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Supporting Adult Literacy Students

An Interview with John Comings Senior research associate and lecturer on education John Comings is director of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL). His research and writing have focused on the impact of adult literacy programs and the factors that lead to that impact in the United States and in Third World countries. Comings' present research is focused on the factors that support increased persistence by adult literacy students.
Audio Selections about the Research (RealPlayer required)
 Some excerpts from a recent interview with John Comings about his research into adult literacy are included here: An audio resource John Comings on employment challenges facing illiterate adults (1 minute)  listen An audio resource Comings on the difference between the K-12 system and adult education (1 minute) listen An audio resource Comings on the differences in the way children and adults learn (1 minute) listen An audio resource Comings explains some adult literacy statistics (1 minute) listen An audio resource Comings on how adult illiteracy may effect children (1 minute) listen
NCSALL director John Comings (Karlyn Morissette photo)
Q: Why do you think that expressing specific goals increases the success rates of adults who participate in adult education programs? A: Children go to school because they must be there by law, all their friends are there, and they don’t usually have other responsibilities. Children are not in school to meet their own goals; they are there to meet goals set for them by the school system. Adults must choose to go to class, and attending class always means taking time away from the important adult responsibilities of work, family, and community. Personal goals provide adults with the motivation to make that choice. When adult students are encouraged to express and discuss their goals, motivation is reinforced, and teachers gain valuable information that they can use to change their curriculum in ways that help students reach their personal goals. Q: How can an adult enrolled in a learning program be certain that he or she will find the level of personal support that is necessary for successful completion of the program? Is it practical for programs to offer services to ensure such support? A: Most adult students have a friend or relative who provides personal support that helps them persist in their learning. If program staff could identify these “learning sponsors,” provide them with advice on how to be helpful, and engage them in program activities, a stronger bond of support might develop. Programs cannot provide all of the personal support a student needs, but teachers can use classroom techniques that build a community of learners so that students provide support to each other. Programs can also recruit volunteers to play the sponsor role for students who don’t have support in the social network. Former students who have been successful can be particularly effective in this role.
“Programs cannot provide all of the personal support a student needs, but teachers can use classroom techniques that build a community of learners so that students provide support to each other.”
Q: What do you imagine will be some of the most effective methods of enhancing adult literacy programs in the United States during the next five years? A: Most programs are set up like schools, where students are expected to complete a course of study. Our research shows that very few adults stay with a course of study; most engage in a series of episodes of learning in classes and self-study. Right now, students cannot connect their episodes of learning, both classroom and self-study, into a coherent learning path. Technology may offer a solution to this problem. Adults could keep a record of their learning on the Web so that when they enter a new class, their teacher could look at this history and help students pick up where they left off. In addition, the Web could provide opportunities for students to continue learning between episodes of classroom participation in ways that build on what they have learned.