Striving for universal literacy

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Adult learning China


If you have ever taught a child to read, you know it is a process as full of rewards as setbacks. From letter recognition, to decoding single words, to gains in fluency and comprehension - we have had the gratification of watching our children’s journey from learning to read, to reading to learn.

Yet, on this International Literacy Day we are reminded that this milestone of acquiring literacy skills is not universal. Currently, over half of the world’s 10-year-olds cannot read and comprehend a simple story. And many who started their journey up the literacy ladder in school do not retain these skills into adulthood. 750 million adults in the world end up with difficulty reading and/or writing.

The importance of literacy cannot be overstated. Literacy skills are crucial for the realization of individuals’ potential, increased empowerment, and economic, social, and political participation. There are also positive inter-generational spill-overs from adult literacy through greater access to information on key investments for development, such as nutrition and education of children. Moreover, adult literacy can increase accountability that results in better public policies, as well as greater social cohesion and inclusion.

Ensuring that every child acquires foundational literacy skills is a top priority at the World Bank – and upcoming events at UNGA and the Annual Meetings on Learning Poverty will further explore those issues.

But what about the 750 million adults who lack this critical skill? In the last two years, we have undertaken a review of the science of adult literacy and an analysis of adult literacy programs (ALPs) around the world. Our findings imply significant scope for incremental investment in this agenda, which is inherently tied to SDG Target 4.6.

Our studies underscore two facts. First, not only are current investments in ALPs very limited, but there is a dearth of studies that rigorously evaluate these programs, especially in developing countries, where adult illiteracy rates are highest. Second, although there is sound scientific evidence supporting principles that maximize adult learning, ALPs generally do not reflect these in their design and implementation. Of the 20 rigorous programs we reviewed, just nine achieved their stated objectives and only one, NEUROALFA, took its participants in Mexico from illiteracy to reading comprehension.

Principles of Effective Adult Learning Programs

Three elements emerge from our review:

  • Sequencing along the building blocks of literacy. While literacy is often thought of as a binary indicator (you are either literate or not), it is actually a continuum from a basic understanding of the mapping between oral and written language, through fluent, effortless reading and writing.
    The Science of Adult Literacy
    Source: Thomas, Michael S. C., Victoria C. P. Knowland, and Cathy Rogers (forthcoming). “The Science of Adult Literacy.” Report commissioned by the World Bank.

    How far along the literacy continuum a learner will proceed depends on the soundness of their literacy building blocks. Moreover, literacy gains require effort and continuous practice. For children, literacy teaching takes about 2,000 hours from kindergarten to 12th grade, and it is estimated that adults need 300-400 hours of instruction to attain reading levels equivalent to 2nd/3rd grade. Effective ALPs sequence content, teaching methods, scaffolding, and materials (including software) along the literacy continuum, promote effort through frequent feedback on performance and other incentives, and provide sufficient opportunity for practice and repetition.
  • Program designs that suit the brains and lives of adult learners. Literacy acquisition is hard at any stage of life, but the gradual loss of malleability to acquire new complex skills can make it even harder for adults. Yet as the brain ages, it compensates for reduced malleability with: i. increased control of attention and thought processes (“executive function”), which aids focus on reading tasks; ii. greater ability to think about thinking (“meta-cognition”), which enhances understanding of the learning process; iii. improved strength at making explicit connections (“explicit memory”), which facilitates memorization of spelling or pronunciation rules; and iv. larger oral vocabulary, which helps to decode words and comprehend texts. Effective ALPs play to these strengths with explicit rules and regularities, and by building on prior knowledge.

    Adults also have busy lives, with high opportunity cost of time and attention. Successful programs are engaging, social, and relevant, tapping into adults’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation through context-relevant materials and examples, which, along with feedback and incentives, help increase take-up and reduce drop-out (both endemic across ALPs).

  • High-quality learning environments. Teaching pedagogy and intervention design are essential ingredients in ALPs, to make them suited to the way adults learn. Increased effectiveness can be attained if teachers are trained in adult learning principles, offer social interaction with peers as a motivator, and provide opportunity and incentives to practice outside the classroom. Technology can promote feedback and adaptive learning, improve motivation and effort, and support practice outside the classroom.

Most successful ALPs in our review incorporated the above principles. Yet the limited pool of rigorous empirical studies provides scant evidence on key programmatic questions such as optimal dosage to maximize learning but minimize dropout, the role of financial incentives, and many others.

More rigorous research is needed to answer these key questions. Yet the evidence from our work suggests that there is scope to improve ALP outcomes around the world, and to realize more of the social and economic benefits these gains can provide. Moreover, the cost of not investing in the promotion of literacy skills for youth and adults can be significant, particularly in countries undergoing a demographic transition and thus needing to optimize the productivity of their current workforce.

Investment in well-designed adult literacy programs, combined with rigorous impact evaluations, can get us closer to celebrating the International Literacy Day when all adults and the societies in which they live reap the benefits of reading.

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