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Thomas Sticht Articles on Adult Education


Enjoy the thoughts posted by Thomas Sticht, retired International Consultant in Adult Education and longtime supporter of adult learners all over the world


Celebrating Black History and Women’s History Months  

Colleagues: During February we celebrate Black History Month (BHM) and in March we celebrate Women’s History Month (WHM). This year I am offering a lottery to win key publications about both Black (B) and White (W) Women and their work to light the lamp of literacy for both B & W learners.

I am celebrating BHM&WHM together by giving away books and materials about the lives of six great American women who, through their work in adult literacy, changed democracy in America. These six women are: Harriet A. Jacobs (B), Susie King Taylor (B), Cora Wilson Stewart (W), Caroline Clark Myers (W), Wil Lou Gray (W), and Septima Poinsette Clark (B). The work they did helped light the lamp of literacy for millions of Americans and brought about the Civil and Voting rights acts of the 1960s.  

Lottery Drawing for Books and Materials about These Ladies 

To celebrate the work of these three Ladies of Literacy during BHM&WHM, I will hold a lottery drawing for any of you who send me an email saying “Enter me in the drawing” and provide your snail mail address to which I can send the winning prizes.

Each emailers name will be assigned a number and each number will be put on a slip of paper and dropped into a small box. On March 8th, which is the United Nation’s International Women’s Day, I will draw three numbers from the box on a random basis.

The holder of the first number drawn will receive the book “Changing Literacies for a Changing Time: An Historical Perspective on the Future of Reading Research, Public Policy, and Classroom Practices” with a chapter on “The Lamplighters: Pioneers of Adult Literacy Education in the United States” (314 pages) which discusses five of these six Ladies of Literacy and other literacy pioneers.  I will include additional printed materials about Susie Taylor, Wil Lou Gray, Caroline Myers, Septima Clark, and a report on “Managing Literacy, Mothering America” regarding women’s work in  literacy education for children and adults.

The holder of the second number drawn will receive the biography called “Cora Wilson Stewart: Crusader Against Illiteracy” by Willie Nelms (233 pages). 

The holder of the third  number drawn will receive the biography called “Wil Lou Gray: Let My People Learn” by DaMaris E. Ayres (231 pages).

If you want to participate in this drawing send your email to me at tgsticht@gmail.com

I will announce the winners of the three prizes on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2019 and put the books in the snail mail to the winners that day.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you for this lottery in celebration of Black History Month, Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Meanwhile, see the brief note below for an overview of the work of these six Ladies of Literacy.

P.S.: Winners of my previous lottery in January 2019 are eligible to reenter this lottery. Feel free to share this email with those you think would be interested in entering the drawing.

Celebrating Black History and Women’s History Months: Six Ladies of Literacy in the United States

Harriet A. Jacobs (B) (1813-1897)

An early account of teaching an adult to read comes from the work of the slave girl, Harriet A. Jacobs. Though it was unlawful to teach slaves to read, Jacob’s owner’s daughter taught her to read and write. After becoming a free woman, Jacobs wrote a book entitled, “Incidents in the life of a slave girl written by herself”. In it she tells how she helped an older black man, a slave like her, learn to read. She said, “ He thought he could plan to come three times a week without its being suspected. I selected a quiet nook, where no intruder was likely to penetrate, and there I taught him his A, B, C. Considering his age, his progress was astonishing. As soon as he could spell in two syllables he wanted to spell out words in the Bible. … At the end of six months he had read through the New Testament, and could find any text in it.” After achieving her freedom, Jacobs taught school for former slaves, parents and children alike, in what were called the Freedmen’s Schools.

Susie King Taylor (B) (1848-1912)

During the Civil War, the Union Army initiated the practice of enlisting freed African-Americans. Many of whom were illiterate. One officer appointed a chaplain as the regimental teacher, who in turn engaged Susie King Taylor in teaching soldiers to read and write. Taylor, who was born a slave in Savannah, Georgia, in 1848. In her 1902 book entitled  “Reminiscences of my life in camp with the 33rd U. S. Colored Troops, Late 1st South Carolina Volunteers”. reported  “I taught a great many of the comrades in Company E to read and write when they were off duty, nearly all were anxious to learn. …I was very happy to know my efforts were successful in camp also very grateful for the appreciation of my services. I gave my services willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar” (Taylor, 1902, p. 21).  Here Taylor reports her voluntary work in the Civil War, and this use of volunteers in adult literacy education is a mainstay in the programs offered across the United States today. 

Cora Wilson Stewart (W) (1875-1958)

Cora Wilson Stewart founded the well-known Moonlight Schools of Kentucky in 1911, several years before the start of World War I. But when that war started, and thousands of men were found to be illiterate, she quickly turned to providing instruction for those who were recruited as soldiers and produced the first reader for military personnel entitled “The Soldier’s First Book”.  Earlier, Stewart produced an innovative method for teaching adults to write. She understood that for adults who had to make a mark in public events, such as voting, nothing was more important than learning how to write their names. So she introduced the practice of taking a soft sheet of ink blotting paper and carving the person’s name in it. Students then traced over the indented name until they could write it without any guide from the blotter paper. Later this approach to teaching writing would be called the “kinesthetic method” and was used during the Civil rights and Voting Rights movements of the 1950’s and ‘60s (see below).

Caroline Clark Myers (W) (1887-1980)

In World War I some 700,000 recruits were determined to be illiterate, many  of whom were non-English speakers. After the World War I armistice was signed, Caroline Clark Myers, the first  woman hired to teach non-English speaking and illiterate adults in the Army in World War I, worked with her husband and others and developed materials and methods of teaching English, reading, and writing to illiterate soldiers for the war department. She  wrote books for teaching English to non-English speaking adults, such as  The Language of America: Lessons in Elementary English for Adults Volume 1 [available online] She and her husband later started  a magazine for children called Highlights for Children (still around today with a circulation of over 2 million). As  with the World War I materials she and others developed, Highlights uses lots of illustrations,  puzzles, cartoons and stories aimed at catching the interest of both  children and their parents. The latter are encouraged to read to their children to promote the intergenerational transfer of literacy from parents to their progeny and increase family literacy. 

Wil Lou Gray (W) (1883-1984)

The motivational power of being able to write one’s own name was used in 1922-23 by Dr. Wil Lou Gray, State Superintendent of Adult Education in South Carolina, as part of an anti-illiteracy campaign across the state aimed to get adults into literacy programs to learn to sign their names when voting and in other important situations. The technology that Gray used to teach writing of one’s name was a modification of that used by Stewart (see above), Gray went on to start the well-known Opportunity Schools for both white and black adults in South Carolina. In the first experimental study of adult literacy education in the United States, Gray and associates found that, contrary to what some claimed, adults were able to acquire literacy and knowledge readily, and this was true for both white and black adults in their separate schools. The report   concluded, “… the facts which have been presented in the study show clearly that agencies of adult education may render invaluable service to adults of limited education…. Virtually millions of adults, both white and colored, are eager for the advantages which opportunity schools afford. It is imperative that provision be made for such people so that they may become more efficient socially and may live much richer, happier lives”.

Septima Poinsette Clark (B)  (1898-1987)

Stewart’s tracing method of learning to write one’s name was passed on from Wil Lou Gray to Septima Poinsette Clark, the great civil rights teacher from the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. In teaching students to write their names, Clark used what she said was the “kinesthetic” method which she had learned from Wil Lou Gray. Clark was invited by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and establish Citizenship schools to teach African-Americans to read and write. In a few years, more than 10,000 teachers had taught African-American adult illiterates to write their names and to vote, and over 700,000 new voters were registered. With this new political power of the democratic vote, voices of African-Americans were heard and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws of the 1960s opened up a new chapter in the history of democracy in the United States!

In Summary

The momentous efforts of these six Ladies of Literacy, Blacks and Whites,  in bringing millions of socially excluded Americans to literacy and democracy is being replicated today by thousands of adult literacy educators across the Nation.  The social media of the digital age, using literacy, are touching the hearts of newly literate oppressed peoples around the world and they are striving for freedom and democracy. It will come because these millions of people have a voice, and to paraphrase the words of Septima Poinsette Clark, suddenly they have become a part of the world’s free community; they are on their way toward a global, first-class citizenship! 


Colleagues: Next month, February, brings Valentine’s Day and an opportunity to advocate for adult literacy education by sending Valentine cards to policymakers, charitable foundations, and newspapers. One advocacy Valentine card that some have used in the past is made up from materials from the literacy programs operated by the military during World War II.  

During World War II the armed forces engaged in the teaching of literacy to non-English speaking and low literate soldiers. Over 250,000 young men learned to read in Special Training Units in the Army. One of the resources used to teach reading was a newspaper, Our War, which was  published monthly from June 1942 through September 1945. Each issue of Our War included a cartoon strip about Private Pete and his buddy, Daffy. The February, 1944 issue discussed Valentine’s Day. 

I’m sending this message out early so you can make any plans you might have for using this Valentine’s day strip for educational and advocacy purposes. If you would like a template that you can use to print the original Valentine’s day cartoon strip from Our War in a Valentine card format just send me an email asking for it and I’ll send it right along. In the past, some have used this template as an activity for adult literacy students  to learn a little about those who went before them as adult literacy learners and to give them a card-making activity that they can use to spread information about adult literacy education. A little advocacy effort while spreading a little Valentine’s Day love!!

My email address is:  tgsticht@gmail.com Tom Sticht

PS: Here is the content without the cartoon drawings from the Our War Valentine’s Day issue of 1944:

Our War    February 1944              Private Pete    Cupid Goes to War

The strip opens with a panel showing Private Pete and his buddy Daffy standing outside the Post Exchange.
Daffy says, “Pete, I think I’ll buy some valentines, will you help me?” 
Pete says, “Well!! What’s up? Who is she?”
Daffy: “ I need one for Mary Lou. And that girl I met at the U. S.O. dance. And one for your mother, too.”

Later, Pete and Daffy get back to the Day Room where they see Joe making some valentines. Joe draws a picture of Cupid and Daffy says, “What’s cupid doing with the bow and arrow?”
Pete says, “He shoots people full of love with his arrows.”

On Valentine’s Day, Pete and Daffy got a valentine from Pete’s Mom which said:

“Dear Pete and Daffy:
Today we want to show our love for you,
As you are showing your love for your
Country. Think of us while you are eating
my cookies and the fudge Sis made for you.

Pete says: “Now that we’ve read Mom’s letter, how about reading yours from Mary Lou?”

Mary Lou’s valentine said: 

“Here’s taffy for Daffy
on Valentine’s Day. 
How much we
All love him
Is too hard to say.
Mary Lou” 

Then Daffy opens a valentine with a picture of Cupid wearing a soldier’s uniform and holding a gun. Pete says, “Cupid does a lot for our country, too.” And Daffy replies, “ I sure am glad Cupid’s in the Army now.”

11/11/2018 (Veterans Day)

Celebrating Adult Literacy Educator Veterans of Wars

Since its founding, the United States has engaged in a number of wars fighting for freedom and liberty both at home and abroad. On Veterans Day we celebrate the lives of the veterans of these wars and thank those both living and dead who have fought to keep us free. Among these veterans are adult educators, both military and civilian, who worked, often under arduous conditions, to help America’s non-English speaking, illiterate, and under-educated military personnel learn to read, write, and compute.

During the Revolutionary War, at Valley Forge, military chaplains served as adult educators and taught soldiers to read. Though we don’t know how many soldiers were taught to read, nor how well, we do know that lessons continued throughout the encampment at Valley Forge.

During the Civil War, fought in the United States to free the slaves of the Confederate states and to unite the Nation, the Union Army provided many educational opportunities for former slaves. This included the work of one General Banks who sought to eradicate the widespread illiteracy among the 18,585 Negro troops serving in the Department of the Gulf by appointing several members of the American Missionary Association as lieutenants in some of the colored regiments. Banks appointed these men for the sole purpose of teaching the Negro soldiers. He also directed chaplains to engage in literacy instruction for the former slaves.

During WWI the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) provided reading and writing instruction for soldiers. One of the activities that the Y.M.C.A. undertook was the preparation of literacy instructional materials for the soldiers. Among these was the “Camp Reader for American Soldiers” which used a functional approach to teach soldiers to read military-related materials. At Camp Upton, New York, illiterate and non-English speaking recruits were taught literacy following a course of instruction developed under the direction of Captain Garry C. Myers, whose wife, Caroline, also taught soldiers to read. Later these veteran adult literacy educators founded “Highlights for Children”, a magazine for helping adults teach their children reading and writing skills.

During World War II, the armed services once again faced the need to utilize hundreds of thousands of men who were poorly literate and many were non-English speakers. As in World War I, the armed forces developed functional, military-related materials to teach English language and reading skills with these underprepared soldiers. Estimates of the numbers of WW II adult literacy instructors included some 5,291 personnel. Of these, around 641 were officers, 4,557 were enlisted men, and there were some 87 civilians. More than 1200 of these teachers were African-Americans. The efforts of all these teachers helped raise the literacy skills of over a quarter million soldiers.

During the Korean War, fought from June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953. tens of thousands of inductees entered the military services with reading levels below the 8th grade level, and many were in need of reading instruction.  To meet the need for materials for teaching reading to under-educated inductees during the Korean War the United States Armed Forces Institute (USAFI) made available reading instructional materials that were based to an extent on the World War II functional literacy materials. Teachers in education centers at military posts around the country helped raise the literacy levels of thousands of the troops who went on to fight in Korea.

During the Vietnam war, I directed the development of the Army’s Functional Literacy (FLIT) program for marginally literate personnel. This was the first program that introduced systematic methods for studying literacy practices of personnel in various jobs and job training programs, incorporated these practices into the design of job-related literacy programs, and compared the effectiveness of general literacy programs to job-related programs. In evaluation studies, some 3400 students taught by 30 military and civilian teachers at six Army posts improved their reading ability by studying authentic job-related materials having real meaning and relevance to them.

In all these wars adult literacy instructors, including thousands of active duty military personnel, contributed to the war efforts through their teaching of reading. As veterans, some of these former soldiers or sailors went on to translate techniques for teaching basic skills for soldiers into methods for teaching basic skills for both children and adults.

On Veterans Day this year, while we honor all veterans of all wars, take a moment to give a special thanks and appreciation to those veterans who served as teachers of adults in these wars. Behind the guns and bombs of war are the brains of those who fight. Adult educators helped to make many  fighter’s  brains more effective in war and afterward at home through the magic of literacy.


For an extended set of readings about the work of adult literacy educators in all these wars see these two free e-books:

Sticht, T. (2017). Fighting Illiteracy in Times of War. In: T. Sticht: The Struggle for Adult Literacy Education in America A Trilogy Of  Notes on History, Research, Policy, & Practice in Adult Literacy Education. E-book available online at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55a158b4e4b0796a90f7c371/t/5a08848b8165f51550503a1d/1510507672628/Bk+Trilogy.1.pdf

Sticht, T. (2018). Mainstreaming Marginalized Adults: The Transformation of Adult Basic Education in the United States. Online at:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324604141_Mainstreaming_Marginalized_Adults_The_Transformation_of_Adult_Basic_Education_in_the_United_State

10/1/2018 - October is National Health Literacy Month

A Two-Pronged Approach to Health Literacy

Improving adults’ health literacy by teaching them reading and writing while also teaching them about good health behavior has been around for a long time. During World War II the military published a newspaper, Our War, for soldiers who were learning how to read. The September 1945 issue included a cartoon strip featuring fictitious soldiers Private Pete and his buddy, Daffy. This strip talked about the importance of keeping ones feet healthy. Here is an extract from Our War for September 1945:


A two-Pronged Approach to Literacy Problems

Twenty-two years later, during the Vietnam War in 1967, I directed R & D teams in a two pronged approach to the training and utilization of less literate young adults serving in the military. In one approach, we looked at how the adults might be modified through literacy education. This approach led to the development of the Functional Literacy (FLIT) program which, like the World War II literacy programs, integrated the teaching of reading (decoding written words, sentences, paragraphs) with important content knowledge, including health information such as first aid in battle, surviving chemical and biological warfare, etc. (Sticht, 2018). 

The second approach we followed to improve the training and utilization of less literate adults involved looking at how to modify job materials to make them easier to read and use on the job. This led to the development of a guidebook which discussed the uses of readability formulas and other methods for assessing and redesigning documents and other materials to make them easier to comprehend and use (Kern, Sticht, Welty, & Hauke,1975).

Applications to Contemporary Health Literacy Activities

In 1981, Cecilia C. Doak from Patient Learning Associates, Inc. visited me and we discussed the two-pronged approach to addressing the needs of less literate adults, i.e. modifying the people through functional context education that integrates basic skills (literacy, numeracy) and health knowledge and modifying literacy demands through the redesign of materials. Later, I sent Ceci and her husband, Len, books by colleagues and myself which discussed this two-pronged approach (Sticht, 1975; Sticht,, Beck, Hauke, Kleiman, &  James, 1974); Kern,  Sticht, Welty, & Hauke,1975). In 1985, these materials were used by Ceci and Len Doak and Jane Root in the first edition of their seminal book, Teaching Patients With Low Literacy Skills. Over the following decades, work by Ceci and Len stimulated a large number of initiatives in health literacy.                                                                                                                        

In 1999, National Health Literacy Month was founded by Helen Osborne, who later in 2009 presented a podcast about the work of the Doaks lauding their seminal work in health literacy. Today, National Health Literacy Month is observed annually in October to remind all of us about the importance of being able to read and comprehend information about our health and to better communicate with health providers. By 2016, the health literacy movement was worldwide. For example, an Australian report (Muscat et al., 2016) once again called attention to the work I had shared with the Doaks and noted that: “The Being Healthy, Staying Healthy program embedded key Learning, Literacy and Numeracy skill development into 29 health-related topics using Functional Context Education methods (an approach to adult learning that embeds functional basic skills within topics that are of relevance and interest to adult learners (Sticht, 2005).”

With millions of adults in poor health, suffering from poor literacy, and in many cases being poor economically, health literacy advocates have much information to use during this National Health Literacy Month for educating policymakers, private foundations, and businesses about the importance of health literacy education for adults and the use of “plain language” and other document design techniques for producing more readable and usable health-related informational materials.

Here’s to your health!



September 23-29, 2018 is Adult Education and Family Literacy Week  

In 1890, speaking about the formation of human capital, the economist Alfred Marshall wrote, “The most valuable of all capital is that invested in human beings; and of that capital the most precious part is the result of the care and influence of the mother” (cited in Cunha & Heckman, 2009, p. 2). Marshall’s focus on the importance of mothers in the development of human capital has echoed across time and has a firm place in understanding the role of adult literacy education in the development of literate families.

One hundred years after Marshall’s prescient focus on the importance of capital invested by mothers, Sticht & McDonald (1990, p. 5) wrote, : “It is the thesis of this paper that significant reductions in adult illiteracy can be achieved most cost-effectively by focusing a larger percentage of world educational resources on the education of women. In particular, it is argued that money spent on the education of women who are or are about to become mothers can produce 'double duty' effects. Monies spent on the education of women contribute not only to the development of the women, but also to the educational participation and achievement of their children.”

Almost a decade and a half later, Karleka (2004) edited a book about a major literacy campaign in India in which it was noted that women participated in large numbers (some 40 million) and there were gains in social and political status for women and, importantly, this included a strong demand by mothers for the education of their children. This was clearly a demonstration of how investments in the literacy education of women can contribute to the elevation of the literacy level of a family.

Much additional research indicates that the educational levels of parents, especially mothers, influence the ways in which they interact with their children (Sticht, 2011). This in turn leads to how these children will develop into adulthood. Some children from families with less well educated parents will grow up without developing the levels of literacy and education they need for living very well. Some of these adults will enroll in adult education and increase their basic skills of oracy, literacy, and numeracy. Frequently, they will also develop non-cognitive traits such as motivation to persist in learning, improved self-confidence, including the self-confidence and motivation to engage in educationally important parenting activities with their children. This in turn raises the literacy level of the newly educated adult’s family.

Adult Literacy Education for Mothers Raises Family Literacy Levels

Adult literacy educators have long known about the importance of educating mothers or mothers-to-be for the educational development of children. In 1929, Cora Wilson Stewart, founder of the famous Moonlight Schools of Kentucky, wrote a book called “Mother’s First Book: A First Reader for Home Women.” In this book she said, “This book is a first reader for women who cannot read or write. …There are many women who can attend school, there are many others who cannot. Those who are unable to join a class or to enroll in school may be taught at home…. Never was there a finer, nobler task for a volunteer who wants to render a patriotic, helpful, constructive service….The lessons are centered around the home and the daily activities…they aim not only at teaching women to read and write, but at leading them to better home practices and higher ideals in their home and community life” (Stewart, 1929, pp. 5-6).

Sixty years later, research by Wider Opportunities for Women found that mothers enrolled in basic skills (literacy, numeracy) education, often integrated with job training, reported that they spoke more with their children about school, they read to them more, they took them to the library more and so forth (Van Fossen & Sticht, 1991). In one visit to a single mother’s home, the mother’s second grader said, "I do my homework just like Mommy" and thrust his homework into the researcher’s hand. These increases in cognitive and non-cognitive behaviors of the mothers’ children happened even though there was no teaching of these types of parenting activities. These types of changes in the parenting behaviors of the mothers was obtained for free as a spin-off of adult basic skills programs.

Three years later I had the opportunity to further test the idea that investing in the education of adult language, literacy, or mathematics could improve both the skills of the employees and the educability of children (Sticht, 1994). In several manufacturing plants in the Chicago area staff of the Center for Education Resources in Des Plaines, IL had developed literacy programs integrated with job-related materials and I was asked to serve as an external evaluator of the programs in six plants. I found that not only were large improvements in job-related English language, literacy, or mathematics achieved, but with those workers who were parents, some 40 percent reported that they now read more to their children. This result, which is typically one of the goals of pre-school or family literacy programs, was again obtained as a spin-off of the adult literacy programs.

Elsewhere, I have argued for what I call early parenthood education (Sticht, 2011). An important point for considering what I call a multiple-life-cycles education policy is that we need to stop thinking in terms of a single life span, sometimes called lifelong/lifewide learning, and pay more attention to the intergenerational transfer of language, literacy, cognitive, and non-cognitive aspects of development from parents to their children.

During Adult Education and Family Literacy week, we need to be mindful that when we invest in the education and training of adults, we may improve the educability of children, and hence elevate the literacy levels of entire families. By investing in education for adults, especially mothers or mothers-to-be, we get double duty from our education dollars. We elevate both adults and their children at the same time. From the point of getting a good return on investments (ROI) in education, that seems to make good “cents” to me.

From a multiple life cycles education policy point of view, the real head start for children starts with the heads of the parents. As it turns out, adult literacy education may also act as preschool education for children, with their parents as their first teachers!



September Highlights Adult Learners and Educators

With four major causes for celebrating adult learners and educators, September kicks off a new academic year for adult literacy education across the Nation.

On September 3rd in the United States we celebrate Labor Day to honor the workers of the world. Adult educators especially recognize those workers who have sought out help in raising their literacy skills to meet the needs of modern workplaces. Writing for the International Labor Organization (ILO), Barbee (1986) developed guidelines for developing and delivering literacy programs for workers, including the recommendation that:

 “Literacy training should be built into vocational and technical skills training. Literacy and knowledge go together. Literacy cannot be taught without building on existing knowledge and it seems reasonable to use job knowledge as the content of further literacy development for adults. The research in "functional context" and other competency-based and individualised training clearly bears this out. It seems likely that this would also hold true in most societies. This would mean that in planning vocational and technical skills training programmes a literacy component should be built in using "functional context" principles (p.32).”

Today, adult educators in the U.S. are following this guidance and helping thousands of labor force members increase their basic skills with support from the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Title 2: The Adult Education and Family Literacy act which provides financial support for integrated vocational and basic skills education.  

On September 8th the world celebrates International Literacy Day, the day the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awards literacy prizes to institutions, organizations, and individuals whose actions are dedicated to the struggle against adult illiteracy throughout the world.

Serving as a member of UNESCO’s International Literacy Prize Jury that selected the winners of these literacy prizes I  learned two important lessons: (1) adult literacy programs generally produce multiplier effects, meaning that important outcomes beyond the learning of literacy are frequently forthcoming and (2) adult literacy programs often have intergenerational consequences,  meaning that improving adult literacy, especially that of women, increases the likelihood  that children’s literacy and education will improve.

Regarding the intergenerational effect of adult literacy education, Rosa Maria Torres, a member of the UNESCO International Jury for Literacy Prizes observed that  “To educate children, it is essential to educate adults, not only (illiterate, poor) parents and caregivers (including teachers) but adults in general. Because it is adults and the adult society who make the critical decisions that affect children’s well-being and for the sake of children, for the present and for future generations. … the children’s right to education should include the right to educated parents.”

On September 11th, we honor those whose lives were ended in 2001 by the suicidal bombing by terrorists of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Seven months later, I was in New York to present a seminar at the Literacy Assistance Center (LAC), one of the premier adult literacy organizations in the nation, where I found adult educators struggling to move forward (Sticht, 2017).

Later, Jan Gallagher (2002) of the LAC wrote, "..at the Literacy Assistance Center (LAC) — located six blocks from what we still call Ground Zero — we continue to be affected by last year ’s  terrorist attacks and their aftermath in ways large and small. We cannot escape the fact that the adult education programs we serve — and, more to the point, the poor, working-class, and immigrant students they serve — continue to be affected by the economic, political, and social consequences of living in a city that has been bombed and in a nation that is at war."

Even now, adult literacy educators continue to serve adult learners who suffer the terror that results from fighting chronic poverty, marginalization, and social exclusion. But the educators know that adult literacy education is a formidable weapon against terrorism in both war and peace. It is a weapon still drastically in need at the present time.

On September 23-29, we celebrate National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week to recognize the importance of adult literacy education in improving the overall literacy of families. This was documented over 25 years ago in a newspaper article in Education Week by Peter Schmidt (1991). Entitled, “When Mothers Take Literacy Classes, Children Reap Benefits,” Schmidt said, “Literacy and job-training programs for low-income mothers appear to have a secondary benefit of improving the educability of their children, a study by a women's employment group asserts. …After taking part in the programs, the study found, the mothers were more likely than before to read to their children, to take them to the library, to help them with homework, and to take an active interest in their schools--activities presumed to have contributed to the youngsters' educational improvement.

The study…was conducted by Wider Opportunities for Women Inc., or wow, a Washington-based, nonprofit training organization. "What this research tells us is that even very modest investments in the training of mothers can have a positive impact on the educability of their children," said Cynthia Marano, the executive director of wow. "Such investments can contribute to ending the cycle of illiteracy," she argued. "Dollars spent on such programs perform 'double duty.'"

Today, adult educators in the U.S. are making these investments in developing family literacy with funding from the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Title 2: The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act and tens of thousands of adults and their children are seeing the world better through the lens of improved literacy. 

Barbee, D. (1986). Methods of Providing Vocational Skills to Individuals with Low Literacy Levels: The U.S. Experience. Discussion Paper No. 1. International Labour Office, Geneva (Switzerland). (Available online using a Google search).

Schmidt, P.  (1991, September 4).When Mothers Take Literacy Classes, Children Reap Benefits. Education Week. (Available online using a Google search).

Sticht, T. (2017). Fighting Illiteracy in Times of War. Available online at:



A Memorial Tribute to Aretha Franklin: Meeting the Need for RESPECT with Adult Basic Skills Education

Aretha Franklin, the high school dropout who went on to become the “Queen of Soul” with honorary degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, wrote a song about her need for RESPECT. She sang out, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T   Find out what it means to me”. Aretha Franklin passed away today, August 16, 2018, aged 76, respected by millions of people around the world.  Not only was Aretha Franklin an iconic songstress, during the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s she contributed extensively to the actions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others to bring literacy, civil, and voting rights to African Americans.

As a memorial tribute to Aretha Franklin, here is a brief note about what RESPECT means to adults seeking to improve their basic reading, writing, and numeracy skills.

In January of 2007 I went to Dublin, Ireland to present a speech at a  conference of adult literacy tutors sponsored by the National Adult  Literacy Agency (NALA). The theme of the conference was Sustaining  Motivation for Adult Literacy Learners. As I thought about this theme, and how I might frame remarks that would fit with it, I glanced at the  bulletin board by my desk. There I noticed the photos of the grand, main building of the New York Public Library (NYPL) that I have tacked to the board. 

I have long admired the NYPL located on the south-west corner of the intersection of 42nd street and 5th avenue. I am particularly fond of  the two massive sculptures of lions that guard the main entrance to the  library. During the great depression of the 1930s, New York Mayor 
Fiorello LaGuardia dubbed the two sculptures of lions with the names Patience and Fortitude. Mayor LaGuardia told the citizens of New York that patience and fortitude were the qualities they would require to survive the economic depression gripping the nation and New York City. 

This lead me to think that these great lions, Patience and Fortitude, also represent the qualities that adult literacy tutors require to persist in helping adult literacy learners maintain their motivation in  what can often be a long and difficult struggle for literacy. In many ways, the adult literacy tutors are the Lions of Literacy. They help guide adult learners into the great library of books of the world which provide access to the collected knowledge of the ages. 

As I studied the photo of Patience and Fortitude, I came to the thought that there was something that bonded these two qualities and sustained them. Then I thought of Aretha Franklin and her hit song, RESPECT. It occurred to me that respect is what builds the bond between tutors and learners, a bond maintained by patience and fortitude on the part of both tutors and learners. 

For my presentation in Dublin, I built on these thoughts and developed the idea that the seven letters of the word R.E.S.P.E.C.T. that Aretha Franklin spelled out in her song could serve as a mnemonic for seven factors that taken together can help sustain motivation for the work of teaching and learning in adult literacy education. 


R : Relevance to the learner's lives 

E : Engagement with the learning experience 

S : Social capital development for learners 

P : Participation by learners in choosing goals, curriculum materials & 

E : Educational opportunities across the life span & across multiple 
life cycles 

C: Community support for adult literacy education 

T: Teachers/tutors who care about adults, literacy, & learning 

Following a brief overview of these seven factors, I focused on R, for  Relevance. I recounted the stories of three great adult literacy educators who focused on the relevance to the lives of their students of the materials they were using to teach adults to read. 

First, the story of Harriet Jacobs, the former slave girl of the  mid-1800s who taught an old black man to read using the Bible, which was  what he wanted to learn to read. 

Next, an account of the work of Cora Wilson Stewart in 1911 to start the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky and  the materials she wrote in books called the Country Life Readers. These books taught reading in the context of farming, home making, health for  the family, community development and other topics of relevance to the lives of the country folks who came to class on moon lit nights. 

Finally, the Queen Mother of the civil rights movement in the United States during mid-20th century was identified as Septima Poinsette Clark. She started Citizenship Schools to teach African-Americans to read and write so they could vote. This was the relevant goal for these  American citizens who were being denied voting rights and hence social justice because of illiteracy. Septima Clark knew the importance of developing literacy and power by making the materials of education relevant to the lives of her students. 

To sustain the motivation of adult students in the often arduous task of learning to read and write adult literacy tutors need both patience and fortitude. But above all, they need to have R.E.S.P.E.C.T. for their students. And the primary letter of that word, R, stands for Relevance. Over a century of professional wisdom by those on whose shoulders we stand confirms the importance of relevance in adult literacy education. 

Today's adult literacy teachers and tutors carry on the important work of respecting adult students and providing relevant literacy education sustained by both patience and fortitude. They are the Lions of Literacy in the 21st century. 

With R.E.S.P.E.C.T. for Aretha Franklin may she R.I.P.!



Thanks to all of you who have contacted me to get a copy of my new free 2018 e-book “Mainstreaming Marginalized Adults: The Transformation of Adult Basic Education in the United States.” Some have asked if the e-book is available online. Apparently this is particularly useful for professors who want to use the e-book in their adult education classes and for program administrators with staff desiring professional development reading. So now the e-book is available online. To download a copy go to: https://bit.ly/2FO9o2u


New Evidence for the “Triple Helix” of Literacy Development

In 1962, James Watson and Francis Crick received the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the “double helix” genetic basis for life, a physical arrangement of two separate strands of genetic matter.

In 1994, Sticht & Armstrong produced a Compendium of quantitative data from assessments of adult literacy in 1937, 1973, and 1986 which suggested what they metaphorically called the "triple helix" of literacy development: skill, practice, and education. A salient finding across the 50 years of those assessments was that people with higher levels of education have higher levels of literacy proficiency (skill) and they engage in higher levels of literacy practices, i.e., they read books, magazines and newspapers more frequently than do the less educated and less skilled.

As people read more and more widely, they develop higher levels of information processing skills involved in recognizing printed words and other features of the written language, they learn the meanings of more and more words, and they develop more and more conceptual knowledge, i.e., they develop more extensive bodies of knowledge. This in turn helps them do well in school, so they pursue further education. This guides them to engage in additional reading practices, this helps them develop more efficient reading skills and acquire more knowledge, etc., etc. as the “triple helix” of skill, practice, and education transforms people into highly literate adults.

Sticht & Armstrong (1994) noted that achieving high levels of literacy requires the development of large bodies of knowledge and highly efficient processing skills. They said, “An important implication for adult literacy programs is that efforts should be made to get adults to engage in larger amounts of reading in various types of literacy practices both inside and outside of programs. Extensive free-reading practice may be as important as direct instruction in producing higher levels of literacy (p. xii). To do this, programs must either retain adults for long periods of time, or stimulate adults to engage in extensive reading and writing outside of programs, or do both (p. xi).”

In another section of the Compendium, Sticht & Armstrong (1994) introduced an intergenerational factor in the development of literacy as another salient finding across adult literacy surveys: “ People with more highly educated parents are, themselves, likely to become the more highly educated, more extensively read, and highly skilled of the next generation….The data on the intergenerational transfer of literacy from parents to their children has provided a large part of the evidence to argue for "intergenerational literacy" or "family literacy" adult education programs (p. 127).”

Update and Extension of the “Triple Helix” in Literacy and Numeracy Development

Two decades following the formulation of the “triple helix” concept of literacy development, it has been supported for reading, writing, and numeracy across several nations by Grotluschen, et al. (2016). In analyses of adult reading skills in The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) they reported that: “From this data we learn that large numbers of low-proficiency adults have limited engagement with reading, writing, and numeracy practices. … As literacy and numeracy proficiency levels rise, average levels of engagement in reading, writing and numeracy practices increase steadily. In addition to proficiency, educational attainment and demographic characteristics systematically shape individuals’ engagements with reading, writing and numeracy practices…. in both the low-proficiency and the broader adult populations.” As in the Compendium, the report goes on to recommend that adult literacy programs should strive to encourage adults to engage in more reading practices at home, work and outside of work.

Consistent with the Compendium findings on the intergenerational transfer of literacy from parents to their children, the Grotluschen, et al. (2016) PIAAC report states: “The data reveal a strong link between parental education and proficiency and also show that adults at or below Level 1 are more likely to have children and when they have them, to have more than those who achieved higher scores. This suggests that a key element of a country’s policy response to PIAAC should include an increased focus on the family. Family literacy and numeracy programs focus on developing parents’ ability to support the literacy and numeracy development of their children, by increasing their understanding of what their children are learning in school and improving their own skills, and those of their children….Family learning programs may also bring about positive changes in the home learning environment, increasing the chances of sustainability of any gains made within the programs (p 145).”

In both the Compendium and the PIAAC reports the effects of the “triple helix” of skill (proficiency), practice, and education are moderated by other factors, such as ethnicity, economic status and other demographic factors. Still, the effects of skill, practice, and education work together to produce more highly literate and numerate adults. In turn, adults may then transfer their higher levels of literacy to their children, first by means of the oral language through conversation, show and tell, and reading to them, and then by literacy as children learn decoding, practice reading, and obtain higher levels of education.

The evidence is abundant and quite clear: the “triple helix” of literacy operates across multiple life cycles, from parents to their children. This means that investments in the education of low-skilled adults can return “double duty dollars”: we can elevate the literacy of adults, and improve the educability of their children. A good return on educational investments



February is Black History Month: Ambrose Caliver and Freedom’s People

In 1957, I walked into a department store in downtown Wichita Falls, Texas and saw that it offered a choice of water fountains: one for “White” and another for “Colored” people. At the time, I was an enlisted man in the U.S. Air Force stationed at Shepard Air Force Base, right outside of Wichita Falls. At age 21, I had never seen these sorts of indicators of what I later learned were “Jim Crow” laws permitting, often requiring, separate eating, drinking, schooling, etc., facilities for White and “Colored” people.

A decade later, in 1967, I had left the U.S. Air Force, attended the University of Arizona, received a Ph. D degree in Experimental Psychology, and was working as a Research Scientist for the Human Resources Research Office (HumRRO) of the George Washington University’s field unit in Monterey, California. Much of my research and development was concerned with the education of lower aptitude, low literate U.S. Army recruits in a special program called Project 100,000, over 36 percent of whom were young Black men (Sticht, et. al., 1987, Table 10, p. 42).

In the decade between 1957 and 1967 major changes occurred in the Nation’s treatment of African Americans. Gone were many of the old Jim Crow laws and practices as the 1964 Civil Rights, the 1965 Voting Rights, and the 1966 Adult Education acts were passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. But these laws did not come easy, they were fought for by many outstanding women and men of both races.

Ambrose Caliver and Freedom’s People

One African American who fought the Jim Crow laws and sought decent education and further civil rights for African Americans was Dr. Ambrose Caliver (B1894-D1962), who “… changed the face of black education on a national scale. Dr. Caliver devoted much of his professional life to adult literacy, although he also took an active role in such matters as displaced persons, human rights, public affairs, aging, and professional development of adult educators” (Wikipedia, 2017).

Caliver began his federal work on behalf of African American education when he was appointed by President Herbert Hoover as Senior Specialist for Negro Education in the United States Office of Education (USOE). He worked in that position under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was a member of Roosevelt’s so-called “Black cabinet”. It was while he worked in this position that Caliver took advantage of the technology of radio to raise awareness of the differences in educational opportunities and resources between Whites and Blacks. Under his direction, a nine-part radio program called “Freedom’s People” was produced and broadcast during 1941-1942.

An online program by American Radio Works (2017) indicates that the first program in Freedom’s People started on Sunday afternoon, September 21st, 1941. It started with the Announcer speaking about immigrants to America:

“From the old world they came. High with hopes and strong. To America they brought this hope and strength, and founded a nation of splendid freedoms. But this is not their story. No, this is the story of those who did not come but were taken. The story of those who lost freedom when they came upon our shores. And for years they tilled our soil, gathered our crops, and made the land good. Some won liberty. Others waited. Then freedom came to all, a liberty well deserved, a liberty triumphant. Yes, this is the story of the American Negro, 13 million citizens of the United States. And now the National Broadcasting Company in cooperation with the United States Office of Education in the Federal Security Agency brings you this program dedicated to and conceived by the American Negro, truly Freedom's People!

According to the American Radio Works, “Freedom's People reached millions of Americans, and study guides about African American history were printed for school and community groups to use. The show tried to humanize blacks in the eyes of their fellow Americans by cataloging black accomplishments and qualities.”

During and following World War II, Caliver continued his work on adult literacy and the education of African Americans. I first encountered his work while reading Wanda Cook’s slender volume on the history of adult literacy education in the United States. She cites a 1946 paper by Caliver entitled “Adult Education of Negroes” which discusses the Project for Adult Education of Negroes, a major effort to “raise the educational level of a large number of Negroes whom the Selective Service and the 1940 census described as functionally illiterate.” Clark goes on to say, “ Directing the project was Ambrose Cavalier (sic) the USOE specialist for higher education of Negroes” and reports that during the project “Nearly 1,000 teachers of adults were exposed to new methods and techniques during the project ” (Clark, 1977, pp. 57-58).

There can be no doubt that Caliver’s work in the struggle against the Jim Crow laws following the Civil War and his advancement of African American history, literacy, and education was a cornerstone in the foundation on which the Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws of the 1960s were constructed. Unfortunately, he did not live to see these laws passed and enacted. He was elected President of the Adult Education Association of the United States of America in 1961, but died the next year while still in office.

Yesterday, when I went into my neighborhood Walmart store, I saw just one drinking fountain….for everyone!

Postscript: In 1949, the Dean of the Harvard Law School wrote to Caliver at his U.S. Government office and asked for advice on how to attract, support, and educate more African American lawyers who could provide legal support to their communities. A half century later, in 1991, a young African American man graduated from Harvard Law School and some 20 years later Barack Hussein Obama became the first African American President of the United States of America. He was one of Freedom’s People.



A 50 Year Retrospective on Listening and Reading Processes in Low Literate Adults

During 1963-1969, President Lyndon Johnson’s Years in Office

I graduated from the University of Arizona in 1965 with a Ph. D in Experimental Psychology and got a job teaching sensory processes (vision, audition, touch) for psychology and medical students at the University of Louisville. I also collaborated with Dr. Emerson Foulke, a blind psychologist, on research using the technology of time compressed speech as a communication device for blind college students who were “reading by listening”. This included the use of time-compressed, accelerated recordings of spoken messages to find out how well blind students could comprehend fast rates of speech. We found that for a number of students, comprehension was good up to about 300 plus or minus 50 words a minute, about the rate of silent reading for typical college level students, suggesting an internal rather than peripheral limit on the speed of both listening and reading of language. (Foulke & Sticht, 1969). This was the beginning of a long undertaking to better understand listening and reading processes of adults, particularly those with special needs, such as blindness, illiteracy, or low literacy.

During 1969-1974, President Richard Nixon’s Years in Office

During this time I studied listening as a substitute for reading with U.S. Army personnel having very low reading abilities. Several studies with Army personnel indicated that: (a) as literacy ability decreases more low literate adults would prefer to learn prose material by listening rather than by reading; (b) low literate adults learned equally well, or poorly, by listening as by reading across informational material at the 6th, 7th and 14th grade levels; and (c) less literate adults tended to rely more on listening than on reading for obtaining job-related information (Sticht, 1972).

Given the strong relationships between listening and reading colleagues and I formulated a developmental model of listening (auding) and reading. The model started in infanthood, with the development of pre-linguistic knowledge, and then linguistic knowledge developed through listening and speaking and then people learned how to draw on that language and the knowledge it represented via the written language when the latter developed as a second signaling system to listening and speaking (Sticht, Beck, Hauke, & Kleiman, 1974).

During 1974-1977, President Gerald Ford’s Years in Office

Regarding the developmental model we outlined, Blanton & McNinch (1975) wrote: “There are a variety of theoretical positions which explicitly or implicitly deal with the relationship between reading and listening. Moreover, cluttered as the literature is with research on the topic, one might hope, that research and theory would have been pulled together into some understandable framework. This has not been the case. Sticht et al. (1974), however, met this need. Their review of selected theory and research on language, reading, and development is, in our opinion, the most significant contribution made on reading and listening in recent years. Indeed, it is a reference shelf item (pp. 20-21).

During 1977-1981, President Jimmy Carter’s Years in Office

In speeches at the annual meetings of the Association of American Publishers (Sticht, 1979) and the National Academy of Education (Sticht, 1980/1983) I advocated for adult literacy education for workers because it would not only help make them more employable and productive, it could also help them develop knowledge and oral language of their children by reading and discussing books with them and their children would likely do better in school and achieve higher levels of literacy. Evidence for this intergenerational oracy-to-literacy transfer of knowledge and vocabulary was based on the 1974 developmental model discussed in Sticht et al. (1974).
During 1981-1989, President Ronald Reagan’s years in office

Sticht & James (1984) considered that listening ability may indicate the “reading potential” of children with data showing that it may take children up to seven or eight years of school to be able to listen and read with equal facility and comprehension. In research with some 2000 adults reading from the 2nd to the 14th grade levels it was found that their listening and reading abilities were about equal, indicating little “reading potential” across the full range of reading abilities (Sticht, 1982).

The idea that through adult education we might improve their children’s oral language thereby raising their “reading potential” (Sticht, 1983, above) was noted by Kozol (1985). He said, “It could be,” writes Thomas Sticht, “that if we had put the billions of dollars we’ve spent on pre-school children” into literacy programs for their parents, we might have gotten at “the real source” of illiteracy” (Kozol, 1985, p.60). Both Kozol and I testified at 1985 congressional hearings about the importance of educating illiterate or low literate adults as a way to improve children’s literacy. These hearings supported passage of the Even Start family literacy legislation.

During 1989-1993, President George H. W. Bush’s years in office

In 1989, First Lady Barbara Bush started the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy stressing the importance of educating adults and their children to break cycles of intergenerational illiteracy or low literacy. Sticht & McDonald (1990) discussed how educating women could improve the education of their children, partly through the oracy-to-literacy transfer effect discussed above. Two volumes of books on the intergenerational transfer of language, literacy, and other cognitive processes were published (Sticht, Beeler, & McDonald, 1992a,b). Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), published in his New York Times column a piece about research by Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) (Van Fossen & Sticht, 1991) on the transfer of literacy from mothers to their children. Shanker commented that the research indicated that: "If giving mothers some extra schooling means that their attitudes towards their children's schooling becomes more positive and the child is more likely to learn, we are helping two for the price of one. This is a good use of money in hard times. (And if the extra schooling helps the mother get a job, it's triply good)".

During 1993-2001, President William Clinton’s years in office

Hirsch (1996) took notice of relationships of listening and reading in the developmental model of literacy discussed above and wrote: “I have not yet mentioned reading and writing. That is because speaking and listening competencies are primary. There is a linguistic law that deserves to be called “Sticht’s Law,” having been disclosed by some excellent research by Thomas Sticht. He found that reading ability in non-deaf children cannot exceed their listening ability. …Sticht showed that, for most children, by seventh grade the ability to read with speed and comprehension and the ability to listen had become identical” (pp. 146-147).

Based on correlations of listening with reading, colleagues and I developed a method of estimating adult literacy ability via telephone (Sticht, 1996; Hofstetter, Sticht, & Hofstetter, 1999). We found high correlations between listening and reading, and significant relationships between listening ability and education, occupation, income and other factors. This relatively inexpensive technique for assessing knowledge by listening and estimating adult literacy was disseminated by the U.S. government (Sticht, 1999).

During 2001-2008, President George W. Bush’s term of office

Citing the developmental model discussed by Sticht, et al. (1974), Hirsch (2003) offered an approach to building children's comprehension ability in a section called, Build Oral Comprehension and Background Knowledge. He says, "Thomas Sticht has shown that oral comprehension typically places an upper limit on reading comprehension; if you don't recognise and understand the word when you hear it, you also won't be able to comprehend it when reading. This tells us something very important: oral comprehension generally needs to be developed in our youngest readers if we want them to be good readers."

Elsewhere Hirsch (2006) stated, “…we have known since 1974 (thanks to the work of Thomas Sticht) that listening ability in grade two reliably forecasts reading ability in grade five. This empirical work confirms that reading skill is correlated with listening skill—or to put the case more accurately, proficient reading and proficient listening both depend on an ability to comprehend language, quite apart from whether the language is expressed orally or in writing (pp.28-29).

During 2008-2017, President Barack Obama’s term of office

The idea that “reading potential” could be raised by listening as outlined above (Sticht & James, 1984; Sticht, et al., 1974) appeared in important reports. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English language arts (2015), said, “Oral language development precedes and is the foundation for written language development; in other words, oral language is primary and written language builds on it. …Sticht and James (1984) found evidence strongly suggesting that children’s listening comprehension outpaces reading comprehension until the middle school years (grades 6–8) (p. 26).” …, it is particularly important that students in the earliest grades build knowledge through being read to as well as through reading, with the balance gradually shifting to reading independently (p. 27).”

Finally, referring to Sticht (2011), Adams (2014) brought attention to adult literacy education and said, “…differences in children’s language and literacy levels at school entry are huge and tend to persist and even to grow across the school years. Moreover, as Thomas Sticht has pointed out children actually spend very little of their time at school; … Whether gauged by their impact on children or parents, and whether measured in terms of cognitive or noncognitive skills, the recurrent finding is that the most effective early childhood education programs are coordinated with early parenthood education.”

As Al Shanker said, investing in the literacy education of adults may pay off with triple duty dollars: we can raise adults out of poverty, reduce economic inequality, while also improving the literacy and educational achievement of their children! We need to get people listening and reading about this!



A 50 Year Retrospective on FCE, Contextualized, Integrated Education & Training (IET) in Adult Education

Fifty years ago this year I started research and development aimed at helping less literate military personnel succeed in job training and performance. This work led to the development of an adult literacy program that integrated the teaching of reading with the teaching of occupational knowledge using actual job written materials. Research showed that the program made three to four times the gain in job-related reading made by a general literacy program while, to the surprise of some, the job-related program made equal gains on a standardized general literacy test as those made by the general literacy program (Sticht, 1975b, pp. 135-136). According to various scholars (see Addendum following references below) this work brought about significant changes in adult literacy education.

Functional Context Education (FCE) and Workplace Literacy

During 1981-1989, President Ronald Reagan’s years in office, national attention focused on international competitiveness and workforce development. In 1983-87 I directed a team to study how the armed services had gone about educating and training undereducated young adults since WW II. This work was reported in a book which discussed Functional Context Education (FCE) principles for designing programs for undereducated youth and adults. One of the FCE principles stated that adult educators should “Integrate instruction in basic reading, writing, and arithmetic into the technical or academic content so that students are better able to negotiate the requirements for the program at hand and build competency to transfer basic skills to other settings.” Another principle was, “Use the contexts, tasks, materials and procedures of the real-life setting that the training and education address” (Sticht, Armstrong, Hickey, & Caylor, 1987, pp. 164-165).

In 1988, a U. S. government report stated “…education and training programs are moving more toward using the functional contexts of adult workers to teach these skills as opposed to using a more school-based approach” (U.S. Government, 1988, p. 13). That same year, the U.S. Congress set aside funds creating a National Workplace Literacy Program (NLWP) in a supplemental funding bill for fiscal year 1988 (U.S. Government, 1992, p. 9).

FCE and Contextualized, Integrated Education & Training (IET)

During 1989-1993, President George H. W. Bush’s years in office, “America 2000: An Education Strategy” outlined national education goals. One goal stated that by the year 2000, “Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.” In furtherance of these goal, I served during 1992-1999 as a member of the Resource Group for National Education Goal Number 6: Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning, National Governor's Association and in 1990-91 I served on the Secretary of Labor's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) and spoke about FCE at the opening meeting of the SCANS commission. After the Commission consulted with number of other cognitive scientists, I was pleased to find that in agreement with FCE principles the SCANS commission called for teaching "in context" in both K-12 and adult education.

In 1992, a U.S. Department of Education report drew upon the work of the SCANS and stated, “ As the report by the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) states: "The most effective way of learning skills is 'in context’ …. To be effective, instruction and curriculums must be designed around active information-seeking and processing using job-related basic skills in tasks such as locating information in job manuals, and manipulating information to solve job-related problems” (U.S. Government, 1992).

During 1993-2001, President William Clinton’s time in office, much attention focused on helping welfare recipients gain access to education and training that would help them get jobs to work themselves out of poverty and off welfare. I delivered numerous workshops on FCE during this time, including one in 1997 at Seattle University in Seattle, Washington, in which I discussed as experimental community college program colleagues and I developed integrating basic skills with technical training in electronics assembly (Sticht, 1997). In 2004, the Washington state community college system started work on the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) program that integrated basic skills and occupational skills training as called for by the FCE principles. I-BEST now serves as a national model for training for low-skilled youth and adults.

Goal of Adult Literacy Education Changes from High School Completion to Postsecondary Education and Training

During 2001-2008, President George W. Bush’s term of office, many programs were initiated that followed the SCANS call for contextualized teaching and Reder’s (2000) call to create pathways from secondary to postsecondary education and career training for adults seeking paths out of poverty and welfare. A report from the Women Employed Institute (WEI) (2005) discussed a number of “pathway” or “bridge” programs for helping low-skilled adults move from adult basic or English language programs into postsecondary or career technical programs. Quoting Sticht (1995) and others the WEI report stated, “In bridge programs, the teaching of basic skills is integrated with instruction in job skills or exploration of college and careers.” (p.39).

During 2008-2017, President Barack Obama’s term of office, the U.S. Department of Education (2012) released a report stating, “Research studies from the military, cognitive and behavioral sciences, as well as adult workforce education workforce programs show that contextualized teaching and learning is very effective, especially for adults. To gain an understanding of contextualized learning, first read Tom Sticht’s The Theory Behind Content-Based Instruction” (P. 5). (See Sticht, 1997, December).

In 2014, the U.S. Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) in which Title 2: The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) offers funding for adult education and literacy activities contextualized and integrated within a specific occupation for the purpose of educational and career advancement. WIOA, Title 2 also offers funding for workplace literacy programs.

Can’t Trump FCE

In 1987, the Boston Globe (Ribadeneria, 1987) interviewed me about the military R & D colleagues and I did in the 1960-70s. It reported that, “People are sent into basic skills programs to improve reading skills for job training, when, in fact, the reading skills should be integrated in job training, Sticht said.”

Some thirty years later, the WIOA Title 2 again calls for integrated basic skills and job training, as well as workplace literacy education. And once again the Boston Globe has written an article about workplace education programs, this time teaching English language and literacy for immigrant adults (Pfeiffer, 2017).

For adult educators, it is difficult to trump FCE for helping low-skilled adults get the education and job training needed to escape poverty and reduce income inequality.



A number of scholars have reported that the R & D colleagues and I started in 1967 on job-related basic skills programs was foundational in getting the NWLP law enacted and advanced the move to contextualized and integrated basic skills and occupational education. Here is a sample of some of those reports.