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Is There a Skeleton in the Reading Specialist's Closet?  Adult Literacy as a Fad
Judy S. Richardson
Virginia Commonwealth University


During the past four decades , reading professionals have become increasingly interested in the field of adult literacy. Whether the reading community is on the forefront of substantive change in its contributions to adult literacy remains to be seen. Interest seems to peak and wane over these decades. Richardson (1993) has described several major directions in the field of adult literacy. Table E. In the late 80's and early 90's, adult literacy was a "hot" issue. People were encouraged to volunteer their time to eradicate the "problem." Alarms sounded; the immediate reaction was to send in emergency equipment! But these alarms have occurred off and on for four decades already, with little substantive commitment emerging. Bracey (1992) calls this convenient lapse of memory "historical amnesia." Kazemak (1985) once compared it to the Phoenix rising from its ashes again and again. I liken it to the family which hides its secret skeleton in the closet. Occasionally we will open the closet door and expose this secret skeleton, but we put it away again.

The 100,000 Level Program (Sticht, 1975; Rose, 1990), was the alarm of the 1960's. As a young English teacher, I found myself on Okinawa, where many young soldiers were stationed during the Vietnam war. The Armed Forces, in need of more servicemen, relaxed literacy requirements in order to accept 100,000 young men who lacked basic reading skills. They were to be trained on service time by instructors like me. Yes, I was eager, interested, and dedicated. No, I had no knowledge at all about adult learning or reading. But I was there, the 100,000 were there, and we did our best. By the end of the 60's, I had learned that I needed and wanted more knowledge about adult beginning readers. The Services have quietly retired the program; most of us don't really remember it. The skeleton returned to the closet.

In the 1970's, Nixon introduced the goal that all Americans would be literate by 1980. Thus was generated a new surge of interest and Right To Read Academies sprang up across the country , with federal support (Kazemek, 1985). Many were staffed by dedicated personnel; many foundered because these people did not know how to teach adult beginning readers. Appropriate standardized testing and attrition rates were haunting issues. Right To Read Academies are no more. 1980 has come and gone. I think I can safely write that we are not yet a totally literate nation. The skeleton returned to the closet.

In the mid-1980's, Project Literacy United States (PLUS) surfaced. Miklos (1985) described the status of literacy and indicated actions that reading professionals might take. Duffy (1986) informed reading and adult educators about PLUS and encouraged professional involvement in this nationwide movement. A PLUS media campaign was launched to inform about the plight of adult illiterates.

America 2000, arising from the PLUS movement, was the surge of the early 1990's. The goal for adult literacy stated, "Every adult will be literate and possess the skills necessary to compete in a world economy." Bush (1992) was the major advocate of America 2000. Clinton has taken up a new literacy torch, America Reads. The focus is now on young children, and the skeleton has returned to the closet.

As reading professionals, have we done any better in maintaining a steady focus on adult literacy? I think not, as the following study of activities conducted by International Reading Association local councils reflects.


    In 1986, a group of IRA professionals interested in adult literacy developed a set of guidelines for an optional Honor Council activity report entitled "The Adult Literacy Project." The description of possible activities included three categories: Awareness, designed to encourage local councils to become aware of what adult literacy was, and to share this awareness with other IRA members; Collaboration, designed to encourage local councils to collaborate and consult with adult literacy organizations, many of which are volunteer in nature and might welcome enhanced communication; and Technical Assistance, designed to encourage reading teachers to share their expertise by tutoring, providing workshops, and becoming consultants to volunteer literacy programs.

    These guidelines, and the optional project, were accepted by IRA and put into practice in 1987-1988. In 1988-89, a study was conducted (Richardson, 1990) to determine what had been submitted during the second year of the inclusion of an optional adult literacy project. Results were reported to the membership through IRA presentations and in an article appearing in the Council News section of Reading Today. This study provided an indication of the interest in adult literacy by local councils. At that time, 94 councils submitted a total of 216 activities, with 44% in the category of awareness, 36% in the category of collaboration, and 22% in the category of technical assistance. TABLE D. For a second year of operation, this report seemed encouraging. IRA councils seemed well on the way to adopting adult literacy as a viable area of interest and concentration. Also in this report, activities in which councils had participated were described to give other councils ideas for their future involvement. For four years, at the IRA Spring conference, a session was presented in which ideas for local council activities and involvement were provided. These sessions were co-directed by IRA and Laubach professionals. In 1993, Stahl and Richardson encouraged honor councils to continue their participation in adult literacy activities by writing about the visibility and involvement of various projects. These sessions and articles were intended to keep interest in adult literacy high.

The Study

    Since 1989, has IRA grown in its interest, as measured by local council involvement, in the area of adult literacy? What types of activities are being done, if any? A study of the activities submitted by local councils was conducted to answer this question. Because the Honor Council Guidelines were changed in 1994, there is no longer a specific category for "The Adult Literacy Project." However, several submission categories could include an adult literacy activity. Submissions from honor councils for the 1994-1995 year were studied to identify activities from seven project categories which might include an adult literacy focus.

    Headquarters IRA provided the author with copies of each activity summary submitted by local councils in the designated areas. All activity summaries were read. Those with an adult literacy focus were then sorted using the three categories designated in the 1986 guidelines.

    Activities for 1994-1995 ( TABLE A) were analyzed by adhering to the following definition of adult literacy projects: Projects pertain to or focus on adults becoming literate; projects are intended primarily to serve adults (age 16 and over) who are low-literate. The term "adult" is used in the description of the project or in the description of the target audience. While some projects did use the term "adult," the description indicated that children were the primary population to be served; for instance, some family literacy projects indicated that the target audience was both adults and children, but the books donated were children's books intended for children to read alone or with adult assistance. Such projects were discounted from this study.

Results & Discussion

    The results indicate that the number of activities has decreased from 1989 to 1996 to less than half. In 1995, 93 activities were noted; in 1996, 72 were noted. TABLE C & D. Part of this troubling circumstance relates to the decision by IRA to delete a specific category for an adult literacy project. Also, IRA neglected to include even the term "adult literacy" in the description of the optional projects. Apparently the assumption was that "family literacy" and "adult literacy" meant the same thing. While family literacy might be considered a part of adult literacy, the reverse is not true.

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    This error was apparently not corrected for the 1995-1996 year, even though appropriate personnel at IRA agreed to make this one change of inserting "adult literacy" in the descriptors. ( TABLE B). The good news is that the percentage of activities in technical assistance has increased over the years, indicating that reading specialists are providing more expertise to adult literacy providers by tutoring, presenting workshops, and consulting. The bad news is that we seem to be spending less time on creating awareness and collaborating with adult literacy providers. What can be done to encourage more awareness and collaboration. Here are some suggestions:

    • For a meeting of reading professionals, make the topic adult literacy. For instance, you might invite a local volunteer agency speaker to tell about that program, such as Literacy Volunteers of America or Laubach Literacy International. There might be a library-related adult literacy project or a church program.
    • Include some information about adult literacy in a newsletter to reading specialists. Perhaps there is an article on adult literacy or a book you could recommend. Perhaps there is a "success" story you could write about.
    • Consider honoring an adult literacy program or group in your area. Perhaps an award could be given to a new literate adult who has overcome many obstacles to learn to read.
    • Contact a local adult literacy volunteer agency and see what they need. Perhaps they need volunteers to help complete paper work and office chores with which they are swamped. Perhaps they need funds to buy instructional materials. Perhaps they need you as a resource for reading-related questions tutors have.


      The skeleton is back in the closet, not only for the nation, but also for reading teachers. Encouragement to participate in adult literacy activities at a local level is waning. Undoubtedly interest in adult literacy will peak again, if the past several decades are any indicator of future trends. In the meantime, electronic journals such as this one will surely help to keep adult literacy in the hearts and minds of many reading professionals.

      accepted 2.5.98


      Bracey, G. (1992). The condition of public education. Phi Delta Kappan, 74, 2, 104-117.

      Bush, G. (1992). A Revolution to achieve excellence in our schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 74, 2, 130 & 132-3.

      Duffy, J. (1986). Project literacy US: Cooperation to attack illiteracy. Adult Literacy and Basic Education, 10, 2, 65-72

      Kazemek, F. (1985). Functional literacy is not enough, adult literacy as a developmental process. Journal of Reading, 28, 332-335.

      Miklos, J. (1985). Literacy in the US: What is the status? What's being done? Reading Today, 2, 1, 6-7.

      Richardson, J. S. (1990). Councils active in adult literacy. Reading Today, 2, 10.

      Richardson, J. S. (1993). Fads or substantive change in the filed of adult literacy? in N. Padak & T. Rasinski (Eds.)., Inquiries in Literacy Learning and Instruction. Yearbook of the College Reading Association, 27-37.

      Rose, M. (1990). Lives on the boundary. New York: Penguin Books.

      Stahl, N., & Richardson, J. S. (1993). Connections: Roles for IRA Councils in adult literacy. Reading Today, 11, 4.

      Sticht, T. G. (1975). Reading for working: A functional literacy anthology. Alexandria, VA: Human Resources and Research Organization.