The Reading Matrix
Vol. 5, No. 2, September 2005

Conflicting Paradigms in Adult Literacy Education:
 In Quest of a U.S. Democratic Politics of Literacy
George Demetrion
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum (2005)
Pp. xiv + 320
ISBN 0-8058-4624-7
Cost: $36.00
Reviewed by Theresa Pruett-Said
Macomb Community College
Warren, Michigan


Conflicting Paradigms in Adult Literacy Education: In Quest of a U.S. Democratic Politics of Literacy by George Demetrion presents an in-depth analysis of competing schools of thought and influences on adult literacy education since 1985.  Demetrion believes that these conflicting paradigms have contributed to the marginalization of adult literacy education, and in conclusion he presents his own paradigm for adult literacy education.

In chapter 1, Demetrion presents what he considers to be the three schools of literacy that have influenced adult literacy education. The first school is critical pedagogy based on Frierian perspectives that view adult literacy students as needing to recognize the power structures that have marginalized them, and then becoming their own agents of change.  The second school is what Demetrion refers to as national economic imperatives that link functional literacy skills to employment.  In this model the student is viewed as human capital to meet the country’s economic needs.  The third school is the new literacy movement that has its roots in practical experience and ethnographic research that lead to meeting the needs of all involved.  Demetrion sees this school of thought as a middle ground between the first two.  He believes that EFF (Equipped for the Future) is an example of a program that has melded economic approaches with the rights and needs of literacy students.

Throughout the book, Demetrion explores different viewpoints and challenges presented by various schools of thought and opinion. One of the major ways he does this is by quoting threads that have taken place on online discussion lists.  In chapter 2, he presents online discussions that took place on the NLA (National Literacy Advocacy) discussion list regarding the tension between quantitative assessment and the acknowledgement of quality of life issues.  In chapter 3, he explores in more detail how government economic imperatives have had more influence throughout the 1980’s and 90’s.  Demetrion states that the information spread through reports such as Nation at Risk, America 2000, Workforce 2000, and Jumpstart “reinforced the tendency to link federal policy on adult literacy education with employment readiness” (p. 76).  In chapters 4 and 5, Demetrion discusses the connection between the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) and the National Reporting System (NRS).  The NRS became mandatory for adult literacy programs wanting and needing to receive government funding.  The results and ensuing criticisms of NRS are also examined.

Demetrion believes that the different attitudes toward WIA and NRS reflect different theoretical underpinnings.  In chapter 6, he presents more online discussions on how literacy is defined, and how its definition influences how it is assessed.  Demetrion believes that EFF presented the best hope for some type of consensus regarding literacy education.  In chapter 7, Demetrion goes into detail regarding the beliefs and formation of EFF. In 1997, EFF published Equipped for the Future: A Reform Agenda for Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning.  EFF created three roles for the literacy learner: citizen/community member, family member, and worker.  Using these three roles as guides, it proceeded to create content standards measured by four dimensions of performance. Students would be evaluated on a range from novice to expert in different content areas based on their knowledge base, their ability to fluently retrieve their knowledge base and apply it, their ability to do so without support or guidance, and their ability to move onto more complex tasks and apply their knowledge to new situations.  EFF was supported by NIFL (National Institute for Literacy).  However, in 2004 EFF lost its NIFL sponsorship as NIFL came under new leadership more in line with the Bush administration’s educational plan.  This leads Demetrion to believe that EFF will most likely not become an important player in adult literacy education.

As a precursor to his final chapters where Demetrion discusses his vision for a middle ground, he analyzes the different research traditions that influence social science and educational research.  He does so because he believes that researchers are influenced by their approach.  In his final chapters, he makes the case for finding a middle way based on a literacy as growth model which would include aspects of all research models yet not be driven or too heavily influenced by any one model.  Demetrion chooses Dewey as his defining mentor.  Using Dewey’s beliefs and educational models Demetrion calls for a concept of educational growth in adult literacy education as a continual progression where new knowledge creates new questions; thus, opening up new needs and perhaps new goals.  He believes that the set goals of current standards cannot take into account how learning expands and changes students’ needs. In fact, he presents a short case study that shows his literacy as growth model being used in a classroom setting.
Most importantly, Demetrion strongly feels that in order for adult literacy education to not be filled with competing conflicts and marginalized, it must define itself in a new way that is built on the concept of “the liberal, democratic, republican, and constitutional principles of the U.S. political tradition as a potentially viable basis through which to construct a public philosophy of adult literacy education.” (p. 268)  In other words, he believes that adult literacy practitioners must convince our society and politicians that adult literacy serves to improve the democratic ideals of US society by developing self-confidence and knowledge in citizens that uplift our social institutions.  In addition, he believes that the experiences and voices of adult literacy learners will create more pluralism in public discourse and expand our understanding of the educational process.  In conclusion, even though Demetrion admits that his vision is problematic, he feels that the effort must be made to try a new middle ground approach in order to rescue adult literacy education so that it is not marginalized by competing external approaches.

This book is a detailed and somewhat theoretical look at the different influences and approaches that have occurred in adult literacy education in the past 20 years. As an English as a second language teacher who has occasionally worked in adult literacy education I found this book very informative and enlightening. However, it is not a light, easy afternoon read.  While some might find the author’s dedication to detail a little tedious, his desire to look at all sides of an issue creates a very complete picture of adult literacy education.


Terry Pruett-Said has been an ESL teacher for 20 years in Michigan, Iowa, Kansas, and Morocco.  She is currently an ESL teacher at Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan.