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Lifelong learning for
a fairer Australia

Lifelong learning for
a fairer Australia

Practice engagement makes perfect

Dr Stephen Reder – Professor Emeritus of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University

Practice engagement theory (PET) holds that adult literacy and numeracy proficiency develops as a result of engaging in everyday reading, writing and maths practices. Reciprocally, an adult’s proficiency affects their engagement in everyday literacy and numeracy practices.

PET, along with a growing body of longitudinal research, confirms that literacy and numeracy interventions that increase engagement in meaningful everyday practices builds proficiency over time.

Most research on adult literacy and numeracy development looks at short-term changes within a single context — the adult education classroom. These studies typically look at changes in proficiency over the relatively short periods of time in which they participate in adult education classes. Most studies use short follow-ups of program participants, making it difficult to see patterns of program participation or to assess the long-term impact.

Research that examines adult literacy and numeracy development taking place across multiple contexts both in and outside a classroom and over significant periods of time provides a life-wide and lifelong perspective.

Rather than continuing with a “parking lot” conception of adult education where what matters is how long students are retained (“parked”) in the program — we need a “busy intersection” model where what counts is not how long students spend in the intersection but the direction they take and how far they go after they leave. Students come to the program or intersection from different directions and depart toward different destinations. The program helps them choose the best path beyond the classroom and provides resources and supports for them to persist as lifelong learners and reach their destinations.

Participating in everyday reading, writing and maths improves social and economic wellbeing but we need research to better understand this. Using nationally representative survey data from Australia, we can examine the effects of engaging in everyday reading, writing and maths practices on earnings, health, social trust, political efficacy and civic participation. Practice engagement has statistically significant and substantial positive effects on each of these outcomes, and therefore important implications for policy and practice in adult education and future research on its role in overall wellbeing.

These findings have important implications for adult education policy and programs in Australia. The goals and designs of adult literacy interventions should be formulated in terms of increasing both proficiency in the classroom and practical engagement beyond it.

Research supporting PET suggests that program evaluations should measure shorter-term impacts on practice engagement and longer-term impacts on literacy and numeracy proficiency. This framework may help policymakers recognise the complex nature of skill development in formulating their policy and funding priorities. With growing evidence of practice engagement’s broad impact on social and economic outcomes, interventions that foster increased engagement in everyday literacy and numeracy practices should be at the center of collective impact approaches to wellbeing.

This would position adult education as a key source of lifelong and life-wide learning.



Dr. Stephen Reder is Professor Emeritus of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University. He has an A.B. from Stanford University and a Ph.D. from the Rockefeller University in New York City. His career has involved research, teaching and service activities in education, workplace and community settings. Dr. Reder’s research focuses on adults’ literacy, numeracy, digital literacy and second language development.  He has developed Practice Engagement Theory that helps us understand how adults’ use of skills in everyday life affects their lifelong and life-wide learning, their social and economic outcomes, and their overall wellbeing. He serves on the advisory boards of numerous organizations and journals and works with adult education researchers, practitioners and policymakers at the local, state, national and international levels.

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Adult Learning Australia

Adult Learning Australia