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Determining the Characteristics of Successful Women in an Adult Literacy Program

June 1996

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.

Research Questions: This qualitative research study attempted to answer the following questions:

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 children.

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 testimonies.
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 the program.

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 you can."

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 literacy skills.

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 providers.

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 students.

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