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Literacy and open learning

Alex Radloff and Joanne Samson
Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology

Functional literacy and learning

There is a growing realisation that productivity in the workforce depends largely on the ability of workers to continue learning on the job. Such learning may take many forms but it is inevitable that much of it will require reading and writing skills. Unfortunately, there are many workers who, although they are able to read and write, are not functionally literate. In other words, their literacy is inadequate to meet the particular demands of new learning.

Consequences of poor literacy in the workforce are many and varied. Productivity, safety, quality, promotional opportunities, and even the choice of job, may be affected by lack of necessary reading and writing skills. In particular, failure to participate in and obtain maximum benefit from new learning experiences is one of the most worrying results of inadequate levels of functional literacy.

Literacy skills needed in the workplace

As Mikulecky (1984) points out, "occupations requiring little or no literacy are rapidly disappearing while newly created occupations require workers to use reading, writing and computation to a fairly high level in daily problem solving" (p.253). Most workers, both professional and technical, will need to use reading and writing skills in order to acquire job-relevant information, maintain and upgrade specialist skills, understand procedures and policies and communicate instructions and ideas.

Guthrie (1984) reports findings from the United States which indicate that reading on the job per day occupied approximately two and a half hours for professionals, almost two hours for middle-level workers and just over one and a half hours for blue collar workers. Moreover, much of the reading was of material which required the ability to interpret and apply what was being read (Mikulecky, 1984). Literacy for effective problem solving is the emerging demand.

On the job writing takes many forms. Depending on their positions, workers may be required to produce memos, minutes of meetings, letters, reports, proposals, technical documents and manuals. They may need to complete various government or legal forms. All workers at some time will write a resume.

Much of this writing requires not only the ability to produce grammatically correct text, but also the skill to recognise different writing styles and their uses, select appropriate text structure and formats and express often complex technical concepts and ideas in clear and readable ways. Unfortunately, much of the writing which is done in work settings is poor and difficult to use.

Our own work with adults from a variety of occupational backgrounds ranging from professional through technical, supervisory and clerical, reinforces the view that many workers find their writing skills to be inadequate for the writing tasks they must undertake as part of their jobs. Indeed, many of the reading problems reported by workers may be partly explained by the poor quality of the written material they have to read (Miller, 1982).

That workers often have difficulty coping with the literacy demands of their jobs is well documented (see, for example, the discussion of this issue by French 1987). The reasons for this are varied. Poor initial development of literacy skills, non-English speaking backgrounds, motivational and attitudinal problems (the alliterate society) and lack of on the job encouragement to use skills, are some of the possible reasons. But probably the most important one, is the growing demands of the job. As Anderson et al. (1981) point out, "what was a satisfactory level of literacy in 1950 probably will be marginal by the year 2000" (quoted in O'Donnell, 1985, p.74).

The changing face of literacy

What was considered functional literacy even a generation ago, is simply inadequate for successful development and use of skills required in a growing number of jobs today. Workers whose literacy levels do not meet these requirements will fail to benefit from the new opportunities to upgrade and add to their skills through work based training. As a result, they will be less productive, and less able to contribute to their own personal development, as well as to the development of their own children and to society in general.

Difficulties in improving literacy

The long history of adult literacy programmes both here and overseas has been well documented (see Duke, 1989; Sticht, 1988-89 for relevant discussions). Much of the traditional emphasis of these has been on illiteracy. More recently, the problems of functional illiteracy and the alliterate society have begun to be addressed (Lazarus, 1989; Spear, 1989; Mikulecky, 1984; French, 1987).

The difficulties of improving adult functional literacy are well known. The high cost of programmes, the unrealistic expectations from limited learning experiences, lack of interest by employers, and poor motivation on the part of employees to participate in adult literacy classes have all at some time been given as reasons for poor outcomes. Certainly, the high dropout rate from adult literacy programmes has often been reported (Sticht, 1988-89). There have been some successful efforts, and these have most typically been work based (French, 1987).

Literacy skills develop over many years of formal and informal learning. It is therefore, unrealistic to expect that any single intervention, however well planned, will provide the learner with all the strategies he or she may need in order to acquire and use new job related knowledge and skills.

Instructional conditions which foster literacy

It is possible to improve existing literacy skills and acquire new strategies. Our work with various groups of learners including both adults in workshop settings as well as adults engaged in part time and full time study, supports our view that literacy can be improved to meet the demands of the learning activity. However, for intervention to be effective, certain conditions have to be met.

Firstly, the literacy programme must be taught in context. This means that the reading and writing strategies will be immediately useful in meeting the demands of the learning task. Literacy is then not simply another subject in the curriculum but an integral part of the material that is being learnt. In this way, the relevance of the strategies becomes obvious and learner motivation to master and use a particular skill is greatly increased.

Secondly, adult learners need to know why they need a particular strategy and how the strategy works. In other words, learners must be aware of the purpose for acquiring the strategy. Taking a cookbook approach to teaching strategies will fail since learners will not know why strategies are being taught and therefore will be unable to use them effectively in new learning situations.

Thirdly, literacy strategies should be taught in such a way as to encourage learners to be actively involved in their own learning. Taking responsibility for the learning task and its outcome should be shifted gradually from the instructor to the learner. This allows the learner to take control of his or her own learning and to become a self regulated learner. Learners who have control over their own learning tend to be more motivated and more likely to continue developing their skills beyond the formal learning situation.

Fourthly, the literacy programme must include specific instruction in metacognition. Metacognition refers to the knowledge a learner has about his or her cognitive processes (for example, how one goes about making sense of some text, or what difficulties one typically encounters when one tries to write a report), as well as the ability to control these processes. Metacognition is important for both reading and writing, since it allows one to plan, select appropriate strategies, monitor progress, and evaluate one's efforts. Numerous studies (Forrest-Pressley, MacKinnon and Waller, 1985; Baker and Brown, 1984; Belmont, Butterfield and Ferretti, 1982; Wade and Reynolds, 1989) have demonstrated the importance of metacognitive skills for both learning and transfer of a variety of reading and writing strategies.

Finally, literacy instruction should reflect our knowledge of good instructional practices. Learners learn best when they are active. The activity may take many forms including small group discussion, reciprocal teaching, peer and self assessment, and project work. Learners learn most when learning is individualised and personalised. Learners' personal learning styles and past experiences should be acknowledged and incorporated into the learning activities. Learners are most likely to persevere with learning tasks whose value they recognise and where their efforts have a good chance of resulting in success. Learners enjoy most those learning situations where they receive positive feedback from other members of the group for their contributions.

Helping adults acquire literacy skills

How should we approach the task of helping adults to acquire the reading and writing skills they need to learn effectively? The first task is to identify the strategies required for effective reading and writing by adult learners. Secondly, we need to devise an instructional approach which will assist adults to develop these strategies.

Reading requires not only rapid and accurate decoding but also the ability to comprehend the writer's intention. In order to do this, readers must use active reading strategies. These include skimming material that needs to be read, identifying the text structure and typographical clues to the meaning of the text, recognising main ideas, asking questions about the writer's intention, and expressing the content in one's own words (Brown, Campione and Day, 1981; Englert, Hiebert, and Stewart, 1987; Samuels, et al., 1987; and Stevens, 1988). Readers are especially dependent on effective reading strategies when the material to be read is poorly written, or when the subject matter is unfamiliar to them. Many learning situations would include both these conditions.

Writing is a complex activity which needs both sound knowledge of the mechanics of writing (grammar, spelling and punctuation) as well as the ability to express one's ideas in a clear, accurate and persuasive way. The ability to identify the audience, define the task and purpose for writing, to select the appropriate format and text structure, and revise and edit work effectively are all necessary for good writing. Being able to write well demonstrates that the learner has grasped the instructional material. Writing is also a valuable aid to learning since the process of writing helps the learner to clarify thoughts and ideas. (Applebee, 1984; Humes, 1983).

In addition to the specific skills and strategies of reading and writing outlined above, the learner must also be able to take control of the reading or writing process. This requires the learner to be metacognitive about his or her learning.

Many adults experience difficulties with one or more of the literacy skills described above. In particular, adults may fail to approach the reading or writing task metacognitively. As a result, they may not plan the task effectively, or indeed, plan at all; they may fail to identify which strategy is needed to complete the task effectively; they may not notice inconsistencies in text or fail to register their lack of understanding; and they may be poor at judging the appropriateness or quality of their efforts.

We have found in our teaching of reading and writing strategies that one way of thinking about the steps involved in both of these is in terms of a problem solving model. We use Polya's (1957) model which describes the steps to be taken in tackling a problem. According to Polya, there are four major steps in any problem solving task. These are understanding the problem, planning the solution, carrying out the plan and checking the results. We have modified Polya's steps to suit the requirements of reading and writing skills. Polya's model is also useful in that it incorporates the key components of metacognition. Thus, for both reading and writing tasks, we suggest that the learner plan, select strategies appropriate to the task, monitor progress, and evaluate outcomes. The specific strategies required for the task can then be practised by the learner in the context of the problem solving approach.

Learners can easily see the relevance of each of the steps and apply them readily to a new reading or writing task. Moreover, by presenting the reading and writing tasks as problems to be solved, we are able to demystify the process. Learners can see that both reading and writing consist of skills which can be identified, practised and improved. Effective reading and writing are not inherited capacities which only a few people possess, but are processes which can be mastered by anyone prepared to spend time and effort to acquire the necessary skills.


Open learning provides an excellent opportunity for workers at all levels of the workforce to continue developing knowledge and skills necessary for increased productivity and personal growth. Most of the new learning will require well developed reading and writing skills, which many adults do not currently possess. Participation in open learning will not result in the quality of learning outcomes industry is seeking, nor generalise to other learning experiences, if the literacy needs of adult learners are neglected.

As a result of recent research on functional literacy, we are in a better position to assist learners to develop literacy skills which are required for effective learning. We are better able to identify and describe the particular cognitive strategies good readers and writers use. We now know more about how learners acquire these strategies than we did in the past. We are more aware of the importance of metacognitive skills which allow learners to monitor and control their reading and writing.

Adults are most likely to benefit from literacy instruction when such instruction meets the conditions for effective learning. This means specifically that literacy should be taught in context, with the purpose and value of the instruction clearly communicated to learners who are active participants in the process and take responsibility for their learning. From our experience of using the principles outlined above to teach reading and writing as problem solving tasks, we firmly believe that such instruction is essential. Moreover, this type of teaching model can be used effectively as part of any open learning programme.


Applebee, A. N. (1984). Writing and reasoning. Review of Educational Research, 54, 577-596.

Baker, L., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Metacognitive skills and reading. In P. D. Pearson (Ed.), Handbook of reading research. New York: Longman.

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Duke, C. (1989). Provision in Australasia. In C. J. Titmus (Ed.), Lifelong education for adults: An international handbook. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Englert, C. S., Hiebert, E. H., & Stewart, S. R. (1987). Detecting and correcting inconsistencies in the monitoring of expository prose. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 221-227.

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Humes, A. (1983). Research on the composing process. Review of Educational Research, 55, 201-216.

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Mikulecky, L. (1984). Preparing students for workforce literacy demands. Journal of Reading, 27, 253-257.

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Polya, G. (1957). How to solve it. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Samuels, S.J., Tennyson, R., Sax, L., Mulcahy, P., Schermer, N., & Hajovy, H. (1987). Adults' use of text structure in the recall of a scientific journal article. Journal of Research in Education, 81, 171-174.

Spear, G.E. (1989). Adult education for employment. In C.J. Titmus (Ed.), Lifelong education for adults: An international handbook. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Stevens, R.J. (1988). Effects of strategy training on the identification of the main idea of expository passages. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 21-26.

Sticht, T.G. (1988-89). Adult literacy education. Review of Education, 15, 59-79.

Wade, S.E., & Reynolds, R.E. (1989). Developing metacognitive awareness. Journal of Reading, 33, 6-14.

Authors: As part of her role as an Educational Psychology lecturer, Alex Radloff focuses on helping students develop strategies which will improve their skills. Together with Joanne Samson, with whom she works closely, she has developed and conducted courses and workshops on expository writing, report writing, preparation for tertiary study and problem solving.

Joanne Samson teaches Educational Psychology with an emphasis on the role of metacognition in the learning-teaching process. She has a particular interest in intervention which will assist students to improve their writing skills. Her main research interest is in the investigation of literacy skills of students entering their first year of teacher training programmes.

Please cite as: Radloff, A. and Samson, J. (1990). Literacy and open learning. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 283-289. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

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