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"I've Come A Long Way"

Learner-Identified Outcomes of Participation in Adult Literacy Programs

Mary Beth Bingman and Olga Ebert 
Center for Literacy Studies, The University of Tennessee

February 2000

The Learner Identified Outcomes study brings learners’ perspectives to the ongoing research conversation on outcomes of participation in adult literacy education. The study used a life history methodology to build an understanding of these outcomes on the lives of adult learners. The ten participants were selected from participants of the earlier Tennessee Longitudinal Study of Adult Literacy Participants. This small sample was constructed to be as representative demographically of the Tennessee ABE population as possible. 

The outcomes of participation in literacy classes described by the adults in this study went far beyond new skills or educational gains. This research implies that policy makers should take into account all the reasons people want adult basic education as they develop systems of performance accountability.  Many of the approaches now being developed do not measure the primary outcomes reported by the participants in this study: new literacy practices and more positive sense of self. To assess these outcomes may require developing performance-based measures that allow for the interaction of skill, task, and context that seem to define outcomes in real life.  A study conducted with a national sample in greater depth than previous research may be needed to understand the outcomes of adult literacy programs.

The primary source of data for this study was extended recorded conversations with the ten participants about their lives before and after enrollment in adult literacy programs. The interviews, usually conducted in participants’ homes, covered their adult education experiences, their family and work lives, their childhoods and earlier schooling, and the changes in their lives that they attributed to adult education participation.

The data from the interviews were analyzed using an inductive iterative process. We noted both particular stories and common themes and categories.  The broad categories that cut across all interviews were, to some extent, determined by the questions asked, e.g. work, adult education, early schooling, and family. We also identified themes that emerged from the interviews that cut across categories, e.g. value of education, impact of poverty and race on education, literacy practices, and sense of self.

This study explored the lives of these ten adults as well as their definitions of outcomes of participation in adult basic education. Their lives established the contexts for the outcomes.  All of the participants had been employed, many at the same job for many years. Only one person was currently dependent on public assistance. Nine of the participants had children, and all reported being involved in their children’s education. Of their 18 adult children, all but one completed high school and eight had attended college. Eight of their children are still in school. Many of these people had already met the goals of WIA (Workforce Investment Act) for self-sufficiency and partnership in their children’s education before they enrolled in adult literacy programs.

However, their participation in adult basic education was important to them (four had re-enrolled when interviewed) and led to positive changes in their lives. Study participants attributed a variety of changes in their lives to their participation in adult literacy education. Some of the adults in this study did report outcomes that correspond to the goals of WIA. Two of them passed the GED test.  Of the seven who had employment as a goal, four were employed when interviewed. However, they reported other changes that were particular to the individuals and the contexts of their lives. These were the changes that seemed to make the most difference in their lives, and are grouped here as literacy uses and changes in sense of self.

Literacy Uses

Nine of the participants reported acquiring new literacy skills from their participation in adult literacy programs. For eight these new skills in reading, writing, and computation led to changes in the ways they use literacy in their lives. Some of the changes were in the practical everyday activities of peoples’ lives:

Fix my own money order out. I fill all my own money order and everything.  

And also the adult classes taught me how to read a map. I learned how to find myself around here in town with the little yellow map book when I had to go out and look for apartments.

Some were able to carry out work functions more easily:

But while I went down there, [to class] it really made a difference, you know, like on where I work now, I fill out, you’ve got to fill out your tickets on what you run, you got to keep the account on it, you’ve got to go through all this and fill it out, date it and what it is and all that. And it’s helped me on all of that.

While most of those with children had already been involved in their children's education, new literacy skills expanded this involvement for some:
My little grandbaby now, I’ve learned so many things that I try to teach him a lot of things that I could not teach him when he first came to us.

In addition to the new uses of literacy in carrying out the activities of their lives, the participants also described increased access to and understanding of expository text. Five people talked about the more extensive reading they now do and how that reading has expanded their understanding of the world or themselves.

You see, the news talks about what's going on overseas and stuff. You [I] read the book, and I can understand what's going on over there now. Before, I didn't know. I thought, well, that's just news, something to report, that's it. Then after I read the book and learned how this become, I understood more. I was, "OK, now this is how this ended up at." I’d be walking in there to get something, and something about overseas happen [on television]. I’d stop and come back in here. "Wait a minute now, I’ve got to catch this.” Grow interested now. I understand more now.
Some of the changes in literacy uses that were reported by the adults in this study included new uses, for example Elizabeth's ability to purchase her own money orders. Others were better able to carry out activities such as completing job reports that they had previously found troublesome. For several, reading became an activity that is a part of their life instead of a tool that is used with difficulty.  Will, for example, went from occasionally glancing at newspapers to reading them as "an every night thing."  Changes in literacy uses are related to changes in people’s lives, changes that expand what they are able to do, what they are concerned with, and how they feel about themselves.

Sense of self

The adults in this study are in many ways ordinary adults: they have had jobs, have raised families, are involved in community activities. They are people who are resilient and who have a strong sense of their own abilities, their self-efficacy. Even so, these adults also described positive changes in their sense of self that they attributed to their participation in adult literacy programs. Three participants talked about losing their sense of shame at being in a literacy class:

 And I was shamed, that’s another thing.  I couldn’t see myself going to class, grown man, fifty years old almost, sitting up in class.  And just was embarrassing to me.  But after I started and I seen more than just me sitting there, some people were sixty and seventy years old, I said, "Why should I be ashamed?  There’s some people older than I am.” And, hey, I got more into it. 
It made a whole lot of difference how I feel about myself because I feel better about myself since I learned how to read better. I feel like I’m somebody. You feel better… when you learn how to do a lot of things for yourself you know.

Four times and I finally, finally done it. [passed the GED]. And it was all kinds of certificates.  I got them all on my wall, you know, and I keep looking at them and think, "Well, I did that.”  

Four times and I finally, finally done it. [passed the GED]. And it was all kinds of certificates.  I got them all on my wall, you know, and I keep looking at them and think, "Well, I did that.”

A new and stronger voice or new opportunities to express themselves were reported by three participants as one of them described:

And also about speaking up, I can do this better now. Like recently, at my work, I was scheduled to have a vacation for Christmas. And then my supervisor comes to me and says that this other woman will get the Christmas week off, not me. And I was already scheduled, and she even had less seniority. So I spoke up. I said, "No, it isn't right. I want my vacation.” And I got it.  And before I was so shy. 

New literacy uses and sense of self often seemed to intersect. These literacy practices were often important because of the social situations in which they occurred. So, for example, Marvin had always met with his friends and talked about events; but now he can use the knowledge that he has gained from reading the newspapers in these conversations.  It is not that Marvin “had low self-esteem” before; but now he feels differently because of his improved literacy abilities. He has read articles in the paper that his friends have read and “so we can discuss this matter.June felt confident enough to take a job in a nursing home kitchen where she is not only able to read the labels on trays, but has started an informal ESOL program teaching new words to a fellow employee. 

We have drawn two main conclusions from this study. First, we found the adults in this study were for the most part, resilient, self-reliant people who valued education. Second, we found that the outcomes of literacy program participation in learners' lives are diverse, often complex, and determined by individuals' life situations.

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