Analysis of Benefits of Adult Basic Education

Home / This Week at IIECL / Analysis of Benefits of Adult Basic Education

Analysis of Benefits of Adult Basic Education

Adult Basic Education – ABE

Adult Basic Education (ABE) will here refer to education which is aimed at adults who have had no schooling or very little schooling. “Adults” are reckoned to be persons above 14 years. Outside the scope of ABE as here defined, it is of course also important to develop educational provision which aims to reach children and adolescents who are below that age but who have been missed by primary schools. A major issue that is distinct for that population is how far one can develop better outreach and more inclusive practices in primary schools for “over-age” children as contrasted with separate “nonformal” provision.

The core elements of ABE will be literacy and practical arithmetic (numeracy), but ABE is also expected to include other learning than literacy and numeracy alone. What should these other elements be? Many learners would welcome vocational skills for livelihood improvement – a wish which it is very difficult to accommodate in large-scale programs that are established mainly to teach literacy and numeracy. Seemingly it is easier to add literacy teaching to programs which originally were set up to teach practical livelihood skills, than it is to add livelihood skills training to “literacy programs” (Oxenham et al., forthcoming in 2002). Childcare, health, nutrition are often offered in ABE. In many countries today, there will be a particularly strong case for including the teaching of basic knowledge of HIV prevention and care for AIDS victims. But it would be wrong to assume that the so-called functional skills are the only ones that learners need or will want to learn. Religious expression can be very important when ABE is run by religious organizations. Artistic expression can also be cultivated as part of ABE. Nor should pure entertainment be ruled out.

It appears that no fixed formula is appropriate about what ABE should teach in addition to the core of literacy and numeracy. What illiterate and semiliterate adults already know well enough, what others think they “need”, and what they want will vary considerably from place to place and with the type of group one is trying to reach. Consider, e.g., the range among such groups as cashew nut farmers, miners, micro-entrepreneurs, urban out-of-school youth, religious congregations, women’s associations. Prescriptions across countries would be even less meaningful. Rather, the elements of “other learning” should depend on what the learners want and on what it is practically possible for a program to teach. Thus, it seems best to propose a flexible concept of ABE: basic literacy, basic numeracy and context-dependent other learning. 1 The term “basic” should be seen as carrying more meaning that simply a first or elementary stage. Basic should mean that which suffices to serve as a basis, a foundation upon which subsequent learning and use will build. This means that skills which atrophy and are lost have not reached the “basic” level – only those which are retained and improved though later use.

The Case for ABE

Why should governments and aid agencies re-engage with adult basic education in Africa today?

ABE is needed for progress towards EFA. In many African countries the pace of primary school expansion, even if stepped up considerably, will fall far short of what is required in order to reach international targets for human development. Primary school expansion will not on its own suffice to reach the Education for All target of halving the rate of adult illiteracy by 2015. Besides, under EFA the demand for basic schooling from illiterate and semiliterate adults must also be taken seriously in its own right, now that the necessary role of adult education has been clearly recognized at the World Forum on Education for All in Dakar in 2000. Schools for children and basic education for adults are complementary services with potential for synergy, rather than merely being activities that compete for scarce resources. Adult learners become more supportive of their children’s education. This finding is consistently documented in many countries.

ABE and community schools can mutually reinforce each other. In many governments and agencies there is support for making primary schools more community-based. Adult education not only generates support for adults for sending children to school, it can also give adults the skills and confidence to involve themselves more in local schools. It can also be developed as an outreach function of a community oriented school. Thus, ABE and primary education can mutually reinforce each other in school, but there is a need for applied research to draw lessons as to how this can best be achieved.

ABE serves the poor and improves gender equity. Adult Basic Education is important for an education strategy that seeks to be pro-poor and to redress social injustice. ABE is self-targeted upon the poor because it is sought by those with no schooling or very limited schooling.2 ABE has a special role to play in alleviating gender inequity. ABE programs nearly always find it easier to attract females than males.3 This is true even in those few developing countries where girls outnumber boys in school (e.g., Botswana). The gender gap is especially great in the very poorest countries with the most weakly developed school systems; and these are the countries which have the most urgent cause for developing ABE.

ABE empowers and can help build broadly based civil society. If education is to serve as a means of empowerment for the disadvantaged then it is essential that adults be reached with a type of education which helps turn “subjects” into “citizens” and which equips prospective leaders with appropriate skills and networks. A consistently reported positive impact of Adult Basic Education is that it builds a greater sense of self-efficacy, confidence to act on a wider range of social arenas than before, greater readiness to formulate and express one’s own views. This empowerment function makes adult education especially important for the development of a broadly based civil society. The rise of such a civil society is generally held to be a precondition for a government that is held more accountable and responsive to the interests of the poor. Thus ABE is a means to good governance in keeping with poverty-reduction goals. Historically, adult education has been closely connected with the growth of broadly based democracy in many countries. One could expect that more participatory forms of pedagogy (at least a style of teaching which treats learners with respect) are likely to be more conducive to the development of individual and group efficacy. But it also seems that “empowerment gains” are a robust result from ABE projects using quite diverse pedagogies.

ABE can improve family health. A large number of studies show that literate mothers are better able to protect their children’s health. One such study by Sandiford et al. (1995) from Nicaragua found such effects after 10 years, making use of large samples and careful controls for other conditions affecting the results.

ABE removes barriers to entrepreneurship and can improve livelihoods. Oxenham et al. (forthcoming 2002) review research on ABE and improved livelihoods. Literacy and numeracy are widely perceived by ABE learners as a protection against being cheated and manipulated in the market place (see also Okech et al. 2001). Attempts to quantify the gains in life-time income which would be due to participation in Adult Basic Education are yet to be made, and there is recognition that ­other inputs also are needed (e.g., access to credit, vocational skills training) for tangible short-term income benefits to occur. But for micro-entrepreneurs it is also clear that lack of literacy and weak numeracy are major impediments to success.

Countering Misgivings

Misgivings about earlier adult literacy campaigns have led to much skepticism about adult basic education. UNDP’s 1976 evaluation of the Experimental World Literacy Programme showed disappointing results. The ratio of successful completers to initial enrolments in such a mass program was approximately 20% for Tanzania, 14% for Iran, 25% for Ethiopia, 23% for Ecuador, and 8% for Sudan (UNDP 1976:174) – very low “internal efficiency” indeed.

In the World Bank there was in fact strong interest in nonformal education in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was followed by a review by Romain and Armstrong (1987) which left a widespread impression of weak performance in projects supported by the Bank. Adult literacy education was part of only some of the nonformal education projects covered in that review, and there was no analysis of the efficiency, learning outcomes or impact of such education. The review was really commenting on the difficulty of implementing nonformal education under conditions when preventable mistakes had been made. Implementation had suffered because nonformal education had typically been but a minor component in projects which mainly had other goals, and  ­crucially – the nonformal components had not been welcomed by the governments. Nonetheless, along with findings concerning UNESCO’s Experimental Literacy Programme of earlier years, the review left a legacy of skepticism that also affected literacy education.

Is “efficiency” too poor? Past generalizations about poor internal efficiency of ABE (very low completion rates) are contradicted by more recent evidence. Programs have also changed. In recent years the trend in ABE provision has been to respond to active demand by local groups – unlike the early “mass campaigns” that sought to “eradicate illiteracy”. Better efficiency should follow.

“Drop-out” may not be a very appropriate measure of efficiency in ABE because a “trial period” is to be expected among adult learners. A more appropriate measure may be whether a sufficiently large group stays with a course until completion, so as to ensure that there is a pedagogically viable group – without excessive unit costs. Nonetheless, in most recent programs for which there is information, at least half of those who enter, complete the course and meet whatever minimum performance criteria are used in each case. A recent review of 17 programs for which relevant data are available, found that in most programs at least 70 % of initial enrollees remained throughout the course period (Oxenham and Aoki forthcoming; for a summary, see The median rate of completion was 78 %. The proportion of initial enrollees who persist to completion and also pass minimum requirements will be lower. Among the 14 programs for which information on such rates was obtained, Oxenham and Aoki found a range from 5 to 89 percent. But the median rate among these 14 programs was in fact a respectable 60 percent of initially enrolled learners. Clearly, the “efficiency” of adult basic education courses is on the average much better than what some critics have ­alleged in the past. But there is also much variation among and within programs and therefore a need both to monitor implementation and to take remedial action when performance is weak. The findings do not point to any single prototype of superior teaching and learning methods. Several routes have seemingly worked well – as far as “internal efficiency” is concerned.

Is it too hard for adults to learn? One line of past criticism against adult basic education is that adults acquire literacy skills more slowly and less well than do children of school age and that the skills are not well retained (Abadzi 1994). These claims are not supported by recent findings. In the case of Functional Adult Literacy programs in Uganda (Okech et al. 2001), “minimum literacy” was achieved in much less time (and at much less cost) than among children in primary schools. See ( If adults nonetheless are handicapped, then other circumstances associated with ABE (self-selection, strong motivation) must outweigh any disadvantage, and it would be mistaken to consider such learning disadvantage to be a decisive barrier to literacy learning among adults.

Are costs too high? There is paucity of cost analysis for ABE (the Brazilian Solidarity in Literacy Program is one exception). However, high costs have never been an common argument against adult basic education, though tooling up of any new programs will have high start-up costs when a field has long lain fallow. Adult basic education is likely to have considerably lower operating costs (per person per year) than primary schools (let alone compared with other and costlier schooling) simply because ABE is much less teaching-intensive than schools. Adult courses typically meet only 4-6 hours each week, and ABE teachers are in any case often paid an allowance or “incentive” rather than a “proper wage” for their time.

Do adult learners lose the skills they have acquired? Such limited research as is available indicates that the loss of reading and basic arithmetic skills acquired from ABE is not the internationally pervasive problem it sometimes has been perceived to be. Findings from Uganda (Okech et al. 2001), Kenya (Carron et al. 1989), as well as studies reviewed by Comings (1995) suggest that the retention of reading skills and of skills in practical arithmetic is fairly robust, but that writing skills are more vulnerable. It is probably misplaced to invoke the risk of loss of reading skills as a reason for advocating access to libraries and support for “post-literacy courses”. But even if skills are not “lost”, there would be little point in teaching them if they find no use, and literacy is best conceived as a continuum where there is good cause to promote improvement beyond whatever level a learner reaches to begin with. This applies to school education for children as well as to adult education.

Are the learning outcomes too meager? If “literacy” is best conceived as a continuum, it is still useful to think of some basic level of mastery whose achievement will greatly ease further learning. Most “completers” of adult basic education courses achieve very limited literacy skills. It is likely that the same applies to most children completing primary schools in many developing countries. What would be a minimally “acceptable” level? A pragmatic criterion is that the level reached should be sufficient for later retention and improvement of skills – given the learners’ life circumstances. Monitoring of retention would then become a means for assessing whether the initial learning has reached a minimally adequate “basic” level or not. However, the final goal of ABE – if it can be assessed – is not literacy but improvement in the conditions of life of the participants. Regardless of measured literacy gains, ABE can therefore be justified if empowering social skills and networks are acquired, if family health and livelihoods are improved, if life appears to be enriched by cultural expressions. Since such learning often is part of ABE, the associated learning activities may themselves be attractive to learners and worthy of assessment. Literacy outcomes may well be the most easily measured outcomes of ABE, but ABE should not be judged by literacy outcomes alone.

Are there “many literacies”? Among some academic adult educators there is much interest in distinctly different “literacies” for different uses. Should one abandon the idea of literacy as a unitary concept? Particular skills are of course required to operate a bank account, or to keep records of village council meetings, or to deal with authorities about land ownership. But the transferability of literacy and numeracy as general communication skills is a major reason why these skills are held to be important to begin with. Transferability was evident historically in countries which achieved early mass literacy. Literacy skills taught for religious instruction and self-instruction clearly found application in a wide range of secular pursuits – letter writing, reading newspapers, trade, nascent civil society organizations. Examples would be the Sunday Schools (for adults too) in early 19th century England, and the beginnings of schooling in Lutheran countries which long relied on Luther’s Catechism as the primer. The evidence of transfer is strong enough to justify thinking about literacy as a single concept. However, there is also a pedagogic case for teaching reading and writing with close regard to that context of application which is of shared importance for the learners. The argument about what that context of application should be, runs close to arguments about what “other skills” should be taught. It should depend on what learners want and on their conditions of life.

Policy Issues

A government that is prepared to strengthen its support for ABE needs to consider a range of policy issues. These issues will often include:

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /home/endchild/public_html/wp-content/themes/jupiter/footer.php on line 223