Real-Life Empowerment through Family-Centered Literacy

Article excerpt

PARTICIPANTS WORK TO FULFILL THEIR ROLES IN THE AREAS OF WORK, FAMILY, COMMUNITY, AND SELF

Adult literacy has been a library service almost since the beginning of public libraries in our country. Most of us, however, who work in library-based adult literacy have seen it as a dichotomy. We have been tom between two somewhat different philosophies of public library service and public education.

In the library world we ask the learner/patron what he or she wants, and we try to provide that. We measure our success in numbers of library cards and their usage. In the education world we assume that we as educators are best able to determine what the learner/client needs, and we try to provide that. We measure success with a standardized test or a level of achievement in a specific literacy skill.

This double and sometimes contradictory philosophical basis has been both a blessing and a challenge. On the positive side, public libraries have developed learner-centered, learner-empowering programs. They have produced learners who created strong local, regional, and state learner groups. Many of the learners who are leading the new national adult learner advocacy group VALUE (Voice for Adult Literacy United for Education) "graduated" from library programs. Libraries have also seen some learners progress to become important, effective staff in their own literacy programs.

Public libraries have had a positive impact on adult literacy, but they have also had to grapple with an unanswered question: When adult learners determine what needs to be learned and taught, how does this translate into accountability? Libraries know their programs work, but they have had a difficult time providing much more than anecdotal evidence. Yet accountability and assessment are key to the development of resources for any literacy program. And, more than most other services of the public library, literacy programs are held to standards created independent of the library.

Assessment and accountability

Equipped for the Future (EFF) may hold the solution to the library's search for assessment and accountability in a learner-centered literacy environment. EFF, a project of the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL, a creation of the National Literacy Act of 1991), seeks to answer the question "What is it that adults need to know and be able to do in order to be literate, compete in the global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?" (from the National Institute for Literacy 1997 publication Equipped for the Future: A Reform Agenda for Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning, by Sondra Gayle Stein). This was much the same question that library literacy programs had already been asking. At the same time it began EFF, NIFL also developed LINCS, a national electronic communication system to facilitate the national literacy agenda by providing seamless connectivity into the new Information Age for adult literacy learners, practitioners, and administrators (see sidebar, p. 51).

Since the philosophy behind EFF is that adult learners themselves are best able to determine their own learning needs, NIFL asked learners around the country to explain their needs and goals. Responses centered around three primary adult roles: worker, citizen and/or community member, and family member.

Adult learners said they had four basic purposes for improving literacy skills: to have access, to have voice, to take action, and to provide a bridge to the future. When these purposes are grouped around the three adult roles given above, learning becomes more learner-centered, more project-oriented, more outcome-based, and more measurable than ever before.

As John Zickefoose, adult learner and staff member at Corona (Calif.) Public Library, said, "When I begin orientation for new adult learners by asking them what they want to do within the three adult roles identified by EFF, they are much better able to describe their own needs and goals. …