Basic Pedagogical Principles of a Context-Based Approach to Adult Literacy Education
Current research on literacy states that language development is most fully acquired when it is applied in living contexts that people identify as important. This is the foundation for LVA's student-centered approach. This core assumption is at the heart of the five principles upon which ground the Basic Literacy curriculum in our program.
Principle #1 Adult literacy learning is best stimulated by a student-centered focus. As put by Elsa Auerbach: "People learn best when learning starts with what they already know, builds on their strengths, engages them in the learning process, and enables them to accomplish something they want to accomplish." Learning best takes place when students identify their own questions and gaps in knowledge as well as their own interests and work out of their own sources of strength. Our binder-based curriculum orientation is designed to facilitate such a discovery process.
Principle #2 Adult literacy learners are multidimensional in their interests, experience, and knowledge. As Juliet Merrifield and her colleagues put it, "Adults with limited literacy skills should be credited with the skills and knowledge they do have. Educators should start to build on and extend the knowledge and skills of students, based on their needs, desires, and interests, rather than dwelling on measuring how 'functional' a learner is or needs to become according to standardized tests." Adult students seek to enhance their learning in various areas that may not always seem immediately practical as well as to gain important useful knowledge to help them find employment or do better in their jobs and to help them with their family responsibilities. As researcher Susan Lytle put it:
“Some [students] come with a desire to learn more about a particular subject, for example, American-American history, parenting, or health. Many seek ways to deal with their own children's literacy and schooling, whereas others wish to participate or assume new roles and responsibilities in their families, workplaces, or communities. Some are looking for community in the literacy program itself. Some seek economic improvements in their lives through new jobs or promotions, or by dealing more competently with personal finances and/or their encounter with 'the bureaucracy.' For many, the program offers the possibility of taking more control and ownership of their own learning. For most adult learners who come to the programs, the desire for enhanced self-esteem is implicit in many of their stated and unstated goals.”
Principle #3 Literacy and conversational English are developed while in and through application. One does not learn to read, write, speak and comprehend English first through decontextualized exercises and then apply such skills to relevant contexts only once basic language mastery is attained. Rather, LVGH's binder-based curriculum focus utilizes authentic content from the inception of instruction even among those students whose basic skills are least developed. Basic skill work is not ignored, but incorporates authentic language and content. Literacy Volunteer of America supports this contextual approach to language development in the 7th edition of Tutor and the 4th edition of I Speak English.
Principle #4 LVGH's binder-based curriculum focus is premised on basic principles of adult learning theory such as the following:
• Education is lifelong learning and helps individuals prepare for changing needs and interests in the present and for the future. As one study puts it, "Students do not necessarily have a concrete goal in mind, an instrumental view of literacy tied to some specific task or aspiration. More than anything, they want to feel that there are possibilities for the future, that there are choices and potential for change."
• Adult education focuses on what adults want and need to know and to be able to do to succeed as parents, citizens, community members, workers, consumers, and in other important social roles and contexts. It integrates basic skills with expanding competency in communication, decision-making, and interpersonal relationships, across specific contexts and roles.
• Adult education is driven by what adults say they need and want to know in order to meet self-defined life-plans. It provides resources for individuals in meeting personal as well as social goals.
• Progress is measured by the capacity of adults to progressively organize experience and perform real-world tasks that cannot always be measured in standardized ways.
• Adult education is developmental as well as cognitive. It integrates emotional and social growth with cognitive capacity in the development of persons as individuals and as social actors within a variety of community contexts.
• Adult education helps students to learn how to learn-to expand their ability to explore new knowledge.
Principle #5 Mastery of specific language and learning contexts of the social environments in which students are or would like to be engaged is critical to their success, what literacy researcher Thomas Sticht refers to as functional context education. The curriculum focus draws on such contexts in setting the instructional program in order to help students progressively master the range of social environments that are important to their lives. While emphasizing the significance of the external setting, LVGH's binder based curriculum is responsive to current student development and fosters an interactive relationship between what students currently know about such environments and what they need and want to learn through supportive mentoring instruction. The instructor, other students, or other persons or certain activities assist students to progressively master the language and learning demands of particular social contexts critical to their self defined objectives. Simultaneously, the challenges embedded within the social environments students seek to master, if tapped in a manner that builds on and extends current student knowledge, is a powerful stimulus to learning that matters for life.