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Why and How a Statewide Literacy Network is Reinventing its Basic Literacy Program

March 6, 2024

Federal funding for adult education that is focused on providing workforce development over the past 10 years has led to a national trend of declining adult basic education participation. This, combined with disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, left Literacy New Jersey facing a sharp decline in its already small and shrinking basic literacy student population across its statewide network of programs.

As a result, a system that had previously been well-equipped to meet the needs of basic literacy students found itself training fewer tutors, incorporating fewer basic literacy strategies in training, and offering fewer spots for new students to enter a program.

In “Reinventing a Basic Literacy Program,” a Report from the Field in our current issue of Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy, Jessica Tomkins, chief operating officer at Literacy NJ, writes about how the organization’s capacity to serve students started to diminish:

“This downward cycle gained momentum in a funding climate that increasingly creates pressure to produce short-term student gains and places a high value on standardized test scores and employment-related outcomes. By focusing our efforts on the short-term outcomes required to maintain funding, we became less adept at serving students who both need the most time in the program and face the greatest external barriers to participation. We were training fewer tutors to do this work and becoming an organization less and less prepared to do it well.”

This challenge is not unique to programs in New Jersey. But what Tomkins shares in the report is how Literacy NJ is taking steps to prioritize adults at the lowest literacy levels by implementing a new Steps to Success initiative. While it’s still too early to glean long-term results of the program, early reports show an increase in enrollment at one program to pre-pandemic numbers. In addition, more students are achieving more personal goals like reading to their children, getting a job, using a computer, and more.

Naturally, you’re probably wondering how Steps to Success works.

In the report, Tomkins calls the initiative “a vestibule for new students.” Before students get overwhelmed by looking at what’s ahead of them long-term, the idea is to complete just eight weeks of instruction. During this time, tutors and students are focused on a curriculum centered around identifying learning strategies and techniques that help students build confidence to reach their learning goals.

During the initial eight sessions, students are encouraged to reflect as they begin to learn and readjust their initial ideas of what learning strategies they plan to use and how they will persist with instruction.

Through this process, Literacy NJ has found that training tutors to facilitate these eight sessions has also led to attracting more volunteer tutors.

Tomkins outlines the key components of the eight-week Steps to Success program:

Goal setting: Vital to student success, goal setting creates a road map to guide tutors and students.

Reading and writing: Students practice building sight word knowledge, fluency, and comprehension using their recorded stories about their goals.

Technology: Learning activities take place in the context of completing digital literacy tasks.

Resources: Students visit the library and learn about resources available to them.

Study skills: Students develop a realistic plan to study outside of tutoring.

Reflection: Reflecting on goals and learning progress each lesson helps students see and readjust what strategies are helpful for them to adopt.

Read the complete Report from the Field about Steps to Success and how Literacy NJ is reinventing its basic literacy program in the research journal.

Read the Report