[Assessment 1377] Adult Literacy Awareness Campaigns

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tsticht at znet.com tsticht at znet.com
Mon Jul 28 21:29:07 EDT 2008

July 28, 2008

Adult Literacy Awareness Campaigns Need to Accurately Represent Adult
Literacy Problems and Promote Appropriate Adult Education Programs

Tom Sticht

Since the mid-1970s the United Kingdom has repeatedly made use of television
in campaigns to make adults aware of the problems of adult literacy and to
encourage those with perceived difficulties to seek educational assistance.
On Monday July 21st the BBC Channel 4 broadcast the first of a new three
part series of TV shows that once again bring the problems of adult
literacy to the attention of the public.

However, like the various TV shows that have appeared on American TV about
adult literacy problems, the BBC program has stimulated the press and
others to refer to some 5 million "illiterate" adults when discussing the
adult literacy problem. Similarly, in the U. S., media frequently take the
results of national adult literacy surveys that show that many adults have
low literacy and translates this into discussions of adult "illiteracy."
When the 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) came out reporting some
47 percent (90 million) adults with low literacy, the San Diego
Union-Tribune, the major newspaper where I live, ran an article headlined:
"Illiteracy hurts half of adults." This was, of course, a total
misrepresentation of the facts but one that was nonetheless followed in a
number of media reports.

This type of misrepresentation of adult literacy problems was challenged
following the recent TV show called "Can't read, can't write," by the
National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) in the United
Kingdom. On its web site (www.niace.org.uk) NIACE posted a critique of the
program that aims to correct the reference to adults with low literacy as
"illiterate." The NIACE message states:

Quote: " There are not 5 million illiterate adults in Britain despite how
many times you will read this statement over the next few days and weeks
following the Channel 4 programme. The programme doesn’t say this but
that’s how the press interprets things. There are, more than likely, around
5 million adults in Britain who have difficulties with reading, at one level
or another. Most can read signs, simple texts and bits and pieces in the
newspaper but they don’t have a range of reading strategies to tackle a
variety of texts. They may read slowly, hesitantly, or are easily put off
by difficult words and long sentences. They may not be able to scan a text
to pick out the key information they need but tend to read every word.
Adult literacy teachers work with these learners and those who are complete
beginners to show them a range of strategies; present them with different
texts that are graded for complexity and build their vocabulary as they
gradually increase in confidence. Reading is not simply understanding
sounds and de-coding words. It includes knowledge and understanding of the
context, a motivation to read, fluency, and the ability to use active
comprehension strategies." End Quote

The NIACE critique goes on to question the approach of the program in which
adults were given instruction for just six months using an actor Quote: "

who admitted he has never taught anyone to read in his life, but is a bit
of a TV star." End Quote In the U. S. in an awareness campaign of the 1980s
the appeal was made for volunteers to tutor adult literacy students and it
was claimed that the preparation for teaching adults was no particular
educational degree or credential but rather just "a degree of caring."

The NIACE message calls attention to the problems with the three part series
in the awareness campaign fronted by the "Can't read, can't write" program.
But the message goes on to say that, Quote: "Despite this, anything that
prompts more adults to seek help with literacy difficulties cannot be all
bad – and it may also stimulate a more sophisticated analysis and public
debate about what makes effective teachers and learning resources." End
Quote The NIACE piece is a good beginning for this discussion in the U.K.
I hope that in any future awareness campaigns about adult literacy problems
in the U.S. this type of discussion will be taken ahead of time so that the
difficulties facing both adult learners and teachers will not be
over-simplified. Too often this type of over-simplification of adult
literacy education leads policymakers to respond with under-funding for
serious efforts in adult education.

Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
Email: tsticht at aznet.net