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Focus On Basics

Volume 2, Issue B ::: June 1998

Describing Program Practice: A Typology Across Two Dimensions

by Barbara Garner
Of the adult literacy programs participating in a recent NCSALL study, 73 percent can be described as using activities and materials that are not related to their students' lives and as teacher directed and controlled rather than collaborative. The purpose of the study was to create a typology of adult literacy programs across the United States that describes the distribution of programs along those two dimensions relevance of materials and control of decisions and not to test the ef cacy of different types of programs, explain researchers Victoria Purcell-Gates, Sophie Degener, and Erik Jacobson, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The researchers hope that this information will be helpful to those who may hold preconceived ideas about how widespread certain practices are, or about the scope of the challenge if they are concerned with changing the status quo. Furthermore, for policy makers, funders, and others concerned with program outcomes, this study provides information regarding the variety in the nature of adult literacy programs. At the very least, according to the researchers, this study provides a data-based description of the array of adult literacy program models currently operating. Adult literacy programs can be typed along a number of relevant dimensions, and Purcell-Gates, Degener, and Jacobson make no claim that those they chose for this typology are the only, the most relevant, or even the most important dimensions that could be used. They looked at two dimensions of instruction contextualized / decontextualized and dialogic / monologic because of their interest in the possible relationships between these dimensions of adult literacy instruction and increased use of print in the actual lives of participants over time. The rst dimension describes how much program content and materials re ect the speci c needs and sociocultural context of the learner with regards to real-life literacy functions. In other words, how relevant are the content and materials to the learners' lives? The second dimension re ects how involved the learner is in decision making with regards to the activities of the classroom and programs.

Life-Contextual / Decontextual

The authors justify examining this dimension by citing theorists who claim that the distinction between life-contextual and life-decontextual appears to be important in light of research showing that students learn most efficiently when instructional materials re ect and incorporate their prior experience (Fingeret, 1991). Classroom activities using themes taken from the lives of adult learners have been seen to facilitate their acquisition of literacy. Adult literacy students have a limited amount of time for attending classes and studying, want skills that they can use in the context of their lives (Freire, 1993; Office of Technology Assessment, 1993), and often express a desire to use materials geared toward their day-to-day experience as adults and parents (Nwakeze & Seiler, 1993).

Use of materials and activities drawn from the learners' lives is supported by research that documents the powerful role of context in learning, the researchers note. For example, some workplace literacy programs teach literacy skills as they are needed within specific work contexts. Compared to programs that concentrated on more general' literacy, those that incorporated job-related materials were associated with larger increases in both job-related and general literacy (Sticht, 1989). Once life-contextual' activities and materials are mass produced and mass prescribed, however, according to Purcell-Gates, they become increasingly distanced or decontextualized from the lives of the learners, in ways that may reduce their effectiveness. They can be used inappropriately.

Dialogic / Monologic

Purcell-Gates, Degener, and Jacobson de ne dialogic education as including the student as a participant and partner in developing the goals, activities, and procedures of the class and program. This is in contrast to the more typical practice wherein students cede authority and power to the teacher or program structure for decisions regarding their learning. They refer to Freire (1993), who calls this latter type of education a banking' model, where the student is the passive recipient of the teacher's knowledge. The students retain their status as objects, according to Freire, and this precludes real learning or any signi cant changes in their lives. To be truly liberatory, Freire maintains, "education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students" (p. 53).

The research team feels that a distinction between dialogic and monologic is important for more than political and philosophical reasons. Little research has been done on the in uence of the structure of literacy instruction on students' acquisition of literacy (Lytle, 1994), the research team says. The studies that have been done have shown that students' learning is enhanced when they are active partners (Of ce of Technology Assessment, 1993) involved in decision making about their education program (Brizius & Foster, 1987). Fingeret (1991) notes that curriculum development is tantamount to teaching, and curriculum development and teaching depend upon a knowledge of students' cultures. In dialogic practice, the students can educate the instructors about their cultures and histories. Given the variety of cultures represented in adult basic education classrooms these days, this education may be crucial (NCAL, 1995), according to the researchers.

The Project

A total of 271 adult literacy programs, distributed across the U.S., were represented in the typology study. A wide variety of programs were included: adult literacy classes, individual tutoring, English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), workplace literacy, family literacy programs, library-based programs, and prison education programs. Respondents filled out a one-page questionnaire that contained nine questions, some of which had subquestions: What is the structure of your program? Whole classes or individual tutoring? How often do classes meet? How many students do you serve? Do you consciously follow a model? (e.g., Kenan, Freire, Laubach, etc.); What are the explicit goals of your program? What are the students' goals? What learning activities do you use in each class: please give at least one example. What materials do you use? What texts are your students reading and writing? To what degree do students influence decisions about course content and classroom activities? How do you measure the success of your program? How are you funded? Can you characterize the demographics of your student population?

The team coded the responses along the two dimensions, re ecting how life-contextualized the literacy work was judged to be and how dialogic the program was judged to be. They developed an axis on which to chart the responses (see Figure 1). The first continuum, along the x-axis, measured how contextualized or decontextualized to the learners' lives a program is. Programs that use no skill books and have no set curricula, using all authentic materials, were considered highly life contextualized. Programs that use some published texts, mostly authentic texts, and concentrate on real-life issues were considered somewhat life-contextualized. Programs that are focused on skills, and tend to use published texts yet may occasionally use authentic texts were considered somewhat life decontextualized. Programs that have a set curriculum that focuses on skills and phonics were considered highly life-decontextualized.

The second continuum, along the y-axis, measured how monologic or dialogic a program was. A highly dialogic program was one in which students work with teachers to create the course and are involved in all aspects of the program. A somewhat dialogic program was one in which student input is critical, students work with the teacher to create curriculum, and students are in charge of their own learning. A somewhat monologic program was one in which students' goal, interests, and needs are taken into account when creating course content; teachers and students periodically re ect on goals and whether or not the program is meeting them. In highly monologic programs, student have little or no input into course content.

Decontextualized / Monologic

The researchers found that the majority of the programs fell within the dimensional space of life-decontextualized and monologic. A total of 73 percent of the programs (n =197) were judged to consist of activities and materials somewhat to highly decontextualized, and these programs were somewhat to highly teacher-directed. Programs judged as life-contextual and teacher-directed made up the next most common dimensional category with 17 percent (n = 45). This was followed by the dimensional space of life-contextual, dialogic, to which eight percent (n = 23) of the responding programs were assigned. The fewest number of programs, two percent (n = 6), fell within the life-decontextualized, dialogic dimensional space. Looking at the two dimensions separately, programs were distributed differently along the two continua (see Figures 2 and 3).


The researchers admit that typing programs on the basis of a one-page questionnaire has validity problems; they had no opportunity to visit any of the programs. They also note that the results are limited to those programs with representatives who chose to reply. Despite those limitations, the authors claim that this study is a rst attempt to document systematically the distribution of some descriptive features of adult literacy programs in the U.S. The dimensions they chose for the typology are theoretically derived as potentially crucial to outcomes for participants in adult literacy programs. Thus, they point out, the typology has theoretical as well as practical potential for future studies. Purcell-Gates, Degener, and Jacobson re ect that it is not particularly surprising that most of the responding programs were judged to be more life-decontextualized and monologic. The model of literacy instruction wherein students are taught to read and to write from skills-based materials, and where the teacher is considered the expert and the director of this learning, is deeply embedded, they point out. Despite calls from adult educators for more programs rooted in the realities, expertise, and interests of the learners (Auerbach, 1995; Fingeret, 1987; Freire, 1993), only a small percentage of programs now in operation and captured by this study re ect those characteristics.

Noting that most of the programs clustered around the middle of the two-dimensional grid of characteristics, the researchers point out that the results may be comforting to those who worry about extremism.' They suggest that many teachers and program directors may feel the competing pulls of the two ends of the continua represented in this study. Most of the programs that used materials and activities from the actual lives of the students retained some teacher control over how they were used, by whom, and when. And many of the programs that relied on published adult literacy materials and skill books made some attempts to respond to the individual goals and needs of their students. Only a very few programs attempted to take Freirean theory to heart and create programs rooted in the lives of the participants and directed largely by their input and choices. It is worth noting, however, they say, that many more programs fell into the opposite quadrant of the two-dimensional grid. These programs were considered to be highly decontextualized and highly monologic. Students worked only with texts and materials written exclusively to teach isolated skills; they were assigned to them by teachers responding to assessments and to state or district guidelines.

Purcell-Gates and her team state that these results will inform a study on the relationships between program characteristics and change in out-of-classroom literacy activity by adult participants. The team's hypothesis is that programs whose content centers around real life literacy events, or potential ones, and whose content is re ective and respectful of the input and participation of the participants, will result in increased reading and writing in the lives of the students compared to those that do not re ect these characteristics. It is absolutely possible, however, they admit, that this hypothesis is either wrong, or simplistic, and that the program that results in the most change in reading and writing by the students in their out-of-class lives will include a balance of life-contextualized and isolated skill work determined more by the teacher than by the students. With the results of this survey, they have a context for describing programs on these theoretically derived dimensions.


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Brizius, J., & Foster, S. (1987). Enhancing adult literacy: A policy guide. Washington, D.C.: The Council of State Policy and Planning Agencies.
Fingeret, A. (1987). Directions in ethnographic adult literacy research. Papers presented at the Thirty-second Annual Convention of the International Reading Association, Anaheim, CA.
Fingeret, A. (1991). "Meaning, experience, literacy." Adult Basic Education 1, 1-11. Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Garland Publishing Inc.
Lytle, S. (1994). "Living literacy: Rethinking adult learner assessment." Literacy Practitioner 2, 1-2, 6-8.
National Center for Adult Literacy (1995). Adult literacy: The next generation. (NCAL Technical Report TR95-01). Philadelphia: National Center on Adult Literacy.
Nwakeze, P.C., & Seiler, L.H. (1993). "Adult literacy programs: What students say." Adult Learning 5, 17-18, 24.
Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress (1993), Adult literacy and new technologies: Tools for a lifetime. (OTA-SET-550). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. Sticht, T.G. (1989). "Adult literacy education." Review of Research in Education 15, 59-96.

Full Report Available The research report upon which this article is based is available from NCSALL for $10. To order, write to NCSALL Reports, World Education, 44 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1211; or e-mail

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL