Full Discussion - Creating Networks to Support Women's Literacy December 1 - 12, 2008

Welcome from Mev

As many of you know, I am the founder and director of WE LEARN (Women
Expanding: Literacy Education Action Resource Network). Among the many goals of WE LEARN, one of our priorities has been to use our website as a resource sharing hub. For example, the Resource List contains a number of women-centered literacy materials and curriculum resources. We'd like to expand this visibility to include local and regional projects. So, here are some specific questions for your consideration:

  1. What are individuals and programs doing locally to address women's literacy issues? For this discussion, locally means in your classroom, program, neighborhood, community, city, or state. What you are doing might be a curriculum, a specific type of program, or any kind of organizing....and more.
  2. What do you need to support the work you are doing?
  3. Would you find regional (state or area of country) events or conferences useful? Be specific - how and what would you need or desire? How might a national organization facilitate regional supports?
  4. How can a national clearinghouse of information specifically focused on women's literacy issues, curriculum, and research support your work? What do you need it to do?

I'd really like to hear what people are doing so I don't want to jump into the conversation just yet.... but I will offer this observation.

Over the past 5 years of organizing WE LEARN, I've learned of so many teachers around the country in all sorts of programs and setting and contexts who daily address women's literacy issues. They do so with strong conviction and commitment-often on the edges-and with very little resources. So, I know you're out there doing what you do. What is it? And, how can a network/clearinghouse support your work?

Addressing Women's Literacy Issues

Mev: What are individuals and programs doing locally to address women's literacy issues? For this discussion, locally means in your classroom, program, neighborhood, community, city, or state. What you are doing might be a curriculum, a specific type of program, or any kind of organizing....and more.

TS: I have had experience working with Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) on issues related to women's literacy. WOW runs the National Women's Workforce Network and might be a good partner for a women's literacy network. See WOW's web site at http://www.wowonline.org.

Multiple Life Cycles Education Policy: Wider Opportunities for Women's Intergenerational Approach to Literacy Pays Off in Hard Economic Times

November 11, 2008

Tom Sticht

International Consultant in Adult Education

In research with Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), Sandra Van Fossen and I found that mothers enrolled in basic skills programs reported that they spoke more with their children about school, they read to them more, they took them to the library more and so forth (Van Fossen & Sticht, 1991). In one visit to a single mother's home, the mother's second grader said, "I do my homework just like Mommy"… and thrust his homework into the researcher's hand. This type of noncognitive skill development in the child was obtained for free as a spin-off of an adult basic skills program.

This type of intergenerational transfer of noncognitive skills from parents to their children in adult basic education and early childhood education programs means that more attention needs to be paid to the role of adult education in contributing to the cost-benefits of both ABE and ECE.
Extensive research also shows that adult's cognitive, language, and literacy skills can be transferred intergenerationally to their children.

Hart & Risley (1995) present extensive data showing how the oral language skills of parents in professional, working class, and welfare homes are used to transfer thinking, language, and literacy skills to their children. Because of the importance of adult basic education in promoting the intergenerational transfer of both cognitive and noncognitive skills from parents to their children, education policy needs to be focused not just on one child's life cycle, but on the life cycles of both adults and their children.

A "Multiple Life Cycles" policy for education explicitly recognizes that educational policies do not affect only one generation but through the intergenerational transfer of motivation, language, and literacy they affect many cycles of lives across generations (see also Sticht, 1983). For this reason governments need to invest in adult literacy and lifelong education with the understanding that this investment will not only provide returns in terms of increased productivity, health, and civic participation on the part of the adults, but also with the understanding that the investment in the education of adults may also produce returns in the increased educability of the adult's children. Good adult education in parenting is the backbone of good preschool education.

Today we have a better understanding that poorly educated children are the source of adult functional illiteracy, and functionally illiterate adults are the source of poorly educated children. The hope is that through education based on a Multiple Life Cycles policy, in which children are guaranteed their right to educated parents, the vicious intergenerational cycles of functional illiteracy can be stopped at their sources.


Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Lynch, R. (2004). Exceptional Returns: Economic, Fiscal and Social Benefits of Investment in Early Childhood Development. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epinet.org)

Minneapolis Federal Reserve (2005, June). Interview with James. J. Heckman.

Morrison, F., Bachman, H, & Connor, C. (2005). Improving Literacy in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sticht, T. G. (1983, February). Literacy and Human Resources Development at Work: Investing in the Education of Adults to Improve the Educability of Children. Alexandria, VA: Human Resources Research Organization.

Van Fossen, S. & Sticht, T. (1991, July). Teach the Mother and Reach the Child: Results of the Intergenerational Literacy Action Research Project of Wider Opportunities for Women. Washington, DC: Wider Opportunities for Women.

BS: Creating networks seems like a good idea for all levels of literacy practitioners working with women, and WOW seems like a worthwhile partner which will encourage a wider perspective on women's learning and development to encompass the various social, economic, cultural, personal and political aspects of literacy use.

At the LAC, we provide professional development in women's literacy through several efforts including action research, a study circle, and a series of workshops for program managers and instructional leaders focusing on planning programs and instruction that is women-focused. In my own research and work with women's literacy over the past 12 years, the topic that doesn't get much press is cultural differences. Different women use literacy differently which I discussed in a couple of publications including:

Sparks, B., & Butterwick, S. (2004). Culture, learning, and equity. In G. Foley (Ed.). Dimensions of adult learning: Adult education and training in a global era. Sydney, Australia.

Sparks, B. (2002). Adult literacy as cultural practice. In M. Alfred (Ed.) Learning in socio- cultural contexts: Implications for adult, community, and workplace education. New Directions in Adult and Continuing Education Series, No. 96. (pp.59-68). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Program Support Needs

Mev: What do you need to support the work you are doing?

AP: Well, here's two cents worth... I have done freelance work in the past for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the National Resource Center as well as some local shelters. To this day I believe-and would love to conduct/ collaborate on a formal study-that there are strong connections between literacy, health literacy, and DV issues (for both genders actually). So, it strikes me that a fantastic setting for literacy work would be in Women's / DV Shelters. This is a strong network that already exists ... perhaps a partnership for the future??

JF: Thinking about the support I need to see the vision I have for the community?? In the last 5 years our program has been pared down from 4 full-time employees and work-study students to one full-time employee and one work-study student. Still, our tutors have served the needs of over 200 students (mostly women) in the past year. I have a vision and a passion for helping all people, particularly women, gain the basic literacy skills required to survive in today's world, and seeing the volunteer "Lions for Literacy" program expand well beyond the parameters that now exist. What I don't have is a clear idea of how to raise funds and where to apply for grants, or the help that is needed to put together a winning grant proposal. Any information or volunteer help in these areas would be welcomed!

DG: I am guessing that you are not alone in working in a program that has had to cut down employees while maintaining or increasing the number of students served. It is hard, and may get harder, to serve the needs of women and literacy during these financial times. I read your note as stating that you would find it helpful to have an arm in a women and literacy hub devoted to fund raising, grant writing, and grant opportunities.

Does anyone else on this list work in a literacy or literacy related program that primarily targets women? Or does someone on this list focus their research on literacy and women issues? What are your needs?

JF: You are correct, both about the shortage of staffing and the need for a hub of grant writing information.

SD: I run a women's literacy program in Florida. Like JF, obtaining funds are my biggest concern. I've been in adult literacy for about 9 years. I love what I do, but funding is a huge issue. We often get grants for just a year or two and then the grantor states they want to see us be self-sufficient. It makes me laugh. I work full-time running a literacy program-what do they want me to do, open a bookstore in my spare time? I get frustrated because our program is helping many students who couldn't get what they needed in school for one reason or another. I often wonder why we can't get tax dollars because we are providing an education. Illiteracy costs $20 billion a year in the U.S. Would we rather pay for welfare, or would we like to give our women an education and a chance to become a taxpaying citizen? I am at a loss for where to go for funds, especially in a bad economy.

Mev: I think you've articulated a concern and frustration experienced by many of us. I know WE LEARN experiences similar issues-as do many programs and services, especially those serving women through holistic programming.

As we know, the issues are very complicated by legislative priorities, views about the needs and "deservedness" of the populations we work with, cultural ideologies connected to gender and race and class, difficult economic and financial times, etc and so on.... My favorite book right now is The Revolution will not be Funded by INCITE Women of Color.

And I sometimes wonder if some of the issue is our own lack of visibility to each other. How many programs out there provide literacy services directly to women? What are our common struggles? What resources can we share? If we could get a comprehensive directory of programs providing these services and an understanding of our common needs, I wonder if that visibility might affect the views of funders? I wish I knew the "magic pill." What other creative ideas do others have??

SE: I am at a program that is entirely government-funded, but that makes me nervous as well, with so many budget cuts coming down the road. One thing for volunteer-programs to consider is asking volunteers (and students) for voluntary donations and to help with fundraising. When I was at my last job, coordinating a volunteer adult literacy program, I started asking for volunteers' help and they wound up raising $50,000 (mostly through the efforts of a few well-connected volunteers, but the point was that everybody participated because they cared about the program, and that's what motivated the well-connected volunteers to donate and to tap their networks).

AA: Our organization provides educational services including women's literacy services through GED preparation. Our funding streams are diverse (donors, government, grants), but new ones are always needed.

GR: Not to toot our own horn too loudly, but Washington Area Women's Foundation (where I work) has funded many education and training programs focused on women and girls in the Washington region, including in Washington, DC, Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland, Arlington and Fairfax Counties in Virginia, and the city of Alexandria (Virginia). Other women's foundations have also been active in funding these types of services.

At Washington Area Women's Foundation, our workforce development funding has focused on non-traditional occupations for women because they have low entry barriers, pay better, and provide more benefits. Some of the programs we have funded include Washington Area Women in the Trades (a construction training partnership between the YWCA, Wider Opportunities for Women and the Metropolitan Council of the AFL-CIO), a program at Goodwill of Greater Washington focused on women in construction, a program at Wider Opportunities for Women focused on law enforcement/homeland security, and a program at Southeastern University focused on property management. We have also funded more traditional career path programs, including a program focused on nursing at the Urban Alliance Foundation, and a program focused on office services at Northern Virginia Family Service. Many of these programs include literacy components - and this just names a few of our Grantee Partners.

Resource Clearinghouse Ideas

Mev: How can a national clearinghouse of information that is specifically focused on women's literacy issues, curriculum, and research support your work? What do you need it to do?

KH: Presently, I am working with Daphne Greenberg on exploring LGBT issues within adult literacy programs. It would be great if part of a women and literacy hub/clearinghouse for the nation included a section devoted to lgbt issues. Perhaps including a grant funding mechanism to do research, as well as providing teaching tips and curricula for very low literate women to create safe spaces for them in classrooms and programs. Is anyone doing specific work in this area, and if so, what is your approach and how easy and/or difficult has this been for you to implement?

JF: I think this is a most interesting and crucial time to create this network!
I may be jumping ahead of things, but one item of importance is having the information in as many languages as possible so that women who come from outside the United States understand that there is support for their needs. In our Adult Education Department, we have ABE, GED, ESL classes, Talk Times, and one-on-one volunteer tutors for students who apply, but there are many women in the community who have no idea of the services available.

AA: …what also would be helpful would be to have a collection/bibliography of research that documents why single-gender adult education programs are as effective as they are and the need for these programs. Our students tell us how important the women-only student environment has been to their success. If a collection of this research already exists, I would appreciate being pointed in that direction.

Mev: Other than the single-gender research that's out there for K-12 or for college level, I'm unaware of any direct research that outlines the positive attributes of single gender education in ABE. Perhaps the closest I've seen are some of the articles on family literacy and many articles on woman-positive curriculum, but nothing on gender-separate programs. Does anyone else know of anything?

WE LEARN offers Women Leading Through Reading Discussion Circles. Right now we have Circles running in the Boston area. But the manual is available for others to adapt according to their needs [http://www.litwomen.org/wltr.html]. This could be an example of an additional learning support to women that any program could offer. We have articulated the positive benefits of this as women-only space. We have "professional wisdom" and experiential learning on this, but not anything that passes as direct research.

AA: We currently serve 100 women each year through our literacy/ABE/GED services. What would also be helpful is working with someone to help us explore how best to expand our program (which includes classes, small group instruction, and tutoring) while retaining the intimacy that our students appreciate.

SD: Is there a list of other women's literacy programs? I'd love to have a contact list.

Mev: I only know of a handful of programs that serve primarily (only) women:

  • Caroline Center - a workplace training program in Baltimore
  • St. Mary's Women and Infant Center - Dorchester, MA
  • Julie's Family Learning Program - So. Boston, MA
  • Project Hope in Roxbury MA (though I think they now have men in some of their programs)
  • Mercy Center in Bridgeport, CT

These are the ones I recall offhand, but am always happy to know of more. What other programs out there intentionally serve women-only programs? Are there programs serving both genders but that might have some woman-only spaces? How does that work? Let's build our own list!

I've wanted to do a directory for WE LEARN for a long time-on the "to-do" list-but again time and funding have slowed us down this.

GR: Another program I'm aware of, also in New England as most of the other programs named earlier on this list discussion, focused on women and girls is Vermont Works for Women.

Mev: There appears to be 3 emerging areas: partnerships and content (both educational and social)… and audience. It seems that a hub may need several entry points. The partnerships and content may cross the needs for such audiences. And the needs for some audiences may be useful across several audiences as well.

  • Learners (learning programs that will address their needs, reading or learning materials they can access on their own, and perhaps access through multiple languages, etc.)
  • Teachers/Educators (curriculum resources, professional development, research information, supportive links to programs and resources, etc.)
  • Researchers (current reports, books, agendas, topics to look into in more depth, etc.)
  • Funders, policy-makers, general public (seeking an understanding of issues impacting women, etc.) and there may be others....

Thank-you from Daphne

A special thanks to everyone who has contributed to this conversation, and to Mev for all of her work on women and literacy. I highly recommend that you visit the WE LEARN site for more information on women and literacy: http://www.litwomen.org/welearn.html

I also recommend that you look into the possibility of attending the annual women and literacy conference: http://www.litwomen.org/conference.html

Although Mev will no longer be facilitating the discussion: "Creating networks to support women' literacy", we can still continue sharing our resources and thoughts related to this topic.

A few of you have shared your work with women and literacy. I would like to encourage the rest of you to tell us what you do. Is there anyone on this list who works with women and prison? With women and workplace? With women and ESL needs? With women and disabilities? We would love to hear your voices!

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