It is clear from the above discussion that the links between literacy and lifelong learning depend on clarifying the conceptual meaning of each of these terms and, crucially, on making explicit the foundations on which the application of the lifelong learning approach to literacy is built. Based on the analytical framework described above – literacy as a lifelong learning process, literacy as a life-wide learning process and literacy as part of lifelong learning systems (Hanemann 2015a) – we now turn to the question of how some literacy-related policies, strategies and programmes have adopted a lifelong learning perspective.
Literacy as a lifelong learning process
Incorporation of the concept of lifelong learning in the design and provision of literacy programmes is not new; indeed, literacy learning opportunities should be open for anyone who wishes to master or improve his or her competencies, irrespective of age and proficiency levels. Many literacy programmes focus on improving the basic competencies, including literacy, of those in the age range considered to be the most economically productive, often defined as adults up to 60 or 64 years of age. However, learning continues into the “third age” of life and can be transformational when structured in appropriate ways.
Addressing older adults (aged 60+) who had moved from rural areas to an urban environment, and who had never had the opportunity to acquire literacy and numeracy competencies, the “Basic Literacy Class for Older Persons” programme (UIL 2020) run by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Ageing Nepal aimed to empower older learners to function well in an unfamiliar environment. Thus, the initial curriculum focusing on basic skills was modified according to the learners’ own views of the skills they needed, resulting in increased self-respect and confidence, a stronger role in supporting grandchildren, and new social networks.
Family literacy and learning has emerged in past decades as one of the innovative strategies that work across generations and between institutions, overcoming barriers between home, school and community, and breaking the intergenerational cycle of low educational levels (UIL 2017c). The focus of family literacy and learning is on both children’s and adults’ learning. Established in 2011 to “examine the most efficient ways to improve reading skills in Europe” (EU High Level Group of Experts on Literacy 2012, p. 9), the European High Level Group of Experts on Literacy identified family literacy and intergenerational approaches as promising examples in their final report (ibid.). The many different types of family literacy and learning programmes which have been set up in recent years reflect a vision of effective learning families, with every member being a lifelong learner (Hanemann 2015c).
The potential of intergenerational approaches to create a culture of reading and learning among disadvantaged (often migrant) families can be illustrated through the “Bookstart” programme (United Kingdom), the family literacy programmes “Reach Out and Read” (United States) and “Tell Me a Story” (Switzerland), the “VoorleesExpress” programme (the Netherlands), the “eBooks and Family Literacy Programme” (Ethiopia), and the “My Grandparents’ Stories, My Pictures” project run by Rural Education and Development (READ) Nepal, among others (Hanemann and Krolak 2017).Footnote 7
Family learning recognises the vital role that adults play in their children’s education. For example, a World Education programme in Mali, Appui à l’amélioration de la qualité et de l’équalité de l’éducation (AQEE)Footnote 8 (UIL 2013b), took a deliberate intergenerational approach in literacy for adults, both women and men, as a complementary means of improving the quality of education for their children. While adults, for their part, continue their learning, the children are encouraged to lay a solid basis for their lifelong learning, inspired by the example which their parents set (Elfert 2008; Robinson 2020).
The Kitengesa Community Library Family Literacy Project in Uganda (Parry et al. 2014) took a somewhat different approach. There was no literacy instruction as such; rather, the women took part in creating and translating children’s books in their own language, Luganda, which they then read with their children. It was a collective effort to create a more dynamic literate environment in the home.
The Lifelong Learning Strategy for the City of Vancouver (Talbot and Associates 2006), which addressed learning needs from infancy to later life, included an organising framework with an explicit focus on literacy in each of the different life phases of a person. While acknowledging “the complexities involved in creating a culture of lifelong learning”, the framework emphasised the need to prioritise the enhancement of literacy and numeracy as a learning activity throughout a person’s life (ibid., p. 9).
These examples illustrate that literacy learning across the lifespan and the generations can strengthen a culture of learning in family, community and society, foster confidence in accessing, developing and using written communication, and provide motivation to engage in further lifelong learning opportunities.
Literacy as a life-wide learning process
Linking literacy acquisition with its use in the wider environment is a first step in maximising the impact of literacy provision, with a clear understanding of the connections between written communication and the development of other relevant skills – a life-wide perspective (Oxenham et al. 2002; Robinson 2018). This can best be achieved by adopting a demand-driven approach based on input from potential learners and their communities. This involves discovering how learners wish to use literacy, what new skills for life and livelihood they wish to acquire, and what reading and writing tasks are associated with the skills identified. Even though a life-wide approach is most likely to make literacy acquisition meaningful to learners, surveys based on these questions are rarely undertaken, resulting in unclear objectives and potentially low motivation on the part of learners to take part in literacy learning (Robinson 2021).
In Morocco, the 2014 literacy strategy stated that “developing human capital” from an economic perspective was the overriding goal (ANLCA 2014; RdM 1999), but the more recent iteration of the strategy for 2017–2021 also embraces the needs of individual learners, while retaining the connection with development, particularly at the local level (ANLCA 2017). With the policy debate in a state of flux, programme initiatives feature a more strongly articulated life-wide learning approach. The Agence Nationale de Lutte Contre l’Analphabétisme (ANLCA)Footnote 9 has cooperated with other Moroccan ministerial departments (i.e. the Ministry of Ocean Fisheries, the Ministry of Trades and Crafts, Prison Administration) to support the achievement of literacy goals among certain professional groups (such as fishermen and artisans) and among prisoners (EU 2017).
The “Parkari Community Development Programme” (PCDP) of south-eastern Pakistan demonstrates the SDG principle of “reaching the furthest behind” in its work with a minority group, including a high proportion of women and girls (UIL 2016b). The aim of the literacy and adult learning programme is to improve people’s status, livelihoods and literacy levels, based on the socioeconomic conditions of the target groups. The PCDP developed a set of interlinked initiatives to empower women, including rights awareness, group formation, health care, savings schemes and literacy learning. The acquisition of new skills has been accompanied by an increase in self-confidence and, as a consequence, in social status. The PCDP experience shows that developing skills of all kinds is an iterative process – one skill builds on another, leading to new opportunities, further learning … and the cycle starts again (Robinson 2017).
In Afghanistan, literacy acquisition has conventionally been considered a prior condition for enabling youth and adults to learn technical and vocational skills. On the basis of this experience, the subsequent phase of literacy development in the country proposed embedding literacy learning with the learning of other skills, rather than continuing with two separate programmes (UNESCO 2012, p. 20). However, in a context as poor and insecure as Afghanistan, the provision of vocational skills training and income-generating opportunities to participants who successfully complete the literacy training component of the “Enhancement of Literacy in Afghanistan” (ELA) programme has faced multiple challenges (UIL 2016c).
Linking literacy to other services – such as government extension programmes, family support services or income-generation activities – has proved to be more conducive to engaging adults in literacy and learning. The Community Learning Centre (CLC) model, which has been promoted mainly in the Asia-Pacific region but also expanded to the global level, has tried to put such a life-wide learning approach into practice, particularly in rural areas (UIL 2017c). However, despite the proven success of embedded, integrated and multidisciplinary approaches to literacy, poor government funding has hindered the scaling up of these programmes to benefit more people (UNESCO Bangkok 2016).
While a major focus of adult literacy and basic education has been on imparting knowledge and skills related to livelihood, health and human rights, there are some examples of programmes that have integrated traditional and indigenous knowledge, language and skills. The “WãnangaFootnote 10 Embedded Literacy” programme in New Zealand (UIL 2016d), and the “Patani Malay–Thai Bilingual/Multilingual Education” (PMT-MLE) programme in Thailand’s Deep South (UIL 2016e), are such examples.
The Kha Ri Gude [Let Us Learn] literacy campaign in South Africa, which reached nearly 4.5 million adults between 2008 and 2016 (Hanemann and McKay 2019, p. 365), was conceptualised within a lifelong learning framework. Its literacy curriculum focused on “learning for development”, contributing to various SDGs. To ensure inclusion, the campaign gave equal attention to all 11 official South African languages, so that all learners could benefit from the pedagogical and cognitive advantages of mother tongue-based learning (ibid.). Learners’ feedback on the impact of the campaign on their everyday lives provided evidence that it was catalytic for social activism, and that it
increased political participation and participation in community activities, promoted values of ubuntu and inclusion, developed respect for cultural diversity, and facilitated a range of capabilities such as maintaining good health, raising healthy children and educating them (McKay 2018, p. 419).
In addition, it also developed “an increased appetite for lifelong learning among both the adult literacy learners and their children” (ibid.; see also McKay 2015, 2020).
The A Ganar Alliance,Footnote 11 implemented by Partners of the Americas in 16 Latin American countries, uses a sports-based methodology (teamwork, communication, discipline, respect, a focus on results and continual self-improvement) to encourage young people to (re-)engage in learning. The curriculum combines sports-based and vocational training with supervised internships, as well as providing follow-on support to equip youth with basic reading, writing, mathematics and technical skills, self-confidence and practical experience (Partners of the Americas n.d.).
These examples illustrate that integrated and embedded approaches to literacy teaching and learning can better respond to the multiple needs and interests of youth and adult learners than stand-alone approaches. Adopting a life-wide learning perspective in the design of literacy provision involves a close understanding of the nature of target group needs in their own context, as well as embracing a holistic approach that combines literacy learning with the acquisition of other meaningful skills for life and livelihood. Besides being conducive to SDG 4, this perspective is also instrumental in contributing to the achievement of many of the other 16 SDGs, such as those related to poverty (SDG 1), food security (SDG 2), health and well-being (SDG 3), gender equality and women’s empowerment (SDG 5), economic growth and work (SDG 8) and peace (SDG 16).
Literacy as part of lifelong learning systems
Adult literacy and basic education programmes need to be firmly embedded in national (or sub-national) lifelong learning systems. Building such systems requires the provision of flexible learning pathways, a strong interrelation between formal and non-formal education, mechanisms for the recognition, validation and accreditation of non-formal and informal learning outcomes, and inter- and cross-sectoral collaboration. Such holistically designed systems with different pathways are ideally structured into building blocks that meet a diversity of learning needs and can be followed in flexible ways.
In most countries of Latin America, literacy provision is part of adult basic education programmes. In Brazil, for example, Educação de Jovens e Adultos (EJA)Footnote 12 is seen as complementary to school education and offers educational opportunities to those who have no access or cannot follow up on their primary and secondary education at the typical age. Similarly, the Modelos Educativos Flexibles (MEFs),Footnote 13 which start with literacy and culminate in the secondary education certificate, provide alternative learning opportunities in Colombia.
The Mexican Modelo Educación para la Vida y el Trabajo (MEVyT)Footnote 14 (UIL 2016f) also offers basic education for youth and adult learners. However, it is designed as a modular system that is highly flexible, allowing learners to determine their own learning process by deciding how they want to learn (i.e. individually or in groups, with or without guidance from facilitators, at home or in community learning spaces) and by selecting modules according to their prior abilities and needs. This education model leads to accredited learning levels: initial, intermediate and advanced (equivalent to a Grade 9Footnote 15 qualification). Complemented by the MEVyT Indígena Bilingüe (MIB)Footnote 16 programme offered in 49 indigenous languages (UIL 2015; CONEVyT n.d.-a), MEVyT is part of a broader governmental learning system that includes adult education, work-related training, home economics and health education, among other areas of interest (CONEVyT n.d.-b).
A number of country reports submitted in the context of GRALE 4 (UIL 2019a) point to ongoing reforms involving the revision of national curricula on adult literacy and extending these to cover subsequent levels of non-formal basic education. Others offer special “equivalency programmes” to meet the demand for recognised certificates and qualifications. Examples are Jamaica (development of the High School Diploma Equivalency Programme; JFLL n.d.) and Timor Leste (its National Equivalency Education Programme, delivered non-formally through CLCs, is “equivalent” to 9 years of formal Basic Education; Yorozu 2017, pp. 30–32).
However, while equivalency programmes are enjoying undiminished popularity, in particular in the Asia-Pacific region, they mainly target out-of-school children, adolescents and youth (Choo and Shah 2020). Often, they are run in parallel to formal education instead of being genuinely embedded in the national education system, and certificates do not necessarily qualify learners for further studies at higher levels. Even though these equivalency programmes were designed as a temporary alternative to make up for the failure of the general education system, the rationales for fully integrating them into national lifelong learning systems as a government-led response to the needs of out-of-school populations have intensified.
Integrating literacy into lifelong learning systems also means establishing reliable (test-based) ways of assessing the literacy needs of the adult population and the learning outcomes of literacy provision. However, “to date, only a handful of countries conduct national adult literacy assessments” (UIS 2019, p. 4), although the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML) has developed a framework for reporting on SDG Indicator 4.6.1, which measures the
[p]roportion of population in a given age group achieving at least a fixed level of proficiency in functional (a) literacy and (b) numeracy skills, by sex (UIS 2018, p. 42).
At present, there are only two internationally administered assessments, the OECD’s PIAACFootnote 17 and the World Bank’s Skills Towards Employability and Productivity (STEP) programme,Footnote 18 which both face limitations and challenges (UIS 2019). Moreover, the dichotomous estimate of “literacy/illiteracy rates” is still widespread. Application of the lifelong learning approach to literacy, measured on a continuum of competency levels – a prerequisite for creating an internationally comparable database to report on SDG Indicator 4.6.1 (ibid.) – seems to be a long-term task reaching beyond the SDG 2030 horizon.
A growing number of countries worldwide are developing and implementing national qualifications frameworks (NQFs),Footnote 19 as they see them as valuable instruments to enhance the transparency and relevance of qualifications, to support reforms and to widen access to learning opportunities and pathways (Cedefop et al. 2017; Cedefop 2021). While many countries at the global level have developed qualifications frameworks only for their higher education or technical and vocational education and training (TVET) sub-systems, and literacy and numeracy are often mentioned as a “learning domain” or included in level descriptors as “foundation skills”, there are hardly any examples where literacy and basic (non-formal) education have been made explicit in NQFs (such as in Afghanistan’s framework), and only a few NQFs refer to pathways from non-formal to formal education (e.g. Bangladesh, The Gambia, Mauritius, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand) (UIL 2017a, b Although the new generation of NQFs has become more “loose” and less regulatory to better adapt to diversity and ongoing changes, there are challenges with measuring their impact. In particular, with regard to adult literacy and basic education, their benefits have yet to be identified on a global scale (ibid.).
The development of holistic learning systems with flexible pathways needs to be complemented by mechanisms for the recognition, validation and accreditation (RVA) of the outcomes of non-formal and informal learning (UIL 2012, 2018b). RVA practices are more established in the areas of TVET and higher education, while related developments in ALE are slow. In GRALE 4, the lowest level of progress in ALE policy was reported in the RVA of non-formal and informal learning, with 66 per cent of countries reporting progress (UIL 2019a, p. 21).
Flexible learning pathways and the acquisition of recognised certificates and qualifications are certainly contributing to motivating potential learners to (re-)engage in literacy and ALE programmes. However, not all countries have succeeded in making their emerging lifelong learning systems inclusive by building connections with the lowest education levels and considering the diversity of learning needs.