International Encyclopedia of Education || Adult Literacy Education

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  • Adult Literacy EducationL Tett, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UKR St.Clair, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK

    2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.The last few years have seen growing interest in the field ofadult literacy education, also known as adult basic educa-tion and adult literacy and numeracy, with increased atten-tion at national and international levels. This has beenpartly inspired by the International Adult Literacy Surveyof the mid-1990s (and the less influential Adult Literacyand Life Skills Survey (ALL) of the following decade),which allowed adults skills to be compared acrosscountries for the first time. This coincided with the movetoward an information economy, allegedly making infor-mation management skills such as literacy the bedrock forsuccess. At the same time notions of human capital (whereeducation is the fundamental key to prosperity) were gain-ing favor with agencies such as the World Bank andUNESCO (Wickens and Sandlin, 2007) so adult literacyeducation became seen as a central and critical educationalsector.

    Adult literacy education is marked by a high level ofdiversity in terms of structure, delivery, and philosophyand performs different roles in different parts of theworld, whether industrialized Europe or a developingcountry. It can take place in church basements, furthereducation colleges, universities, community settings, work-places, and libraries. It can be delivered by professionallyqualified staff, or staff who are qualified in other formsof teaching or unqualified volunteers. Learners can beemployed or unemployed, men or women, refugees orindigenous people, full time students, or people who studypart-time. Each of these presents a unique context forliteracy education, and it is important not to generalizeacross settings without taking great care.What Is Adult Literacy?

    There are a number of ways of conceptualizing what ismeant by adult literacy. These definitions contain assump-tions that matter to the focus of education because theyimply different understandings of learning (Papen, 2005).Three concepts have been particularly influential: the func-tional, critical, and liberal concepts of literacy (Table 1).Functional Literacy

    In this view literacy is seen as a skill that is required for abroad range of activities associated with the individualsparticipation in society. There is an assumed correlationbetween individual skills and the overall performance ofthe nation in terms of modernization and economic pro-ductivity. This is particularly so in the OECD (1997,2000), where a focus on improving literacy skills as thekey to unlocking the benefits of globalization is dominant.Literacy is conceived as a set of neutral, technical skillswith little to do with culture and society. Its assumedbenefits are believed to include enabling access to infor-mation, developing thinking, and improving the indivi-duals chances of finding employment and income.Reflecting this view, the ALL assessed skills against asuitable minimum for meeting the demands of daily workand life (UNESCO, 2005). The functional model empha-sizes individual deficits and sees literacy as a set of discreteskills believed to be universal and transferable to all kindsof situations that require the use of written language(Barton, 1994).Critical Literacy

    The concept of critical literacy is associated with theBrazilian educator Paulo Freire and refers to the potentialof literacy for not only reading the word but also readingthe world (Friere and Macedo, 1987). It moves away fromthe functional model, toward a pedagogy intended toallow participants to understand their world in terms ofjustice and injustice, power and oppression, and how totransform it. Contrary to the functional model, primarypurpose of critical literacy is not to help the individual tomove up the existing social ladder, but to build a radicalcritique of the dominant culture and the existing powerrelationships between social groups (Shor, 1993). Thismodel is often linked to democratic citizenship and therole that education plays in supporting peoples partici-pation in society (Crowther and Tett, 2001). People needthe ability not only to decode the literal meanings of texts,but also to read between the lines and to engage in acritical discussion of the positions a text supports.Liberal Tradition of Literacy

    The third view of literacy is informed by a humanist viewof education that emphasizes personal development andindividual goals. It argues for the right of all citizens toeducation and goes beyond the functional-skills approachto include areas such as creative writing and access to107

  • Table 1 Three views of literacy education

    Functional Critical Liberal

    Skills Understanding Tools

    Reason forliteracy



    Empowerment Developmentof person








    108 Adult Education Domains and Provisionliterature (Papen, 2005). Participants in programs are notlimited to the working population but include older peo-ple or those who are not part of the workforce.

    These different definitions present competing ideolo-gies of literacy with associated assumptions, values, andstandards that need to be questioned. However, in much ofthe world there is an unquestioning emphasis on the func-tional, vocational approach such as Welfare to Work in theUS (Sandlin & Cervero, 2003), resulting in a discourse ofliteracy as a technical skill and vocational competence.Social-Practice and Skills Models ofLiteracy

    In addition to diverging perspectives on the purpose ofadult literacy education, there are a number of theoreti-cal positions on how people actually use literacies. Afunctional-skills-based approach focuses attention on theautonomy of the text and the meanings it carries. Itsearches for universal features of adult literacy and othersemiotic sign systems. It leads to narrow definitions ofreading, writing, and calculating, and ignores aspects oflearning that cannot be dealt with at the individual orcognitive level. It excludes many issues that are importantfor understanding learner responses. All too often it cansupport a deficit view of literacy, where those with limitedliteracy engagement are seen to be lacking in some way,whether in ability or in education.

    One approach has moved away from the individuallyfocused cognitive skills model to include the social prac-tices associated with number, reading, and writing(Hamilton et al., 2006). In this view literacy is not seen asa purely individual activity instead, it sees literacy andnumeracy as being historically and socially situated andpart of wider cultural and media engagement. The focus ofthe social-practices approach shifts away from literacy assomething learners lack toward the many different waysthat people engage with literacy. Social-practices ap-proaches recognize difference and diversity, and challengehow these differences are valued within our society.

    Street (1995) describes this as a shift from seeing liter-acy as an autonomous gift to be given to people to anideological view of literacy that places it in the widercontext of institutional purposes and power relationships.From this perspective adult literacy is part of a range ofsocial practices that are observable in events or momentsand are patterned by social institutions and power rela-tionships. Attention is focused on the cultural practiceswithin which written and spoken words are embedded.Not just reading but also speaking and writing, as well asthe use of new technologies, become central to the defi-nition of literacy. The social-practices view requires thatconnections are made between the classroom and thecommunity in which learners lead their lives; with anotion of situated learning; between learning and institu-tional power; and between print literacy and other media.

    There is not just one social-practices theory of adultliteracy, numeracy, and language, but a number of differentversions. The social-practice approach that has characterizedthe new literacy studies (NLS) draws mainly on ideas andmethodologies from sociology, sociolinguistics, and anthro-pology rather than themore psychological approach of activeproblem-solving theory rooted in the work of Vygotsky andothers. The NLS involves looking beyond formal educa-tional settings to informal learning, and to the other officialsettings in which literacies play a key role. Learning does notjust take place in classrooms but in everyday life, with mean-ings, values, and purposes located within a broader literacyframework than the texts themselves.

    There are two important principles underlying theimplementation of a social-practice approach to literacy.First, a two-way dialog and movement between formallearning and the everyday world is essential. Everyday,situated cultures and practices cannot simply be acknowl-edged and imported into classroom settings. The bound-aries between in and out of education must be blurred sothat contexts become permeable.

    Second, active learning is assumed by this approach. Itcharacterizes the process of becoming literate as one oftaking hold of the tools of writing and language. This hasimportant implications for relationships within thelearning process and for reflective and questioning activ-ity on the part of both learners and teachers (Hamiltonet al., 2006). The ways in which teachers and learnersparticipate in decision making and the governance of theorganization in which learning takes place are crucial,whether through management committees, consultativebodies, and research and development activities. Citizen-ship is modeled and enacted within such arenas.Reconciling the Skills and Social-Practices Perspectives

    The social-practices approach recognizes the importanceof learners motivations, goals, and purposes; every literacytask is done for a reason and in specific contexts, hence thechallenge to concepts of universal sets of literacy skills.

  • Adult Literacy Education 109Skills and knowledge acquisition are, however, intrinsic tolearners purposes and enhance many different aspects oftheir lives. For example, improving skills for employmentmay not appear to serve social practices, but skills that aregained in the pursuit of employment or promotion can beapplied in other domains of peoples lives, such as helpingchildren with homework, managing the household, orpursuing further learning. Both enhancing skills andrecognizing their role within learners lives are importantand both aspects should be developed in good teaching.

    How far might it be possible to reconcile the functional-skills approach and the social-practices approach withinpolicy and practice? Could social practices be seen asencompassing and extending the narrower focus of skills?The idea of two opposing broad approaches is an over-simplification and there are other ways of characterizingthe guiding philosophies people bring to literacy, particu-larly in everyday cultural settings (see Barton et al., 2000).Freebody and Lo Bianco suggest (1997: 26) that effectiveliteracy tuition draws on a repertoire of resources thatallow learners to: break the code; actively interpret themeaning of the text; use texts functionally; analyse textscritically. This is a dynamic process as represented inFigure 1 that is an attempt to acknowledge that both skillsand critical practices are enmeshed in working with texts.

    In the middle circle is the process of actually under-standing the words as they are written on the page, andinterpreting the meaning. The outer ring represents thesocial uses of that meaning, which can range from func-tional to critical. A literacy process that is missing any ofthese components can be considered as only a partialengagement with the text.

    Research in the US is also providing new insights onthe interrelations between skills and practices. The 5-yearLongitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) in Portland,Oregon has revealed that both program participation and

    Break the code

    Actively interpretthe meaning oftext

    Analyse texts critically

    Use texts functionally

    Figure 1 An approach to literacy instruction reconciling theskills and practices approaches.self-study have positive, time-specific effects on literacypractices (Reder, 2008). The research showed that self-study was prevalent among adults of all literacy levels as ameans of basic skills development, whether or not they alsoparticipated in classes. Self-study appears to act as a bridgebetween periods of program participation and to facilitatepersistence.Themixedmode of learning identified byLSALseems to bridge social-practices and skills-based approaches.It suggests that learners use a range of resources to enhancethe social practices associated with literacy, and that pro-grams are one resource, with the specific role of providingskills to underpin the practices. As we suggest with thediagram above, skills and practices form a self-reinforcingcycle of engagement with literacy and literacy education.

    The broad mode of participation suggested by LSALbrings together social-practice and skills approaches. Onthe one hand, it recognizes that learning involves learnersactively using resources as well as programs delivering ser-vices. On the other, it indicates that literacy programs appearto have the most direct and immediate impact on literacypractices, underlining the role of skills enhancement.The Role of Adult Literacy Education

    Throughout the world, adult literacy education fulfills avariety of roles. For those in industrialized countries, onecommon perception is that adult literacy learners arepeople who have not fully benefited from compulsoryeducation. There are a number of possible reasons, rangingfrom sociological explanations concerning the tendency ofschools to push out certain learners to psychological ratio-nales involving learning difficulties. Overall, the commonfactor is the view that adult literacy education has anameliorative role, improving literacy engagement and com-pensating, to some degree, for the failure of initial school-ing (St. Clair and Priestman, 1997).

    The ameliorative view assumes that learners have hadan opportunity to learn literacy practices, and that thisopportunity has not been effective. This can lead to a deficitview of learners, where they are assumed to have somekind of problem that has led to reduced literacy abilities.

    One of the reasons that adult literacy education hasexperienced such variability in funding and policy interestis that it can be viewed as an optional form of provisionwithin the ameliorative perspective. After all, if peoplehave already had a chance to learn about literacy surelygiving them a second chance is an act of generosity? Itfollows that the most effective argument for supportingliteracy education is often a moral one. This can lead to apanic about literacy education (or more often illiteracy)with dramatically increased funding followed by gradualwithdrawal of support until the next moral panic (Quigley,1997...


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