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Basic skills training doesn’t add up, says new report


A report published yesterday by the Basic Skills Agency casts doubt on the success of current provision for basic skills training for adults.

The report, entitled Progress in Adult Literacy - Do Learners Learn? and put together by the National Foundation for Educational Research, looked at the progress made by adults undertaking formal learning in literacy by analysing learners abilities before and after they undertook classes or coaching between 1998 and 2000. It found that although most of the learners tested had made 'modest progress' in reading, progress was considerably slower in improving writing skills.

The study was carried out using background data on students and questionnaires given to 177 adult literacy students, together with interviews with basic skills co-ordinators. A total of 2135 students were tested on reading and writing before beginning tuition and after attending tuition for up to 20 weeks. The tests indicated that prior to tuition 48% of the sample were not reading at a functional level and had skills roughly equivalent of those of an average 9-year-old. Of the students tested, the majority were women, lacking qualifications who had attended basic skills sessions before. English was a second language for a minority of students. Currently one-in-five, or 7 million of the UK population can be classified as having poor basic skills.

The survey also looked at identifying factors which made basic skills learning more successful. It found that students who attended taught sessions for 51-60 hours in about 20 weeks made the most significant gains, with additional classroom help and direct teaching also having a significant impact. Students also benefitted most when tutors had Qualified Teacher Status and were themselves able to update their knowledge as required.

Alan Wells, Director of the Basic Skills Agency said; "This research has some good news and some not so good news. First, it's clear that adults, who didn't master literacy at school, make modest but worthwhile progress in with their reading if they go to a literacy course. So in that sense, it's never too late. However, what's disappointing is that adults on literacy courses don't seem to improve their spelling and punctuation at all. Yet a well-written and correctly spelled application is often the difference between getting a job and remaining unemployed.

There are, of course, some reasons why progress has been so modest. Most adults still get only few hours of teaching a week. And basic skills provision for adults has been a 'Cinderella' service. There is some hope that progress will be better in future, however. The government is giving high priority to solving our adult basic skills problem. Part of this priority involves finding new and more effective teaching methods, supported with far better funding. So what we have to do is clear. Make sure that the new adult basic skills strategy is so effective that any adult joining a literacy course is guaranteed to make good progress. If we can meet this challenge, a future research report will be a real cause for celebration."

The authors of the report conclude by recommending more training and better career development for Adult Basic Skills tutors, together with a greater use of intensive tution, findings which support that of the Moser Report, 'A Fresh Start', published two years ago, which recommended that 'the Government should commit itself to the virtual elimination of functional illiteracy and innumeracy', with targets for 2010 which would see 90% of adults functionally literate and 70% functionally numerate.

The Basic Skills Agency has already begun a programme of intensive teacher training aimed at reaching all 7000 tutors who work more than 6 hours a week. The teacher training events will run until March, and will act as 'train the trainer' sessions for regional trainers to deliver training to Basic Skills teachers.


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