Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy

This resource from New Zealand provides a framework that indicates what adult learners can know and can do as they develop their expertise in literacy - Listen with Understanding, Speak to Communicate, Read with Understanding, Write to Communicate.

Tertiary Education Commission, New Zealand
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Tertiary Education Commission
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages
Product Type

This resource from New Zealand provides a framework that indicates what adult learners can know and can do as they develop their expertise in literacy - Listen with Understanding, Speak to Communicate, Read with Understanding, Write to Communicate. While all four language arts skills are important for life, this review will address the two that are part of the Basic Skills Collections - Read with Understanding and Write to Communicate. The progressions are NOT a curriculum, assessment tool, or lesson plan. They are, instead, a set of progressions that can be used to develop or adapt existing curricula, assessment tools, and learning activities. The progressions are steeped in research. Metaphorically, the steps or progressions are represented by “pikopiko” an indigenous plant that starts with one frond and expands to six, to indicate the levels of learning.

Read with Understanding includes five progressions: decoding, vocabulary, language and text features, comprehension, and reading critically. Each starts with the very basic level and develops into an increasingly sophisticated level. For example, in the vocabulary progression, the basic level (one frond) is “will have a reading vocabulary of everyday words, signs, and symbols,” and progresses to the most advanced level of “have a large reading vocabulary that includes general academic words and specialized words and terms.”  The resource provides not only the skills sets for each progression and each level, but also areas of study to increase to the next level. For example, to move from the base vocabulary level to the next, the resource suggests: learn word families, connect new words with background information, find synonyms. It also provides the reasoning behind each suggestion.

Write to Communicate is set up like Read with Understanding. The progressions for writing include: purpose and audience, spelling, vocabulary, language and text features, planning and composing, and revising and editing. Within each progression are skill and knowledge levels reflecting basic to more complex requirements.

The authors emphasize that although they developed the four strands of progressions for listening, speaking, reading, and writing, these divisions do not mean that each is isolated. They overlap and, in some cases, one progression is a prerequisite for learning in another. There is a strong interrelationship between speaking and listening and reading and writing and between oral and written language that suggest no strand should be considered on its own. The resource provides a table to show how skills cross the four areas of language arts, for example, how vocabulary progression is evident and important for listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The table refers to text pages that further describe the transcendence.

The references are short because another entire resource is dedicated to the research behind the Progressions, Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy and Numeracy: Background Information. There is an abundant glossary and simple to understand strand charts that list the skills for each level for all of the progressions.

The website has downloadable companion pieces:

Teaching Adults to Read with Understanding: Using the Learning Progressions 

Teaching Adults to Write to Communicate: Using the Learning Progressions http://www.literacyandnumeracyforadults.com/files/12836775/Learning-progressions-write-to-communicate.pdf


Required Training

None, however, this resource would lend itself well as a study guide or study circle.

What the experts say

This resource has a great deal that practitioners in the adult field will find useful and informative. It also has sections that are more limited in their application.

Overall approach

The overall approach is very current in that it takes all aspects of language, listening, speaking, reading and writing as a series of intertwined strands that support each other.  Stages in each area are carefully outlined.  It is up to the teacher to assess where the adult learner’s skills are in relation to these and then assess the specific demands of the workplace, community or post-secondary learning.  The teacher then must adapt curriculum and activities to develop each step in the skills continuum described.

The authors recognize that there is great variability in adult learning, and progress is not even throughout.  This may be especially true in the US situation where adult learners may have experienced many barriers to previous learning including undiagnosed learning difficulties.

Use of the skills sequence

Practitioners in the US where reading acquisition is less an issue than fluency and comprehension (most English speaking learners in adult programs can decode at a minimum level) will find the sections on the more advanced listening, and communicating extremely relevant for those getting a GED or hoping to transition to post-secondary institutions.

The sections on writing are especially useful as there is less material focused on writing available to teachers in the adult field.

The earlier material on language and reading acquisition will be highly useful to those teaching English as a Second Language.  An increasing number of these learners are from preliterate societies or are not literate in any language.

Listening with understanding is very useful for those teachers at the higher levels who are teaching GED content and who are preparing learners who are transitioning into community colleges. The sections on problem solving and critical evaluation both in listening and in reading make vital connections between written and oral language.

The connections with all areas of language, both oral and written, are particularly relevant in the sections on vocabulary development.  This is very helpful for those teaching adult learners who have had limited exposure to written materials since much of the specialized vocabulary in texts is not commonly used in oral discourse.  This section is also very relevant to advanced ESL learners who have transitioned into regular adult classes such as GED. 

The various aspects of vocabulary development in language are very helpful.  The description of the way vocabulary is acquired explains why such limited fallbacks as memorizing vocabulary lists are not effective ways of expanding vocabulary knowledge. The emphasis on word families and meaning units such as roots, prefixes and suffixes in aiding comprehension and decoding longer words is important. Teachers of advanced ESL and generation 1.5 learners (those who were born in the US, but English is not spoken in their homes) will be very interested in this section.

Less useful to some teachers 

By and large the overall context of the framework is language arts.  Frequent mention is made of the adult context.  However teachers will have to work harder to transpose the skills described into workplace settings where language skills are more focused on reading documents designed to help doing a task rather than learning to analyze text or conduct discourse.  Similarly family and community settings are a stretch.  However GED and Community College teachers will find the skill descriptions invaluable.

No question that spelling and syntactical knowledge are important.  However, most adults manage to read and write quite well without some of the detailed grammatical knowledge given.  Learning disabled students find grammar particularly challenging and ways have to be found to help them overcome this.  I might stress more use of spellcheckers and grammar checkers for this purpose.

Emphasis on decoding should not preclude emphasis on comprehension right from the beginning.  Some adult learners do not have the auditory discrimination skills to discriminate well between short vowel sounds.  Finding alternative ways to teach, especially the learning disabled is important although perhaps beyond the scope of this summary.

Methods the resource used to collect and
analyze the data for the research:

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