Review of research and evaluation on improving adult literacy and numeracy skills
This Review, published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, finds that learner progress in literacy is greater where teachers have qualified teacher status, and in numeracy where teachers are qualified in maths to Level 3 or above (irrespective of qualified teacher status). Another key finding is that the growing range of demands and contexts for reading and writing, and for using and manipulating numeric data, is further evidence in favour of a focus on functional skills.
Key findings of the review
Economic, personal and social returns to learning
- There is growing evidence that gaining literacy and numeracy skills in adulthood has a positive effect on earnings and employment. However, the acquisition of literacy and numeracy qualifications in adulthood has not yet been shown to be related to significant gains in earnings and employment.
- There is insufficient UK evidence on the economic impact of literacy and numeracy provision in the context of FE and the workplace.
- There is clear, convincing and statistically significant evidence that participation in ALN provision, and having higher levels of ALN, have a positive personal and social impact on individuals and communities. The personal and social impact of literacy and numeracy learning often takes time to emerge, and emerges in forms and contexts that are removed from formal learning environments.
- Whilst there is strong evidence on the positive impact of ALN on learners' confidence, it is less clear whether improved confidence is a prerequisite of learning progress.
Quality and effectiveness of provision
- Teachers of adult basic skills need to have both good generic teaching skills and good subject specific teaching skills. Effective practice in literacy occurs where teachers build on learners' experience, encourage fluent oral reading, use reciprocal teaching and explicit comprehension strategies and adequate time is allowed for active reading in class. Effective practice in numeracy occurs where teachers build on knowledge learners already have and help them overcomes their fear of maths, expose and treat misconceptions as a subject for discussion, promote reasoning and problem solving over 'answer getting', and make creative use of ICT. However, although much is known about what is effective in teaching and learning, these practices are often not observed in delivery.
- Learner progress in literacy is greater where teachers have qualified teacher status, and in numeracy where teachers are qualified in maths to Level 3 or above (irrespective of qualified teacher status). Benefits for learners are associated with teachers who work full-time; nevertheless the proportion of sessional teachers in the basic skills workforce is rising.
- The Skills for Life strategy contributed to a substantial increase in enrolment, completion and achievement in ALN. Studies have show there were worthwhile gains in numeracy for numeracy learners, and in reading for literacy learners, but not in writing for literacy learners.
- Literacy courses tend to cost more than numeracy courses, and Entry level provision is considerably more costly than Level 1 and Level 2 provision, reflecting the greater needs of learners with the lowest skills. Longer courses tend to be delivered more efficiently than shorter courses due to fixed start-up costs. Evidence from one robust study shows that providing top-down provision on a workplace-specific basis is very expensive; as learner gains were small at best, this model of literacy delivery was demonstrated to be inefficient.
- Retention rates and success rates are higher on vocational programmes where literacy and numeracy learning is embedded, as compared with non-embedded programmes. Results are lower, however, where a single teacher had dual responsibility for teaching vocational skills and ALN.
- Participation in short workplace training programmes has not been demonstrated to make substantial improvements to employee literacy skills in the short term. However workplace basic skills courses reach people who are not normally involved in continuous education or training, and learners who participate in these courses voluntarily and who actively use their literacy skills at work and in everyday life continue to improve their skills and are more likely to engage in FE and training.
- Many adults are motivated to gain new qualification and skills; many others are (also) motivated to improve their basic skills for 'self-development' - whether personal, social and/or occupational. A common aspiration is for learners to seek to 'better themselves'. Not all learners are motivated by the desire to acquire qualifications or specific skills; they may be motivated by intrinsic goals (for example, regaining confidence lost at school) along with, or instead of the extrinsic goals of career development, better wages and improved employment.
- Learning technology may improve learner progress and achievement, and may help to attract, engage and motivate learners, but what little evidence there is on these topics is at best mixed.
Number of learning hours
- Better gains for learners seem to be associated with courses which allow for levels of participation in excess of 100 hours; learners require more time to make educationally significant progress than they generally spend in provision. For those who only need to 'brush up' existing skills, short courses are often adequate for learner gains; in contrast, learners working at a higher level may find it more difficult to achieve a qualification within the learning hours allocated to a single-year course. There is some limited evidence to show that learners who engage in self-study between classes make better progress.
- Basic skills learners are more likely to withdraw from courses in the earlier stages than in the later stages; learners working at lower levels are more likely to withdraw than learners working at higher levels and learners with prior qualifications and experiences of learning are less likely to withdraw than those who have no prior experience.
- Persistence is supported where learner progress is monitored and recognised on a regular basis, by setting and revisiting learner goals. It is therefore important that progress towards 'soft' outcomes, such as improvements in self-confidence, are recognised within a broad framework of achievement and that formative assessment recognises small steps as well as significant gains.
- Breaking off from learning programmes can be a rational and positive response to changing circumstances. What is important in terms of learner persistence is that these breaks from learning are supported, principally by distance and blended learning, so that learners are not penalised and do not have the door to learning closed on them. However, the use of ICT needs to be well-supported as learners who encounter problems with ICT resources away from class can lose confidence and motivation.
Skills acquisition, retention and loss
- There is evidence of a life course trend in skills acquisition and loss, with skills improving up to early middle-age, reaching a plateau in middle age and declining in older age. Use of literacy and numeracy skills in the workplace and in daily life helps adults retain and develop those skills. Where it is available, workplace training can offset the loss of literacy and numeracy skills; the offer of training is, however, dependent on occupational sector and level.
- Unemployed adults are more likely to experience a loss in skills than adults in work, and numeracy skills' loss is greater for those out of work than literacy skills' loss. The loss of numeracy skills for unemployed men is greater than for unemployed women, perhaps because women are more likely to use basic maths on a daily basis. Individuals who attain a threshold level of competency in literacy and numeracy by the time they leave school are less likely to face a decline of skills when out of work than those whose literacy and numeracy skills are poor at age 16.
The literacy and numeracy skills that are needed
- There is a lack of consensus over which ALN skills are needed, or the importance of literacy and numeracy alongside personal and technical skills in the workplace. Perceptions of skills needs vary by perspective, purpose, learner type, service provider, skill types and who needs the skill.
- There is growing evidence of the need amongst employees for a more complex combination of skills than in the past, including a combination of ICT and mathematical literacies. Individuals in employment who struggle with skills in ICT or literacy or numeracy are likely to suffer losses in the other two areas. The growing range of demands and contexts for reading and writing, and for using and manipulating numeric data, is further evidence in favour of a focus on functional skills.
- Employers frequently cite the need for (improved) reading, writing and maths skills in the workplace, and report a significant gap between the skills levels of employees and skills needs in the workplace. However, there is much less evidence on employees' perceptions, and there is scope for the use of more refined assessment instruments to determine the skills that employers need.
- Continuing investment in improving ALN skills is required, but based on stronger evidence of which skills are required than currently exists. The forthcoming results from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competences (PIAAC) will provide an indication of the UK's progress relative to international comparators, and suggest where investment should be focused.
- There is little evidence explicitly linking the assessment of skills needs to the design and delivery of effective, efficient and economical provision leading to demonstrably cost-effective outcomes, such as improved employment, productivity, civic participation or learning progression.
- No cost-benefit analyses of literacy and numeracy programmes have been carried out that would enable identification of the most efficient modes and models for delivering literacy and numeracy provision.
- There has been relatively little funded work on the development of software and new e-learning techniques for adults in this field. Robust trials are required to clarify which are the effective practices in using technology for different groups of learners, and for different types of learning outcome.
To read the Review in full, go to www.bis.gov.uk