Selection of learning goals, materials, and tasks should be sensitive to what the student has mastered and be appropriately challenging—not too easy or too difficult, but just right. Consider a text used to help adults learn about a medical procedure: If the text is extremely easy and overlaps perfectly with what the learners already know, then it will not stretch their knowledge beyond what they already knew without it. Neither will the adults gain much medical knowledge if the text is too complex and riddled with technical jargon beyond their understanding. Developing readers need to confront challenging texts that engage them with new and meaningful content, but they also need texts that allow them to practice and further develop the skills they have already begun to acquire.
Present material in a clear and organized format. Adults of all ages benefit from a clear and organized presentation that helps them remember new information. It is important to remove any irrelevant information, even if it is interesting, that could
compete for the learner’s attention and detract from learning. Visual displays that are hard to read or spoken presentations given in noisy environments can compromise learning because they draw attention away from deeper processing of meaning.
Providing structure and organization is important to help learners understand concepts and how they relate to each other. The format used depends on the relationships that will be depicted; outlines can be used to show structural hierarchies, and tables can organize ideas in two or three dimensions, while diagrams can help convey more complex relationships among ideas. Materials and lesson plans also should be organized so that related elements and ideas are presented near each other in space and time. For example, an explanation should be given at the time a concept is depicted rather than many minutes, hours, or days later. In addition, new material should be presented in discrete units so that new learners are not overwhelmed with too much new information at once.
Use multiple and varied examples and formats. If knowledge, skills, and strategies are acquired in multiple and varied contexts, learners can better apply the knowledge across a range of tasks and situations. Memories can be triggered by multiple cues, so that knowledge is available when needed. Learners may acquire knowledge more slowly this way, but retain and transfer it better than if they had learned it in only one context. For example, effective vocabulary instruction focuses on teaching the multiple meanings of words and the varied forms they take; it also provides ample opportunities to encounter and use words in many different contexts.
However, implementing this principle must be balanced against the preceding principle: The amount of information should not overwhelm the learner to the point of attention being split or cognitive capacities being overloaded.
Space presentations of new material across time. It is better to distribute the presentation of materials and tests over time than to concentrate the learning experiences within a short time span. For example, when studying new vocabulary words, it is better to space the same amount of study over days or weeks—and to use the words in varied contexts such as reading, speaking, and writing—than to cram it into a single study session. Re-exposure to course material after a delay often markedly increases the amount of information that a student remembers.
Test on multiple occasions, preferably with spacing. There is substantial evidence that periodic testing helps learning and slows down forgetting. Regular quizzes, which can be quite brief and embedded in instructional materials, keep students constantly
engaged. Quiz results can guide instructors (or computers) in making decisions about what to teach. Students benefit more from repeated testing when they expect to need to use the tested knowledge or remember it for some reason—for example, for a final exam. Spacing tasks that make students retrieve information, such as tests, over time has been shown to improve learning for adults from a wide age range.
Ground concepts in concrete experiences. It is important to link concepts that learners read or learn about to concrete perceptions and actions. For example, while reading instructions on assembling a piece of furniture, it helps to be able to view and hold the parts to which the instructions refer.
New knowledge is built on existing knowledge and interpreted in light of it, and much existing knowledge comes from everyday activities. Stories are usually about everyday experiences and create memories similar to daily experience, and stories are easier to read, comprehend, and remember than other types of learning materials. As a result, they may be powerful tools for building and practicing comprehension skills and developing and reinforcing background knowledge across the lifespan.
At the same time, genres other than narratives tend to be underused in literacy instruction, and literacy does require the ability to handle a variety of texts; students will need to practice these other forms as well.
Supporting Learners in Generating Content and Reasoning
Many adult learners are simultaneously learning to read and reading to learn. They need both to develop comprehension skills and engage deeply with subject-matter content.
Learners should not simply be passive processors of material delivered to them; they should think actively about what they read and also generate their own language (both spoken and written), reasoning, and content. Learning of subject matter is enhanced when learners have to organize the information themselves and exert cognitive effort to acquire or retrieve it.
Simply put, it is the student who should be doing the acting, thinking, talking, reading, and writing in order to learn. Encouraging learners to engage in deeper levels of thinking and reasoning is especially helpful to adults, who need to develop these skills for education, work, and other purposes involving complex materials and tasks.
Encourage the learner to generate content. Learning is enhanced when learners produce answers themselves instead of reading or recognizing them—a fact that explains why free-recall or essay tests often help students retain information better than recognition or multiple-choice tests. However, learner-generated content can lack detail and contain misconceptions; instructors should monitor the content to ensure that students are learning enough and that they avoid learning incorrect information.
Strategies that require learners to be actively engaged with reading material also produce better comprehension and retention over the long term. For example, learners can develop their own mini-testing situations as they review material, such as stating the information in their own words without viewing the text, and synthesizing information from multiple sources, such as from class and textbooks. Research shows that reading comprehension also improves with frequent writing.
Adults from a wide age range can benefit from generating content to improve learning. Past their 20s, however, learners may slowly become less likely to spontaneously generate content that is rich, elaborative, and distinctive if they are learning in a field outside their previous knowledge and experience; these learners may need more support.
Encourage learners to generate explanations and resolve contradictions. Learning is facilitated when students need to construct explanations and arguments. Offering explanations—for example, the cause of an event, the rationale for an action, or the logic underlying a claim—helps students bring coherence to the material they read, whether fiction or nonfiction, and understand why what they are reading is relevant and important. Students may be prompted to give their own explanations of the material by thinking aloud, or by answering questions that elicit explanations connecting the material to what they already know.
Explanations of material and reasoning are elicited by deep questions—such as why, how, what-if, and what-if not—as opposed to shallow questions that require the learner to simply fill in missing words, such as who, what, where, and when. Training students to ask deep questions aids their comprehension of material from electronic media, extended texts, and classroom lectures.
One method of stimulating thought and reasoning is to present some challenges, contradictions, equally attractive alternatives, or other types of impasses that place the learner in “cognitive disequilibrium.” When these impasses occur, adaptive learners engage in reasoning, problem solving, and planning on their way to restoring cognitive equilibrium. Presenting a challenging problem before students read a text can stimulate inquiry, curiosity, thinking, and deeper learning as they work to comprehend the text.
Encourage the learner to construct ideas from multiple points of view and different perspectives. This approach can help learners develop greater understanding and cognitive flexibility in using a concept in a range of contexts. If a concept is understood in only a specific and rigid manner, it will be encoded, accessed, and used in a restricted way. When interventions help learners interconnect facts, rules, skills, procedures, plans, and deep conceptual principles, their cognitive flexibility increases, and they are more able to transfer knowledge and skills to other complex tasks.
For example, before reading a story, learners can be instructed to adopt the perspectives of different characters; as a result, their recollections and interpretations of the story afterward end up being quite different. Readers eventually can be trained to adopt multiple character viewpoints while reading stories and thereby achieve greater cognitive flexibility.
Developing Metacognition and Self-Directed Learning
Learners who achieve expertise tend to be self-regulated: they formulate learning goals, track progress on these goals, identify gaps in their own knowledge, and search relevant information sources for answers; their “meta” knowledge of how and when to employ learning strategies is well developed. However, both children and adults can experience serious limitations in their meta-awareness. The vast majority of adults are not good at judging their own comprehension of text, for example. Therefore, explicit training, modeling, and guided practice are needed to help adult learners become more self-directed.
Structure instruction to develop effective use of complex learning strategies. Students can acquire complex learning strategies through instruction that is structured, explicit, intensive, and “scaffolded.” Scaffolding means sequencing and structuring the content and tasks to be learned and providing the prompts that help a learner to develop a new skill. The instruction typically goes from simple to complex, with substantial practice at each step. Supports for learning are gradually phased out as learners develop new skills and become able to complete tasks on their own.
For example, students might learn to solve mathematical problems by observing experts solve example problems step-by-step, or by alternating study of worked-example solutions with practice solving similar problems. Students learn more through these approaches than by simply attempting to solve problems on their own. As another example, a literacy instructor might model use of reading comprehension strategies by thinking aloud as he chooses and implements a particular strategy, decides whether it is working, and adjusts it accordingly. After watching and listening as the instructor models this process, students can practice choosing and implementing strategies on their own, with help from the instructor as needed.
Combine instruction in complex learning strategies with learning of content. Strategy instruction should be deeply integrated with subject-matter content rather than being lists of abstract rules or scripted procedures that ignore the content. For example, it is a good strategy for readers to be asking the question “why” when reading texts because it encourages the student to build explanations of the content. This strategy is ideally implemented across the curriculum, so that students ask questions such as why catalysts are important when reading a chemistry text, why the Spanish-American War was important in U.S. history, why a character in a novel acts in a particular way, and why an author bothers to describe the layout of a city.
Feedback helps learners fine-tune their knowledge, skills, and strategies, affecting learning in a number of ways that are well documented. It can be explicitly delivered by people or computers, or it can be implicitly provided in unsupervised situations that are engineered to make knowledge and skill gaps evident to the learner.
Accurate and timely feedback helps learning. Learners benefit from instructional interactions in which they receive fine-grained feedback—in other words, feedback detailed and specific to the task at hand—with hints that prompt them to generate information or execute a behavior or skill.
The optimal timing of the feedback depends on the task. Immediate feedback
has the advantage of helping students learn correct information instead of incorrect information. For example, when incorrect alternatives are presented on multiple-choice tests or in classroom discussion, it is possible for learners to remember the wrong answers instead of the correct ones. These effects can be reduced when learners receive feedback immediately after a test or while completing a task.
While immediate feedback can be useful under many conditions, it does have potential liabilities. A learner’s motivation can be threatened by a barrage of corrections and negative feedback. Frequent interruptions of organized sequences of action while performing a complex task, such as reading a text aloud, can irritate learners and slow their learning. Feedback offered too soon also can prevent students from correcting their own reading errors and regulating their own learning.
Administering feedback in the optimal way is complex; it depends on timing, the nature of the knowledge or skill to be developed, and characteristics of the student. It is unlikely that an instructor can track all of these factors for 30 students in a class, and it can be challenging for a tutor to track them even for a single student. As discussed later in this booklet, technologies can keep track of details that are beyond human capacities. Computerized learning environments are poised to provide adaptive feedback that is sensitive to all of these constraints.
Qualitative feedback is better for learning than test scores and error flagging. Feedback should explain what’s good about the student’s performance, point out errors to the learner, and explain why the information is incorrect, rather than merely flagging errors or providing an overall score that does not offer information about needed improvements. Much of this research is on learning subject-matter content rather than literacy per se, but the principles are expected to apply universally.
Also, adult learners with high levels of perceived control—in other words, those who feel they have the power to influence outcomes—may benefit more from feedback than those with lower levels of perceived control.
Using Adaptive, Interactive Learning Environments
Training in complex strategies, metacognition, and self-regulated learning may to some extent be accomplished by well-engineered training materials that guide all learners through the same regimen in a scripted fashion. However, students often need to be guided by knowledgeable tutors, mentors, and computer learning environments that adaptively interact in a way that is sensitive to the characteristics of the individual learner, especially as they encounter complex material.
Indeed, research has shown learning gains through intelligent tutoring systems and other reading systems—involving either computer systems or human tutors—that adapt to the learner. Computer environments have promise because of the complexity of assessing and teaching to the needs of individual learners.
Learning is enhanced by opportunities to practice and use skills for a purpose. Real-world learning is likely to motivate struggling adult learners who are sensitive to the value of their learning experience. And 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 tasks used for learning. As a result, literacy instruction is most likely to lead to durable, transferable learning if it incorporates real-world activities, tools, and tasks. Still, much needs to be understood about how to design these experiences effectively in the context of literacy development, especially for adults.