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Family Literacy on Your Smartphone

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By Vinod Lobo

For years, we've been talking about how adult English language learners (ELLs) make up a significant part of the estimated 36 million adults in the U.S. who read at a 3rd-grade level or below. Only 10% of adult ELLs are able to take advantage of federally funded programs. So what about the forgotten 90% who are severely underserved? It's time to stop talking about teaching adults English reading and start taking action. 

Recent data shows that adult ELLs engaging in a blended model of in-person and at-home smartphone-based learning improved at an average of 7.8 points on the CASAS scale. (CASAS is an assessment designed to test language proficiency and mastery.) These are significant gains achieved in just 10 weeks. This tells us that the blended approach works. Now, we have to scale it up.

First, the Funding

Up until three years ago, there was virtually no state funding for adult education programs, and federal funding was hard to come by. Adults with a desire to learn English would get on waiting lists for in-person classes, attempt to learn the language on their own, or try to learn it from their children.

In 2015, California launched the Adult Education Block Grant (AEBG), which created 71 consortia around the state that include community colleges, school districts, and other education providers. The goal was to improve coordination and better serve the needs of adult learners within each region. In two years, $500 million of state AEBG funding was divided among the consortia and providers to support adult education programs throughout the state. Since the funding was put in place, there has been increased coordination and accountability for all members of the consortia, which has had a positive impact on California's adult ELL programs. For example, the AEBG requires educational providers to test and report on learners' improvements using assessments such as the CASAS test.

Increased Enrollment

A few years ago, budget cuts forced the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to dramatically decrease the size of its adult education program from about 300,000 students to fewer than 100,000. Since then, thanks to the AEBG funding, LAUSD and a number of other programs across California have slowly been able to build their programs back up by adding more educators, resources, and in turn, more students.

The AEBG has also allowed a number of adult education programs, like the one at Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista, CA, to expand access. Sweetwater serves more than 25,000 adult learners spread among four district schools and 20 off-site locations. While some students take courses virtually and check in with teachers via phone or email, a majority engage in a blended approach of in-person and at-home learning.

Educators at Sweetwater understand that the key to success for any adult ed program is flexibility. Unlike young students, adult ELLs often have other responsibilities such as a job (or multiple jobs) and families, making it more difficult for them to regularly attend classes. The grant has allowed Sweetwater to expand its offerings and provide digital resources that support students' learning outside the classroom.

Learning English on the Go

Low-literate adults often do not have computer or Internet access at home. However, a report from Digital Promise notes that an estimated 75% of students enrolled in adult education programs own smartphones. For many of the adult ELLs, an app is the answer. Today, thousands of adult learners are using Learning Upgrade, a differentiated app-based curriculum featuring songs, videos, and games in 300 English and 600 math lessons. Although users may only have time to engage with the app for a few minutes in a row, those minutes add up. Learners who used to spend 30 minutes per week on a lab computer at an adult school can now spend two to four (or more) hours per week on their phones. Learners complete lessons everywhere including but not limited to - on the bus, at school waiting for children, on work breaks, or at the doctor's office.

By offering a curriculum of sequenced lessons that offer step-by-step proficiency and can be completed on a learner's smartphone, adult schools can increase time-on-task. This naturally leads to an acceleration of learning and engagement, allowing learners to reach proficiency more quickly. Once they make a breakthrough in adult basic education courses, adult ELLs are able to see new opportunities like earning a high school diploma or GED, getting better jobs, and even aiming for secondary education. More importantly, these blended learners are less likely to drop out since they experience incremental success.

Blended learning using smartphones is an exciting new frontier for adult education, and opens up new opportunities for large-scale success of apps that teach reading. The $7 Million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by Dollar General Literacy Foundation, a global competition challenging teams to develop mobile applications for adult learners that result in the greatest increase in literacy skills in just 12 months. The Learning Upgrade team has been selected as one of eight semi-finalists. More than 1,000 learners will be enrolled in the app for a one-year field trial to measure results. We are one the cusp of a mobile learning revolution and providing flexible and affordable education for adults with a desire to learn English.

A Literate Family is a Happy Family

It's not an uncommon sight to see parents and children reading together in the Sweetwater community. Many students in the Sweetwater adult ed program are parents themselves, which makes for powerful interactions with their children.

For years, California non-profit literacy programs have emphasized family literacy, or dual-generation learning. Thanks to the AEBG funding, adult education programs like the one at Sweetwater, are able to offer family-focused services. Particularly in English learner families, addressing the needs of the entire family makes a big difference. For example, as parents gain confidence in English and learn the basics of how schools work, they can converse with teachers, attend school meetings, and help their children with homework.

In addition to the progress being made at Sweetwater, the AEBG has allowed libraries to expand tutoring services and technology services; non-profits are offering access to the app and monitoring progress remotely; community colleges are trying out mobile-based distance learning; and workforce programs are investing in their employees by providing the app as a way for them to learn English.

Statistics show that a 1% rise in literacy skill scores can boost U.S. labor productivity by an estimated $225 billion per year. We now have the tools including smartphone-based learning apps and blended learning to scale up adult literacy efforts. If we can provide effective and flexible instruction to more adult ELLs, we can improve our economy--and help individuals reach their full potential and live the American dream.

Vinod Lobo is the founder and CEO of Learning Upgrade. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @learningupgrade.

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