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The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education



Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Practice and Research


Public Briefing


May 30, 2012

Washington, DC



Bob Hauser, executive director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (DBASSE), welcomed attendees, offered background information on the National Research Council and DBASSE, introduced staff and committee members, and explained what the day’s sessions will cover.




Bob Hauser introduces Brenda Dann-Messier, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education at the U.S. Department of Education, who discussed the importance of adult literacy and how the report and adult education in general relate to the administration’s goals for improving college completion rates, training teachers, and preparing the workforce. (The Office of Vocational and Adult Education sponsored the study that produced the report.)


Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the president for education at the White House Domestic Policy Council, discussed links between the economy and the education system, the consequences of low literacy rates, and the need for adult basic education programs.




Members of the committee that wrote the report discussed their findings and recommendations.

  • Committee chair Alan Lesgold from the University of Pittsburgh discussed the importance of literacy and the challenge the U.S. faces in getting its citizens to the proficiency levels needed for the jobs of the future. He also provided an overview of the report’s conclusions and recommendations.
  • Aydin Durgonoglu of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, discussed the diverse group of English language learners, the factors that influence how fast they learn, promising instructional practices, and research priorities.
  • Art Graesser of the University of Memphis discussed the difficulty of delivering science-based instruction and the ways technology can help in this effort.
  • Following discussion with and questions from the audience, Daryl Mellard of the University of Kansas spoke about the importance of assessments in discerning students’ progress and needs, enabling teachers and tutors to choose appropriate instructional approaches.
  • Kenneth Pugh of Haskins Laboratories in New Haven spoke about how the brain’s neurobiology interacts with the environment and instructional practices to affect how people learn to read and write.



A panel composed of members of stakeholder groups – community colleges, employers, philanthropy – responded to the report’s findings and recommendations. 

  • After being introduced by Bob Hauser, panel moderator Johan Uvin, deputy assistant secretary in the Education Department’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education, spoke about the office’s priorities for adult education and introduced the panelists.
  • Josephine Reed, deputy commissioner of Technical College System of Georgia, discussed adult literacy in the context of community colleges. She offered an example of a successful adult education dual enrollment program at one of her system’s schools, and discussed funding shortages and other challenges community colleges face.
  • Gavin Kerr, president and CEO of the Inglis Foundation, offered an employer’s perspective on literacy. He described an institute that Inglis and other organizations in Philadelphia have created to develop health care workers’ skills, including basic literacy skills, and called for employers to play a greater role in solving the literacy problem.
  • Offering the perspective of a philanthropic organization, Andres Henriquez of the Carnegie Corporation spoke about how the new ELA common core standards will raise expectations for what a literate person should be able to do. He stressed the need to align literacy instruction across the K-12 and adult education systems, creating a cradle-to-grave system to support literacy in the U.S.

After the presentations, each panelist answered the question: What should the top policy priority be in terms of supporting adult literacy? The panelists then took questions and comments from the audience.  




Closing remarks


In closing the meeting, Johan Uvin called for broadening the discussion to involve the hundreds of thousands of paid adult literacy instructors and volunteers in the U.S., and urged participants to think about ways to disseminate these findings widely. Alan Lesgold noted that the NRC will be condensing the report’s messages for policy and other audiences (view the report briefs and booklets), and that discussions will continue regarding next steps.




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