The Supportive Roles That Learners' Families Play in Adult Literacy Programs

By Terry, Marion | Educational Research Quarterly, September 2007 | Go to article overview

The Supportive Roles That Learners' Families Play in Adult Literacy Programs


Terry, Marion, Educational Research Quarterly


In 2002-03, a qualitative case study explored the experiences of stakeholders connected to two adult literacy programs in Manitoba, Canada. Data were collected through official documents, personal documents, and interviews. Influences by family members contributed significantly to the theme of human relations that arose from these data. The research participants reported that parents and grandparents, siblings, spouses, and children played active roles in learners' decisions first to enroll in the adult literacy programs and then to stay in them through to goal attainment. This original research report recounts these influences as grounds for recommending the consideration of family members in making programming decisions for adult literacy students.

In 2002-03, a qualitative case study explored the experiences of 70 stakeholders connected to two adult literacy programs in Manitoba, Canada. Among diese research participants were 37 learners, 2 coordinators/instructors, and 11 other staff - many of whom identified close relatives as having considerable influence on learner participation and success. This original research report recounts diese influences as grounds for recommending die consideration of family members in making programming decisions for adult literacy students.

All given names, including program titles, are pseudonyms. The following definitions of terms apply, in accordance with their use by the research participants: learners are adult literacy students, coordinators/instructors are equivalent to teaching school principals, and other staff are paid and volunteer instructors and office workers.

Overview of the Literature

Adult life stages are defined by developmental task completions that are embedded in spousal and parental roles (Powers & Love, 2000; Reeves, 1999: Taylor, 1999). The National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (2002) therefore advised adult literacy educators to shift their focus from "remediation" of literacy skills to "preparing learners to take on the complex challenges of adult life (role competence)" (p. 17). Merriam (1999) and Clark and Caffareila (1999) explained maturation in terms of culturally assigned ages for working, marrying, bearing children, retiring, etc. Conzemius and Conzemius (1996), Ellison and Kallenbach (1996), and Lawrence (1998) considered family relationships primarily within the context of accommodating adult social role responsibilities. Thus, the literature depicts adults as having family responsibilities that impact on their participation in educational programming (Galbo, 1998; Kerka, 2002; Knowles, 1990).

The adult education literature portrays relationships with nuclear family members as a primarily positive impetus for learner persistence (Graham & Donaldson, 1999; Saskatchewan Post-Secondary Education and Skills Training, 2002; Thomas, 1990). Adult learners are motivated by family obligations to take their schooling seriously (Grossman, 1993), and to spend their classroom time "on task" (Wartenberg, 1994) in self-directed (Kerka, 2002; Lee & Caffareila, 1994; Pilling-Cormick, 1997) problem-solving (Jones, 1994; Mealey, 1991; Mezirow, 1997) activities that match their real-life family roles (Byrne, 1990; Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 1998; Merriam, 1999), such as helping children with homework (Quigley, 1997). Sticht (1995) insisted that the "intergenerational transfer of literacy" (p. 24) from parents in adult basic skills programs should convince governments to invest in the education of adults, if only for the sake of enhancing the regular school performance of these adults' children.

Undereducated adults are also vulnerable to negative motivations such as unsupportive spouses or children, which emerge to impede tiieir progress once they have started their training programs (Curry, 1996). Byrne (1990) noted the problems that social role conflicts pose for adult learners who are parents and spouses as well as students. …

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