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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue B ::: June 1999


Voices of Learners: Learner-Identified Impacts Study

p>NCSALL is doing a variety of studies around the impact of participation in literacy programs. NCSALL researchers Mary Beth Bingman and Olga Ebert recently finished a pilot, the precursor to a larger qualitative study on how students describe the impact that participating in adult literacy programs has had on their lives. The pilot produced some interesting findings and also some good information about how to improve their research methodology.

How do former students describe the impact that participating in adult literacy programs has had on their lives? This question was addressed in a pilot study of 10 former learners conducted by NCSALL researchers Mary Beth Bingman and Olga Ebert, both of The University of Tennessee. The participants spoke of changes in literacy practices and in their sense of themselves. The learners also talked about their everyday lives and their work, paid and unpaid, providing a rich picture of the lives of adult learners.

The researchers started their interviews by asking the learners to describe their lives. The everyday life experiences described by participants were a mix of hard times and ordinary life issues, reports Bingman. "Adult literacy students are often described as people incapable of helping themselves. This description is not borne out by our data. People describe lives that are in most ways quite ordinary. They have jobs, raise children, go shopping, have hobbies, are concerned about their neighbors and communities. Their literacy skills may be limited, but they are not people who are "other" than most Tennesseeans.

"They do say that their lives have been hard," she continues. "The younger participants' financial problems are compounded by costs borne disproportionately by the poor: higher rent-to-own prices because they have no credit, paying money order fees when they don't have a checking account, being unable to pay the "up front" lawyer's fees that might enable them to address financial wrongs. These lives may be ordinary, but they are not easy."

According to Bingman, all reported being involved in their children's educations. The initial group of 10 had 20 children of high school age or older, nine of whom attended at least some college and only one who dropped out of high school. They also have younger children. "Passing on illiteracy doesn't seem to bear out." This quote is representative of the comments of many of the participants: "I provided, made sure that [my child] wasn't gonna wind up in the same situation that I did. So, I tried to get them all to go to school."

The researchers didn't find big changes in employment. In no case did people report getting a better job. "This was partly because our sample was older, with three retirees. There was a generational divide. In a lot of ways, the older participants have done very well. They had jobs, raised families, were involved in their communities. However, lack of credentials affects younger people." An older participant explained that he couldn't get his job now: he learned by watching, but now, he wouldn't be able to, because everything is computerized. "Nowadays," he said, "you can't even get a job unless you got a college education, hardly. At least, every job here in town almost you got to have a GED or high school education."

The participants had been enrolled in what Tennessee calls Level 1, or literacy class. When asked about their classes, they all reported learning a variety of skills, such as breaking words into syllables, using standard writing conventions, and working with math. Seven reported using new literacy practices, including opening a checking account, programming a remote control, using measurement at work, being better able to fill out job reports. "I know how to write a check out now... They learned me how to do it in school... And making a money order out, I know how to do all this stuff. I won't forget how to do this stuff." While in no instance, reports Bingman, were their changes in literacy reported as life-changing outcomes, people did talk about their changed skills and practices and new knowledge as improvements in their lives.

Although most of the participants described themselves as having had a positive sense of self before participating in literacy programs, they also discussed changes in their sense of themselves as a result of their participation, says Bingman. They spoke of pride in their accomplishments. One student described passing the GED test: "It built my ego, and I've had a lot of praises and [they] even made a write-up of me in the paper. "Others noted a new sense of efficacy: "I feel better about myself since I learned to read better." According to Bingman, the participants reported an overall sense of change in what they felt able to do.

As noted earlier, this was a pilot study. In the fall, 1999, the study will be expanded to five more sites around the country, providing a larger sample, and more diversity in life histories. "The pilot provided us with some technical information," Bingman acknowledges. "We traveled across the state rather than using local interviewers, so we didn't understand the local context as we should. We were also limited in how often we could meet with the participants. So in the next phase, we will recruit and train local interviewers. Our pilot also ran into the same kinds of issues you deal with in any research in adult basic education: it's hard to keep track of people. We planned to do two long interviews with each participant. Of 10, we lost two participants. One disappeared and one declined to do the second interview."

The findings from the study will prove useful to practitioners and policy makers. Teachers can gain insight into the lives of their learners by reading the narratives. Learners use literacy in many ways in their lives; the findings support the idea that it is appropriate to have a similar diversity of materials in the classroom. Mathematics instruction might also include a wide range of real-life uses. And the life stories themselves would make a good text for other learners to read.

This study could also be useful in measuring program performance. The narratives of the 10 people in the study, says Bingman, "suggest that the impact of participating in adult education programs is complex and varied, as are the people who participate. But that these changes will lead to post secondary education, secondary school diplomas, or career advanced for those who begin at the literacy level, is not evident in our study. States developing additional performance indicators besides the core indicators included in the Workforce Investment Act might look to the up-coming, expanded study, for guidance in what those indicators might be. They should probably include expanded literacy practices, a stronger voice, and the excitement of learning and sharing new knowledge. As one student noted, 'Things come natural to me now. I've come a long way.'"

- Barbara Garner


Reports are NCSALL articles and research findings. The following Reports are available:

Reports #1: Merrifield, J. (1998). Contested Ground: Performance and Accountability in Adult Education. $10

Reports #2: Purcell-Gates, V., Degener, S., & Jacobson, E. (1998). Adult Literacy Program Practice: A Typology Across Dimensions of Life-Contextualized/Decontextualized and Dialogic/Monologic. $5

Reports #3: Tyler, J., Murnane, R., & Willett, J. (in press). Estimating the Impact of the GED on the Earnings of Young Dropouts Using a Series of  Natural Experiments. $5

Reports #4: Bingman, M., Smith, C., & Stewart, K. (1998). Practitioners Speak: Contributing to a Research Agenda for Adult Basic Education. $5

Reports #5: Rudd, R., Zacharia, C., & Daube, K. (1998). Integrating Health and Literacy: Adult Educator?s Experiences. $5

Reports #6: Beder, H. (1999). The Outcomes and Impacts of Adult Literacy Education in the United States. $10

Reports #9: Rudd, R., Zahner, L., & Banh, M. (1999). Findings from a National Survey of State Directors of Adult Education. $5

Reports #10: D'Amico, D., Levenson, A., &White, C. (1999). The Impacts of  Welfare Reform on Adult Literacy Education: Conference Papers and Themes from Small Group Sessions. $5

How can you get it?

To order NCSALL Reports, please send your check, money order, or purchase order to:
Mark Holmes
NCSALL/World Education
44 Farnsworth Street
Boston, MA 02210-1211

You can also call (617) 482-9485, or e-mail us at

We are in the process of uploading the Reports onto our web site, and some are already available for downloading.

Please click on to NCSALL Reports.

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