The Development of Literacy and Numeracy in Adult Life

Stephen Reder
Portland State University



       Although adult programs are frequently evaluated in terms of their students’ skill improvement, little is known about the measured development of literacy and numeracy abilities in adult life. This chapter explores some of the dynamics of change in literacy and numeracy across the adult lifespan observed in the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning, a panel study that followed a target population for adult education over a relatively long period of time.  Different types of repeated measures of literacy and numeracy were collected, including proficiency measures and measures of everyday literacy and numeracy practices.

       A central finding is that literacy and numeracy do continue to develop among adults after they leave school.  Growth curve modeling indicates that these changes are heterogeneous: some adults’ proficiencies or engagement in literacy or numeracy practices increase over time, while others’ decrease, while still others’ change relatively little.  This heterogeneity of change is structured with respect to both demographic and background characteristics as well as with respect to life events and experiences, in ways that vary with the particular measure of literacy or numeracy used.

       Although there is moderate correlation among individuals’ levels of proficiency and practices, their dynamics of change over time are quite different.  Different background characteristics influence rates of change over time in the various measures.  Life events and activities affect the growth curves of the measures in different ways.  Participation in skills programs, for example, does not affect the short-term development of proficiency but does affect engagement in literacy and numeracy practices.

       These findings are based on models that combine developmentally oriented growth curves with time-varying life history covariates.  The richness of these models can help us understand literacy and numeracy development in new ways.