Guidelines for Effective Adult Literacy Programs

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Effectiveness in the adult literacy field too often focuses on the number of adults without literacy skills, the number of programs, the number of people in those programs, and the number of volunteers. But such numbers are not enough. We must ask whether the programs are effective in teaching literacy skills to adults.  

The “Guidelines For Effective Adult Literacy Programs” is intended to provide guidance to good programming. It was developed by the field, for the field, and reflects the field’s best judgment on what a literacy program should do to be effective. It does not provide step-by-step instructions on how to run a literacy program; instead, it describes the ingredients of a successful program.

  • Effective Philanthropy: Back when B. Dalton Booksellers existed (when it was a part of the Dayton Hudson Corporation before being sold to Barnes and Noble), it created an exemplary nation-wide program in support of adult literacy, supported by the Dayton Hudson Foundation.  One of its commitments was to “increase the effectiveness of community-based volunteer literacy programs.”
  • Nonprofit Management: This publication, an early example of the “best practices” genre of evaluation products, was pushed out into the field, with encouragement and support for adoption and implementation.  It’s regrettable that these efforts were discontinued after the sale of B. Dalton Booksellers, soon after the publication of these Guidelines.
  • Community Development: The Guidelines make very clear the productive roles to be taken by volunteer-driven adult literacy programs.  This makes assessment, training, advocacy, and program management that much easier.
  • Program Evaluation: This publication represents an early example of the “best practices” genre of evaluation products.  For these Guidelines to represent the best in literacy programming, and for them to be useful in the field, it was necessary to provide an opportunity for programs to discuss and come to consensus on the ingredients of effective literacy programs. These Guidelines were developed through a process of field involvement and input: 1) A Task Force was formed, consisting of 10 field representatives, to give input and direction on the content and format of the Guidelines. 2) A Response Group, consisting of 20 service providers, responded to and suggested improvements in the drafts sent them. 3) An Evaluation Group met to provide information from research and evaluation efforts already conducted or underway that can contribute to literacy programs’ efforts to measure adult learners’ progress in several different goal areas.  Rainbow Research, Inc. compiled the information and created next-generation drafts through four iterations of contributions and review, resulting in this final document.

These Guidelines were developed with the strong assistance of luminaries in the adult literacy field, from these organizations:

California State Library, Sacramento, CA

Laubach Literacy Action, Syracuse, NY [Merged with Literacy Volunteers of America to form ProLiteracy]

Literacy Assistance Center, New York, NY

Literacy Volunteers of America, Syracuse, NY [Merged with Laubach Literacy Action to form ProLiteracy]

Minneapolis Literacy Project, Minneapolis, MN [see Literacy Minnesota]

Literacy Volunteers of New York City, NY [see Literacy New York]

Washington Literacy, Seattle, WA [see Washington Reading Corp]

Minnesota Literacy Council, Saint Paul, MN [see Literacy Minnesota]

Division of Adult Education, Indianapolis, IN

Association for Community Based Education, Washington, DC

Download PDF: Guidelines for Effective Adult Literacy Programs

Originally appeared: These Guidelines originally appeared as a publication of Rainbow Research, Inc.

Number of pages: 65

Original date: 1987

Author: Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D., Executive Director