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Sharing What NCSALL is Learning

by John Comings
In the first issue of Focus on Basics, Tom Valentine wrote that every adult education practitioner is working under a theory of what works with his or her students. Practitioners usually build that theory through trial and error. As practitioners struggle to help students learn, they try new approaches that they learn from other practitioners, from training, or from reading. When an approach works, practitioners  add it to their theory; when it doesn't, they discard it. The National Center for the Study  of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) research is doing the same thing, but it employs a set of procedures that ensures that the insights gained are useful not only to an individual teacher but also to most teachers. The insights gained by NCSALL's research can help you to avoid some, but not all, of the trial and error.

NCSALL designed the research agenda for its first five years of work in 1995, based on the results of a questionnaire that sought research questions from several thousand practitioners, students, policy makers and administrators around the country. The results indicated that practitioners and policy makers were looking for research that answered four broad questions:

These are questions that will take many research studies to answer. In August, 1996, NCSALL began this task by funding a small number of large research projects and a large number of smaller reviews of existing research and best practices. As the article by Barbara Garner et al. describes, NCSALL is engaged in many different approaches to research dissemination but, as Wilson and Corbett's article on page 25 describes, dissemination efforts are only half of the job. The other half is building partnerships with state professional development initiatives to maintain a link between research and practice. In NCSALL's second five years, we will work with the Department of Education, the National Institute for Literacy, and the state adult basic education (ABE) directors to develop a comprehensive approach that links research and practice so as to benefit both.

NCSALL is now coming to the close of its fifth year; much of our work is coming to fruition. In 2000 and 2001, NCSALL will make available more research findings than it did during its first four years. This volume of Focus on Basics provides an opportunity to share some of that research. Late in 2001, NCSALL will release a paper that summarizes all of its work and analyzes it for practitioners and policy makers.

 Although all the research is not yet complete, NCSALL already has advice to offer. I'm going to present here some of what we have learned. Practitioners may find some of the insights offered to be familiar. Much of what research does is confirm widely held common sense, which is important because policy makers want assurance that programs' results are based on evidence. Research can provide the evidence that programs need to advocate for additional funding, and that policy makers need to ensure that tax funds are spent as effectively as possible. Research can also help practitioners to choose where to put their time and energy.   Most practitioners know that there are many different approaches to helping their students.  Research helps them to choose among them.

Sustaining Motivation

NCSALL's Persistence Study is an example of how research can help practitioners decide where to put their time and energy. The study found that, although some of our students come to programs after negative experiences in school, such experience does not act as a barrier to motivation. Rather, students' goals are more important in sustaining their motivation. Teachers must be aware of their students' goals as they are articulated during program orientation and as they change during program participation. As much as possible, instruction should help students to reach those personal goals. Many aspects of a student's life can act as a barrier to persistence, and programs should help students (through dialogue, counseling, and referral to social services) to identify and overcome them. Students see the support from their family members, friends, fellow students, and teachers as crucial in helping them persist.

ABE programs put part of their energy into helping students persist. That energy can probably best be spent helping students to identify and clarify their goals, the barriers in their lives that may inhibit their persisting long enough to reach those goals, and the supports in their lives to help them persist. Practitioners then should adapt their instruction to the goals of their students, connect their students to social services that can address the barriers, and build a positive community in their classroom and program to support their students.

Assessing Impact

Most previous studies have found that high school dropouts who have passed the tests of General Educational Development (GED) have higher incomes than those who have not   (Boesel et al., 1998). NCSALL's GED Impact Studies have been investigating the link between GED and income to gain a better picture of that impact. We have found that the financial difference between high school drop outs with and without GEDs is not great. More importantly, the studies have found that the impact on income is, in most cases, related to the actual GED score: as a student's score goes up, so does his or her projected income.

Providing students with preparation that allow them to pass the GED test may help them improve their incomes. Helping them improve their skills and pass with high scores on all five tests is more likely to help them increase their income. This is good news. As our students learn more, they do better, and although our research only looked at income, students probably do better in other aspects of their lives as well.

Improving Practice

NCSALL's Adult Reading Component study is finding that about 30 percent of ABE students have limited print skills and about 45 percent have basic print skills but need to develop higher-level print skills (for example, decoding polysyllabic words and words containing less frequently occurring spelling patterns). The study is also finding that most ABE students need instruction and practice to increase their vocabulary, background knowledge, and reading fluency (their speed and ease of reading). All but the most skilled students in English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes also appear to need instruction and practice that build their vocabulary and reading fluency. In addition, ESOL students who reported low levels of education appear to be weaker in background knowledge.

The preliminary findings seem to show that ABE and ESOL programs must have staff who are trained to identify specific weaknesses in the print skills of their students and provide appropriate instruction to help improve them. The staff must also be trained to help all students engage in reading and discussion that will improve their vocabulary, background knowledge, and reading fluency. When this research is completed, practitioners will be directed to a set of assessment tools enabling them to identify their students' specific strengths and weaknesses in reading, and advice on how to serve them tailored to their needs.

Training Teachers

The NCSALL Staff Development Study has only analyzed some of its data, but it is finding that teachers lack access to resources, professional development and information, colleagues and program directors, decision making, and a "real" job. Faced with such discouraging working conditions, teachers challenge the conditions, cope with them, or leave. Read more about this in the article that begins on page 1.

These working conditions may be one of the reasons that our field has a very high teacher turnover rate. Without better working conditions, advances in teacher training will have only a transitory effect. Later reports from this study will describe ways to improve teacher training, but first our field must solve the turnover problem. NCSALL's research is based on the assumption that working conditions and terms of employment will improve to a point where programs have many more full-time teachers and part-time teachers committed to the field for significant period of time. Of course, NCSALL's research will only become fully utilized when all teachers have access to paid preparation and professional development time.

The Next Five Years

In the next five years, NCSALL will integrate its research into lab sites, which will be collaborations between ABE, ESOL, and GED programs and researchers. These will allow for integrated research to combine everything NCSALL and others have learned about good practice. We will be able to see how to make it work, and measure its impact.

About the Author

John Comings is Director of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy and principal investigator of the NCSALL Persistence Study. 


Boesel, D., Alsalam, N., & Smith, T. (1998). Educational and Labor Market Performance of GED Recipients. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.