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. There is a discussion taking place in the LINCS Teaching and Learning Community that you may wish to participate in. I am copying my initial post below.

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'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!

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)

Thanks Mary Joan, for your comments.

English Language Acquisition colleagues,

I'd like to keep this discussion in one place, in the LINCS Teaching and Learning group, which is why I posted this as a bulletin rather than a discussion in this LINCS group. I'm going to cross post your comments there, Mary Joan. Everyone who is interested, Please join that LINCS group to follow this discussion.


David J. Rosen

Hello English Language Acquisition colleagues,

Here's a link to my first post in the discussion taking place in the LINCS Teaching and Learning group, about a new name for our field.


and a link to the most recent update on the proposed definition -- 1.17.22. 


Consider using the term Adult Foundational Education to describe our field -- but not necessarily a particular instruction program in our field -- along with the definition in that post that should make clear what kinds of education programs are or are not included.  To add to the discussion, to keep it all in one place please respond to the most recent discussion post in the LINCS Teaching and Learning group that, for now at least, is the one on 1.17.22


David J. Rosen