IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Real-World Responses in Real Time: COVID-19 Information Needs to Consider Literacy Gaps

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people have a heightened need for information, literacy barriers can be life threatening. In the United States, roughly 20 percent of adults read at the lowest level, with another 33 percent still below proficiency1. Thus, many may be struggling to understand written guidance on COVID-19.

IES researchers at the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (R305C120001 and R305H180061) and their associated Adult Literacy Research Center at Georgia State University are working to address the needs of adults with literacy skill gaps. Dr. Meredith Larson spoke to Dr. Daphne Greenberg and Dr. Iris Feinberg about their work in this area.

What are your concerns for adults with low literacy during the pandemic?

Daphne GreenbergIris FeinbergWe have known for a long time that the high prevalence of adults with low basic skills has consequences for both the individual and society. These consequences are heightened during this pandemic. Many adults with low literacy have “essential” jobs and must continue to work. They often interact with many different people daily. So it is crucial that they understand COVID-19 precautions for their own health and because their ability to know and practice safe behaviors has a direct impact on disease transmission to others. To be quite frank, we are concerned about the health and safety of our learners and the health and safety of others.

In the United States, we receive an overwhelming amount information about COVID-19 daily. To make matters worse, there’s no uniform national guidance, some of the information is incorrect, and other information is conflicting. It is challenging for highly literate individuals to make sense of it all. For example: When can a COVID-positive person step out of quarantine? Can someone be re-infected? How many feet constitute safe distance? The list of questions goes on and on.

For someone with low literacy, it’s even more difficult to make sense of all the COVID-19 information. For example, people with low reading skills may not be able to read or understand all of the written information. Additionally, because much of the information is on the internet, adults with low digital skills and/or poor access to the internet have the added problem of not being able to find information that could possibly be helpful to them.

How are you trying to address their needs?

We’ve created a library with a large sample of materials written for 9th grade reading levels and below available on the ALRC website. These documents provide specific information on topics like how to stop the spread or what to do if someone in your home has COVID-19. We hope that providers who work with adults with low literacy skills—like adult educators, community organizers and healthcare providers—will use our library and find the high-interest/low-literacy materials. The library is also divided into “easier” and “harder” resources, so people can quickly find material at appropriate reading levels.

What could healthcare providers, the media, or others do to help?

We all must help those who may not know where to find information. Not everyone knows how or where to look for health information or whether the information they find is valid. Our analysis of PIAAC data found that people with low literacy rely more on TV and radio for information. Simple, short public service announcements that are action oriented would be great for anyone who relies on TV or radio but particularly for those who have low reading skills.

Also, we need to be better prepared for all kinds of emergencies by creating community-wide partnership plans among trusted sources for adults with low literacy like community organizations, healthcare providers, and adult education providers. In addition, we should be following plain language guidelines in all of our written and oral communications. Writing health information in plain language helps everyone and should not be an afterthought.

 


Written by Meredith Larson. This is the first in a series of blog posts that explores how researchers respond to various education-related issues and challenges.


About the PIAAC

The PIAAC is an international assessment for adults that assesses cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving) and contains data on educational background, workplace experiences and skills, and other items. For the purposes of this blog, the category of lowest levels is defined as Below Level 1 and Level 1 and below proficiency is Level 2. For more information about estimates of U.S. adult skills as measured by the PIAAC: https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/current_results.asp

 

Career Pathways Research at HHS: Lessons and Opportunities for Education Research

Over the past few years, staff from IES and the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), have been learning from and supporting one another’s work. Our offices have a shared interest in understanding and improving outcome for adults in postsecondary career pathway programs and for creating a strong evidence base.

We have even funded projects that dovetail nicely. For example, IES funded a development project focusing on Year Up, and OPRE included Year Up programs in their Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education (PACE) Study.

For IES researchers not already aware of OPRE’s research, we would like to highlight three things that may be particularly relevant to the work IES hopes to support.

A Growing Portfolio of Career Pathway Research: For over a decade, OPRE has created a robust research portfolio longitudinal, rigorous experimental career pathways program research.  These career pathway programs provide postsecondary education and training through a series of manageable steps leading to successively higher credentials and employment opportunities. In particular, OPRE has supported the Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education (PACE) Study and the rigorous evaluation of the Health Profession Opportunity Grants (HPOG) Program. You can find reports from these and other self-sufficiency, welfare, and employment activities in the OPRE Resource Library.

Available Data and Funding Opportunity: Later this summer, OPRE will be archiving data from PACE and HPOG at the University of Michigan’s Inter-University Consortium on Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the Institute for Social Research. These data will be available as restricted-use files for secondary data analysis. To encourage research, OPRE announced a funding opportunity Career Pathways Secondary Data Analysis Grants to support secondary analysis these data. Applications are due August 16, 2019.

Understanding Programs’ Motivations for Participating in Research: Getting education programs (schools, universities, etc.) to join multi-year, randomized controlled trials is difficult. Programs are wary of random assignment or finding null or negative effects. Yet, the programs that participated in the PACE Study were overall quite supportive. A recent report “We Get a Chance to Show Impact”, Program Staff Reflect on Participating in a Rigorous, Multi-site Evaluation documents the hurdles and benefits of participation from a program’s point of view. These programs’ insights are particularly useful for any researcher hoping to form partnerships with education settings.

To learn more about the ongoing career pathways research at OPRE and their findings, please visit https://www.acf.hhs.gov/opre/research/project/career-pathways-research-portfolio.

Fieldnotes: Reflections from an Adult Education Instructor on Research and Practice

Approximately 18 percent of US adults are at the lowest levels of literacy and nearly 30 percent are at the lowest levels of numeracy. The adult education system serves adults with low skills, but many education researchers know little about the students or the setting.  Recently, NCER convened a working group of adult education instructors, administrators, and researchers to discuss adult education’s research and dissemination needs.

Mr. Marcus Hall, an adult education instructor at the Community Learning Center and JEVS Human Services in Philadelphia, participated in this working group. He spoke with Meredith Larson, NCER program officer for adult education, about his experiences and interests in research. A copy of the working group meeting summary is available here.

Please describe your adult education classroom.

I once taught a 7-week course with students ranging from 18 to over 60 years old who had low literacy or math scores. I tried to contextualize instruction around their career interests and differentiate it to their learning needs. For example, some students were proficient readers but needed comprehension and math practice while others struggled with one or more of the basic components of reading. Somehow, I needed to help those learning phonics and those struggling with fluency while also challenging those ready for comprehension work. It’s hard to meet student needs in such a short time without teacher aides or adaptive technologies.

Why is research particularly important for adult education?

The challenges we face are monumental. Despite the large number of adults in need, adult education feels under-funded, under-staffed, and under-appreciated. Our students need complex, comprehensive, and well-rounded intervention, but we often have to make the most out of slightly targeted, inexpensive, and difficult-to-implement solutions. We need researchers to provide practical information and recommendations that we can use today to help adults learn and retain information.

Have you used research into your teaching?

Specifically, for reading instruction, I use techniques and activities built on evidence-based reading interventions. I start with tested diagnostic assessments to determine the needs of my students followed by strategies such as Collaborative Oral Reading or Repeated Reading exercises to support my students.

What topic during the meeting stood out to you?

The discussion about the workforce and professional development resonated with me. Many of our educators are part-time, come out of K-12, close to retirement, and may not have specific training for working with adults. They are asked to teach subjects they may not have any certification in, and their programs may not be able to provide the professional development they need. Just as we need supports for our learners, we need research to develop supports for us educators.

What additional research would you like to see?

Many of my students have had traumatic experiences that, when relived in the classroom, can cause them to disengage or struggle. I feel that understanding triggers and signs of discomfort has greatly enhanced my ability to help my students. Many educators want to leverage mental health approaches, like trauma-informed care, but we could use help learning how to integrate these strategies into instruction.

What do you hope researchers and educators keep in mind regarding one another?

It seems that researchers publish and promote their work to other researchers and then move to the next topic. This may be due to time constraints, publishing demands, or institutional requirements. I hope researchers take the time to come into our settings and observe us in action. I want researchers to work with us to help us understand and accept what is and isn’t working.

As for educators, we need to not try things and then stop using them when something unexpected occurs. At times, we revert back to what we know and are most comfortable with in the classroom. We educators can and must think critically about our norms and be ready and willing to enhance our practice with new information. 

Evaluating Oregon’s Adult Basic Skills Transition Planning Process: An Interview with Judith Alamprese

In her 2017 IES grant, Judith Alamprese (Abt Associates) is collaborating with the state of Oregon’s Office Community College and Workforce Development to evaluate a program that aims to help adults earn a GED® and transition into postsecondary education. This project is funded under the Low-Cost, Short-Duration Evaluation of Education Interventions competition, which supports research that aims to produce meaningful results for local and/or state education agencies quickly. Program Officer, Meredith Larson, interviewed Ms. Alamprese about this current work, how it came into being, and what it might mean for Oregon and adult education more broadly.

Tell us about your area of research and why it’s important to Oregon.

My current research is focused on determining effective interventions for assisting low-skilled adults establish and succeed in a career pathway. Oregon was one of the first states to implement a statewide initiative for transitioning adult basic skills learners (henceforth adult learners) to further education and work, and this project expands Oregon’s activities to support adult learners’ success.  

What is your current project studying?

The Transition Planning Process (TPP) project is a collaboration between Oregon’s Office of Community College and Workforce Development (CCWD) and Abt Associates (Abt). We are using a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to test whether text messaging helps adult learners earn a GED® and transition to postsecondary education and training.

What is TPP, and why is this approach innovative?

TPP is a text messaging intervention in which transition facilitators who work with the adult learners send text messages to the learners to help keep them on track to complete their GED® and enroll in postsecondary courses. The intervention is a supplement to the facilitators’ other transition activities to prepare learners for next steps in education and work.

TPP has a standardized list of text messages to prompt learners to take the GED® tests, set college goals, access information on college planning and other college preparation activities. Facilitators can send texts customized to programs’ specific transition activities.

CCWD chose text messaging because it appeared to be a low-cost approach that could support existing transition activities and provide a boost to ABS learners. The TPP project is an exciting opportunity to determine whether texting can be effective with ABS learners, and may be a promising approach for encouraging specific behaviors in learners preparing to go to college.

How did this project come into being?

The TPP project grew out of Abt’s and CCWD’s work together on an IES Researcher-Practitioner Partnership grant. This grant was a longitudinal study of Oregon’s Pathways for Adult Basic Skills Transition to Postsecondary Education and Work initiative. The findings from Abt’s analyses of adult learners’ GED® attainment and postsecondary participation prompted Oregon to want to try some additional strategies to encourage ABS learners to earn a secondary credential and enroll in postsecondary courses.

What is the current status of the project?

The study is underway, and transition facilitators are providing text messages to encourage adult learners to initiate and complete GED® testing, determine next steps, and begin the postsecondary planning process. The facilitators have found that while many treatment group learners respond to the texts, some learners have chosen to increase their face-to-face interaction with their facilitators. The facilitators report that texting is an efficient way to reinforce learners and check on their progress.

Why is this work important?

This research is particularly important because it is a rigorous test of an intervention that could be beneficial to adult basic skill learners nationwide and could leverage such programs’ existing activities in transitioning learners from basic skills programs to further education and training. We will learn more about the types of information and support that are most persuasive in helping learners succeed.

New IES Grantee Focuses on Improving Adult Literacy

In her first IES grant, Dr. Elizabeth Tighe (Georgia State University) is taking expertise honed in both an NCER predoctoral fellowship and PIAAC methods training program to help further adult literacy research. Her earlier work includes developing assessments for adults with low literacy, leveraging statistical approaches to understand these adults’ abilities and difficulties, and using eye-tracking paradigms to explore their ability to self-monitor during reading. 

Program officer, Meredith Larson, interviewed Dr. Tighe about her previous work and new grant.

What is your general area of research, and why is it important?

I focus on adult struggling readers, which comprises roughly 36 million (1 in 6) adults in the U.S. Only a fraction of these adults enroll in adult education programs, which are plagued by insufficient funding, high teacher turnover rates, and a lack of research-based instructional practices and curricula. By better understanding these adults’ strengths and deficits and how best to measure their skills, I aim to inform and improve adult education programs.

What could people do with your research?

My research could directly inform how we help adults become stronger readers, and this can improve educational outcomes, such as GED attainment. I am working towards building better assessments for adult education practitioner and researcher use. My longer-term goal is to design a curriculum to teach morphology (e.g., prefixes and suffixes) and use this to improve adults’ vocabulary and reading comprehension.

What are you trying to learn through your new IES project?

For this grant, I’m using the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a large-scale, international assessment of adult literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving skills, to create risk profiles of adults with low literacy skills. This sort of information could move us closer to being able to individualize instruction in adult education programs to match the needs of specific learners.

We will use PIAAC data to explore how demographic characteristics (age, race/ethnicity, educational background, employment status) and malleable factors (enjoyment of learning, frequency of computer use, reading and writing behaviors at home and at work) influence low literacy performance.

Further, we are examining whether risk factors differ by whether someone has a high school diploma and whether someone has participated in education or training recently. We will also explore whether reading components and literacy skills are predictive of low-skilled adults’ numeracy skills.

Our findings could have important implications for understanding risk factors and predictors of low literacy as well as low numeracy. As stated previously, 1 in 6 U.S. adults have low literacy skills and nearly 1 in 3 have low numeracy skills. For GED attainment, adults must demonstrate proficiency in both of these areas (along with science, social studies, and writing knowledge). It’s important to have targeted, individualized instruction for these adults because they may have time or resource barriers.

How did this particular research project arise?

I first learned about PIAAC at a summer institute. I was intrigued, in particular, because PIAAC is the first assessment of this size to include a reading component supplement for lower-skilled adults.

I recently attended a 3-day NCER/ETS PIAAC training workshop, which allowed me to work with PIAAC data and network with others. This workshop influenced my decision to apply for an IES grant. I felt that a 2-year grant using extant data would be a great way to combine my interests regarding individual differences in adults’ component skills and get my feet wet with IES as a new investigator. I am excited to bridge my interests and grow as a researcher by learning and working alongside two experts (Drs. Yaacov Petscher and John Sabatini) in the larger reading and education field!