What is Adult Foundational Skills Education?

Hello LINCS colleagues,

It's the start of a new year and a good time to re-consider many things: one of them is the name for our field.

We have many terms to describe our field. I have probably used them all: adult education, lifelong learning, lifelong and lifewide learning, adult literacy, adult English language learning, adult basic education, adult education and literacy, nonformal education, adult basic skills education, as well as variations on these and probably others. However, none are unambiguous, comprehensive and well defined as a usable definition within our field and for others who want to understand what our field is and does.

Recently, I have settled on a term adopted by the Open Door Collective, adult foundational skills education. I like that it has the words adult and education and that foundational skills distinguishes our field from higher education. I also like that, so far, it has not yet been defined, widely discussed, or officially adopted by the field,  that there is time for members of our field to weigh in on the definition and its use.

LINCS may be a good place to introduce discussions about this. Below is my proposed definition for your consideration. You may feel that one of our current terms is fine, that it it isn't worth the effort to adopt a new one. Consider, however, that there may be advantages in adopting a new term, especially now that the Barbara Bush Foundation has launched its Literacy Action Plan, that the pandemic has raised political, economic and social awareness about the lack of digital literacy skills for many in our country, that many educators and public health advocates are concerned about health literacy skills and that a majority of adult education and literacy learners are immigrants pursuing English language skills.  I think it's time to consider this new term used by the Open Door Collective, how it can be defined broadly enough but also how it can distinguish our field from the PreK-12  and post-secondary education fields.

Here's what I propose as a definition for your consideration, questions, and comments:

What is Adult Foundational Skills Education?

Adult foundational skills are basic skills adults need for work, further education, helping their families, and functioning effectively in their communities. These include:

  • English language skills for non-native speakers
  • Basic literacy for adults who cannot read and write well, or at all
  • Numeracy
  • Adult secondary education leading to an adult high school diploma or high school equivalency certificate
  • Preparation for post-secondary education
  • Digital literacy
  • Financial literacy
  • Health literacy, and
  • Other lifelong and lifewide skills.  

They may be offered by community-based programs, public schools, community colleges, volunteer tutoring programs, public libraries, employers, labor unions, faith-based organizations and other kinds of organizations and institutions.




I want to add "corrections institutions", "adult schools" and "adult public charter schools" to the last sentence of the definition so it would read:

"They may be offered by community-based programs, public schools, community colleges, adult schools, adult public charter schools, volunteer tutoring programs, public libraries, employers, labor unions, faith-based organizations, corrections institutions, and other kinds of organizations and institutions."

Hi David and Colleagues,

As always David, you add great substance to any discussion!

At first, I was thinking, "Wow, that's a pretty broad definition." Yet just before I read your definition, I saw a colleague's post on LinkedIn sharing a students' success story. This student, like so many adult students, needed a great deal of assistance to reach their goals. Brittney, the student highlighted in the article, received financial aid, child care, parenting classes, and educational services. Now I am wondering if this definition is not broad enough!

What does everyone else think?

Steve Schmidt, Moderator

LINCS Reading and Writing Group 


Hi Steve,

Thanks for your thoughts about the breadth, and perhaps also the use, of this definition.

This is a definition of what the field of adult foundational skills covers. To be useful to those who just want to know what adult foundational skills means, it cannot address the complexities of service delivery in each of the listed education services. In your example of what is needed, and what a program, agency or institution may need to provide, to be successful the student needed financial aid, child care, parenting classes, and educational services. Ideally, many or all adult education programs include "wraparound services" that the program itself or its partner organizations may provide. This kind of detail is certainly important for adult learners to know as they think about enrolling in a particular program, and also for the program funder or state agency to know. It might also be essential in a good description of high quality adult foundational services for those setting program quality standards, or for policy makers, but is probably not needed as part of a general definition of the field.

You have nicely raised the question of how this definition is to be used. In my mind, its most frequent use might be as a link in a digital document, or possibly a long footnote when the term adult foundation skills appears in a hard copy document. I can imagine other contexts, for example, in a paper on quality standards in adult foundational skills education in which the definition might be part of the paper's introduction.

Because you brought in the student perspective, I wonder how adult learners might view this term, especially if given this definition. When I used to refer our field as "adult basic skills" someone mentioned that some adult learners don't like that term because, to them, "basic" means not high quality, such as a basic product or service that is not the top of the line. (That was eye-opening!) I expect some adult learners might not know the word "foundational", at least in this context, but they might understand it if were explained as being like a foundation of a building, what the building rests on. For some adult learners -- as well as many others -- it might be surprising to see how broad our field is; for others, it probably doesn't matter because what they care about is the particular service they receive, for example learning English as an immigrant, learning to read and write as an adult, or learning digital literacy skills such as those needed to do tele-health or apply for a job online.

What do you and others think about the term adult foundational skills, the definition, or the use of the term?

David J. Rosen

Cross-posted from the Integrating Technology group

Strong Yes vote for "Adult Foundational Skills Education"

Submitted by Duren Thompson on Tue, 01/04/2022 - 17:46 - Permalink


Thank you so much for bringing up this issue/topic. I too feel that our field has a need for a clear descriptive, inclusive (and exclusive) term. As I have been conducting literature reviews in support of my research, I find that our field's current terms "include" far too much that is *not* focused on foundational learning. At the same time, other terms like "literacy" tend to focus only on reading research.

I feel that Adult Foundational Education (preferred over Skills Education, see my rationale below*) avoids many of the issues of each of the more common names you listed (again, see **below), and yet serves as a flexible "umbrella term" for current and future change and growth in the field.

As an addition to this discussion, I would like to add a critical adult foundational skill to your bulleted list:
  >  Literacy in Civic Engagement for empowerment, self advocacy, and social justice
While we would hope that these concepts are embedded within other literacy learning, it seems clear that this topic needs to be explicitly addressed  - and not only for English language learners seeking citizenship. From an intersectional and social justice perspective, almost all the adult populations we serve belong to multiple marginalized populations (Collins & Bilge, 2020) and likely need support in making their voices heard in our current Democracy.

Duren Thompson
Instructional Design and Project Management for
Innovative Professional Development, Virtual Learning, & Technology Integration
at the Center for Literacy, Education and Employment;
and Doctoral student in Learning, Design, & Technology
at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

*Skills Education vs Education:
I think including skills in the name for what we do is a bad idea. I think it sends the wrong message to learners, employers, and the public at large. Every AFE professional developer I know recognizes that a focus on only out-of-context 'skills'-based learning is a disservice to our adult learners (instructors and program participants). Yet the skills-focused learning approach persists throughout not only our field, but k-12 and organizational development settings as well. While skills-based focus can create easily measurable gains, a more problem-solving or project-based (or even entrepreneurial) approach provides a more holistic and long-lasting educational foundation for the adults we serve. 
**Problems with current terms for the field of research and practice in support of adults seeking foundational learning:
  • adult education - too broad as, in academic fields, it includes all elements of post-secondary education, organizational training and development, community non-credit self-development programs, etc. AND "adult foundational education."
  • adult literacy - Without additional details, any term with "literacy" in it tends to focus on issues in reading. This is particularly true of the public at large - which is problematic for advocacy and funding work. It also has the annoying tendency to pull in a lot of K-12 literacy research.
  • adult education and literacy - From a research standpoint, this compounds the issues listed above. For the public it seems to somehow indicate that adult literacy is different than adult education - rather than being a part of it. 
  • adult basic skills education & adult basic education (basic literacy, low-literacy, etc.) - ALL of these carry with them a stigma of less-than, or a need for remediation. They perpetuate a "lessor" view of what we do and the adults we serve to the learners themselves, as well as the public. This viewpoint is one of the elements of "trauma" many adult foundational learners have lived, and are living, through.
  • HSE students, NHSD or ANC, HNC education/programs, etc.  - Horrified, I just recently ran into some new acronyms for what was previously  called "GED® education". "No High School Diploma", "Adult Non-completers", "High school Non-Completion", etc. all fall into the trap of defining our populations by what they lack - rather than the type of education supports they need. In addition, these terms again have a limited view of "foundational education" - as if this one credential is all that is needed for our populations' success or equity.
  • lifelong learning or lifelong and lifewide learning - like adult education, these terms are very broad, and can include not only local community enrichment classes, but also doctoral study programs. While what we do falls within these concepts - and these terms avoid negative stigmas - I feel they will not well serve our purposes as a field. 
  • non-formal education - not only really broad, but also inaccurate.
     - Education is defined as that which has an intentionally designed learning structure, often mentored, lead, or guided by someone other than the learner in some way.
     - Formal education (or learning) is generally thought of as taking place in "formal" learning settings - typically envisioned as learners at desks with a teachers at the front, but having recently expanded to include many types of online learning options including things like LinkedIn Learning - where there is a still an expert leaning intentionally designed curricula. 
     - Informal learning is almost always student directed, scheduled, and often lacks explicit or intentional learning design (ex: I recently learned a lot about Alaska while organizing a trip to the Pacific Northwest). What we seek do do as a field is clearly educational in nature - intentionally designed with external learner supports.

    I feel strongly that adding "non-formal" to "education" a) creates confusion with the term informal learning, and b) implies that the work that we do, or the learners that we serve, are somehow less 'legitimate' than those in "formal" settings.
  • adult English language learning - Our field has long struggled with an artificial divide between instruction for non-native speakers of English and native speakers of English. While I feel this new term - Adult Functional Education - conceptually broadens the types of learning needed by our to non-native speakers, I believe that we will still see this term used to designate this subgroup for some time to come. (Also, I have always found it painfully ironic that the term also applies to the needs of many of our native English-speaking learners.)



I'm so glad that you are…

Submitted by Mary Joan Reutter on Tue, 01/04/2022 - 16:16 - Permalink

I'm so glad that you are spear-heading discussion on this topic!! It is an area that I've been working on for over a decade and is badly misunderstood! I could write volumes, but I won't (today). There may be overlap but very distinct differences also between the learning needs of less literate ELLs and adult basic education of native English speakers or college educated English speakers with limited digital literacy etc.  "Literacy" is ambiguous and can be seen as condescending. "Foundational education" is much better and more inclusive of the differences. I've sometimes referred to it as "efficacious education" or teaching those at the margins, but the margins are diverse. I like this term better. Go for it!

Hello Mary Joan,

It sounds like you, too, may prefer Adult Foundational Education as the name for our field, which is what Duren Thompson suggested. (See her post above.) I debated about whether or not to include the word skills, which many people associate with training, not education, but I thought it should be included for two reasons.

The first is that some ESOL/ESL teachers and professional developers have persuasively argued that language learning, including English language learning, is about learning skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing; others, who may not disagree with that, also believe that it could or should be broader than skills These views range from: including knowledge of U.S. culture and how to function in U.S. society; for those who seek U.S. citizenship, including knowledge of U.S. history; and for some, including knowledge leading to empowerment and community and social change that Duren referred to in one of her replies. In any case, within the Adult English language teaching community there appears to be a similar problem, what to call this particular and significant part of adult foundational skills education. When I was an English language teacher in the Peace Corps in West Africa many years ago the discipline was known as English as a Second Language (ESL) and I was trained in teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). In my state, Massachusetts, and in some other states the discipline is known now as English for Students of Other Languages (ESOL) to recognize that many English language learners already speak their native language and often one or more other languages, not including English. The U.S. Department of Education, I believe, uses the acronym ELL referring  English Language Learning (and/or Learners) and LINCS has chosen to call the discipline English Language Acquisition (ELA). From what I have seen, to an adult learner, none of this matters; learners call it English, or English class.

The second reason is that some adults enroll in adult foundational skills education classes, tutorials, or learning circles because they have an immediate, short-term need, for example: acquiring digital literacy skills for specific purposes such as submitting a job application online, replying to an email from a child's teacher, or for tele-health; getting help with English language preparation while on a waiting list for an English class; preparing to pass a high school equivalency or U.S. Citizenship test; or acquiring specific numeracy or writing skills they need for a current or intended job. Some people in our field refer to these as lifelong education, and especially for the skills that are not related to jobs or careers, lifewide learning. These kinds of teaching and learning are not typically part of credit-bearing post-secondary education courses, although sometimes they are offered by the non-credit side of community colleges, but they are also offered by programs and adult schools in our field, and some believe this an important area of growth for our field in this rapidly changing economy..

For those reasons I thought adult foundational skills education would be the best choice, but I am also attracted to Duren's idea, and maybe it should be abbreviated to adult foundational education instead of adult foundational skills.

What do others think?

David J. Rosen

Adult Foundational Skills Education

Submitted by Mary Joan Reutter on Tue, 01/04/2022 - 16:28 - Permalink

I don't know if you need to put this into the definition or later in a course instead, but that can include any of those listed in whole or in part; alone or mixed with other profiles. For example, I was teaching in a refugee program and they had a financial literacy curriculum, which was only partially accessible to the large number of non-literate refugees who lacked literacy and numeracy +. So you could teach it 18 times and they still wouldn't benefit from it unless you could get it at an accessible level '(i + 1 in Krashen's second language acquisition terminology)

While I have built a few houses and fully understand the importance of a solid foundation, something about "foundational" has been bugging me. David mentioned "basic" as being perceived in a negative light and I agree. In fact, there are many negative perceptions even about the word education for those that feel they have somehow failed at education. Sadly, there are a large number of our learners that come to us with hopes impeded with many negative perceptions of themselves or negative perceptions of their chance of finding success. 

Are there descriptors that might convey the positive value of the education opportunities we provide? I hit up quite a number of synonyms of "foundational" and failed to really find anything that would not leave learners feeling much more than "basic". I then turned to play with other words that might seem more positive while also sharing a value of importance, and it really has been a struggle. The closest I have come is "Essential" or "Adult Essential Education".

Obviously, the idea of importance is conveyed in the word "essential", but how about hope? Just spend a few hours reading through LINCS posts or any other educational discussions and it is so easy to hear perceptions of what learners might need or at least what are the perceived elements holding them back. In those discussions, there is much rational for how essential to learning some environmental, pedagogical, social and other elements are. In fact, a number of discussions try to highlight how slim success chances are without these essential aspects in place for some learners. I have kept examples here generalized specifically because while reflecting on hundreds of hours of reading discussions, the word "essential" pounds like a powerful base drum in my head. In life, who does not want to at least experience the essentials? When trying to make a yummy meal, isn't it powerful to have just the right essential ingredients or spices on hand? Perhaps many that lack some of Maslow's basic needs fully understand how essential a friendly, smiling face offering them help is towards finding success? People just feel better when they have the essentials available to them.

While the feeling of importance and hope in my head, I am curious what learners might think or feel hearing "Adult Essential Education"? Would they view it as an obligation or requirement? Maybe they are curious to hear what are the essentials of education for them. Might they also perceive essential as being more of a finite quantity instead of some insurmountable mountain to climb?

With so many struggling to perceive adult educational services (or any educational services) as a means of help that is accessible, adaptable and effective in meeting their needs, it may be helpful if we could find words that focus a bit more on perceived feelings from potential learners. David offered a wonderful opening sharing how "foundational" could offer more accuracy in describing our services. I like the word and really feel it helps define our efforts well. Is there some word out there that is able to offer a perception of positive success that also accurately describes the intent of our passions?


In comparison with "foundational" I think "essential" not only conveys hope, it also has even less of a stigma - in retrospect, foundational does imply that someone *needs* a stronger foundation or 'missed something' somehow. In addition, essential is even more flexible - as any life change could suddenly make a particular set of knowledge essential. Also, thinking of the list of included literacies that David posted - health, finance, communication (English or digital), workplace, (and my suggested Civic engagement) are all *essential* elements of adult life. 

Using Adult Essential Education (AEE) would also then free up 'foundational' to replace 'basic' in our nomenclature - so that "Foundational Literacy Education" could indicate adults needing support in reaching, say, PIAAC Level 2 in Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem-solving in Technology-rich Environments.

And again, I advocate for the removal of "skills" from the name for our field - not because we don't or shouldn't teach skills but because we teach so much MORE than just skills.  Adult Essential Education makes a clear sub-field within Adult Education from an academic/research perspective and provides both dignity and hope to the learners we serve - and our profession.

Duren Thompson
Center for Literacy, Education and Employment
University of Tennessee


Hello Ed,

Your reply reminds me that what to call adult foundational skills education, or in the 1980's adult literacy, was a challenge for the Polaroid Corporation. If I recall correctly, they offered a workplace literacy program to their employees and almost no one enrolled in it. They investigated and found that employees didn't want to be associated with "being illiterate" so the education and training staff changed the name to the Technology Readiness Skills program. With this name the program was very successful in recruiting employees; as I recall, it also had terrific education outcomes for the employees and the company because the foundational skills content was contextualized to the work and to training and advancement opportunities. This was also when the U.S. Department of Education began to offer federal funding for Workplace Literacy programs; companies that launched these programs, like the Polaroid Corporation, discovered that as important as this initiative was, they better not name their programs with the word literacy if they wanted them to succeed.

It may be that we cannot find a perfect name for our field that also resonates with adult learners; if not, that doesn't really matter as long as we choose program or course names that resonate with them. When I was consulting with the McDonald's Corporation many years later, our team was given a half hour to come up with a name for the work-contextualized English language program we were designing for highly-motivated full-time line workers, all immigrants who were currently earning minimum wage. If they successfully completed this workplace-contextualized English language program and also completed a shift manager job training program, both entirely on paid work time, they would be able to earn $40,000 annually, which then was enough to give up their other part-time job(s) and spend time with their families and/or go to community college. We struggled for a few minutes to come up with names that would appeal both to the Corporation and to employees. Then one of my wise colleagues said, "It doesn't matter what we call it, the employees will just call it 'English'." The brand-conscious corporation Human Resources person who led our team said "okay, then we'll call it "English Under the Arches" a name that has apparently worked these many years for both the employees and the Corporation.



I am wondering if "family literacy" should be added to your list - with the idea that it includes skills/concepts not covered in other literacies such as: family planning & prenatal health, parenting, child development, relationship building, housing issues, familial conflict resolution, abuse issues & resources, etc.

While there is some overlap with health and finances (and all other literacies), I think this is a critical area to highlight as Essential.


What is Adult Foundational Education?

Adult foundational education refers to basic skills and knowledge that adults need for work, further education, helping their families, functioning effectively in their communities, and as citizens in a democracy. It includes:

  • English language skills for non-native speakers
  • Basic literacy for adults who cannot read and write well, or at all
  • Numeracy
  • Adult secondary education leading to an adult high school diploma or high school equivalency certificate
  • Preparation for post-secondary education, and
  • Other lifelong and lifewide skills such as:  digital literacy, family literacy, financial literacy, health literacy and possibly others.

Adult foundational education may be offered by community-based programs, public schools, community colleges, volunteer tutoring programs, public libraries, corrections institutions, adult public charter schools, employers, labor unions, faith-based organizations and other kinds of organizations and institutions.

Since I am in the TESOL field, I am concerned that a definition like this might deemphasize the fact that more than half of the learners in our field are ESL/ESOL learners, with their own particular cultural backgrounds and linguistic concerns. That means 50%+ of the students in the new “Adult Foundational Education” are being served by teachers trained in the field of TESOL, which has a 56 year old successful history in serving this exact student population. By omitting this important fact in this new term for the discipline, I believe we play into the federal government’s obfuscation of what 50%+ of us actually do.

To be precise, ESL/ESOL programs fall under “English Language Acquisition” programs under the Division of Adult Education and Literacy (DAEL) in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) within the U.S. Department of Education.  Frankly, no one in the TESOL field would recognize “English Language Acquisition” as an identifying term for what they do. When we apply for jobs to teach these students, we don’t apply for English language acquisition jobs but ESL/ESOL jobs! Therefore, why wouldn’t the term for our field acknowledge this fact?  

Why not call our field “Adult ESOL and Foundational Education” since that is really what we do?

Hi Janet,

Thanks for your thoughts. I'm aware that at least half of the adult learners being served by our field are ESL/ESOL students; and in some states such as California, Texas, and others it's well more than half. This is why in the "It includes" section of the definition I listed "English language skills for non-native speakers" as the first major service of our field. I will, as you suggested, add (ESL/ESOL) to that description for the reason you suggested, that both ESL and ESOL are widely used in our field.  I did not use English Language Acquisition because as far as I know it is not widely used in our field and, to add to the confusion, ELA is the acronym for English Language Arts in K-12.

I don't think "Adult Foundational Education" de-emphasizes English as a Second (or other) Language (ESL/ESOL) or any of the other major services listed in the definition; It does, however, with the word "adult" distinguish these services from K-12, and with the word "foundational" distinguish our field from credit-bearing higher education, which just "Adult Education" does not.

David J. Rosen 

Two people have suggested that Adult Essential Education would be preferred to adult foundational education. Although I think Adult Essential Skills or Adult Essential Education could be a useful name for an education program, for two reasons I am not persuaded that it's the right term for our field :

  • Higher education and K-12 education might rightly claim that the education they offer is also essential, so Essential does not distinguish our field well from higher education, with which it is now often confused in the general public.
  • Essential Education is the name of a prominent publisher of adult education online curriculum in our field. I think the name Adult Essential Education for our field might, therefore, be confusing for some adult educators. Also, the name Essential Education might be trademarked or copyrighted. Perhaps someone from that company could weigh in on that in this discussion.

David J. Rosen


The name, Essential Education is not trademarked as of yet, but will be later in 2022.   I agree that it will be confusing to adult educators using the term Essential instead of Foundational.  I would add employability skills to your list of foundational skills.  

Michael Ormsby

CEO, Essential Education Corporation

So, I got to this discussion from reading about informal and nonformal learning. 

To whom is the name important?   If I've encountered learning in informal/nonformal settings, am I perhaps much more likely to try something and not be too concerned about its name (especially depending on *my* literacy about its nuances)?   

Thanks Susan for your question.

I think the name of an education program or class for adults is important to programs, instructors and to learners, and the right name will differ depending on the priorities of the organization, institution, or company its program priorities, and what kinds of learners they are trying to attract to enroll. This conversation, however, is not about that; it's about what the name should be for our field, a name that communicates how we differ from K-12 and from higher education, and that communicates well not only to adult educators but to other educators, and to the general public, including policy makers and other kinds of educators who may not be familiar with our field. In my view, the names that we use now do not accurately convey the breadth of what we offer, or the range of kinds of organizations that offer our services, which is why I believe we need a reasonably short definition to accompany the name.

One might argue that to capture the breadth of our field we could just use adult education but others have rightly argued that that's too broad, and does not focus on the skills or education adults who have not successfully completed a secondary school level education may need.

Many people get confused by the terms we use such as adult literacy, adult education and literacy, and for other reasons don't like adult basic skills. I doubt that there is a perfect name that everyone would like and would understand in the same way, but I think we can do better. Members of the Steering Committee of the Open Door Collective, a national program of Literacy Minnesota, have thought about this and begun to use adult foundational skills education, for short, adult foundational skills, which some people like, but we (I am a co-founder and member of the Steering Committee of the Open Door Collective) haven't yet defined what adult foundation skills education means. I thought it would be helpful to discuss this with other members of our field, so posted the discussion here on LINCS in the Teaching and Learning group. I have learned some interesting things already, and have adjusted the original definition I proposed.

However, as more people become aware of this discussion and decide to share their thoughts I expect to learn more.

David J. Rosen


Our field *is* broad.   I think there's room for the general "adult education."   

I usually end up describing what I'm teaching :)    The phrases keep changing and getting connotations anyway. 
Yesterday a math teacher and I began planning a math module for students who don't place into our pre-college classes.  We considered calling the introduction "number sense" but may go with "computational thinking" because if anybody google's "number sense" it will be associated with grade levels, and really low ones... and "computational thinking" is broader and newer.   

Susan, and others,

I certainly hope that those defining the very broad field of adult education would include our field of adult foundational education, but when when we use adult education to describe our field, the general public, many educators, and sometimes policy makers wrongly assume we are referring to credit-bearing post-secondary education, occupational training leading to employment credentials, continuing education for professional development, or non-credit courses offered by community colleges universities for personal development and community adult education centers. This leads to confusion that I am hoping a new term for our field, such as adult foundational education, can avoid. I have argued elsewhere that there should be room in our field for a broader perspective that includes opportunities to learn about creative writing, photography, graphic arts, improvisational theater, and for what is now sometimes described as lifewide learning. As I understand lifewide learning  it includes opportunities to learn new skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking that may be needed for an evolving society sometimes described with terms like health literacy, digital skills, environmental education, community action and social change skills, and others. In the past, there has been more room for this broader perspective of adult education.

David J. Rosen

Hello, David and other adult ed colleagues,

The question of “what do we mean by ‘adult basic (or foundational) skills'?” is an important one.  Answering that question can help our field (i.e., adult education providers, adult learners, policy makers and funders, and other stakeholders) better understand what adult education services can do and the supports they need to be effective.

This is, however, not a new question. It can be very helpful for us to learn from previous efforts to answer it.  In the 1980s, there was a significant growth in developing contextualized literacy programs that focused on the particular reading, writing, speaking, listening, and numeracy skills that adults needed for specific work and other real-world tasks.  In the mid-1990s, the National Institute for Literacy created the Equipped for the Future (EFF) adult basic skills systems reform initiative, which identified 16 basic skills (i.e., read with understanding, convey ideas in writing, speak so others can understand, listen actively, observe critically, use math to solve problems and communicate, solve problems and make decisions, plan, cooperate with others, advocate and influence, resolve conflict and negotiate, guide others, take responsibility for learning, reflect and evaluate, learn through research,  and use information and communications technology) that adults needed to communicate, make decisions, collaborate, and continue learning in work, family, and civic/community roles meaningful to them.  These EFF skills standards drew on research that supported contextualized, participatory learning and on input from adult learners. (Visit https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED437557.pdf  )

In addition to broadening the range of basic skills from the traditional focus on “reading,” EFF developed guidelines for effective instruction, created sample curricula and assessment tools, developed models of professional development for instructors and administrators, and clarified how policy makers and funders could support adult education systems reform.  Versions of EFF curricula were piloted for various learner populations and learning needs (e.g., civic engagement, work, and family purposes), in the retail and healthcare industries, and in selected states (e.g., via state literacy resource centers and workforce development agencies).  The results of these efforts were shared in publications and conferences, all with the intention of helping improve the quality of adult basic skills education.  (Unfortunately, these publication are very hard – or impossible – to now track down on-line – another example of the need for a national research clearinghouse and a topic for another discussion!)

Though federal funding for EFF and NIFL were ended around 2005, many of the kinds of tools and concepts developed in EFF can still be found in our field – even if they aren’t labelled as “EFF.”  Examples include the “Teaching the Skills that Matter in Adult Education” project; the contextualized curricula and integrated program models described in the LINCS discussion groups and resource collections; the models of adult education partnerships promoted by the Open Door Collective; the college and career pathway programs funded by federal and other sources; the significant growth in interest in on-line learning models; and the on-line webinars and discussions of project-based learning, linking adult education to social justice, family literacy, and health literacy.  (See the ProLiteracy research brief on contextualized learning <https://www.proliteracy.org/Portals/0/pdf/Research/Briefs/ProLiteracy-Research-Brief-04_Contextualizing-2020-09.pdf   and back issues of “Focus on Basics”  https://www.ncsall.net/index.html@id=31.html ).

I suggest that those of us interested in the kinds of basic or foundational skills that David is describing in this thread consider doing the following:

  1. Strengthen our understanding of the broader range of contextualized basic skills that our field has focused on over the past four decades. (The above-described documents and the many resources in the LINCS collections are good sources.)
  2. Develop an easy-to-understand but comprehensive version of the kind of statement that David is referring to in earlier posts. The statement might include the following content:

Adult basic/foundational skills education programs – often in partnership with other relevant stakeholder agencies -- provide instructional and other supports to adults and out-of-school youth to help them perform work, family, civic, and/or lifelong learning tasks important to their well-being and that of their families and communities.  These supports include:

  • Opportunities (through instruction and self-directed learning) to develop a range of relevant basic/foundational skills (which can include reading, writing, speaking, listening, numeracy, observing, problem-solving and decision-making, planning, working with others, advocating, resolving conflicts, guiding others, taking responsibility for learning, reflecting and evaluating, learning through research,  and using information and communication technologies.)
  • Support for developing self-efficacy and other important social-emotional strengths.
  • Opportunities to develop background (content) knowledge relevant to learner goals.
  • Help to develop relevant plans and strategies (related to career, health, family, legal, financial, immigration, or other needs).
  • Supports to secure important credentials (e.g., high school equivalency credential, driver’s license, citizenship-related documents, occupational certificates).
  • Access to support systems to enable learners to navigate relevant contexts – to deal with obstacles and take advantage of opportunities.

3. Use the above kind of “foundational” statement as a basis for further discussions about what our field has done – and needs to do – to support the above model of contextualized educational partnerships for various types and levels of adult learners and learning needs.

Paul Jurmo



Creating a term and definition in the context of describing an education service field usually has underlying purposes. Here are the ones I have in mind.

The definition should:

1) Create clarity and avoid confusion. In this case the definition needs to distinguish our field from the better known fields of pre K-12 and credit-bearing higher education. It might also distinguish our field from occupational education, although our field does now include Integrating Education and Training (IET) and pre-apprenticeships.*

2) Make clear the breadth and boundaries of the field

3) Describe the field of service and study in a way that is worthy of serious and sustained public investment and research

4) Be short enough to include in a footnote, but also link to a longer definition with more detail and description for those who may be interested

5) Be written in plain language that the general public can understand, avoiding acronyms and jargon used in the field

The definition should also avoid:

1) Excluding education services that are legitimately part of the field

2) Excluding types of providers of those services

3) In the interest of having a brief and easily-read short form of the definition, avoid descriptions of the differing approaches used in the field, the different kinds of supportive services needed, its history, its needs as a field, its major contributing organizations and other interesting and important aspects of the field that would make the short definition too long or complicated.

Are there other criteria for a definition of our field that you think we should consider?

David J. Rosen

* Many education and training institutions and agencies that offer job and career training also offer adult foundational skills, so the boundaries of definition with occupational training may be less clear. What is clear to me is that our field should not be a sub-set of occupational or technical training but rather can be a partner with that field, and that our field should not be limited to occupational or technical training.

Thanks Rachel for pointing out that "non-native" is not asset-based language; I agree. However, although many newcomers  seeking English language skills are multilingual or linguistically diverse, not all are. So I will change "English language skills for non-native speakers" to "English language skills for immigrants and refugees (ESL/ESOL)"

David J. Rosen


This is certainly a timely topic for me and a collaborative I am co-chairing.  About a year ago, the Delaware Division of Libraries brought a small team together to begin the journey of building a collaborative using a collective impact model for change. We are part of the 2026 Communities of Excellence class - a national organization using the Baldridge framework  for systems change. The Delaware Communities of Excellence Collaborative decided that the first priority was to look at literacy holistically on a continuum in Delaware determine gaps in services and move the needle on literacy outcomes.  This question of "adult literacy" and "adult education"  is what we are currently discussing!   We have discussed using Adult Foundational Skills for in place of adult literacy. Getting everyone to realize that literacy is just not reading and writing is another hill to climb.  Thoughts are welcomed- Thank You-

Hello Cindy, and others,

When you are ready, I would be interested to hear what term (and definition) your collaborative in Delaware decides to use to describe our field.

It may be of interest to you and your Collective Impact model colleagues in Delaware to know that in the city of Nashville Tennessee a collaboration of the Nashville Public Library and a group of adult foundational education providers has a Collective Impact model. You can read about it in this Digital Promise article.

David J. Rosen


What is Adult Foundational Education?

Adult Foundational Education refers to basic skills and knowledge that adults need for work, further education, helping their families, functioning effectively in their communities, and as citizens in a democracy. It includes:

  • English language skills for immigrants and refugees (ESL/ESOL)
  • Basic literacy for adults who cannot read and write well, or at all
  • Numeracy
  • Adult secondary education leading to an adult high school diploma or high school equivalency certificate
  • Preparation for post-secondary education
  • Employability skills, and
  • Other lifelong and lifewide skills such as: digital literacy; family literacy; financial literacy; health literacy; literacy for self-advocacy, civic engagement, and social justice; and possibly other lifewide skills.

Adult foundational education may be offered by community-based programs, public schools, community colleges, volunteer tutoring programs, public libraries, corrections institutions, adult public charter schools, employers, labor unions, faith-based organizations and other kinds of organizations and institutions.


Hello All.  I learned about this forum just yesterday from David on the NLA blog site and have enjoyed and learned much from reading your comments.  I responded there but am posting my response here also. Thank you, Catherine Blanche King

"I read your discussion posts and registered to comment. In the meantime, first, I thought of a potential name you might want to consider; and second, I have a comment about what I see in our curricula . . . firstly, that curricula rightly concern all kinds of needed skills taught formally; but, secondly, curricula that actually but tacitly hold informal foundational development of persons as persons. The fundamental difference is manifest in the distinction between (a) what we can DO (skills) and (b) what and who we ARE as already developing human beings and, as such, as who we bring to any relationship and, BTW, to any work situation.

"On that last, such education is ongoing and occurs just by living; and so, except in rare occasions, is haphazard; though, again, it’s already implicitly present in any formal learning environment. Further, such education stands at the border between teaching and mentoring.

"Also, it’s what Tom Sticht brought to our attention earlier on this (NLA) site that is referred to as transformative learning, that has many names, and that was spearheaded by Jack Mezirow back in the 70’s/80’s.  As such, transformational learning is more 'foundational' than what we commonly mean by 'foundations' . . . as often formally associated with skills and which (as others note on your discussion site) tends to overlook, and to not formalize, the 'much more' that adult educators actually and regularly accomplish in the classroom.

"I think if there is any renewal kind of thinking for the field, we should consider perhaps capturing and making distinct from other aspects of the educational experience, and so formally in our curricula, and in some way, the implicit desire for all adults to improve themselves as persons.

"BTW, I haven’t looked at all aspects of educational venues but, over the years, I haven’t seen much in either K-12 or college/university education that initiates formally, clarifies, or notably values personal development though, again, it goes forward anyway under the radar, so to speak . . . and though less in STEM type curricula than those that have social science, history, or philosophical influence embedded in their content.

"The name I thought about was Advancements in Adult Learning or “Advancing” or something with a version of the term “advance” in it. That would take care of the broadness of what our field REALLY IS while suggesting a long list of all of the different kinds of advancements that we actually teach to in all of our many venues. FWIW."

Thank you and to everyone, stay diligent and safe.

Catherine Blanche King


Teaching and Learning Colleagues,

The Open Door Collective's updated definition of Adult Foundational Education will be found at:


I hope to have more information about this to report here soon.

Your questions, of course, are welcome.

David J. Rosen


Teaching and Learning Colleagues,

Deborah Kennedy, the Executive DIrector of the National Coalition for Literacy and I, in my role as Steering Committee member of the Open Door Collective, have co-authored an NCL blog article about the development of a new name for our field, "Adult Foundational Education." I encourage you to read and share it with your colleagues. I also welcome your comments here, or directly to me, about this name and the proposed definition that you will find at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BTroPf5NCwcQIy_drWO5pzd44GE2fbmWNp71VyrqZCc/edit?usp=sharing

David J. Rosen


Hello Teaching and Learning Colleagues,

Here are some thoughts about how, if you wish, you can advance the use of Adult Foundational Education:

  • When you are writing, use Adult Foundational Education instead of other names for the field, and asterisk or footnote the new name with this definition (The definition is still open for suggested additions, clarifications or questions.)
  • Ask colleagues to consider using it as the name for our field
  • Add a short piece to your organization's e-newsletter about this new name for our field
  • Write a blog article about why you have decided to use this name (and share a link to it here!)
  • Create a slide deck (or ask me for mine) on why we need this new name for our field
  • Be prepared with a one-minute response to "What does that mean?" that describes what Adult Foundational Education includes
  • When talking about education, reference the three fields: Pre K-12, Higher Ed, and Adult Foundational Education
  • Use the acronym AFE for short

Do you have other ideas about how we can advance the use of this name?

David J. Rosen