June 12, 2006
Theoretically You Can’t Teach Adults to Read and Write:
But Just Keep On Doing It
International Consultant in Adult Education
Why is it so hard to get funding for adult literacy education? Innumerable
studies, reports, TV shows, and statistical surveys in most of the industrialized
nations of the world declare that their nation is being brought to its
economic knees because of widespread low basic skills (literacy, numeracy)
amongst the adult population. But repeated calls for funding commensurate
with the size of the problem go unanswered. Why?
Beneath the popular pronouncements of educators, industry leaders, and
government officials about the importance of adult basic skills development
there flows an undercurrent of disbelief about the abilities of illiterates
or the poorly literate to ever improve much above their present learning.
This was encountered close to a hundred years ago when Cora
Wilson Stewart started the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky in
1911. Her claim that adults could learn to read and write met
with skepticism. As she reported,
"Some educators, however, declared preposterous the claims we
made that grown people were learning to read and write.
It was contrary to the
principles of psychology, they said."
Today that undercurrent of disbelief still flows, but today it carries
with it the flotsam and jetsam of "scientific facts" from genetics
science, brain science, and psychological science. Look here at objects
snatched from the undercurrent of disbelief stretching back for just a
decade and a half.
2006. Ann Coulter is a major voice in the conservative political arena.
In her new book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism (Chapter 7 The Left’s
War on Science: Burning Books to Advance "Science" pages 172-174)
she clearly defends the ideas given in Murray & Hernstein’s book
The Bell Curve regarding the genetic basis of intelligence. By extension,
since The Bell Curve uses reading and math tests in the Armed Forces Qualification
Test (AFQT), Coulter is discussing the genetic basis of literacy and numeracy.
In her book she says about The Bell Curve book:
"Contrary to the party line denying that such a thing as IQ
existed, the book methodically demonstrated that IQ exists, it is easily
measured, it is heritable, and it is extremely important. …Among
many other things, IQ is a better predictor than socioeconomic status of
poverty, unemployment, criminality, divorce, single motherhood, workplace
injuries, and high school dropout rates. …Although other factors
influence IQ, such as a good environment and nutrition, The Bell Curve
authors estimated that IQ was about 40 to 80 percent genetic." (p.
Coulter goes on to discuss the misuse of science in the same chapter in
relation to AIDS and homosexuality, feminism, trial-lawyers law suits,
DDT and environmentalists, abortion and stem cell research, and other topics
that are controversial among large segments of the population but of mainstream
concern in the far right conservative base in the United States.
Because of her position as a best-selling author and spokesperson
for conservative groups, Ann Coulter’s ideas about the genetic basis
of intelligence and high school dropouts can have a profound impact upon
political thinking about basic skills education among adults who have not
2005. The Nobel Prize winning economist James J. Heckman in an interview
at the Federal Reserve Bank region in Chicago discussed his ideas about
cognitive skills and their malleability in later life with members of a
presidential commission consisting of former U.S. senators, heads of federal
agencies, tax attorneys and academic economists. Later in his interview
he discusses what Adam Smith, in his The Wealth of Nations said and why
he, Heckman, disagrees with Smith.
According to Heckman, Adam Smith said,
"… people are
basically born the same and at age 8 one can't really see
much difference among them. But then starting at age 8, 9, 10, they pursue
they specialize and they diverge. In his mind, the butcher
and the lawyer and the journalist and the professor and the mechanic,
all are basically
the same person at age 8."
Heckman disagrees with this and
"This is wrong. IQ is basically formed by age 8, and there are
huge differences in IQ among people. Smith was right that people specialize
after 8, but they started specializing before 8. On the early
of human skill, I think Smith was wrong, although he was right
about many other things. … I think these observations on human
skill formation are exactly why the job training programs aren't working
in the United
States and why many remediation programs directed toward disadvantaged
young adults are so ineffective. And that's why the distinction
between cognitive and noncognitive skill is so important, because a lot
problem with children from disadvantaged homes is their values,
attitudes and motivations. …Cognitive skills such as IQ can't
really be changed much after ages 8 to 10. But with noncognitive skills
malleability. That's the point I was making earlier when
talking about the prefrontal cortex. It remains fluid and adaptable
That's why adolescent mentoring programs are as effective as
they are. Take a 13-year-old. You're not going to raise
the IQ of a 13-year-old, but you can talk the 13-year-old
out of dropping out
of school. Up to a
point you can provide surrogate parenting."
Here Heckman seems to think of the IQ as something relatively fixed at
an early age and not likely to be changed later in life. But if IQ is measured
in The Bell Curve, a book in which Heckman found some merit, using the
AFQT, which in turn is a literacy and numeracy test, then this would imply
that Heckman thinks the latter may not be very malleable in later life.
This seems consistent with his belief that remediation programs for adults
are ineffective and do not make very wise investments.
2000. It is easy to slip from talking about adults with low literacy ability
to talking about adults with low intelligence. On October 2, 2000, Dan
Seligman, columnist at Forbes magazine, wrote about the findings of the
National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) of 1993 and said,
note that what’s being measured here is not what you’ve been
thinking all your life as "literacy. " The cluster of abilities
being examined is obviously a proxy for plain old "intelligence."
He then goes on to argue that government programs won’t do
much about this problem of low intelligence, and, by extension, of low
These types of popular press articles can stymie funding for adult literacy
education. That is one reason why it is critical that when national assessments
of cognitive skills, including literacy, are administered, we need to be
certain about just what it is we are measuring. Unfortunately, that is
not the case with the 1993 NALS or the more recent 2003 National Assessment
of Adult Literacy (NAAL). These assessments leave open the possibility
of being called "intelligence" tests leading some, like Seligman,
to the general conclusion that the less literate are simply the less intelligent
and society might as well cast them off – their "intelligence
genes" will not permit them to ever reach Level 3 or any other levels
at the high end of cognitive tests.
1998. Dr. G. Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child
Health and Human Development provided an Overview of Reading and Literacy
Initiatives to the U. S. Congress Committee on Labor and Human Resources
on April 28, 1998. In his testimony he stated that in learning to read
it is important
for children to possess good abilities in phonemic analysis.
"Difficulties in developing phoneme awareness can have genetic
and neurobiological origins or can be attributable to a lack
of exposure to
language patterns and usage during the preschool years…. It is
for this reason that the National Institute of Child Health
and Human Development
(NICHD) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) considers
reading failure to reflect not only an educational problem,
but a significant public health problem as well. Within this
context, a large research network
consisting of 41 research sites in North America, Europe,
and Asia are working hard to identify (1) the critical environmental,
cognitive, genetic, neurobiological, and instructional conditions
that foster strong reading development; (2) the risk factors
that predispose youngsters to reading failure; and (3) the instructional
can be applied to ameliorate reading deficits at the earliest
Discussing why some children may have difficulties learning to read, Lyon
went on to say:
"Children raised in poverty, youngsters with limited proficiency
in English, children with speech and hearing impairments, and
children from homes where the parent's reading levels are
low are relatively predisposed
to reading failure. Likewise, youngsters with sub-average intellectual
capabilities have difficulties learning to read, particularly
in the reading comprehension domain."
Taken together, these statements by a senior government scientist advisor
to both the President and the Congress of the United States indicates that
the NICHD considers that in some cases low literacy may result from genetic,
neurological, sub-average intellectual capability or a combination of these
and other factors. Again, this may contribute to wide-spread beliefs that
adults with low literacy may possess faulty genes, brains, and/or intellectual
abilities and are unlikely to benefit from adult literacy education programs.
From a policy perspective, then, policymakers may think that funding such
programs may be regarded as a poor use of public funds.
1997. In a January 7, 1997 article in the Washington
Times, a prominent
newspaper published in Washington DC and read by many members
of Congress, columnist Ken Adelman wrote:
"The age-old nature vs. nurture debate assumes immediacy as the
new Congress and new administration gin up to address such
issues as poverty, crime, drugs, etc. …This, the most intellectually
intriguing debate around, is moving far toward nature (and
far from nurture) with new evidence
presented by an odd pair - gay activist Chandler Burr and
conservative scholar Charles Murray. …In brief, their new findings
show that 1) homosexuality and 2) educational-economic achievement
are each largely
a matter of genes – not of upbringing. …If true, as appears
so, the scope of effective government programs narrows. Fate,
working through chromosomes, bestows both sexual orientation
and brainpower, which shape
one's life and success. Little can be altered - besides fostering
tolerance and helping in any narrow window
left open - through even an ideally designed public program.
The juxtaposition of homosexuals and those of lower educational and economic
achievement is an obvious rhetorical device meant to stir negative emotions
about both groups, This is a rhetorical device brought back into play by
Coulter in her 2006 book cited above.
1991. One of the beliefs in our culture is that the brain
intellectual capacity is developed in early childhood. There
widespread belief that if children's early childhood development
is not properly stimulated, then there is likely to be intellectual
underdevelopment leading to academic failures, low aptitude,
problems such as criminal activity, teenage pregnancy and welfare.
It will be difficult if not impossible to overcome the disadvantages
of deficiencies in early childhood stimulation later in adulthood. So why
invest much in adult education? We need instead to put billions
into early childhood education.
That these beliefs about the consequence of early childhood development
are widespread is revealed by articles written by prominent journalists
in major newspapers. For instance, on Sunday, October 13, 1991 the San
Diego Union newspaper reprinted an article by Joan Beck, a columnist for
the Chicago Tribune , that argued for early childhood education because,
"Half of adult intellectual capacity is already present by
age 4 and 80 percent by age 8, ... the opportunity to influence [a child's]
basic intelligence - considered to be a stable characteristic by age 17 – is
greatest in early life."
A year earlier in the same newspaper on October 14, 1990 an adult family
literacy educator was quoted as saying,
"Between the ages of
4 we have learned half of everything we'll ever learn in
our lives. Most of that has to do with language, imagination,
This doesn’t hold out much hope for the adults in family literacy
Joan Beck was quoting research by Benjamin Bloom in the 1960s. But Bloom
did not show that half of one's intellect was achieved by age 4. Rather,
he argued that IQ at age 4 was correlated +.70 with IQ at age 17. Since
the square of .7 is .49, Bloom stated that half of the variance among a
group of adults' IQ scores at age 17 could be predicted from their group
of scores at age 4. But half of the variability among a group of people's
IQ scores is a long way from the idea that half of a given person's IQ
is developed by age 4. This is not even conceptually possible because for
one thing there is no universally agreed to understanding of what "intelligence" is.
Further, even if we could agree on what "intelligence" is, there
is no such thing as "half of one's intellect" because no one knows what 0 or 100 percent intelligence is.
Without knowing the beginning and end of something we can’t know
when we have half of it.
1990. A report by the Department of Defense shows how these beliefs about
the possibility of doing much for adults can affect government policy.
After studying the job performance and post-service lives of "lower
aptitude," less literate personnel, the report claimed that they had been
failures both in and out of the military. Then, on February 24, 1990, the
Director of Accession Policy of the Department of Defense commented in
the Washington Post newspaper,
"The lesson is that low-aptitude
people, whether in the military or not, are always going
to be at a disadvantage.
That's a sad conclusion."
A similar report of the Department
of Defense study was carried in the New York Times of March
12, 1990. Then on April 8, 1990 Jack Anderson's column in the Washington
Post quoted one
of the Department of Defense researchers saying,
age of 18 or 19, it's too late. The school system in early
childhood is the only place to really help, and that involves heavy
the parents. "
Regarding the news articles about the Department of Defense studies of "low
aptitude" troops, the conclusions were based on analyses of the job
performance of hundreds of thousands of personnel in both the
1960s and 1980s with Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT)
scores between the 10th
and the 30th percentiles, the range of scores which the Department
Defense studies called "low aptitude."
But contrary to what the Department of Defense researchers and accession
policy maker stated, the actual data show that in both time
periods, while the low aptitude personnel did not perform quite
as well as those personnel with aptitudes above the 30th percentile,
percent of the low aptitude personnel did, in fact, perform
satisfactorily and many performed in an outstanding manner.
As veterans they had employment rates and earnings far exceeding their
rates and earnings
at the beginning of the study. Further investigation by the
media would have revealed these discrepancies between what the Department
researchers said and what the actual findings were. But as
it stands, these popular media types of stories reinforce the stereotypes
about adults with
who score low on intelligence or aptitude tests and perform
poorly on tests of the basic skills of literacy and numeracy.
We can find these pieces of scientific debris all the way back to the
Moonlight Schools of 1911. Following her account of those educators and
academics who declared that teaching grown people to read and write was
contrary to the principles of psychology, Cora Wilson Stewart said,
"While they went around saying it couldn’t be done, we went
on doing it. We asked the doubters this question, "When a fact disputes
a theory, is it not time to discard the theory? There was no
Today when we ask why the funding for adult literacy education is so little
so late, there is still no reply. So we just keep on teaching adults to
read and write. And we do it on the cheap, even though it is theoretically
Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
2062 Valley View Blvd.
El Cajon, CA 92019-2059, USA
Tel/fax: (619) 444-9133