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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue D :: December 1997

Too Little Time and Too Many Goals

Suggested Remedies from Research on Workplace Literacy

by Larry Mikulecky
Like most literacy programs, workplace literacy programs often have multiple goals, including improved competence in general literacy, in life skills, and in work-related literacy tasks. At the same time, literacy programs often provide very little in- instructional time: 50 hours or less (Mikulecky, Lloyd, Horwitz, Masker, & Siemantel, 1996). Programs report, however, that it takes most learners quite a bit more time than that to achieve even one grade level of general literacy gain (Mikulecky, 1989). To further complicate things, research on literacy transfer shows that the ability to take literacy skills learned in one mode of text and content, such as literature, and apply them to another, such as chart reading, is fairly limited for most people (Mikulecky, Albers, & Peers, 1994).

This presents a real challenge. Research performed by a team of researchers at Indiana University provides support for one way to meet this challenge: anchor instruction to functional materials and tasks that students regularly encounter outside of class. In&#class instruction with material familiar to learners - material they use daily - is much more likely to transfer to tasks relevant to them (Mikulecky, Albers, & Peers, 1994). The opportunity to use literacy successfully outside of class can increase motivation and multiply practice time. When practice is more intense and condensed into fewer weeks, learner gains become more apparent and senses of personal effectiveness increase, so the cycle of continued practice and success is more likely to continue. In the article that begins on page 6, Sticht discusses the rationale and some of the research base for using a " context" approach to custom design adult literacy instruction.

Functional Context in Workplace Literacy

Functional context in workplace literacy programs does not necessarily mean just using workplace-related materials. Some programs mix job- materials with other literacy materials used by learners for hobbies, religion, or child-, for example. Some even provide literacy support for other academic classes. In actual fact, the label workplace literacy- has been used to describe nearly the entire range of adult literacy programs, including General Educational Development (GED), English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), and family literacy programs offered at the workplace. In a recent survey of 121 workplace literacy programs, 43% reported a major or solitary program goal of improving work related literacy skills. Another 45% of these workplace literacy programs reported a combination of job- and general skills goals (Mikulecky, Lloyd, Horwitz, Masker, & Siemantel, 1996). A functional context literacy program with both general skills goals and work skills goals employs a matching mix of materials.

Literacy instruction can be linked to the learner's daily functional context in several ways. Some program designers interview learners and others to determine the sorts of literacy tasks learners encounter and have difficulty performing. Observation and think- sessions with experts at performing these tasks can produce a clearer understanding of the literacy strategies, vocabulary, special knowledge, and materials required to successfully perform tasks. This process is sometimes called a literacy task analysis and can serve as a foundation for developing custom- learning activities. The analysis can also help program designers and instructors to select appropriate off-- learning materials. The third chapter of the book Developing and Evaluating Workplace Literacy Programs provides some guidelines on how to do such custom designing (Mikulecky, Lloyd, Kirkley, & Oelker, 1996).

Transfer and Practice

As mentioned earlier, the short duration of most workplace literacy programs makes it particularly important that class instruction lead to increased literacy practice and transfer outside of classrooms. This is one reason for using a functional context instructional approach, which builds instruction upon tasks and materials from learners' daily lives. Recent case studies of 12 learners in workplace literacy programs have focused on what distinguished from others those learners who made significant changes in literacy life-styles outside of class (Mikulecky, Lloyd, Siemantel, & Masker, 1997).

We drew information for the 12 learner case studies from a series of classroom observations, assignment and materials analyses, teacher interviews, learner interviews, interviews with family members and co-, and learner weekly practice reports. Learners came from five classes in three different workplace literacy programs. The programs were located at a cosmetics firm, a medical instruments firm, and an urban adult basic education center which served municipal employees.

We performed cross-case-study analyses to identify similarities and contrasts when comparing learners who made high, moderate, and low changes in literacy practices and attitudes outside of class. Some clear differences between the high and low change group appeared.


Learners who had clear learning goals upon entering programs made the most change in literacy practice outside of class. Nearly every learner in the high- group expressed at least one clear learning goal and more than half reported several goals, while three of the four learners in the low- group expressed no clear learning goals at all. One high - learner was articulate about multiple self-improvement goals, another seemed nearly driven to complete the GED so he could become a police officer, and a third repeatedly expressed a strong desire to improve in English enough to participate in team meetings.

The views expressed by students who made little change were quite different. When asked about goals, learners who made little change outside of class expressed reluctance to be in class, vagueness about why others had suggested they enroll, and, in the case of one learner, a belief that she did not really need the class. Only one learner significantly expanded her learning goals while in class. Goals coming in mattered.

Learners who expanded their literacy practices perceived their daily literacy demands to be high - often new-, while low- learners perceived few literacy demands and opportunities. Four of the five in the high- group had recently experienced promotion or job restructuring which placed new and greater literacy and language demands upon them. Several in the high- group reported reading to children or reading with children to monitor school assignments.

This contrasted sharply with the low-change group. Some of these parents perceived no literacy opportunities or demands related to their young children. One reported she could avoid most literacy for her job and did not like to read much at home. This learner, who reported low perceived demand on the job, had the very same job as a high- learner who reported several literacy demands required to do the job well. A third low- learner reported facing no job literacy demands beyond cosmetic bottle labels and a few forms.

Nearly every high-change learner reported high rapport with an instructor while low-change learners reported neutral rapport. No one in the low- group reported having much positive rapport with her instructor, although it should be noted that none reported negative rapport, either. The findings were different with the high- group. One learner in the high- group came to class primarily because of previous positive experiences with her teacher. A second began to pattern his own work and home behavior upon the patient, collaborative models of his instructors. A third found her link with her instructor to be a pathway to exciting new possibilities, and the fourth high- learner trusted his teachers sufficiently to do whatever they asked of him as he became aware of his own improvements and changes. Only one learner in the high- group did not indicate strong positive rapport with his instructor though he worked effectively with his instructor.

Class instruction was reported by all high- learners to be clearly connected to their daily use. This often related directly to work but also to home use with children, religion, daily tasks, and personal activities. For the low- group, the picture is less clear. For low- learners, instructors experienced difficulty finding literacy links on the job and met resistance when suggesting links to home activities. One learner's job required little literacy and she seemed interested in little related to literacy at home. For a second low- learner, the instructor was able to make a few links to the learner's home repair activities but faced the daunting task of dealing with a learner whose new job had become devoid of literacy connections. Two other low- learners resisted help with current job literacy demands, that is, one preferred to avoid them, the other could already do the relatively simple tasks and resisted instructor attempts to make links to home literacy use. Both learners reported themselves as uninterested in changing and as relatively happy with their lives. One claimed that her husband read most of the materials at her house, and the other felt she could read well enough for her needs.


Brief workplace literacy instruction is of questionable worth unless it is designed to expand literacy use and effectiveness outside the classroom. Using a functional context approach can sometimes help achieve goals of transfer and increased practice, but by itself is often not enough. The case studies have several implications for program developers and instructors. Establish regular class and individual time to help learners develop and refine learning goals. Lack of goals, extremely limited goals, or unclear goals appear to severely limit transfer and practice outside of class.

If transfer beyond the classroom is desired, spend time early - preferably before developing the class - determining the literacy demands and opportunities faced by each learner in the workplace and home.

Try to actively develop positive rapport and develop links to learners' lives. This is always a good idea, but appears to be especially important with adult learners in brief workplace literacy classes.

To increase the likelihood of transfer, aim for a mix of learner- and workplace- goals and activities. Situations where these two overlap are likely to bring about the most success.

Be aware that you are likely to be teaching more than just literacy. Many learners reported transferring to home and work use the discussion, listening, and collaborative methods modeled by their instructors.


Literacy instructors, be they in the workplace or not, have precious little time with their learners. For this reason, it is very important to not squander limited instructional time in an attempt to accomplish too many goals. Since class time is so brief, one goal which should be at or near the top of all instructor lists should be increasing the amount of time learners practice both in and out of class. Several means for doing this have been discussed in this article.

Learner change is rarely accomplished using a single means, whether it be using a functional context approach, establishing rapport, discussing learner goals and plans, providing feedback about increased learner effectiveness, or making links to work and home literacy opportunities. A mix of instructional elements is called for. It also appears that until learners see a personal need for continued growth, their prolonged literacy instruction may be a waste of everyone's time. At the very least, helping these learners to see literacy opportunities and demands is as important as time spent linking instruction to tasks which employers or instructors see as important. Worker and learner involvement in selecting tasks for customized instruction is a sensible way to accomplish several goals at the same time.


Mikulecky, L. (1989). " chance basic skills education." In Investing in People: A Strategy to Address America's Workforce Crisis. U.S. Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., vol. II, 215-58.

Mikulecky, L., Albers, P., & Peers, M. Literacy transfer: A review of the literature. Technical Report TR 94-05. Philadelphia, PA: National Center on Adult Literacy.

Mikulecky, L. & Lloyd, P. (in press). Journal of Literacy.

Mikulecky, L., Lloyd, P., Horwitz, L., Masker, S., & Siemantel, P. (1996). A Review of Recent Workplace Literacy Programs and a Projection for Future Changes. Technical Report TR 96-04. Philadelphia, PA: National Center on Adult Literacy.

Mikulecky, L., Lloyd, P., Kirkley, J., & Oelker, J. (1996). Developing and Evaluating Workplace Literacy Programs: A Handbook for Practitioners and Trainers. Practice Guide PG 96-01. Philadelphia, PA: National Center on Adult Literacy.

Mikulecky, L., Lloyd, P., Siemantel, P., & Masker, S. (1997). " beyond workplace literacy classes: Twelve case studies and a model." Reading Psychology, vol.18, no.4.

About the Author

Larry Mikulecky is Professor of Education and Chair of the Language Education Department at Indiana University -. His research interests for the past two decades have focused upon the literacy of adults and adolescents. Some of the research reported in this article was supported by the National Center on Adult Literacy and may be downloaded from the NCSALL web site.

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