Adult Foundational Education

Adult Foundational Education

The Evolution of a New Name for Our Field

David J. Rosen, Steering Committee Member, Open Door Collective  
Deborah Kennedy, Executive Director, National Coalition for Literacy

Our field has a variety of names. Some are confusing to those who work in the field, and several are especially puzzling to those outside it, including stakeholders, policymakers, well-wishers, and the general public. These names include, among others, Adult Education, Adult Literacy, Adult Education and Literacy, and Adult Basic Education (ABE).

  • Adult Education, the broadest of these, may be clear to those in our field but frequently confuses those outside it. They may assume it means Higher Education or Continuing Education in higher education that is not offered for credit (also sometimes known as Developmental or Remedial Education), or the non-credit courses offered by local community education centers and other entities that are designed for personal development and sometimes labeled as Lifelong Learning.
  • The term Adult Literacy is ambiguous within our field because it is sometimes used to describe adults learning to read, or read and write, and sometimes used to describe the whole field, from adult beginning literacy and English language learning for immigrants to preparation for post-secondary education.
  • Adult Education and Family Literacy, the name currently used in Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), is not always recognized by those within and outside our field as including the full range of services the field offers, especially to immigrants, refugees, and others who may need education services at beginning levels.
  • Adult Basic Education is especially confusing because it has two different meanings that are not always clear from context. One refers to learning levels ranging from beginning reading and writing up to adult secondary education (ASE); the other refers to the entire range of levels and kinds of education services our field provides.

Why does this matter? It matters because, without a name that is understood clearly and consistently by those inside and outside the field, our ability to advocate successfully for our work and those we serve is severely limited.

To address this problem, members of the Open Door Collective (ODC), a national program of Literacy Minnesota, set out in 2021 to find a new name and definition for our field that could do several things.

First, the name should distinguish our field clearly from the better-known fields of PreK-12 education, credit-bearing higher education, and postsecondary developmental education. It might also distinguish our field from occupational education, although definition boundaries here may be somewhat unclear because of the emergence of Integrated Education and Training (IET), pre-apprenticeships, and other approaches to offering job and career training in conjunction with adult education services.

Second, the definition of the name should:

  • Make clear the breadth and boundaries of the field’s education services for adults
  • Describe the field in a way that is worthy of serious and sustained public investment and research
  • Be short enough to include in a footnote
  • Be written in plain language that most people can understand, avoiding jargon and spelling out acronyms
  • Allow the inclusion of emerging or newly-recognized areas and services, such as digital literacy skills, integrated education and training (IET), and digital navigation services
  • Avoid excluding types of providers of those services
  • Avoid descriptions of the differing approaches used in the field, the different kinds of supportive services needed, the field’s history and needs, major contributing organizations, and other aspects that, while interesting and important, would make the definition long or complicated.

Initially the ODC Steering Committee chose the name Adult Foundational Skills because it distinguishes our field from credit-bearing higher education and PreK-12 education; it suggests a range of learning that might, once acquired, be built upon for postsecondary education and training; and it is respectful to adult learners, some of whom have said that Adult Basic Skills or Adult Basic Education are demeaning terms if “basic” is interpreted to mean the lowest tier, not “top of the line” service.

Responses to the name Adult Foundational Skills were then requested from members of the LINCS Community’s Teaching and Learning Group and the AAACE-NLA Google group. These discussions and further conversations with members of the field led to the name Adult Foundational Education (AFE) and to the definition below.

The change to Adult Foundational Education from Adult Foundational Skills was suggested in the LINCS discussion by Duren Thompson, who wrote, “I feel that Adult Foundational Education… avoids many of the issues of each of the more common names you listed… and yet serves as a flexible ‘umbrella term’ for current and future change and growth in the field.”  She added, “I think including ‘skills’ in the name for what we do… sends the wrong message to learners, employers, and the public at large. Every AFE professional developer I know recognizes that a focus on only out-of-context ‘skills’-based learning is a disservice to our adult learners. While a skills-based focus can create easily measurable gains, a more problem-solving or project-based (or even entrepreneurial) approach provides a more holistic and long-lasting educational foundation for the adults we serve.”

ODC Steering Committee members also weighed in positively on the change from “skills” to “education.” One commented that “foundational skills” has been in wide use for some time in various research, policy, and program arenas in the United States and around the world, so using that term might elicit the same problem of varying meanings that ”basic skills” has run into. Another commented that Adult Foundational Skills represents what adults can do with what they have learned, while Adult Foundational Education represents the field of education that helps adults attain those skills.

The ODC Steering Committee therefore has adopted the name Adult Foundational Education. Here is its current definition:

Adult Foundational Education refers to the core skills and knowledge that adults need for work, further education, supporting their families, and participating effectively in their communities and as citizens in a representative democracy. It includes:

  • English language skills for immigrants and refugees (ESL/ESOL)
  • Beginning literacy for adults who cannot read and write well, or at all
  • Numeracy
  • Adult basic education
  • Adult secondary education leading to an adult high school diploma or high school equivalency certificate
  • U.S. citizenship preparation
  • Preparation for postsecondary education and occupational training or apprenticeships
  • Employability skills
  • Family/intergenerational literacy
  • Integrated Education and Training (IET)
  • Other foundational education and skills that are needed throughout the adult life span but are not necessarily related to work or career, such as digital literacy, financial literacy, health literacy, native language literacy, and literacy for self-advocacy, civic engagement, and social justice.

Adult Foundational Education may be offered by community-based programs, public schools, community colleges, volunteer tutoring programs, public libraries, corrections institutions, adult public charter schools, employers, labor unions, faith-based organizations and other kinds of organizations and institutions.

Recently, some members of our field, recognizing that Adult Foundational Education is clearer than the current names for the field, have begun to use it in their presentations and writings. The ODC Steering Committee urges them to also include the definition, possibly as a footnote, when they use the term in writing. It may also be that awareness of the need for a new name and definition, and a preference for the words “foundational” and “education,” are emerging in other places; that, as one ODC colleague put it, Adult Foundational Education is “in the water now.” We hope so.

The definition of Adult Foundational Education continues to evolve with input from ODC members. To stay up to date on its status, visit

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