Practice makes perfect: Practice engagement theory and the development of adult literacy proficiency

International Literacy Day is celebrated annually worldwide on September 8th. The day was initiated in 1966 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to highlight the importance of literacy for individuals, communities, and societies. In a world in which people increasingly communicate via voice messages on their smartphones, in which devices can be controlled by voice assistants and in which podcasts seem to replace printed newspapers, one might question whether reading and writing skills are still as important as they were a generation ago.

Der Internationale Tag der Alphabetisierung wird jährlich weltweit am 8. September begangen. Der Tag wurde 1966 von der UNESCO ins Leben gerufen, um die Bedeutung der Alphabetisierung für Einzelpersonen, Gemeinschaften und Gesellschaften hervorzuheben. In einer Welt, in der die Menschen zunehmend über Sprachnachrichten auf ihren Smartphones kommunizieren, in der Geräte durch Sprachassistenten gesteuert werden können und in der Podcasts gedruckte Zeitungen zu ersetzen scheinen, darf man sich durchaus fragen, ob Lese- und Schreibfähigkeiten immer noch so wichtig sind wie vor einer Generation.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2020.18

The importance of literacy skills for individuals and the society

A large body of scientific studies have dealt with the importance of literacy proficiency for a broad range of economic and social outcomes (Dinis da Costa et al. 2014; Hanushek et al. 2015; Hanushek and Woessman 2017; OECD 2013). These studies are consistent in their conclusion that literacy is an important prerequisite for successful participation in adult life: Literacy has been linked to employment, earnings, health status, social trust, political efficacy, and civic engagement. At the same time, there are numerous studies showing that literacy tends to decline with age. Moreover, some adults – especially those who received no or only little formal education (e.g., highschool dropouts) – often do not reach adequate levels of literacy to begin with, putting them at a disadvantage in multiple life domains. These findings raise the question of which factors can contribute to maintaining or even increasing literacy proficiency during adulthood.

Our theoretical framework in the present study is Practice Engagement Theory (PET; Reder 1994; Sheehan-Holt and Smith 2000). PET specifies how engagement in reading and writing activities in everyday life affects literacy proficiency development over time. It posits that individuals’ literacy proficiencies develop as a by-product of their engagement in everyday reading and writing practices and, reciprocally, that literacy proficiencies affect levels of engagement in reading and writing practices (Reder 1994).

Following these theoretical considerations, our study provides answers to the following research questions:

  1. Is adults’ engagement with reading practices associated with the development of their literacy proficiency over time?
  2. Can engagement in one proficiency domain influence the proficiency in another domain? Or to be more explicit: Are writing engagement and numeracy engagement associated with changes in literacy proficiency over time?

What is considered as literacy “proficiency” and “practices”?

To address our research questions, we use data from the German sample of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which is often called the “PISA study for adults” (OECD 2013).Among others, the data include information on literacy proficiency for adults between 16 and 65 years, and on reading, writing, and maths-related activities adults engage in at work and in their everyday lives:

To measure literacy, individuals work on various tasks and their results are reported on a single literacy scale ranging from 0 – 500 points.

As we are interested in how engagement is associated with a change in literacy proficiencies, we need to use data on literacy proficiencies for at least two points in time. In Germany, data are available for 2012 and 2015, thus we measure a change over three years. (for more information on the PIAAC(-Longitudinal) data in Germany), see, Rammstedt et al. 2017).

Figure 1: Relationship between engagement in literacy and proficiency in literacy.

How is engagement in literacy to proficiency in literacy?

Practice engagement measures are related to differences in literacy proficiency between 2012 and 2015 by using a regression analysis. This allows to estimate the relationship between the two variables, while controlling for other individual characteristics, in our case: literacy in 2012, gender, age, employment status, education, and educational gain (= the difference in education between 2012 and 2015).

Figure 2 shows the results of four different models: Model 1 relates the difference in literacy between 2012 and 2015 to engagement in reading. We find that frequently engaging in reading activities predicts gains over time in literacy, even when other individual characteristics are controlled for. The average addition of reading engagement to literacy proficiency in 2015 is about five literacy scale points per standard deviation of engagement. Model 2 and 3 relate literacy gains between 2012 and 2015 to engagement in writing and maths activities. The results show that both are positively associated with literacy gains, but not as strongly as reading engagement is. In Model 4, we include all three measures of engagement and find that reading engagement is the only (statistically) significant predictor of literacy gains. These findings are consistent with the idea that the more similar the practices are to the cognitive proficiencies being assessed, the stronger the effect that its practice engagement measure will have on the growth of that proficiency.

Figure 2: Literacy proficiency gain, 2012–2015, regressed on literacy proficiency in 2012, and practice engagement measures. The figure shows the regression coefficients of the engagement measures and the 95% confidence intervals. All models additionally control for literacy in 2012, gender, age, employment, education, and educational gain.

What can we learn from our study?

Our findings provide evidence that engagement in reading practices is associated with individuals’ literacy proficiency over time. Comparisons of different measures of practice engagement indicate that the closer the practices are to the proficiency assessed, the more impact their engagement has on proficiency growth.

The magnitude of the practice engagement effect seems to be relatively small – about five proficiency scale points over a three-year period per standard deviation of practice engagement. However, previous longitudinal research suggests that these practice-based proficiency gains will continue to grow as practice engagement and associated proficiency development continue over longer time intervals (Reder 2009b). One should also bear in that we are looking at changes across a relatively short time span of three years, and that literacy skills are highly stable in adulthood.

Our findings have important implications for programme design in adult education and lifelong learning: they suggest that practice-centred non-formal instructional programmes may point in a promising direction for innovation in adult education and lifelong learning (Reder 2009a, Sheehan-Holt and Smith 2000). Our study also suggests that policies that foster increased adult engagement in everyday reading, writing and numeracy practices will support lifelong learning and proficiency growth and should broaden access to continuing education and vocational training. These outcomes are central to the fourth United Nations Sustainable Development Goal, which focuses on education.

These findings can also help us understand how changing communication patterns accompanying increased use of social media will affect literacy proficiency over time: the closer the social media practices are to the literacy proficiencies being measured, the more those proficiencies will continue growing in response to the social media use; conversely, the further the social media practices are from the literacy proficiencies being measured, the less impact they will have on growth of the proficiencies.

That being sad, by reading this blog article, you have already done something to maintain your reading skills.

Original paper:

Reder, S., Gauly, B. & Lechner, C. Practice makes perfect: Practice engagement theory and the development of adult literacy and numeracy proficiency. Int Rev Educ 66, 267–288 (2020).


Dinis da Costa, P., Rodrigues, M., Vera-Toscano, E., & Weber, A. (2014). Education, adult skills and social outcomes: Empirical evidence from the Survey on Adult Skills (PIAAC 2013). Report EUR 26626 EN. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Hanushek, E., & Woessman, L. (2015). Universal basic skills: What countries stand to gain. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Hanushek, E. A., Schwerdt, G., Wiederhold, S., & Woessmann, L. (2015). Returns to skills around the world: Evidence from PIAAC. European Economic Review, 73(C), 103–130.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) (2013). OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First results from the Survey of Adult Skills. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Rammstedt, B., Martin, S., Zabal, A., Carstensen, C., & Schupp, J. (2017). The PIAAC Longitudinal Study in Germany – Rationale and Design. Large-scale Assessments in Education, 5(4).

Reder, S. (1994). Practice engagement theory: A sociocultural approach to literacy across languages and cultures. In B. Ferdman, R.-M. Weber, & A. Ramirez (Eds.), literacy across languages and cultures (pp. 33–74). Albany, NY: SUNY Albany Press.

Reder, S. (2009a). Scaling up and moving in: Connecting social practices views to policies and programs in adult education. Literacy and Numeracy Studies, 16(2), 35–50.

Reder, S. (2009b). The development of literacy and numeracy in adult life. In S. Reder & J. Bynner (Eds.), Tracking adult literacy and numeracy skills: Findings from longitudinal research (pp. 59–84). New York/London: Routledge.

Sheehan-Holt, J., & Smith, M. C. (2000). Does basic skills education affect adults’ literacy proficiencies and reading practices? Reading Research Quarterly, 35(2), 226–243.

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