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Goal Orientations of Low-Literacy Learners in Adult Basic Education: Some Issues for Adult Literacy Instruction page 2
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Much attention has focused on the apparent failure of adult basic education (ABE) programs to teach literacy skills to low-literacy individuals (Beder, 1999; Sheehan-Holt & Smith, 2000). Some blame for this failure is parceled out to adult literacy programs, which are frequently perceived to be rigid and unresponsive to learners' needs (Quigley, 1997). Like the schools that alienated learners the first time around, ABE programs may not be sufficiently flexible to meet the unique and special requirements of individuals who struggle to read. Often, ABE programs appear to be driven by ideological or instructional matters at the expense of focusing on the concerns of students (Quigley, 1992). ABE teachers, too, are held responsible for their students' perceived lack of attention, persistence, and motivation. Many adult literacy teachers lack specific training in adult learning theory (Sabatini, et al., 2000)-particularly theories of human motivation such as those of Ames and Ames (1984), Bandura (1982), Deci and Ryan (1985), Dweck (1986), and Weiner (1986), among others. The classroom atmosphere that is created by the nature of the program curriculum and goals, in combination with the characteristics of instructors, may not be conducive for adult learners to engage fully in literacy learning.

The lack of success cannot be attributed only to ABE programs or instructors. Students themselves are also responsible for their failure to capitalize on the educational opportunities available to them. Many students who populate ABE programs face a number of obstacles to literacy learning-a history of school failure, lack of trust in "the system," family and marital discord and violence, poverty and discrimination, and drug and alcohol abuse. For these and other reasons, a large percentage of ABE participants drop out before they achieve reliable gains in their literacy (Friedlander & Martinson, 1996).

Adults who enter ABE programs do so for many reasons-to improve their reading skills or obtain a GED that will, in turn, enable them (hopefully) to acquire a better job or to continue their education (Fingeret & Drennon, 1997; Merrifield, Bingman, Hemphill, & deMarrais, 1997). Individuals' progress toward their learning goals will vary considerably, of course, depending upon their skill level prior to entry, native abilities, sources of social support, and quality of instructional materials and related resources.

A factor that plays a significant role in adult literacy learners' persistence and success pertains to their learning goals. Bandura (1986) argued that people's internal goals for success motivate them to engage in certain activities and move in particular directions toward attainment of these goals. Dweck and Elliott (1983) (Motivation Theory and Research of Carol Dweck and Colleagues) proposed that learners possess either performance goals or mastery goals. These goals guide learners' activities and their thoughts, feelings, and performances (Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000).

Performance goals represent an individual's desire to look good to others and obtain favorable judgments from them or to avoid looking bad and receiving unfavorable judgments. Thus, some students avoid trying tasks if they know they are likely to appear ignorant or unskilled. Some adult literacy students might, therefore, enroll in programs out of fear of being discovered to be "illiterate" or due to shame at their low reading ability. Mastery goals represent an individual's desire to achieve competence by acquiring additional knowledge or mastering new skills. Students with a mastery goal orientation are more likely to ask for a teacher's assistance when they do not know something than are students with a performance goal orientation. Adult learners with mastery goal orientations enroll in ABE because they want to increase their literacy skills and improve their chances of success-in the workplace and in life. Generally, educators want to increase students' mastery goals and diminish their performance goals. However, performance goals can have positive effects in some situations for some students, according to Hidi and Harackiewicz (2000), so such an orientation to learning should not be viewed as necessarily limiting for all adult learners (Learn more about theories of motivation).

Most students do not fall neatly into one goal orientation or the other, of course, and it may be difficult to ascertain a learner's specific goals for enrolling in an ABE program. While some students may express a desire to "learn to read" or "get my GED and get a better job," it is often impossible to discern if these statements accurately reflect the individual's purposes for being in class. Adult students are as susceptible to social desirability as anyone else and many may believe that such statements make them "look good" in the eyes of their instructors.

Recently, we conducted case studies of students who were enrolled in a GED program at a local community college. This report is based on two of these cases. A series of interviews with both individuals revealed that, while they appeared to have similar orientations to literacy learning that prompted their enrollment, their learning goals diverged as each progressed through the program. Classroom observations revealed both students to be deeply engaged in the activities and practices of the classroom. Despite differences in their goal orientations, both were making satisfactory progress toward the GED.


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