At the Heart of Family Learning: The Opportunity of Adult and Family Learning

This week is National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week. Sponsored by the National Coalition for Literacy, the week is meant to call attention to the ways that adult education transforms lives in the United States, especially for the 43 million U.S. adults who cannot read above a third-grade level. Adult education is vital to individual families, resulting in increased employability, financial security, and better health outcomes. 

But the benefits don’t stop there. Studies have shown that improving adult foundational skills improves economic growth at both the state and national level, and that the children of adult learners carry on the gains, developing stronger literacy and language skills themselves. That’s one of the many reasons why I believe so strongly in multigenerational learning opportunities for families, from early childhood through adult education. Promoting family learning experiences strengthens the skills of parenting adults and caregivers, and provides a support system for children on their learning journey. Parents are a child’s first teacher; when parents gain confidence in their skills, they transfer that confidence to their children, enabling deeper levels of learning. But all of this is possible only if adult and family learning receive the investment they so desperately require.

We’ve seen firsthand the power of investment in adult learning, education, and engagement as leaders of the Statewide Family Engagement Center (SFEC) grant in Nebraska. In collaboration with local school districts across the state, NCFL is implementing our four-component model of family literacy with a special focus on school districts with higher rates of English language learners (ELL). Participants like Angelica, a parent in the O’Neill, Nebraska adult education program, speak more to the program’s success than I ever could: 

“The family literacy program for me means opportunity and development. Opportunity, because it gives us knowledge and support to learn English, and development because with this knowledge we will be able to grow either socially or professionally. It really means a lot to me, because they are giving me the opportunity to take a course as a medical assistant, which opens doors for me to better employment. I am very grateful to the program and to those who are organizing it. Thank you for your patience and time. I believe that we can put in the effort to achieve our goals so that in the future we can socialize in our children’s activities and be able to help them better.”

We’ve seen similar impact in our work with the Family and Child Education (FACE) program through Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) funded schools. While children in the program are receiving educational services, parents are actively working towards their own learning goals in the adult education classroom. Adult learners in FACE set goals around adult basic education, high school equivalency or GED, college and career readiness, higher education, and employability skills. Supported by their adult education educators and their classmates, these adult learners are making strides that will improve their lives. At NCFL, we know that stronger families are the backbone of stronger communities.

NCFL is also a national partner in managing the National Literacy Directory (NLD), a valuable online resource made possible by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation that refers adult learners to literacy programs in their area based on their specific needs. Services like this are vital because they provide access to learning resources, and access is a key factor in opportunity.  When adults are ready to begin their learning journey, it should be easy for them to connect with related support and services. The National Literacy Directory provides that seamless connection. Since 2010, the NLD has helped connect more than 50,000 prospective students and volunteers to literacy services, community education programs, and testing centers. Thanks to a recent update, this resource is more user-friendly and mobile-ready than ever before.

As vital as this work is, one organization alone cannot address the immense need for adult education services and resources across communities across the country. For the past two years, NCFL has collaborated with the nation’s leading adult and family literacy organizations as part of the Adult Literacy and Learning Impact Network (ALL IN) to bring greater awareness, access, and opportunities to address the challenge of adult literacy in the United States. Together, ALL IN partners are working to draw attention to this wide-ranging challenge and the staggering costs of inaction—as much as $2.2 trillion according to a 2020 Gallup report. Learn more about ALL IN and its impact here.

Rachel Carson once said, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it.” That is the very heart of family learning—building the capacity of adults and children to share in the wonder of learning together. NCFL is committed to the work of spreading and scaling education solutions with and for families. You can find out more about our efforts and the work of ALL IN, districts, schools, and other organizations at the upcoming 2023 Families Learning Conference, happening October 23-25 in Omaha, Nebraska. Adult and family literacy professionals from across the country will share their knowledge at breakout sessions and panel discussions focused on innovative and equitable learning strategies. We are looking for many more changemakers to join us on this journey. 

I hope you’ll join me in Omaha to network, expand your knowledge, and find inspiration for this important work. 


Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

A lifelong educator and national thought leader for teaching and learning, Dr. Felicia C. Smith brings decades of valuable experience to advance NCFL’s mission of working to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families. Having served in a variety of leadership roles in P-12, higher education, nonprofit, and philanthropy, her career has allowed her to experience leading systems and develop a unique vantage point of a learner’s educational trajectory from preschool to adulthood. Smith holds an Ed.D. in education leadership and administration from the University of Kentucky, and an M.A. in elementary education with an emphasis on K-12 literacy development and B.S. in elementary education from the University of Louisville. 

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