What Literacy Means Today


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.


“Adult and Family Literacy Week” would be better named “Adult and Family Literacy and Numeracy Week!”  Why?  Because the ability to use mathematics in everyday life is essential to fully participating in modern life “at work, in practical everyday activities at home and beyond, as consumers, in managing our finances, as parents helping our children learn, as patients making sense of health information, as citizens understanding the world around us.”[1]   Decisions we make every day depend on numeracy skills.  “To make the best choices, we need to be numerate.”[2]

In the U.S., nearly one out of three adults has low numeracy skills compared to an international average of one in five.  Results from PIAAC, the international survey of adult skills, confirm that having strong numeracy skills is critical for success in the U.S. workplace:  adults with better numeracy skills tend to earn higher wages.[3]

How is World Education helping to develop adults’ numeracy skills?  We provide training throughout the country to strengthen the capacity of instructors who teach mathematics to adult learners.  Our mathematics and numeracy professional development series includes the nationally recognized Adult Numeracy Instruction, an intensive, evidence-based program in effective numeracy instruction for adults.  Our e-learning courses, designed by national experts and offered through our Educational Technology Center, range from Number Sense: Teaching About Parts and Wholes to Algebra:  Introducing Algebraic Reasoning.

For resources on adult numeracy, go to the Adult Numeracy Network, the national adult numeracy professional organization.

Teacher Appreciation: Recognizing Connie Rivera

World Education will periodically honor outstanding adult educators. Our first featured teacher is Connie Rivera, a Connecticut adult education teacher and professional developer. We asked Connie a series of questions about her work as an adult education teacher.

How did you get started in adult education?
In January, 2002, I wanted to stay home with my daughter after she was born so I took a leave from my daytime teaching job in K-12 and taught GED preparation classes one night a week. Since then I’ve kept adding daughters and classes!

Where and what do you teach and do in adult education now?
I teach GED prep classes and adult basic education; I prepare students in math and science. In reality, it’s mostly math. One of the programs has a large English language learners (ELL) population. The other program is an urban program for low income youth. I also provide professional development for adult numeracy teachers in Connecticut, in Massachusetts, through LINCS, and at various conferences. I’m president-elect for the Adult Numeracy Network.

What are you most proud of as a teacher and trainer?
One of the things I’m most proud of is the unit I created as a YouthBuild Teacher Fellow on the order of operations. I submitted it to Achieve.org’s peer review panel. First, you evaluate the unit yourself with the EQuIP rubric for its alignment with the Common Core. You can submit something larger than a lesson, a unit. Then, the review panel gives you feedback also based on alignment with the Common Core. Next, you then make adjustments to the materials based on their feedback. This review process made me take a hard look at what I had created. It was a lot of work but worth it in the end because it got an exemplar rating. I was really proud of it in the end because the process pushed me to make it better. I’ve been going around and sharing pieces of it so other teachers can use it.

Tell us about your progression from teacher to teacher and professional developer? What did you do to further develop your skills?
My first “aha” moment was when Lynda Ginsburg and Myrna Manly came and provided numeracy professional development in Connecticut. It was inspiring, eye opening. I had no idea math could be like that. This was a year-long professional development initiative that the state had set up. In between Lynda’s visits we took three World Education online numeracy courses. That was really what jump started where I am today.

I remember Myrna said, why don’t you present? It had never occurred to me to share what I was doing in my classroom. A year later, I did. I presented at our state conference. I continued to attend any math professional development I could, especially with outside trainers. I piloted EFF courses. Then Adult Numeracy Instruction (ANI) came to Connecticut. At the last session, we talked about what we would do next. I didn’t know then that the trainers were talking with our state people. It was after ANI that CREC asked me to be more involved and I came on as a consultant for them. That was a few years ago. Now I facilitate Adult Numeracy Instruction.

Even though I mostly choose math professional development, when LINCS sent Steve Quann from World Education to give sessions on creating a website I went because I was interested in creating a class website. I saw it as a way to have continuity for students coming in and out. I enjoyed putting that together to have as a resource for students. This year I’m writing some Tech Tips for Teachers through World Education.

What keeps you in adult education? What are you most passionate/excited about as a teacher and as a trainer?

I want people to have those “aha” moments that I was and am having. I didn’t understand math the first time around. If it’s taught differently, anyone can “do math.” I want them (students and teachers) to have those “aha” moments, too. I feel if I can influence a teacher, they’ll influence more students.

What do you see yourself doing in the future?
I want to be doing more of the same but probably for fewer places. Five jobs is too many. I did decide not to continue to think about returning to day school (K-12). I love exactly what I’m doing. I’m following my passion.

Math Professional Development, or Why Invert and Multiply Doesn’t Have Any Staying Power

Invert and multiply. Does this ring a bell? It probably does for most adult education math teachers because this is how we were taught to divide fractions, and this is how many of us still teach this algorithm. Does this approach to teaching fraction division work? For the most part, no, or we wouldn’t be reteaching fraction division over and over again to the vast majority of adult learners we serve.

What are some of the better ways to teach fractions, which should include concepts, not just algorithms, and what is World Education’s role in supporting the professional learning of adult education math teachers?

Adult Numeracy Instruction-Professional Development (ANI) is one of the best things going to support math teacher development. Authored by Donna Curry and Mary Jane Schmitt of TERC (Technical Education Research Centers) through an OVAE-sponsored contract lead by MPR Associates, Inc., ANI consists of three 2-day institutes focused on more effective, hands-on, conceptual approaches to teaching adults math. ANI stresses the four big ideas in numeracy based originally on the work of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and reinforced by the Common Core State Standards and recent College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education:

  • Connections (recognize and use connections among mathematical ideas),
  • Communication (communicate mathematical thinking clearly to others),
  • Mathematical proficiency (conceptual understanding and procedural fluency), and
  • All strands developed at all levels (all content applies across all levels).

ANI institutes are full of hands-on teaching approaches and activities for immediate classroom use, focusing on number and operation sense (whole numbers, fractions/decimals/percents, and integers); geometry; data, statistics, and graphs; and algebra. Between sessions, participants try out ANI activities in their classrooms and meet regionally with their colleagues.

To date, eleven states have participated in ANI: Georgia, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Connecticut, Delaware, Mississippi, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, and New York (Finger Lakes Region). Montana, Washington, and Louisiana are on board for 2014. The first year of ANI implementation was coordinated through the LINCS Region 1 Regional Professional Development (PD) Center located at World Education, and ANI is provided to state cohorts through the LINCS network of Regional PD Centers. LINCS covers the cost of the trainers and their travel; states cover the cost of participant travel, training materials and supplies, and the training venue.

As one recent participant in ANI noted,

“I just returned home from our first ANI conference. IT WAS SOOOOOOO FUN!!!!! Oh my gosh. I’m completely exhausted and feel like I haven’t breathed in two days, but the content was fantastic and the presenters were stupendous. What a wonderful experience…. If you’d  told me 1 year ago that I’d be going to a math conference… and loving it…”

If you’re interested in participating in ANI, please talk with your state adult education director who will, in turn, contact the LINCS Regional PD Center for your state.

World Education also provides online numeracy professional development. Visit http://elearningpd.worlded.org. Courses are available to individuals ($189/course) and to state cohorts, and include: Algebra: Introducing Algebraic Reasoning; Data: Helping Students Interpret Numeric Information; Foundations of Teaching Adult Numeracy; Geometry: Teaching About Shapes and Their Measures; Number Sense: Teaching About Parts and Wholes; and Teaching Reasoning and Problem-Solving Strategies. Courses run about six weeks, are provided once or twice a year, and are facilitated by experienced adult education math practitioners.

In Massachusetts, through the System for Adult Basic Education Support, World Education and the West Regional Support Center at Holyoke Community College have developed a series of math trainings including Introduction to Algebra: Content and Instruction; The Basics of Teaching Math; Math in Context: The Health Connection; Giving Meaning to Geometry; and College and Career Readiness Standards ABE Math: an Overview. SABES courses are provided through the five Regional Support Centers and are free to Massachusetts practitioners and programs. There are also several new courses in development by the West Regional Support Center and TERC which will be ready to be piloted in FY15. These courses are built on the ANI model – a long-term, multi-session approach with required activities between face-to-face sessions. And, just like the ANI model, these new courses are designed to help teachers develop their own conceptual understanding of math topics. This is critical since many of us as teachers only learned to “invert and multiply”; how can we teach differently if we don’t know any other way?

Why such an emphasis on math professional development? First, because, as in prior national assessments of U.S. adults’ skills, the recently published results of the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies 2012 (PIACC) ranks U.S. adult math proficiency as significantly lower than 18 other countries (only Italy and Spain are lower than the U.S.) with 10% of Americans age 16-65 scoring below level 1, 20% at level 1, and 34% at level 2. At the higher levels (more comparable to the postsecondary-level skills required for many family-sustaining jobs such as for STEM occupations), only 27% of U.S. adults scored at level 3, and 9% at level 4/5. (Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments Among U.S. Adults: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies 2012, National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, October, 2013) Second, because we know from our experience teaching math that many of the adults who come to our classes have gaps in their math skills and little mathematic conceptual understanding, and that the GED mathematics test is historically the most difficult to pass (2012 Annual Statistical Report on the GED Test, GED Testing Service). Third, we suspect, also, that many of us who teach math to adults are less prepared to teach math than we are to teach reading and English language skills development.

Why is math professional development important to me? I taught math to adults for more than 15 years, and have recently returned to math teaching part-time, as a volunteer at a local program. Common myths aside, I know at the core of my being that math concepts and skills are not intrinsically more difficult to master than reading, writing, and English language skills, and that they are just as critical. I know from my teaching that almost all of us can be “good” at math, that learning math can be lots of fun, and that mastering a subject that was previously experienced as too difficult, feels wonderful. So, I want to be a better math teacher. And as T, a student in my Bridge to College math class last year said, “Why is a minus times a minus a plus? I’ll never be able to remember this if it doesn’t make sense to me.”