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U.S. Adult Literacy Program Practice

A Typology Across Dimensions of Life-Contextualized/
Decontextualized and Dialogic/Monologic

Victoria Purcell-Gates, Sophia Degener, and Erik Jacobson
Harvard Graduate School of Education

July 1998

This study created a typology of adult literacy programs across the United States that describes the distribution of programs along two dimensions: relevance of materials, referred to as life-contextualized/decontextualized; and control of decisions, referred to as dialogic/monologic. This information provides a data-based description of an array of adult literacy program models currently operating. Of the 271 adult literacy programs participating, 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.

Theoretical Background for Dimensions

The two dimensions life-contextual/decontextual and dialogic/monologic were chosen because of the possible relationship between these dimensions of adult literacy instruction and the increased use of print in the actual lives of participants over time. The life-contextual/decontextual dimension describes how much program content and materials reflect the specific needs and sociocultural context of the learner with regard to real-life literacy functions. In other words, how relevant are the content and materials to the learners' lives? This dimension was chosen as a program feature to document because this distinction appears to be important in light of research that has found that students learn most efficiently when instructional materials reflect and incorporate their prior experience. Adult literacy students have a limited amount of time for attending classes and studying, and want skills that they can use in the context of their lives.

The dialogic/monologic dimension reflects the extent of involvement the learner has in making decisions about the activities of the classroom and the program. This dimension was chosen as a feature to document based on studies that have shown that student learning is enhanced when students are active partners involved in making decisions about their educational programs.

While typing programs on the basis of a one-page, nine-question questionnaire has validity problems, this study is a first attempt to systematically document the distribution of certain descriptive features of adult literacy programs in the U.S. Most of the responding programs were judged to be more life-decontextualized and monologic. Despite calls from adult educators for more programs rooted in the realities, expertise, and interests of the learners, only a small percentage of programs now in operation and captured by this study display those characteristics.

Full Report Available

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along with a check or money order in the amount of $5, payable to World Education, to:

Caye Caplan
NCSALL Reports
World Education
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Boston, MA 02210-122
or call: (617) 482-9485