What is Adult Foundational Skills Education?

Hello Integrating Technology 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.




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.)


Thanks Duren,

I hadn't thought of Adult Foundational Education but think it's worth considering. I also like your suggestion of including Literacy in Civic Engagement for empowerment, self advocacy, and social justice.

What do others think?

Hello Integrating Technology 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 Integrating Technology.   I'm going to cross post Duren's comment and my reply there. Please join that LINCS group to follow this discussion.


David J. Rosen