Determining the Characteristics of Successful Women in an Adult Literacy Program
by Sarah Nixon-Ponder
Participants: Students at a community-based literacy program
located in downtown Akron.
Purpose: The purpose of this study was to determine the
characteristics of women in an adult literacy program who have
been successful in their return to studies. The study was
designed to learn more about the needs of women learners and what
literacy programs can do to help women be successful in their
return to studies.
Questions: This qualitative research study attempted to answer
the following questions:
- 1) What characteristics, strengths, and support must women have in order to return successfully to school?
- 2) How did the literacy program help the participants to realize their potential for success?
- 3) What did the program's staff believe they were doing to help women become successful in their return to school?
Method: Program staff members at a community-based adult literacy
program located in downtown Akron were asked to identify
successful women in their program, and in turn, participants were
also asked to identify other women whom they believed were
successful students. From this pool of successful women, three
agreed to participate in this study. All of the women were
between 30 and 40 years of age, and all three had high school
diplomas. Two were African-Americans; one was European-American
with her cultural roots from Appalachia. All were married and had
The women were observed while they participated in different
types of settings and interactions: working with their tutors;
participating in a weekly small group reading circle; meeting
with the family literacy VISTA volunteer for an hour of family
reading activities; participating in a monthly meeting on
advocacy in the community; discussing and planning the upcoming
appearances and speeches they would be conducting; and attending
the weekly support group.
The three women learners were interviewed twice for an hour each
time. Open-ended questions were asked to stimulate discussion
about their life experiences: past and present experiences with
school and their reading difficulties; how their low literacy
level affected them personally; what made them decide to get help
with their literacy skills; their personal support system and
goals; how the literacy program has helped and how it can
continue to help; differences between life now and before help
was sought; types of reading they do every day; advice to youth
considering dropping out; and advice to schools in regards to
helping students with reading difficulties.
Program staff were interviewed as well. The director of the
program was formally interviewed once although we spoke
informally several times over a two-week period. The VISTA
volunteer who coordinated the family literacy program, the
volunteer librarian, several tutors, and the support staff
members also were informally interviewed. The following questions
were asked to help learn about the perceptions of the staff: What
did they think they were doing to promote success in their
program, especially for the women learners? How did they see and
describe the program? What were the strengths and weaknesses of
the program? The responses from staff and students were compared
to determine how closely the two were aligned.
Results: Several themes were evident in all three women's
1) Women who successfully return to school have very strong support systems. All of the women talked at length about their strong support systems. All of them had participated in the student support group at one time or another, and they all had at least one family member who was extremely supportive of them
going back to school to improve reading skills. The women talked about their strong faith in God and their churches and how they believed that this was vital to their success in life.
2) The women found the program staff helpful, caring, and
nurturing. They felt they were urged to achieve their goals. All
stated that there was a period upon entering the program when
someone on the staff reached out and pushed them toward their
goal, telling them that they could do this--that they could read
and write, and that they were good people who needed help with
their reading. In addition, the women felt ownership and pride in
3) All had become advocates for literacy in their communities.
All of the women felt a sense of community responsibility to
reach out to others who cannot read well--especially women--and
share their problem with them in hopes of getting them into a
program for some help with literacy skills. Each of the women
said that she talked to women in her neighborhood, on buses, at
church, and in schools telling them "well if I can do it, surely
4) All three of the women experienced a period when they were
ashamed to tell anyone close to them about their reading
problems. Yet all stated that once they finally told a person
about their difficulty, they felt like a weight had been lifted
and were then able to tell more people about their problem. One
woman stated: "I tell everyone I see now that I go to Project:
LEARN to get help with my reading. You never know when you'll
help someone else."
5) All of the women experienced an awakening in which they felt
that they had to do something about their problem. "Something
just hit me, I can't describe it very well." Two of the three
women said that after this experience, they sought out a loved
one whom they told they needed and wanted help with their
6) All moved through several distinct stages of growth: ashamed
to tell anyone, to do anything about the problem; experiencing an
awakening that "I can do this, I am a good person"; developing
positive self esteem; experiencing great personal and academic
growth; and advocating for literacy.
7) All of the women stated that they had entered first grade with
problems, and that by the end of first grade it was evident that
they were not learning to read like the rest of the children. All
stated that the class sizes were large pretty much all the way
through elementary school. Two of the women stated that their
teachers never tried to help them or to seek help for them and
never sent notes home informing their parents of the difficulties
their daughters were having with reading.
8) All of the women felt a sense of lost time from being in the
world and not being able to read; they all conveyed a sense of
needing to catch up with what they feel they have lost out on.
"I'm still young and I've got a lot I want to do." One woman
summed it up by saying, "I was surviving but not living."
Implications: There are several implications for adult literacy
Stories about successful adult learners can help other new
readers identify with their strengths and characteristics and
thus make their return to school more successful.
Women learners take ownership in programs they find helpful,
caring, and nurturing.
Programs that offer support groups for their students--especially
women--will foster empowerment and ownership in the program.
Adult literacy providers should be alert to "stages of growth"
(see #6 above) and be prepared to provide different types of
support for learners at different stages.
Qualitative research can be used in assisting literacy programs
to evaluate what they believe they are doing to foster success in