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March 4, 2015 / Thinknology

Why There Are So Few Materials for Adult Students

“There are tons of apps and web-based programs that help kids learn to read, but precious few to help low-literacy adults.” So says Francesca Segrè in her excellent article in edSurge. Why are there so few programs for low-literacy adults?

1. Following the Money

For the most part, instructional materials are developed by for-profit, educational publishing companies. While these companies have the expertise to develop quality curriculum, and the budget to produce it, any well-run business will invest in the opportunities where they will get “the most bang for the buck.” Consider these statistics:

In the current school year, there are almost 50 million students attending public school in grades Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 12, with another 5 million attending private school. The projected expenditures for this school year are $619 billion.

Now, contrast those stats with adult education. The most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) report found that there were 30 million low-literacy adults (Below Basic) in the US. The projected grant funding for adult education is $564 million and even if you add in the $1.1 billion in grants for career and technical education, it’s not even close to the K-12 expenditures.

We know that there is a great need in adult education, that increasing the education level of adults has positive effects far beyond the classroom, and yet product lines are being cut, old content is being recycled, and high-profile publishers are moving away from this market.

2. Complexity of Content Development

To be sure, there are major publishers that do produce materials for adult education, but what kind of materials are they producing? To answer this question, let’s divide adult students into four segments, defined by grade level. Literacy (0-2), Adult Basic Education (3-5), Pre-High School Equivalency (6-8), High School Equivalency (9-12).

The educational goal for many adult students is to obtain a high school equivalency certificate, which means passing a high-stakes test. Test prep at any level is quite lucrative and adult education is no different, which is why you see an overabundance of materials designed to prep HSE and Pre-HSE adult students for the GED, HiSET, or TASC. The materials only have to teach test familiarization and the skills required to pass it. They do not need to meet the unique and diverse needs of individual students.

3. A Diverse Audience with Unique Needs

The dearth of materials is found at the Literacy and ABE levels where the bulk of the aforementioned 30 million adults reside. These students are unique and vary widely in age, background, demographics, and other socioeconomic factors. Instructional models that work in a homogeneous fifth grade class, for example, often don’t work with adults. There is a lot of research to support this but developing a program that is flexible enough to successfully address the needs of this diverse group is easier said than done.

Effective materials must respect the adult student’s time and be delivered on the technology the student has available. In addition, the content must be fresh and relevant. Many of the materials out there are outdated or were originally developed for kids.

The solution lies in the emergence of small to medium-sized, innovative companies that have the expertise to develop the right materials and are nimble enough to keep the program fresh and exciting.


Mark Moscowitz, Owner Think60
Mark has 40 years of experience in education and educational publishing developing instructional materials for students at all grade and ability levels.
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