Illiteracy can keep adults from finding and keeping employment and from reaching their potential as citizens, parents and educated consumers. Research suggests that people need 100 to 150 hours of literacy education to improve their literacy by one grade level, yet the average student participates only 70 hours over the course of a year. This report is the final in a series of four by MDRC looking at Wallace’s Literacy in Libraries Across America initiative (LILAA), and the initiative’s inquiry into ways to increase learners’ persistence.

The report finds that students in the LILAA programs face many barriers to consistent participation: long and unpredictable work hours, health problems, lack of family support, undiagnosed learning disabilities and unmet transportation and childcare needs among them. Library staff members, dedicated to upholding the “key pillars” of the U.S. library system (the privacy and equal treatment of all patrons), are generally unwilling to offer social services. Libraries do, however, offer services such as drop-in classes, self-paced computer-assisted instruction and off-site instruction.

The report found five pathways taken by LILAA students: try-out, short-term, intermittent, mandatory (required, for example, by a law enforcement agency) and long-term.

The report encourages library literacy programs to acknowledge the different pathways, and work to improve persistence of students in all of them by:

  • Offering realistic support services, such as on-site childcare;
  • Developing a referral system to other social service and education providers better suited than libraries to assist students in overcoming barriers to persistence;
  • Adapting and adding programmatic improvements, such as a sponsorship program and the creation of learning plans;
  • Improving communication, especially with students who find barriers to participation but are working to overcome those barriers; and
  • Acknowledging the difficulty of persistence and removing any stigmas associated with irregular or sporadic participation.

 Points of Interest

  • Adult literacy students often face many barriers to participation in library-based programs. In response, libraries could consider stepping up referrals to social services that can help eliminate the barriers.
    Report: #Libraries teaching adult literacy could “provide counseling and referrals early and often” to help learners.
  • There are a number of pathways to participation in adult literacy programs: try-out, intermittent, mandatory and long-term. Libraries should acknowledge these pathways in creating adult literacy programs and remove stigmas attached to any of them.
    Report: Eliminate stigma for adult learners in #literacy programs to improve overall participation