You are here - OLRC Home   |   Site Index   |   Contact Us
Ohio Literacy Resource Center LOGO Line

Research to Practice: The Major National Adult Literacy Volunteer Organizations A Review of the Westat Report (1992)

by Jane Schierloh

Laubach Literary Action (LLA) and Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA), the two major volunteer literacy organizations, have made the least literate of Americans their priority. Yet few studies have been conducted of their operations. Consequently, the U.S. Department of Education commissioned a study by the Westat Corporation to provide a descriptive profile of LLA and LVA.

The study, released in 1991, raises more questions than it answers. Its most important contributions may be that it points out the many gaps in existing information and suggests questions that need to be answered.

The following review includes a brief description and critique of the design of the study, some highlights of its findings, and a research agenda drawn from the information needs detailed in the report.

The study used three sources of information:

  1. A review of the relevant literature on volunteers in adult literacy education.
  2. A visit to the national offices of LLA and LVA.
  3. Two-day site visits to three LVA and three LLA organizations.

Unfortunately, the study did not include visits to representative local organizations. The authors state that the three LVA sites and three LLA sites researchers visited were selected by LVA and LLA national organizations because they were exemplary local programs noted "for maintaining systematic data, having a sizeable number of tutor/learner matches in operation, and possessing a breadth of activities in recruiting, training, and supporting their volunteers" (p. 4). From the standpoint of good research design, visits to six local organizations could not be expected to give an adequate picture of the operations of 434 LVA affiliates and 1,023 local LLA councils.

The study gathered the following types of data:

  • Structure, staffing, and funding of literacy volunteer organizations
  • Record keeping on students, volunteers, and student progress
  • Coordination with local adult education programs, job training and social service agencies, and state government agencies
  • Volunteer recruiting, training, matching with students, supervision, and retention
  • Instructional methods, settings, and documentation for program evaluation

    Developments in Last Decade

    Both volunteer literacy organizations grew dramatically in the 1980's. For example, the number of learners in LVA programs increased from 19,079 in 1986 to 52,338 in 1991. LLA has similarly reported a jump from 50,000 learners in 1983 to 147,087 in 1990.

    New sources of funding such as the Adult Education Act and United Way have increased the ability of volunteer organizations to reach more learners.

    These new sources of funding have brought with them demands for accountability, e.g., improved data collection procedures and efforts to improve and increase tutor training.

    At local, state, and national levels, there is considerable collaboration between LLA and LVA. Collaboration with local adult basic education programs has also increased.

    Some Key Problems

  • Stable funding
  • Data management
  • Evaluation of programs and learners
  • Balance between the number of tutors and students (Tutor recruitment requires much more effort than student recruitment. Student waiting lists are common.)
  • On-going tutor training and support (It is difficult to get volunteer tutors to come to inservice training opportunities.)
  • Tutor retention
  • Student retention

    Some Key Strengths

  • Priority given to learners with the lowest literacy skills.
  • Ample information gathered about the characteristics of incoming students.
  • Considerable opportunities provided to volunteers for professional growth and increased responsibility (e.g., from tutor to tutor-trainer to supervisor of trainers).

    The report points out that volunteer literacy organizations that receive or seek federal funds will need to do the following:

    1. Asses student progress
    The report recommends that LLA and LVA national and state leadership disseminate information on effectiveness indicators and assessment tools and "conduct a program of education in this area" (p. Xvii).

    2. Maintain program information systems

  • Document program services
  • Document budgets
  • Document staffing patterns
  • Document retention of both tutors and students The report recommends that the federally funded National Institute for Literacy and the State Resource Centers "provide resources for training in program information management, not only for volunteer literacy programs but for the broad field of providers" (p. Xviii).

    3. Demonstrate greater expertise in the training and supervision of their volunteer tutoring staff
    The report recommends that "the National Institute for Literacy, the National Center on Adult Literacy(a federally funded research center), and the State Literacy Resource Centers offers opportunities for research projects that can develop or identify, validate, and disseminate information on promising practices and state-of-the-art volunteer training methods. LLA and LVA national offices can provide leadership in promoting such activities" (p.xviii).

    4. Increase coordination with other educational institutions, employment/training providers, and social service providers.
    The report recommends that State Literacy Resource Centers "serve as both a catalyst and resource for technical assistance in building community partnerships among adult education and literacy providers and other agencies" (xviii).

    This report thoroughly documents the need for more information on various aspects of the operations of volunteer literacy organizations. The following questions are based on information needs identified in the report:

    Tutor-student matching:

  • What factors are most important in making a successful tutor-student match? For example, are there benefits to matching students and tutors with similar personal backgrounds?

    Student retention:

  • What percent of students drop out of a program?
  • How is "drop-out rate" defined in open-entry/open-exit programs?
  • At what point in the program do students drop out?

    Tutor retention:

  • How long do tutors stay in programs?
  • Do adult basic education volunteer aides or tutors turn over at rates similar to those of LLA and LVA volunteers?
  • Why do they leave? (Current checklists do not probe beyond "insufficient time" and "changed personal circumstances.")
  • What happens to tutors when their students leave the program? Do they also leave?
  • What happens to students when tutors leave?
  • What factors are major incentives in getting and keeping volunteers?

    Tutor qualifications and training:

  • What should the qualifications for tutors be?
  • What kind and amount of training is necessary? Most of the literature on the adequacy of training claims that existing training for adult education teachers...and volunteers is glaringly inadequate for the job of teaching adults basic literacy skills. There is little research-based data to support or contradict this claim..." [p. 24].


  • How can the numbers of tutors and students be kept in balance?


  • What are the effects of volunteer literacy programs on learners' basic literacy? ("The few formal evaluations that have been done measure learners' grade level reading achievement" [p. 33].)
  • How do volunteers evaluate their students' progress?
  • To what extent do students meet their goals?

    Those committed to the work of volunteer adult literacy organizations and to increasing their effectiveness will want to think about, discuss, and work on this research agenda. The Ohio Literacy Resource Center staff can provide technical assistance to individuals and organizations who want to find answers to these important questions.

    The complete report "The Major National Adult Literacy Volunteer Organizations" is available free from the Clearinghouse Division of Adult Education and Literacy, U.S. Dept. Of Education, Washington, D.C. 20202-7240. FAX 202-205-8973. Telephone 202-205-9996.

    Ohio Literacy Resource Center - Celebrating 10 Years of Enhancing Adult Literacy 1993-2003 This page
    and is maintained by the OLRC .
    Follow us on
    Facebook Twitter