The limitations of literacy transfer have serious implications for workplace literacy programs. This is especially true if programs attempt to use traditional, school-type materials. Sticht (1982) found that general literacy training did not transfer to job applications. He now recommends a functional context approach which teaches literacy by using the materials with which the learner is likely to function on a daily basis.
Significant Learning Loss Occurs without Regular Practice
The problem of lack of transfer is related to the problem of learning loss. When people cannot use what they have learned in real-world situations, they tend to lose the new skill because they lose the chance to practice it. This is important, because new knowledge must be used or it is lost. Sticht's (1982) report of military studies indicated that enlisted men improved in literacy abilities while they were in general literacy classes but that within eight weeks, 80% of those gains were lost. The only exception to this finding occurred when job-related materials were used to teach literacy abilities. In the latter case, learning gains held up, probably because learners continued to practice the abilities they had mastered.
Continuing to practice literacy abilities is very important. It means that efforts and resources can be squandered if learners are taught with general materials which have no relationship to the materials they see daily. It also suggests that the timing of workplace literacy training is important. Preparing learners for the basic skills demanded by new jobs may be wasted if learners must wait several months before they are able to apply and practice their new learning.
Some programs (Mikulecky & Philippi, 1990) have analyzed specific job tasks and developed instructional materials using both work and everyday materials. For example, in banking the careful reading of withdrawal and deposit slips involves reading, computation, and judgment. Similar skills are required at home in reading and filling out forms for mail-order catalogs and in paying some bills. Instruction that alternates applying the same strategies to workplace and home materials offers an increased possibility for practice. Data is not yet available on the effectiveness of this strategy in stemming learning loss.
Effective Workplace Literacy Programs
To be effective, therefore, workplace literacy programs must have well designed instruction and they must be flexible enough to meet the needs of both differing learners and changing situations on the job. The discussion so far has highlighted the importance of designing programs which integrate workplace basic skills instruction with several other types of instruction, e.g., technical training, ESL training, GED instruction, and low level literacy training. It has emphasized the importance of countering lack of transfer and learning loss by providing long-term practice with materials and activities directly related to the learners' everyday demands. Additional elements of effective programs are apparent as workplace literacy training across the country is examined.
Salient Features of Effective Program
A recent study (Kutner, Sherman, Webb, & Fisher, 1991) of 37 workplace literacy programs funded by the federal government identified four key components of effective programs. One of these elements related to directly linking instructional materials to literacy tasks identified during job analyses. This connection was discussed at some length earlier in this chapter. In addition to this clear link between instruction and job tasks, effective programs were characterized by:
Bussert (1991) reported that most workplace literacy programs involve partnerships of some sort. Bussert analyzed descriptions of 107 U.S. workplace literacy programs and found 92% to involve two or more partners. Sometimes the partners were multiple unions or multiple businesses; a school and a business; or a government agency, a business, and a union. The most common types of partnership among the programs she surveyed were the following: