Guidelines for Effective Adult Literacy Programs

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Present attention of the adult literacy movement too often focuses on the number of adult illiterates, the number of programs, the number of people in those programs, and the number of volunteers. But numbers are not enough. We must ask whether the programs are effective in reaching those people needing services, whether the programs are responsive to the specific needs of adult learners, whether those learners are actually learning, and whether volunteer and paid staff are receiving the training and support they need.

The “Guidelines For Effective Adult Literacy Programs” is intended to provide guidance to good programming. It is a collection oi statements that reflect 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 owned by 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 (now merged into the interests of Target Corporation).  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 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.

Download PDF: Guidelines for Effective Adult Literacy Programs

Originally appeared: Publication of Rainbow Research, Inc.

Number of pages: 65    Original date: 1987

Author: Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D., then Executive Director of Rainbow Research, Inc.

Minneapolis, MN