Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Research and Practice,

National Research Centre, Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Research and Practice,
Committee on Learning Sciences: Foundations and Applications to Adolescent and Adult Literacy
(Eds) Alan Lesgold, and Welch-Ross, Melissa
The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.; 2012
ISBN 978-0-309-21959-4;   504 pages
Paperback $65
Also accessible free pdf from:

Reviewed by Carol Dennis

Improving Adult Literacy offers what every teacher with an interest in improving the life chances of those who have benefited least from state education longs for: a definitive evidence-based guide on effective literacy teaching.  It is an ambitious text that to some extent achieves what it sets out to do, to a) synthesise research on literacy and learning and b) draw implications for the instructional practices used to teach reading in adult literacy programme and c) recommend a more systematic approach to research policy and practice.
The text covers over 400 densely packed pages (including 250 pages of citations and references) and after offering an initial brief chapter that contextualises the report, the authors trawl through and bring together an impressive range of studies that provide a credible empirical foundation to the pedagogues associated with teaching adult literacy, curricular design, barriers to learning, uses of technology, disability and language development in multi-lingual speakers. 

The book is written by US practitioners with an American audience in mind and this is reflected in (amongst other things) the language the writers use.  The linguistic style is refreshingly upbeat – what is recognisable to a British readership as a section on ‘barriers to learning’ is phrased ‘motivation, engagement and persistence’.  The chapter focuses then not on reasons why adults may not attend classes in a fashion that suits the retention rates of organisation, but rather on the social and psychological determinates of persistence in learning.  I like the concept of persistence. It spills over and beyond retention and takes the learner’s start and end point; a persistent learner may start three or four different courses before completing any one of them – their learning will continue throughout this time. This is quite unlike retention that measures an institutions’ course start and end dates and the learners who are present and correct for both.  Persistence is a more learner-centred and meaningful.  

Novice and experienced practitioners should read and re-read this book. For some, there will be the shock of recognition.  We may appreciate the text’s reminder that although reading and writing have at times been thought of as and therefore taught (most certainly tested) as separate language skills, they depend on similar knowledge and cognitive processes (p53). Insights gained in one area can lead to insights into the other.  What is particularly useful is that the text provides a series of references to explore and elaborate upon. There are prosaic reminders, ‘literacy, or cognition, cannot be understood fully apart from the contexts in which they develop (p25) is followed by detailed references to Street (1984), Heath (1983), Lave and Wenger (1981) and Scribner and Cole (1981). Anyone who follows a few of these referenced sources will find their views on literacy and how to teach it changed, challenged or deepened.

Any teacher (or teacher trainer) tentatively approaching this terrain for the first time is invited to read, try it out and then re-read. The text may well settle a few long standing arguments. The writers reassure us that specific reading and writing difficulties do not necessarily require qualitatively different teaching (p103) or decontextualised interventions that target general cognitive / sensory processing – balancing beams, coloured lenses, brain retraining (p57). Instead the writers advise approaches to teaching that adapt existing approaches to ensure that they are more explicit and systematic, that they are supportive of transfer and enable extensive practice. This is reassuring.  A range of learner needs that at first glance may appear mysterious and daunting, is firmly established as manageable.

This is a good, densely packed read that deserves to be on all our shelves. It draws in a condensed form on a similar body of knowledge to that covered by the NRDC who get a good mention (p90). And, best of all, it is available as a free download:  (above biblio notes for link)

I do have some reservations about this book. It very clearly emerges from a policy context that is quite unlike that of the UK. Understanding policy and pedagogy in the United States is made complex by the existence of multiple legislative levels – federal, state and district. Uniformity and the  monolithic ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to improving practice so familiar to teachers in England, is more difficult in the states as federal policies are diluted, diffused and disrupted by state and district level legislators, only to be further adapted to suit the actualities of teaching and learning by institutions.  The text then pulls and pushes in opposite directions. For readers in the UK, it is a reminder that There Is An Alternative. The highly prescriptive centralisation of ‘outstanding, good, requires improvement’ teaching that we by now accept as normal, are not how practitioners in the USA teach.

The text provides sound theory and empirical evidence which helps establish this fluidity in approach to what good teaching requires if it is to become outstanding teaching. That is, an appreciation that effective pedagogy is thoroughly and completely contextualised. ‘Literacy, and cognition, can not be understood fully apart from the contexts in which it develops’, (p25).  Pedagogy is motivating when instructional practices are embedded in meaningful activities, (p34). Adult learners are heterogeneous. Pedagogues need to be varied according to learning goals, skills, interests, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, (p238).

The implications of this contingency is not taken seriously enough by the writers (in my view). They seem to yearn for the centralisation and uniformity of England’s policy making.  It will be interesting to see whether their polity allows this.

Carol Dennis

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