Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

A Lifetime of Learning: A Fellow’s Journey to Improve Literacy for All

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In this guest blog, Dr. Marcia Davidson, an IES postdoctoral fellow in the Georgia State University Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL), shares her experiences and discusses her path forward.

Going Back for More

My career path has had many turns, but I’ve always focused on supporting literacy to ensure everyone can access education, no matter their location, age, or current ability. And I apply this to my life, too.

I started as a school psychologist, practicing for 15 years in Washington state, working with students with disabilities aged 3 to 21. I worked with teachers and small groups of students to provide support and additional instruction for those struggling with reading and realized that my training was insufficient to provide effective support. I was able to advocate for children who struggled with reading, but I wanted to know more about the research and the science that inform effective reading instruction. So I went back to school to earn my PhD in special education.

After finishing my degree, my first academic position was teaching special education and elementary education at Western Washington University. Despite being tenured faculty, I left academia to participate in research projects related to Reading First because I wanted to spend more time conducting and supporting research projects. This led to my working on an IES-funded Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research (PCER) project and my deep interest in interventions that improve student learning.

Eventually, my career took more unexpected turns as I was recruited to consult on a USAID/World Bank initiative in reading assessment for low- and middle-income countries, the Early Grade Reading Assessment. My work with this project prompted a significant career change: I moved to Liberia as a senior reading advisor on one of the first pilot early grade reading projects.

I spent the next 10 years working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on NGO, USAID, and World Bank projects and then worked for USAID. My work focused on early grade reading interventions and support in South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2017, I left USAID but continued to support their projects, serving as the senior reading advisor for a scaled early grade reading project in Ghana.

A New Focus

Although my primary focus was supposed to be on children, I found myself drawn in by parents longing to learn themselves. In Liberia, a parent asked whether he could meet with a reading project teacher to learn to read. In Zambia, parents were meeting daily to review the reading lessons of their first-grade children with the hope that they might learn to read and support their children more effectively. In Nepal, a grandmother walked several miles up a mountain to her grandchild’s school so that she could learn to read by his side. Most recently, when I was in Ghana during the COVID outbreak, our team developed a radio reading program for families, and I again saw how excited parents were to work with their children and learn themselves.

I then turned my attention to my own country and realized that many adults in the United States also have literacy gaps and need good reading interventions. We face a reality in which 43 million adults in the United States (about 1 in 5) have very low levels of literacy and may struggle with basic reading comprehension. Of these, nearly 17 million adults could be classified as functionally illiterate. I began to wonder how research for U.S. adults with low literacy might differ from the work I had been doing in low- and middle-income countries and how adult literacy levels vary across countries.

Despite my interest in U.S. adult literacy, I realized that research had changed drastically and that there were new methods, designs, and approaches that I was less familiar with. So I decided to learn more and build new research skills by applying to become an IES postdoctoral fellow in adult literacy at Georgia State University.

Returning for More: A Fellowship to Reskill and Connect the Dots

I started my IES postdoctoral fellowship in the summer of 2021 in the GSU Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program. Here, I am researching interventions to support U.S. adults who struggle with reading. I want to extend my understanding of the role of morphology in reading acquisition, which I honed while working in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. In the United States and internationally, much of this research focuses on children. Teaching adults to read has often taken a back seat in literacy research, despite the critical need to address adult low literacy. I have seen the difference that learning to read can make in a child’s life, and I believe that learning to read for adults can also be life changing and exciting. For me, it is like closing the circle, from young children who are just discovering the delights of learning to read to adults who long to enrich their lives—and often livelihoods—with improved literacy skills.

Recently, I was offered a position as a senior education advisor to the Africa Bureau at USAID, and I will be leaving G-PAL to support the USAID team. However, improving adult literacy remains a priority to me, and I plan to continue my work on the projects I’ve started with my mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Tighe, on a morphology intervention for adults and on an analysis of process data on PIAAC literacy items. I also plan to volunteer at an adult literacy center when I move to Washington, DC for my new position. I am so grateful that I had the extraordinary experience of learning about the literacy needs of and effective interventions for adults who struggle with reading. I have a better understanding about the complexities of adult literacy learning needs and feel new urgency to address the learning barriers so many face. My postdoctoral experience has expanded my knowledge, methodological skills, and commitment. And I am confident that I will apply all that I have learned and continue to learn to my new position and beyond.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants, and Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.

New Project Exploring Adult Basic Skills in STEM-Related Postsecondary CTE®

In celebration of CTE® (career and technical education) month, we would like to highlight the launch of an NCER project that aims to help us understand how to best support adults seeking additional CTE education and training.

Through their exploratory project, Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem-Solving Skills in Technology-Rich Environment in the STEM-Related Subbaccalaureate Programs in the United States, researchers will use a mixed-method design to gather information about the distribution of basic skills (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving) for adults in STEM occupations and students enrolled in STEM-related sub-baccalaureate programs at community colleges. Their goal is to help identify the needs of students and the programming practices at community colleges that may promote basic skill development in STEM programs.

The team will be leveraging data from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) to survey the distribution of skills and abilities across a nationally representative sample of adults in STEM fields. They will also be collecting primary data from adults and programs in multiple locations, including Indiana, Ohio, and Washington states.

 

 

To help inform the public about their project, the researchers have created a short YouTube video for the public. This project began in July 2020 and may have initial results ready as early as late 2021.

 


Written by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), Program Officer for Postsecondary and Adult Education, NCER.

Recent Report Identifies Possible Categories of Adult Struggling Readers (and How to Help Them)

Nearly one in five U.S. adults aged 16 and over may struggle with basic literacy. These adults may struggle with any of the core components of reading, such as decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension. They may struggle for many different reasons—English is not their first language, possible cognitive declines from aging, or a lack of formal education. To identify the right instructional tools and curricula, we need to understand the varying needs of this heterogeneous group of adult struggling readers and design appropriate solutions.

In a recent report, IES-funded researchers conducted a latent class analysis of 542 adults (age 16- to 71-years old) enrolled in adult education programs whose reading scores indicate a reading level between the 3rd- and 8th-grade level. The analysis identified four possible subgroup categories of adult struggling readers based on their performance on lower-level competencies (phonological awareness, decoding, vocabulary) and higher-level competencies (comprehension, inferencing, background knowledge):

 

  • Globally Impaired Readers: adults who show difficulties in all competencies
  • Globally Better Readers: adults who are relatively strong in all competencies
  • Weak Decoders: readers who are relatively weaker in lower-level competencies but strong in higher-level competencies
  • Weak Language Comprehenders: readers who are strong in lower-level competencies but relatively weaker in higher-level competencies

 

On average, Weak Decoders were older than other categories, though Globally Impaired Readers were on average older than Globally Better Readers or Weak Language Comprehenders. Globally Better Readers and Weak Decoders included a larger proportion of native English speakers than the other two categories. Thus, both age and English proficiency may predict the pattern of strengths and weaknesses. However, having a high school diploma did not predict performance patterns.

Although Globally Better Readers tended to perform better on reading assessment than other categories, even this group of readers performed at the 6th-grade level on average. Thus, all groups of readers would benefit from additional instruction. The researchers suggest different approaches for addressing the needs of learners in the different categories. For example, Weak Language Comprehenders may benefit from technology-based solutions that help build their oral language competencies, whereas Globally Impaired Readers and Weak Decoders may benefit from direct instruction on decoding skills.

 


This research was conducted as part of the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (CSAL): Developing Instructional Approaches Suited to the Cognitive and Motivational Needs for Struggling Adults funded in 2012 through NCER.

The abstract for the publication discussed above is available on ERIC; Identifying Profiles of Struggling Adult Readers: Relative Strengths and Weaknesses in Lower-Level and Higher-Level Competencies (Talwar, Amani; Greenberg, Daphne; Li, Hongli).

Dr. Meredith Larson, program officer for postsecondary and adult education, wrote this blog. Contact her at Meredith.Larson@ed.gov for additional information about CSAL and adult education research.

Research on Adult Literacy: A History of Investment in American Adults

Reading is fundamental, but it is also difficult to master, taking thousands of hours of instruction and practice. Roughly 52 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 16 may struggle with everyday literacy tasks. Of these adults, approximately 20 percent may perform at very low levels of literacy. For adults who are still mastering of this skill, the task can seem overwhelming.

Luckily, IES-funded researchers have been working towards solutions for adults with low basic reading skills and are creating and refining assessments, curricula, and software. These innovations aim to help adult learners, the instructors and tutors who work with them, and the programs that support them.

As part of our commemoration of National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week (September 20-26, 2020), we would like to recognize the history of adult literacy research at IES and its National Center for Education Research.  

Since 2004, IES-funded researchers have been developing assessments to help identify the needs of adults struggling with literacy and working on solutions to build adult literacy skills. This work fed into the measurement component of IES’s Reading for Understanding Initiative in 2010 and later returned back to addressing adult basic literacy measurement in 2016.

In 2012, IES funded the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (CSAL), which developed a curriculum and technology for adults reading between the 3rd- and 8th-grade levels. CSAL demonstrates how adult literacy research benefits by integrating research conducted with students with disabilities and those in K-12 and postsecondary settings. In fact, the researchers pulled upon findings from eight prior IES grants funded by NCER and NCSER.

Our researchers are also developing a clearer picture of the adults who fall into the broad category of those with low literacy. They are leveraging the PIAAC data set to conduct exploratory work that informs both our understanding of those at the very low ends of literacy and also of whether basic skills may predict success in postsecondary career and technical education programs.

In 2020, IES funded additional development research to help refine an interactive, online reading comprehension program, AutoTutor for Adult Reading Comprehension (AT-ARC). Another project will recruit and train postdoctoral fellows to cultivate the next generation of researchers who can continue to build a research base for improving adult literacy outcomes.

Although IES researchers are making great strides to build knowledge, the field needs more information, and adult learners deserve tools and innovations developed for their specific needs and goals. IES hopes to continue to support such work.

 


To learn more about IES-wide efforts to understand and improve adult learners’ outcomes, visit the Adult Basic Skills topic page. Contact Dr. Meredith Larson for more information about the research supported by NCER.

 

Building Knowledge About Adult Education

Adult education programs aim to support the millions of American adults who wish to strengthen their basic skills, earn a high school degree or equivalent, or become U.S. citizens. During the National Adult Education Family and Literacy Week (September 20-26, 2020), IES is highlighting the ongoing research it supports to help expand our knowledge of and innovations for the adult education system and the communities they support.

Roughly 30 million U.S. adults may lack a high school degree or equivalent. And according to an assessment conducted in 2017, approximately 30 percent of adults may have very low numeracy skills, and approximately 20 percent may have very low literacy skills. Adults with low levels of academic attainment or low basic skills may face barriers to full economic or civic engagement.

Adult education programs aim to help such adults. These programs often run on lean budgets and need to meet the needs of a highly diverse population with a multitude of learning goals.

In order to help understand and improve the ability of the adult education system to provide services, IES researchers have been conducting various research projects in partnership with adult education providers.

For example, Career Pathways Programming for Lower-Skilled Adults and Immigrants conducted mixed-methods research in partnership with Chicago, Houston, and Miami. This work helped each city understand what types of career pathways adult education programs were offering and who was participating in such programing. This type of information helps programs, cities, and the system more broadly understand and adjust to the needs of learners and communities.

The New York State Literacy Zone Researcher-Practitioner Partnership focused on improving the ability of case managers to help adult learners leverage wrap-around services and access and succeed in adult education and training programs. This project helped develop tools and training for case managers and conduct an exploratory pilot study of these tools to see if they predicted learner outcomes, such as persistence in a program.

The Georgia Partnership for Adult Education and Research (GPAER) is a collaboration among researchers at Georgia State University and leadership at the Georgia Office of Adult Education: Technical College System of Georgia to help understand adult literacy programs across the state. This ongoing work is conducting mixed-methods studies to understand program features, learner characteristics, and indicators of beneficial learner outcomes.

There is still much to learn to help improve the ability of programs to find and support adult learners. IES encourages additional research to further help us understand the landscape of adult education, the needs and interests of adult learners and their instructors, and the outcomes and impacts of improving adult basic skills.


For more information about adult education research at the National Center of Education Research, contact Dr. Meredith Larson.