Tom Sticht, International Consultant in Adult Education
In a 2014 report entitled: “Literacy Ladders: Increasing Young Children’s Language, Knowledge, and Reading Comprehension”, a joint project of the Albert Shanker Institute (ASI), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and Core Knowledge Foundation (CKF), a group of education professionals have once again noted the importance of educating adults as a means of helping close reading achievement gaps between children from undereducated parents and those from more highly educated parents.
Kicking off the series of 10 papers in the report, Marilyn Jager Adams’ paper: “Preface: Knowledge for Literacy,” calls attention to the now familiar finding from educational research that higher levels of comprehension in reading requires the possession of large bodies of knowledge. Further, the foundations of developing higher levels of knowledge start in early infancy with the development of oral language. Writing in 1908, Huey reflects on the role of speech in reading, and states that, “The child comes to his first reader with his habits of spoken language fairly well formed, and these habits grow more deeply set with every year. His meanings inhere in this spoken language and belong but secondarily to the printed symbols….” (Huey, 1908/1968, pp. 122-123).
Later in the Literacy Ladders report, Biemiller follows-up on Huey’s ideas and argues that oral comprehension sets the ceiling on reading comprehension, at least in the early years of the child’s development. He says, “The listening comprehension of the average child begins to develop in infancy and continues to grow long after grade 6. Reading comprehension typically begins to develop in kindergarten or 1st grade. At this point, the child’s level of reading comprehension is obviously far below her listening comprehension. There is considerable evidence that for the majority of children, comprehension of printed language continues to lag behind comprehension of spoken language well past 3rd grade (Sticht & James, 1984). When a child can understand language equally well whether presented in print or speech, the distinction between listening and reading comprehension ceases to be important and the child has become “literate.” However, a number of studies suggest that average children don’t reach the point of being able to read what they could understand if they heard it until around 7th or 8th grade. Of course, they can understand simpler text sooner” (Biemiller, 2014, p. 53).
The importance of educating adults because they are the parents and initial educators of their children, including their role in developing their children’s oral language, has long been recognized. Huey knew that many parents might lack knowledge and reading ability needed to foster language and literacy growth in children and wrote: "Where children have good homes, reading will thus be learned independently of school. Where parents have not the time or intelligence to assist in this way the school of the future will have as one of its important duties the instruction of parents in the means of assisting the child's natural learning in the home." ( Huey, 1908/1968, pp. 311-312).
In her preface to the Literacy Ladders report, Adams calls attention to the importance of educating adults in the provision of early childhood education. Citing an earlier paper for the American Educator journal of the AFT (Sticht, 2011), Adams discusses the need to close educational achievement gaps between children from poorly and better educated parents and states: “Indeed, it is primarily this goal, the closing of gaps, that drives the universal preschool movement. … the 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; while quality preschool programs are insuperably important, gap closing necessarily depends on improving the educational support and encouragement children receive at home. 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”(Adams, 2014, p. 7).
Despite the overwhelming evidence, and common sense understanding, that helping poorly educated adults get additional education can not only help the adults in their work and economic circumstances, but also contribute to the preschool and inschool educational achievement of their children, the Adult Education and Literacy System (AELS) of the United States, funded by Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014, has witnessed a deplorable $40 million decline in real funding, adjusted for inflation, for the last decade and a half. This has been accompanied by a decline in enrollments from 2.9 million in 2000 to just over 1.5 million in 2015, while yearly waiting lists for programs have increased into the hundreds of thousands.
One wonders why it is so very difficult for policymakers to understand and support the millions of adults who need additional education so that they may, in turn, support their children in their pursuit of educational opportunities and achievement. Why is it so difficult to understand that by investing in the education of adults we get “double duty dollars!” We elevate the education of adults and we get improved educational achievement of their children!
“Outstanding!”, say the Military Generals, because it’s good for our national security.
“Tremendous!”, say the Business Moguls, because it’s good for our nation’s economy.
“Indubitably!”, say the Professors, because it agrees with the empirical data.
“Cut the adult education budget!”, say the state and federal governments. Because the constituency is poor.
“Please help!”, say the adults and their children.
Adams, M. (2014). Preface: Knowledge for Literacy. In: Literacy Ladders: Increasing Young Children’s Language, Knowledge, and Reading Comprehension. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers, pp. 4-10.
Biemiller, A. (2014). Comprehension Sets the Limit on Reading Comprehension. In: Literacy Ladders: Increasing Young Children’s Language, Knowledge, and Reading Comprehension. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers, pp. 52-53.
Huey, E. (1908/1968). The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.
Sticht, T. (2011). Getting It Right from the Start: The Case for Early Parenthood Education. American Educator 35 no. 3, pp. 35–39.
Sticht, T. & James, J. (1984/2002). Listening and Reading. In: P. Pearson, R. Barr, & M. Kamil (Eds.). Handbook of Research on Reading, Vol. 1. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Associates, pp. 293-317.