Background Documents for Adult Literacy Education - LINCS Resource Collections

LINCS Resource Collections

Background Documents for Adult Literacy Education

The background documents provide an overview of essential basic information and links to references on fundamental topics in the field of adult literacy education and learning. Recent statistics with links to sources are also included and updated to provide the most current information related to adult learner populations, programs, proven teaching techniques, and legislation.

LINCS ensures that high quality, research- or evidence-based resources and information are included to improve teaching and increase learning in adult literacy education programs. Collections staff and/or content experts in the various topic areas identified and reviewed the resources that were selected for inclusion in the Collections.

The materials are intended for anyone who is new to the field as well as those who are experienced and want to learn more about the field in general or specific topics of interest. They can be used in many ways. For example, individuals may use them for reference or self-study or discuss them with colleagues and partners. Adult literacy educators (e.g., teachers, administrators, professional developers) may use them for professional development activities in group study settings or study circles. Instructors and tutors may use them to improve their practice and apply or modify research-based teaching methods in their classrooms.

The background documents provide access to the information and resources practitioners need to successfully meet these challenges and gain an increased understanding of the world of adult literacy education.


Adult Literacy Education

This section covers the scope of the field of adult literacy education and includes highly respected and seminal works authored by distinguished authors, groups, or agencies. The major topics include:


Adult Literacy Education Introduction

Adult education has traditionally had a strong sense of community in which adult educators networked with a variety of resource organizations and individuals in the community to provide the kinds of support adult learners need to succeed, such as transportation, special need services, child care or motivation to participate. Many have also worked with employers and workforce development to build the basic skills and knowledge that adults need for local employment opportunities. Research- and evidence-based practice has consistently shown that such partnerships and connections are essential for adults to persist in programs to achieve their goals and continue the pursuit of lifelong learning opportunities, such as post-secondary education or further training.

Today, the adult literacy education field has grown to encompass programs that are funded by federal, state, and local government, and by unions, corporations, foundations, human service agencies, churches, libraries, employment agencies, and various other private and public organizations. Public and private partnerships are the backbone of the adult literacy education system. The programs may provide English language learning, family literacy, workplace literacy, basic skills instruction, secondary education to gain a high school diploma or its equivalent, technology training, and more. In addition, many adult learners need and receive supports to develop advocacy around their special learning needs, such as learning disabilities, visual or hearing programs, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mental health, recovery, and other types of physical, emotional or learning issues.


Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Definitions

The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 is perhaps the most wide-ranging adult education initiative in history. WIA's purpose was to reform "Federal employment, adult education, and vocational rehabilitation programs to create an integrated, 'one-stop' system of workforce investment and education activities for adults and youth."1 Adult education services are provided through the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (Title II of WIA). Federally funded adult literacy education programs are mandated partners in the workforce system with the many human service and workforce development agencies and programs. Adult literacy education programs include:

  • adult education and literacy, including workplace literacy;
  • family literacy;
  • English literacy and civics education;
  • programs for corrections education and other institutionalized individuals, including basic education, English literacy, secondary school credit, and special education programs determined by the agency.

WIA uses the following definitions for adult education services:2

  • Adult education:
    "services or instruction below the postsecondary level for individuals
  1. who have attained 16 years of age;
  2. who are not enrolled or required to be enrolled in secondary school under State law; and
  3. who-
    1. lack sufficient mastery of basic educational skills to enable the individuals to function effectively in society;
    2. do not have a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent, and have not achieved an equivalent level of education; or
    3. are unable to speak, read, or write the English language."
  • Workplace literacy:
    "literacy services that are offered for the purpose of improving the productivity of the workforce through the improvement of literacy skills"
  • Family literacy:
    "services that are of sufficient intensity in terms of hours, and of sufficient duration, to make sustainable changes in a family, and that integrate all of the following activities:
  1. Interactive literacy activities between parents and their children.
  2. Training for parents regarding how to be the primary teacher for their children and full partners in the education of their children.
  3. Parent literacy training that leads to economic self-sufficiency.
  4. An age-appropriate education to prepare children for success in school and life experiences."
  • English literacy:
    "a program of instruction designed to help individuals of limited English proficiency achieve competence in the English language"
  • Civics education:
    "contextualized instruction on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, naturalization procedures, civic participation, and U.S. history and government to help learners acquire the skills and knowledge to become active and informed parents, workers, and community members"3

Adult Learners

The adult learner population varies greatly in age, years of schooling, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic status, English proficiency, skills and knowledge levels, prior knowledge and experience, and reasons for participation. Some learners study to get high school equivalency diplomas; others learn English; some develop their literacy skills to help their children and families; some may need to brush up for new job responsibilities. Adults' reasons for participating in programs are as diverse as the population itself.

In 2004-05, 2.6 million adults aged 16 and over were enrolled in federally funded adult education programs, including approximately 1.1 million (44.3%) in English as a Second Language, 1 million (39.4%) in adult basic education, and .4 million (16.3%) in adult secondary education.4

More than half of adult learners in federally funded programs are women (54.7%), whereas 45.3% are men.5 The majority of participants are Latino (43%), followed by Whites (27.2%), African Americans (19.8%), Asians (7.3%), American Indian/Alaskan Native (1.4%), and Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander (.8%).6 The two largest age groups are 25-44 (44.9%) and 19-24 (25.4%), followed by 16-18 (13.5), 45-59 (12.7%), and 60 and over (3.5%).7

Thirty-eight percent of participants in 2003 were employed, whereas 39% were unemployed but looking for work, 12% "were unemployed but not seeking work because they were retired or full-time homemakers, or for other reasons," and 11% "were incarcerated or resided in other state institutions."8

Despite this diversity, research and professional wisdom indicate:

  • Adults need to know the purpose of their studies. Clearly stated goals and outcomes tied to their needs will motivate and improve their chance of success.
  • Adult learners need to understand the expectations of successful performance and expected outcomes. When teaching and learning is relevant and transparent, adult learners will purposefully plan to meet indicators of success.
  • Adult learners come to the classroom with a sense of independence. They want to be treated as adult individuals, capable of making decisions and choices about their lives.
  • Adult learners have a host of life experiences that inform the choices they make and how they interact in the classroom. Education activities must focus on teaching and learning strategies that value their experiences.
  • For adults to be ready to learn, education must be practical and immediately applicable to situations they face in their lives.
  • Adults are motivated to learn when adult education relates directly to increasing the skills and knowledge they need to meet goals and improve quality of life.

Need for Programs and Services

Results from the 2003 Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey-a study that assessed the literacy and numeracy skills of adults (16-65) in five countries-showed that U.S. adults had lower literacy and numeracy skills than adults in Norway, Bermuda, Switzerland, and Canada, and higher literacy and numeracy skills than adults in Italy.9 A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicated that the degree of inequality between the highest and lowest achievers is among the highest in the 21 countries in the OECD study.10

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, approximately 40 million adults-or 21% of the U.S. population aged 16 and over-had not completed high school or equivalent. About one-quarter of these adults lived in households with incomes at or below the poverty level. Thirty-eight percent were employed, 5% were unemployed, and 57% were not in the labor force.11

The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) estimated "that some 30 million American adults had Below Basic prose literacy, 27 million had Below Basic document literacy, and 46 million had Below Basic quantitative literacy."12 These adults are likely to have difficulty reading, understanding, and interpreting the more complex texts, documents, and mathematical problems they encounter in daily life.

Additionally, more than 12 million immigrants need "English language instruction to pass the naturalization exam and/or to have the necessary skills to participate in the country's civic life."13 It would require 596 million hours of English instruction per year, for six years, to reach this level of proficiency.14


Program Design and Delivery

According to Adult Education in America: A First Look at Results from the Adult Education Program and Learner Surveys (AEPS) study funded by the U. S Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education15, the adult education system encompasses more than 30,000 learning sites around the country. These sites can be found in schools, workplaces, libraries, fire halls, community centers, technology-based learning labs, union halls, community colleges, or churches. According to the AEPS, the distribution of adult education programs among types of providers is as follows:

  • Local education agencies: 54%
  • Community-based organizations: 24%
  • Community Colleges: 17%
  • Correctional Institutions: 2%
  • Other: 3%

In addition, an increasing number of adult learners do not regularly attend a physical location but use technology-based instructional programs at a distance via cell phones, videos, computers, the Internet, and television. Many combine classroom and distance learning in a blended learning approach.

Federal, state and local initiatives have been put into place to coordinate and align programs and streamline services for adults to increase access and reduce duplication of services. For example, adult literacy education programs are mandated partners in the states' one-stop centers, and many have co-located programs or services in the one-stop facilities whenever possible. Other programs have developed professional partnerships or agreements for referrals, information and resource sharing, case management, and provision of in-kind services. Such partnerships also help adults successfully transition to post-secondary education, additional training or pursue skills or credentials to move forward along a career pathway.


Adult Literacy Educators and Professional Development

The adult education workforce is diverse; seldom does one enter the field with an understanding of the depth and breadth of the field and the myriad of services it has to offer. Adult practitioners may be full- or part-time teachers (who may or may not have a degree or credentials related in some way to the field), volunteer tutors, trainers, vocational counselors, case managers, administrators, researchers and more. And all need access to resources and professional development opportunities based on the highest quality evidence available to improve teaching and increase learners' achievement.

Current AEPS data16 show that a combination of full-time, part-time, and volunteer staff comprise the adult education workforce, with 17 percent full-time, 39 percent part-time, and about 43 percent volunteers. These numbers vary, however, based on the size and type of program. Data also show that full-time instructors were generally experienced and had been teaching for 4 to 10 years. In addition, the turnover rate for full-time instructors was relatively low.

In addition to the Resource Collections, the National Institute for Literacy's three LINCS Regional Resource Centers provide dissemination of highest-quality professional development resources using various approaches, such as online materials, face-to-face technical assistance, distance learning and state-focused discussion lists. They work in partnership with organizations such as The National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium (NAEPDC), to provide state and regional leadership and resources to help practitioners use evidence-based instructional practices that improve outcomes in adult learners' literacy skills.



  1. U.S. Department of Education:
  2. Workforce Investment Act of 1998, Sec. 203:
  3. Federal Register, November 17, 1999:; Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (2006), English Literacy and Civics Education:
  4. OVAE, "Enrollment and Participation in the State-Administered Adult Education Program" for 2004-05:
  5. Ibid:
  6. Ibid:
  7. Ibid:
  8. OVAE, "Adult Education and Family Literacy Act: Program Facts":
  9. National Center for Education Statistics (2006), U.S. Student and Adult Performance on International Assessments of Educational Achievement:
  10. Educational Testing Service (2007), America's Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing our Nation's Future:
  11. Division of Adult Education and Literacy, Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) (2005), Profiles of the Adult Education Target Population:
  12. National Center for Education Statistics (2007), Literacy in Everyday Life: 12); National Center for Education Statistics (2005), A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st Century:
  13. Migration Policy Institute (2007), Adult English language instruction in the United States:
  14. Migration Policy Institute (2007):
  15. Educational Testing Service, (2007), Adult Education in America: A First Look at Results from the Adult Education Program and Learner Surveys
  16. Educational Testing Service, (2007), Adult Education in America: A First Look at Results from the Adult Education Program and Learner Surveys


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