It is generally accepted that knowing how to read (decoding print text), comprehending meanings of texts at various literal and inferential levels, and applying knowledge gleaned from such texts to any number of contexts beyond the text are all essential aspects of adult literacy education. Without necessarily adopting the political orientation of Paulo Freire (1970), few adult literacy educators would reject Freire’s aphorism on the importance of “reading the word” in order to “read the world.” Problems begin when matters of emphasis are stressed in terms of (a) the relation of reading and writing to that of knowledge acquisition, and (b) and conflicting perspectives on how reading is learned most effectively. To the extent that learning to read and knowledge acquisition occur more or less simultaneously, distinctions are less problematical than when the technical processes of learning to read and write, and that of knowledge acquisition through a study of a given text are not occurring apace, which is the more frequent reality in adult literacy.
The concept of “multiliteracies” has emerged particularly in the New Literacy Studies (Barton, 1994; Merrifield, 1998), which, for the field of adult literacy has served, in part, as response to this dilemma. According to this school of thought, literacy is defined as a symbolic sign system in which print text is mediated through and within the contexts in which it is situated as one variable among others to be drawn upon to attain whatever knowledge is required or desired by a particular individual or group of individuals in a given situation. This viewpoint has had a prevailing influence in much of the theoretical work that has given shape to adult literacy studies over the past several decades (Auerbach, 1992; Fingeret and Drennon, 1997; Demetrion, 2004; Merrifield, Bingman, Hemphill and Bennett deMarrais, 1997; Quigley, 1997; Stein, 2000, and Sticht, 1997). Many of these studies have stemmed from, but moved beyond Freire’s (1970) political landmark, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
From this perspective the definition of literacy has taken on various forms that need not concern us here, but that draw upon a metaphorical interpretation of reading the world (Barton, 1994). These, in turn, have given shape to literacy programs that, while teaching basic reading and writing skills, have spent as much, if not more emphasis on helping adults in learning to learn, as well as on the more ineffable aspects of the learning process related to the stimulation of motivation and the enhancement of self-esteem. Some adult literacy educators view these latter areas as foundational in the laying out of an emotional basis to ground the hard work of progressively learning how to read in context-based formats (Lytle, 1991), while others, also focusing on the metaphorical definition, stress the attainment of specific outcomes, which, in principle, can be measured through quantitative means.
Whether emphasizing the emotional impact or the attainment of specific outcomes, many students and instructors who are attuned to the learning/teaching moment, point to the value of the metaphorical dimensions of literacy in leading to certain levels of satisfaction that very well may be ignored or marginalized without such an emphasis. Even still, students in phonemic-based literacy programs also often report on their satisfaction, particularly if the socio-emotional climate of the instructional program is supportive of their aspirations, which is not to minimize the symbolic nature of the learning/teaching process that also infuses programs of this type. Consequently, attitude and the culture of a learning environment may play the more significant role in adult literacy setting, irrespective of instructional methodologies and content foci, although exactly how so, for what sets of students (Kegan, Broderick, Drago-Severson, Helsing, Popp, Portnow, & Associates, 2001), and its relation to more objective measures of impact inside and outside the program requires much clarification (Beder, 1999). At the least, progress in research requires empirically supported study as related to perplexing or challenging problems, and the formation of sharply honed questions and hypotheses designed to probe into them.
For the problem at hand, an examination of the relation of learning to read to that of learning to learn in an adult literacy context, the credibility of a study would be enhanced through comparative analyses among diverse students and programs of some to be determined significant quantity. All things being equal that would be so even if much of the needed work consists of delineating variables through in-depth case-study analysis that then become sifted through comparative research even without the prospect of a randomized sample. The utilization of whatever methodologies and approaches that brings further clarity to the matter throughout all the stages of the investigation (fidelity to the scientific method) within the historical evolution of the problem itself is the critical factor.
Whether learning to read or learning to learn is, or should be the central focus of adult literacy education, is a matter of some dispute, which has not been resolved within the literature of the field. There is substantial middle ground within these perspectives via the medium of balanced reading theory and a context-derived educational program that focuses on employment, family education, civic literacy, and lifelong learning (Stein, 2000). Nonetheless, tensions between the operative assumptions of the New Literacy Studies and advocates of phonemic-driven approaches to reading are particularly sharp in their articulation of competing definitions of literacy. In moving toward a dialectical resolution that incorporates balanced reading theory within a context-based adult literacy framework, my working hypothesis, much clarification is required.