Focus on Reading and Writing


Adult literacy has been at the heart of World Education’s work since it was established in 1951 in India and founded the Literacy House upon the urging of Mohandas Gandhi. Sixty-four years later, while gains have been made in many parts of the world, the need for literacy education remains great:  there are nearly 800 million adults and out-of-school youth in the world with limited or no literacy and numeracy.  In the U.S., adults’ basic skills are falling behind those of other developed nations.  For the first time, the skills of young adults are lower than those of their parents’ generation.  At the same time, people need even more different types of literacies to move ahead in their lives than in 1951. World Education’s approach to literacy education and how we define it has evolved and expanded commensurate with the skills adults need to navigate systems, pursue opportunities, and address problems successfully in their personal lives, work, and communities.

To commemorate the Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, in this series of blog posts World Education/ U.S. staff share their views on what literacy means to us today and how we are helping to advance adult education in multiple ways.  Our list is not comprehensive: there are not enough days in a week to feature all the types of literacy youth and adults need in today’s world!  Please join the dialogue.

Reading and Writing

World Education has been deeply involved with the pedagogy of adult reading since its inception.  During the organization’s first decades, from 1953 into the 1970s, staff pioneered the development of non-formal education practices in India, Bangladesh, and Thailand by insisting on a functional literacy focus—reading and writing to survive and thrive in everyday life, as opposed to the academic extremes of grammar drills and copying model texts.  World Education’s first generation of trainers went on to train additional hundreds of native teachers around the globe.

Eventually, World Education brought its field-tested expertise to bear on adult education programs back home.  After a decade of successful community-based and workplace education efforts, World Education partnered with Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to form the National Center for Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL), which produced several seminal studies on adult reading, student persistence, and income enhancement attributable to educational attainment.  Among these, the Adult Reading Comprehension Study (ARCS) has proven to be seismic in impact on reading instruction in the adult literacy field.  World Education created the Assessment Strategies and Reading Profiles website to capture and explain the extensive findings of the ARCS and provide links to related evidence-based resources.  The main findings of the ARCS have also been formulated into an intensive national professional development project, the STudent Achievement in Reading (STAR) program.  Our staff are certified trainers in STAR as well as the Learning to Achieve professional development initiative, which applies many of the same evidence-based practices extolled by STAR to the design of instruction in reading and writing for students with learning disabilities.

World Education’s semi-annual publication, The Change Agent, which provides collections of articles written by adult literacy students and teachers, has been enhanced to integrate evidence-based reading and writing practices.  For example, care is taken to provide texts at a range of grade-level equivalents (GLEs) and the GLE for each article is indicated for teacher reference.  These features allow teachers to use texts at the proper instructional level for each student and alleviate the paucity of leveled texts of interest in adult students.  Finally, each text is accompanied by suggested classroom activities based on both evidence-based practices and the College and Career Readiness standards for reading and writing. In many ways, The Change Agent reflects our roots in grounding the teaching of reading and writing in the concerns of literacy learners and their communities as well as on the latest evidence from reading research. Today, as in the 1950s adults still need to be able to read “the word and the world.”

A New Resource to Share: World Education’s Guide to ELA Classroom Activities

World Education, Inc. has felt the need to provide teachers with classroom-ready activities that apply standards rather than providing only lists of standards around which teachers then have to create activities. Our new Guide to ELA Classroom Activities That Promote Life Skills, College, and Career Readiness provides a large number of suggested classroom tasks that combine the academic knowledge and skills described by the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education (hereafter referred to as “CCRS”) with behaviors and composite skills needed to succeed in college, workplace, and civic life, expressed in the Guide as Essential Competencies. These seven Competencies—e.g., “Collect, organize, and interpret information”–are drivers for the suggested tasks, with the CCRS applied wherever logical and reasonable, including standards from across CCRS strands–e.g., a task requiring both reading comprehension of a text and a written summary.

The Guide is divided into two tiers of suggested tasks: Tier One tasks are for learners at 0-8 GLE and Tier Two for learners at 9-12 GLE. Tier One tasks require that students apply several CCRS to achieve a focused, short-term outcome, such as a set of notes or a one-paragraph summary of an at-level text. Some of these tasks might also require real-world applications, such as actually entering work places or college campuses to observe classes, conduct interviews, or shadow jobs. In contrast to the Tier One tasks, Tier Two tasks are project-based and designed to culminate in sophisticated products, such as argumentative essays, reports, and/or slide presentations. As such, each task is designed to cover all of the Essential Competencies and a full range of CCRS, much as would be required of a college research paper or a full-out job search.

Teachers will agree that there is a whole range of substrate skills that students must acquire if they are to effectively perform challenging classrooms tasks. These skills include the ability to scan a text, paraphrase a statement from text, or take effective notes. Therefore, we have also provided a Baseline Skills Index, a collection of 20 substrate skills that students must acquire in order to perform well on any of the suggested tasks. Teachers can use this Index to assess students’ current baseline skills and plan to address gaps, either in discrete lessons or as parts of larger tasks.

The Guide also includes a set of lesson plans illustrating how a Tier One task was facilitated across several class sessions as well as a sample Tier Two project that culminated in short essays and class presentations. If you have questions or comments, please contact Carey Reid at We hope the Guide will prove useful to you!

Download World Education’s Guide to ELA Classroom Activities That Promote Life Skills, College, and Career Readiness

What Good Teachers Already Knew about the CCRS

Several months back, many of us who labor to design professional development in Massachusetts were assuming that the new College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education (Pimental 2013) were going to hit our adult basic education (ABE) teachers like a tsunami. Whenever we intoned the new terminology–“instructional shifts,” “the new rigor”– we usually did so with a tone of sympathy for the pedagogical up-ending that our teachers were about to experience.

But when the new standards were actually rolled out at workshops or conferences, the teachers in the room mostly just nodded and took notes. Oh, there were a few weak groans, but no cries of alarm, and no hands shooting up to launch rebuttals. Why this relative calm? Only after thinking about this lack of reaction did it hit me: Teachers are relieved to finally have concrete evidence of what their learners need to be prepared for college and successful in the workplace. In fact, what the teachers are hearing about the needs for deep reading, evidence-based writing, and adaptive reasoning in math is not so terribly different from what really good and knowledgeable teachers have been insisting for years is needed in response to the focus on college and career readiness for adult learners.

Think back. How many times have you heard a good teacher say something like the following?

  • I wish I could prepare my students for writing more than just a canned five-paragraph essay.
  • I need to hold onto my ESOL students longer; even the high SPLs are way short of what they really need for college or good jobs.
  • I really don’t like teaching math as if it were just a collection of rote operations and test-taking tricks.
  • I want my students to score 500s on their GED tests instead of squeaking by.

Could it be that the CCRS are validating conclusions reached long ago by our best teachers? They know that text-based writing is critically important, no argument there (though they will probably continue to use texts as narrative-writing prompts to get certain students to want to write and believe that they can.) And isn’t the truth that they have known for some time that the GED is a soft target and that bringing students up to the barely-passing level of the five tests, or to a serviceable level of English language skills, are Devil’s pacts we make with time, funding, and students’ short-term goals? The CCRS bring to the fore the full range of knowledge and skills that the best teachers have been insisting for some time are essential—not superfluous, not nice to have, but essential.

Might this be the beginning of a whole new age—The Age of Providing What’s Truly Needed? While pre-CCRS discussions have focused mostly on teacher and program quality, the CCRS opens the spotlight to include support from politicians and policy makers. How shall states and local education agencies and individual programs provide the instructional intensity that everyone, and yes finally everyone, can no longer deny is needed? Will there be a clarion call to do even-more with the ever-same, or will enough political will amass to shepherd every motivated student to the educational level they are capable of attaining? Will adult literacy labor on at the fringes of public education, or will it be integrated as an essential part of an educational continuum that truly covers the lifespan of our citizens?

Celebrations of any kind would be premature at this point, but isn’t it nice to finally have a conversation that seeks to level the playing field for our teachers and our learners?

Skeptical Practice: It Really Is Never Too Late to Learn

Our System for Adult Basic Education Support (SABES) office at World Education coordinates the development of a lot of Massachusetts state-wide trainings, including a new Foundations course for all new state-funded practitioners. One of the themes we hit again and again in this intensive training is a teacher’s need to continually reflect on her practice. Are my students engaged? Are they really learning, and how do I know? What should I do differently when certain students don’t seem to be getting it?

But over the past few years of my three decades in the field (I admit it), I’ve been getting some heavy-duty training myself–from the Student Achievement in Reading (STAR) project and Learning to Achieve, the week-long institute on teaching students with learning disabilities. Trainings like these have immersed me in “evidence-based practice,” “explicit instruction,” and other hefty take-aways from the worlds of research and academia. One result is to make me face the possibility that in my teaching and presenting I’ve never really been “reflective” enough. And if pushed to the limits of transparency, I’d have to admit that I’ve always been too willing to let intuition and flavor-of-the-month teaching practices stand in for proven results.

These collisions with in-depth, research-based professional development have stirred up some intriguing memories. I once taught summers in a program to prepare Boston high school seniors for college. The curriculum stipulated that every student would read a Shakespeare play from start to finish; one year, staff chose Romeo and Juliet. A class day arrived when I learned that most of the students in the room did not know where Verona was, or for that matter, the country of Italy. Ah, a “teachable moment” had arrived! I filled the board with drawings of Europe, threw in the other continents, and…hey, why not…a good bit about meridians. Looking back, I recall feeling wonderful about how much knowledge I could ladle out about our planet, but come to think of it the students did not read a single word of Shakespeare that class.

More recently, I did a stint of coaching with a great pre-GED teacher. He wanted to use an evidence-based practice to teach vocabulary, which requires that the teacher concentrate on high-frequency words that appear in texts regardless of their content (e.g., predict, coordinate, decline.) The evidence indicates that the words should be learned in isolation and applied in a variety of ways, and that only 5-10 words should be tackled per week. My teacher chafed at this limitation, and finally he insisted that we provide students with additional words taken from a reading we were doing that day. He was, in effect, reinstating the traditional practices of relying on context and preparing students for a particular text. The next class day, however, we asked the students for the definitions of those additional words…and they could not define a single one of them! The words taught via the evidence-based method? No problem. In fact, the students had started to use those words in their daily conversation.

This late-date ferment has led me to conclude that the word “reflective” is a bit too casual and passive-sounding for me. I’ve speculated that the ongoing alertness needed for solid teaching should be ramped-up to a level better expressed as Skeptical Practice. Now, when I hear a teacher say that one of his slower learners “probably has a learning disability,” I find myself asking, gently of course, for proof. Or if another teacher tells me that she never misses an opportunity to add to her students’ “background knowledge,” I wonder if they are learning to read or solve equations as well. And if a cited source is referred to as “professional wisdom,” I find myself wondering how the citer knows it’s truly “professional” and genuinely “wise”?

I’m finding that some of my colleagues here at World Education have been bitten by this same bug, or at least admit to a growing cognitive itch. One just came back from a conference where a healthy debate erupted around the terms “research” and “data-based” and when and if they are the same things. Another reports that the ideas of Malcolm Knowles, considered sacred in our field, have been taking hits in her adult development workshops. Participants pipe up, “Don’t school children have prior knowledge too?” and “My high school daughter sure seems role conscious to me.” In the prior issue of this Newsletter, my colleague, Change Agent editor Cynthia Peters, pointed out that learners contributing to a recent issue on persistence reported very few “negative experiences” with their prior schooling. On the contrary; they had to stop out mostly for family- or work-related reasons, and are now very happy to be back in school.

My fledgling exercises in Skeptical Practice have already pushed me in directions that I’m finding useful. The word “data” used to give my hives, but now I find myself eager to learn more about data collection and analysis. If a learn that a curriculum or classroom practice came from “the world of K-12,” I no longer assume it won’t be relevant for adult learners. Again the contrary; I see pedagogy as a countryside littered with treasures I chose not to see. I’m even wading fearlessly into research reports, now with the hope of finding nuggets of gold rather than layers of choking dust. Old dogs, new tricks…yes, but what about “missed” or “dismissed” tricks? It really is never too late to learn.