In the United States, the problems of illiteracy are more widespread than many know. Information from the National Center for Educational Statistics indicates since 1993 the picture of adult literacy has not improved significantly. Some 11 million possess only “basic” literacy skills. That breaks down to roughly one in every four people who cannot function beyond a fourth grade literacy level.
“Literacy” involves more than just ability in reading a book or newspaper. It involves several key skill clusters including ability to use and interpret in several broad categories. The concept spans the simple decoding of job applications or forms, to understanding instructions, and interpreting cultural references and problems in this area have a heavy impact on all of society.
These literacy components include:
1) Information-Media Literacy addresses the recognition of information need, knowledge of where that need can be met, skill in accessing information, ability to critically evaluate information and then ethically apply once located.
2) Computer Literacy responds to the practical need for fundamental skills of computer use in contemporary society where more of daily life requires basic knowledge of computers, of keyboarding and basic function skills related to the use of the computer.
3) Technological-digital Literacy addresses appropriate and ethical understanding of use and application to current and future needs of these tools. This encompasses use for learning, communication, employment, and entertainment.
4) Cultural Literacy addresses the symbols, idioms, allusions, references, and illustrations used daily in society based on common literary, historic, and social models. Shared understanding (of books, movies, television, history, politics, music, fads, social customs, language, etc.) facilitates individual learning and provides skills for many settings.
Any segments of the population experiencing difficulties in these areas translates into increased instances of poverty because better paying jobs are often beyond their reach. They can result in higher instances of crime and incarceration as some research suggests a definite correlation between illiteracy and incarceration.
Inability to understand written or verbal communication can raise important issues of safety and healthcare. Inability to understand safety instructions, signs, or symbols endangers the worker and the workplace. Inability to understand written medical information, prescriptions and dosages has inherent danger to the individual, their coworkers and their family.
Combined these can all translate into higher costs to the whole society as systems and programs are required to address the situations or issues related to the lack. The absence of these crucial skill sets generate problems that echo throughout society. A very old rhyme illustrates the significance of attending to the small and seemingly unimportant item:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
The nail can be described as Adult literacy and left unattended it creates disaster but when dealt with it means the world.
Adult learners seeking to improve their literacy skills can face many challenges. Time constraints, motivation, lack of supportive networks, self-defeating behaviors or negative attitudes are among the most prevalent of challenges facing any adult learner and especially the adult seeking to improve their literacy skills.
Some of the issues are common to any student but some are unique or highlighted in the lives of adult learners. Time management skills are easily learned but it takes practice and discipline to apply them in real life.
Adults are often busy with families and work making it difficult to apply themselves to achieve successfully. Working, raising children, being a wife or husband, and perhaps even caring for extended family members the life of the adult learner can be extremely hectic and a constant round of crisis points. They can become easily overwhelmed and find it easier to give up than to focus on the goal of the own education. They often have so much they are balancing in just surviving, that they need help to learn to balance life to achieve more.
They may lack a strong supportive network of family or peers who contribute to their success or they may engage in behaviors or attitudes that sabotage their achievement. Without positive motivation from the family, community, or teacher, the student can give in to feelings of self-doubt, haunting fears of their past failures are resurrected, or their own deep-seated lack of confidence to achieve takes over. It can be easy for people to give into defeat; it can sometimes seem the easier road. Every student faces these challenges from grade school through college. Parents, however, can prod children but for the adult learner, they may have no one to prod them, urge them, or nudge them when they are stuck.
The dynamic within their family may actually work against them trying to succeed. Other in the circle of family or friends may be forced to evaluate their own life choices. Victims themselves of a cycle of limitation, feelings of jealousy, resentment, or self-doubt can surface to create tensions. Faced with accusations of ‘being better’ than family or friends many students simply give in and stop trying.
How can local communities groups face these challenges and help bridge the obstacles? How can the church library work with other agencies to stand in the gap for these learners? ‘Know the student’ is the rubric an educator should use when helping any student. Know their needs, instruct based on the needs, evaluate the success of the instruction, and then revise or continue as needed. Educators tackling the challenges of adult literacy are encouraged to apply standard skills of adequate advance preparation, flexibility, creativity, enthusiasm, tolerance, courage, positive attitudes and a desire to mentor successful behaviors in their students.
Additionally, an awareness of individual learning styles encourages greater success through differentiating instruction. Many adults were students who had different learning needs that interfered with their initial success in school. These under addressed needs hindered them from achieving at their optimum levels. Identifying the visual, auditory, kinetic, logical, or other learning styles of a student help them to recognize strengths, adapt coping measures, and apply themselves to learning with new vigor. This one step promotes greater engagement, achievement, and individualization based on student needs.
Synthesis of real world and learning world is important to helping students achieve. General student skills prove valuable in mastering issues of time management, awareness, access and use of community resources supporting their lifelong learning goals. They also serve as helpful information as the individual student replicates their learning experiences in the lives of family and friends. Issues of time management, for instance, can be shared with the student along with practical tips for applying it to the real world. The more practical based or referenced the skill, the easier the student will learn.
Using research based, standardized resources, such as the Just write! Guide from TEAL (Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy) the educator can find clear helps to provide quality instruction and positive learning experiences.
In addition, ongoing assessment of procedures and methods provides feedback to adjust and improve the education results in students.
The greatest tool of the educator, in addressing the needs of the adult literacy learner, is to see them as people who have an obstacle in their path. The educator becomes a mentor in helping the student birth the skills, processes, and strengths to move the obstacle from their path. The task of the educator is to not to provide the student with fish but to teach the student how to fish and then release them to wade into the depths on their own.