Adult Literacy Curriculum Development: Core Concepts
1. Functional context theory, which maintains that interest and motivation play a crucial role in a student's ability to read and comprehend a text, is one underlying assumption that has underlined my approach to adult literacy education. The premise of functional-context theory is that all else being equal (which it never is), students will be able to read more complex texts at a given reading level that are of interest to them than those that are not, and in any event, will be more engaged in the topic matter. In creating and organizing curriculum I have drawn on the life competency Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS) and the National Institute for Literacy's Equipped for the Future (EFF) frameworks as well as my own experience with a wide span of many types of materials. All of this points toward a life application curricular focus, combined with a focused attention on developing basic reading and writing skills.
In creating instructional binders, my colleagues and I took special effort to assure that they contained a wide range of topics in the areas of work, family education (especially parenting), health, civic awareness, money management, and human-interest stories. Many of these materials have been field tested and shown to be of interest to students. Many of the content-based materials have basic skills activities built in to them as well. The content and organization of the binders can always be improved, and we still may find a text book that meets the wide ranging needs and interests of our students. In the meanwhile we draw on our locally-created binders which we will improve in succeeding years or will find a textbook instead, that better meets our needs.
2. My understanding was also premised on the balanced theory of reading. The general assumption of this theory is that adults develop reading and writing skills in multiple ways. These include automatic processing skills such as the mastery of the sight sound connection (phonemic awareness) and sight word memorization, and more holistic approaches like assisted reading, reading fluent texts, and context clues. Independent decoding fluency is most thoroughly mastered when students can decode isolated sounds, syllables, and words. Nonetheless, there is no universal process of getting there, and for effective reading development, focused attention on comprehension and critical thinking is also required even as students are developing phonemic awareness competency. Therefore, technical mastery of the basic skills of reading is essential, along with the ability to draw meaning from texts and utilizing such information for one's own purposes, which is the ultimate objective of adult literacy education. We have done our best to create a format where the relationship between basic skills development and content-based knowledge is as interactive and as mutually reinforcing as possible.
3. The third assumption that underlies my binder-based approach to curriculum development is the symbolic nature of instructional materials in their role of tapping into student and tutor imagination. What is important is not always what comes across at the surface, but what instructional materials come to mean to students and tutors who use them. The search, therefore, is for "the learning that matters," as interactively defined by students and tutors in their interface with the text and each other. While this objective might be viewed as overly subjective, its partial fulfillment is experienced whenever a "learning/teaching moment" is achieved. In whatever shape it takes it is the subtle learning connection that we experience when learning is most alive that drives what we are after in adult literacy education. Instructional materials play an important symbolic role in facilitating this learning. They are an indispensable resource toward the realization of this broader an end of learning and knowledge acquisition in areas that students deem important, including utilization in real-life settings and situations outside the program.
4. A final consideration: What proves effective for one tutor or one group of students may not necessarily have the same impact with another. In this respect, materials are what the educational philosopher John Dewey refers to as "middlemen" in the stimulation of important learning. In short, materials are a resource in which their effectiveness will depend on how they are used. The materials included in the binders were selected for their potential in stimulating highly significant learning, including knowledge transference to settings beyond the tutoring environment. Other materials might do as well, but on our judgment, the materials we were able to assemble for the binders was the best collection we could put together, at this time, based on our collective experience and available texts at our disposal. Of course, improvement is always possible and desirable. Regardless as to materials used, a stimulating learning experience taps into the imagination and motivational drives of students, pushing them on toward broader knowledge acquisition and learning. Stimulating such curiosity is what, we as adult literacy educators are seeking to accomplish, utilizing the best resources we have. Instructional materials are one important resource in such facilitation. In this respect they are means and not ends.