Adult Basic Education: Improving Lives Every Day

The GED has been an important part of the American education system, rescuing many adults from less prosperous lives and providing self-worth and dignity to thousands.

By: Donn Liston, MEd

The General Education Diploma has for a long time been considered a second class education. This is mainly because most have not had experience with the GED and are thus not familiar with the requirements and structure of this path to success. The GED has saved many students and adults from a life of poverty and provided them dignity and self-worth in doing so.

But the current GED is about to be transformed and upgraded to meet the needs of potential students and provide them more opportunities in a more technical society. This change in the GED will take place in January, 2014. But before we look at the new, improved version of the GED, let’s look at how the GED came about.

Looking Back at Adult Basic Education

Among his extensive writings about the history and nature of Adult Basic Education (ABE) instruction, Thomas Sticht has produced a review of the roots of ABE that provides a context for understanding ABE. He explains: “Although it was unlawful to teach slaves to read when Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) was a slave, her owner’s daughter taught her to read and write.” (Sticht, 2005). When Jacobs became a free woman in 1861 she began teaching other former slaves in what became known as “Freedmen’s Schools” following the Civil War. Thus, the ethical challenge of disobeying the law to bring a better future through education during one era proved to be in the national interest to provide education for those same people in another era.

The work of Harriet Jacobs and the teachers of the Freedmen’s schools illustrate two aspects of teaching reading with adults during the 19th century. First, Jacobs used what she called the “A, B, C” method, which others have referred to as the “alphabetic” method. Second, specially written Freedman’s Readers oriented their lessons to the types of things that the authors thought would be of interest and relevance to former slaves, both children and adults, and they included illustrations with African-American children and adults. This is an early form of what I call functional context education in teaching adults to read (Sticht, T., 2005 p 2). A review of other early pioneers by Dr. Sticht provides a further overview of where ABE has come from in our national culture.

Cora Wilson Stewart, (1875-1958), Superintendent of Instruction in Rowan County, Kentucky, initiated the first campaign aimed specifically at eradicating adult illiteracy in the state. She noticed that many parents of children in the public schools were illiterate. So she mobilized a group of teachers who volunteered to teach adults to read and write. The adults would be taught in the same schools as the children but at night, after the children went home. Because there were no street lights in the hills and hollows of the region, classes could only be held on moonlit nights, when adults could see their way to school. For this reason, the literacy program became known as the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky, and they operated from 1911 to the 1930s (Sticht, T., 2005 p 3).

During WW I a Philadelphia teacher, John Duncan Spaeth (1868-1954), took time away from his position as Professor of English at Princeton University to work as Educational Director of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) at Camp Wheeler, Georgia and Camp Jackson, South Carolina. Because large numbers of men being called for military service were illiterate, or of very limited literacy, schooling in reading and writing became a necessary element of military training.

The Camp Reader for American Soldiers, written by Spaeth, rejected the analytic method of teaching reading that Stewart favored and he instead became the first person to prepare an extensive theoretical introduction to the synthetic method of reading teaching written especially for teachers of adults. In the 1919 revision of the Camp Reader, Spaeth produced what appear to be the first teacher training materials for adult literacy educators that discussed relationships among the four communication processes of listening, speaking, reading, and writing and provided an explanation of the phonetic system of reading (phonics) and its relevance to writing. (Sticht, T. 2005 p 4)

The path to what today is an alternative to public education was also impacted considerably by Frank C. Laubach (1884-1970). 1930, while working as a missionary among the Maranao people of the Philippines, Laubach developed a simple method to teach them to learn to read and write in their own language. He also discovered the potential of volunteer tutors, as newly-literate Maranaos offered to teach illiterate family and friends. Like Spaeth, Laubach followed the synthetic or alphabetic code method in teaching reading as a second signaling system for listening to speech. In teaching decoding, one of his major innovations for teaching adults was to use picture mnemonics to teach the sight-sound correspondences, such as using a picture of a snake curved to look like an “s” to teach the sound that goes with the graphic letter “s” (Sticht, T. 2005 p 5).

Reflecting on the luminaries of ABE helps one to empathize with the individuals who have always sought better understanding of the things that could improve their lives, just as they do today, whether seeking better employment or wishing to be able to help grandchildren attending public school. We also know times of conflict have elevated our national commitment to ABE because manpower was essential for war.

During World War II, Paul Andrew Witty, (1898-1976) specialized in understanding the process of learning to read and in developing methods for helping students who were having difficulties in learning to read. With this background, he was called upon to serve as an education officer in the War Department. The Army Reader was produced under Witty’s direction. Soldiers in the Army’s Special Training Units for literacy instruction were introduced to Private Pete, a fictional soldier in a Special Training Unit who was also learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. The idea was that soldiers would be able to identify with Private Pete and understand what they were reading about him because they shared common experiences, such as living in the camp, sleeping in the barracks, eating in the mess hall, and so forth. These were all things that Private Pete did in the Army Reader. Witty was apparently the first to use this approach of trying to motivate adults learning to read by providing a fictional counterpart with whom they could identify.

World War II not only served to teach reading to the poorly educated and least literate adults, United States colleges were swamped by Army personnel who were on campus to take courses for hundreds of specialized skills needed to win the war. At Ohio State University, administrators sought methods that would help the military personnel on campus meet the challenges of their accelerated, technical courses (Sticht, T. 2005 p 6-7).

Professor Francis Robinson, (1906 – Unknown) a member of the psychology department was selected to head a new Learning and Study Skills program that would teach military personnel to learn better by reading. Robinson conducted studies of the student’s reading skills and found that they approached their reading using unsystematic, haphazard methods that failed to lead to good comprehension and retention. Robinson came up with a formula for reading and study that has endured for two-thirds of a century; called the SQ3R method of reading and studying. In this method, students are taught to first Survey the text and to raise Questions about the meaning of what they are reading. Next, they Read the text carefully, stopping now and then to construct and Recite to themselves summary statements of what they have just read, and to later Review what they have read (Sticht, T. 2005 p 7).

Septima Poinsette Clark, (1898-1987) the great civil rights teacher from the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, was an innovator in teaching adult reading and writing within the functional context of the civil rights movement to free African-Americans from the oppression of those wanting to deny them full citizenship. She followed the analytic, “meaning-making” method in teaching word recognition and followed functional context education methods in using “real life” materials for teaching adults to read. When the teachers asked the students what they wanted to learn, the answer was that, “First, they wanted to learn how to write their names. That was a matter of pride as well as practical need.” In teaching students to write their names, Clark used what she said was the “kinesthetic” method and used it as part of an anti-illiteracy campaign across South Carolina called the ”Sign-Your-Own-Name” campaign in one county and “I’ll Write My Own Name” campaign elsewhere in the state. The Write-Your-Name Crusade aimed to get adults into literacy programs to learn to sign their names when voting and in other important situations. (Sticht, 2005, p 8)

Modern History of the GED

The GED was established in 1942 to educate young members of the military returning from World War II. It soon spread beyond military members, becoming a pathway for adults who had not finished high school and providing an opportunity to earn a high school-equivalency credential and the opportunity to go to college, trade school, or find a better job.

The Adult Education Act was passed by Congress in November of 1966. This act created the Adult Education and Literacy System (AELS) of the United States. This is a unique education system formed by a local, state, and federal partnership. It has also been expanded to promote employment capabilities.

Today, this education system works under revisions to the Adult Education Act of 1966 as given in the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, Title 2, The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act. As a publicly supported education system, the AELS takes its place alongside the public K-12 school system for children and the public education system for young adults as the third major component of publicly funded education in the United States.

In 2010, over 3,000 organizations operated in all fifty states and the territories of the United States under the rules and regulations of the AEFLA. These thousands of educational institutions make AELS of the United States and they provide learning opportunities for adults throughout their lives.

From 1966 through 2010, the number of adults enrolled in the diverse programs funded wholly or in part through the federal government’s Division of Adult Education and Literacy grew from around 377,000 in 1966 to 2.5 million in 2010. In the first decade of the 21st century, over 25 million adults chose to improve their minds and lives by learning in the AELS. (Sticht, 2007).

(This is part one of a series on Adult Basic Education by Donn Liston)

Donn Liston works for Nine Star Education and Employment Services and has helped hundreds of Alaskans succeed in education. These are the high school dropouts, those who don’t fit in, and those who have life challenges not meant for young adults. Donn is a certificated teacher and has lived in Alaska since 1962.


Raforth, Mary Ann (2004 ) Academic Failure, Prevention of, Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology, Published by the International Association of Applied Psychologists (IAAP) through Elsevier Academic Press, Charles Spielberger, Editor-in-Chief, ISBN-10: 0126574103

Sticht, Thomas G. (2005, updated 2007) Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, “The Rise of the Adult Education and Literacy System in the United States: 1600-2000,” Vol. 3, Chapter 2, National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literature,

Sticht, Thomas G. (2005). Seven Pioneering Adult Literacy Educators in the History of Teaching Reading with Adults in the United States, National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy