Swords and Pens

What the Military Can Show Us about Teaching Basic Skills to Young Adults

By Thomas G. Sticht

When we think about military might, we usually summon up images of the technologies of war—tanks, ships, airplanes, guns, and bombs—and the men who employ them. We see soldiers crawling on their bellies, dodging bombs and bullets, to cross battlefields. We see battleships and aircraft carriers, fighter planes, and bombers. We see the heroes of these wars—the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, the stark, long darkness of the wall that makes up the Viet­nam Memorial—and we remember the tens of millions of veterans who fought and the hundreds of thousands who died to protect our nation's heritage and future.

But we should also appreciate that military leaders have long understood that freedom and democracy are not guarded by armaments alone. When General George Washington ordered chaplains at Valley Forge to teach reading, writing, and computing to soldiers, he initiated a practice that our military services have continued to this day. Over the years, they have armed hundreds of thousands of men and women not just with guns and bullets but also with another and more powerful technology for preserving democracy and liberty—literacy. And this is not only an American idea, as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) makes clear in its recognition of "...the increasing number of nations making available their armed services for the promo­tion of literacy."

The Battle Against Illiteracy

Today, the lessons of the military's fight against illiter­acy need to be brought to bear on an internal threat to our nation's security. Recent surveys of adult literacy indicate that as many as one in five, some 40 million American adults, possess literacy skills that are so low they could not qualify for military service. According to economists Richard Murnane of Harvard and Frank Levy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, workers need ninth-grade reading and mathematics skills in order to get and hold jobs in business and industry. Murnane and Levy also estimate that as many as half of recent high school seniors have not attained these basic skills. Although many people are aware of this problem, resources and programs to help semi-lit­erate adults or students who reach high school without high-school level skills have been scarce.

Fortunately, the military's methods for fighting illit­eracy have been adapted for civilian use. Called Func­tional Context Education (FCE), these methods have been tried and proven successful over the last decade by adult educators throughout the United States and in Great Britain, Canada, and Australia. As a result, Func­tional Context Education has been recommended as a strategy for teaching literacy skills to youth and adults by organizations including the American Society for Training and Development; the National Workplace Lit­eracy Program of the U. S. Department of Education; the Work in America Institute; Wider Opportunities for Women of Washington, D.C.; and the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS).

Origins of Functional Context Education

In his history of the training of illiterates in World War II, Samuel Goldberg describes how the military services conducted extensive programs aimed at providing recruits with the reading skills they needed to do their jobs. Because time was very lim­ited—usually less than three months for a new soldier—the instructional materials were pitched at the level children typically reached by the end of fourth grade. However, the materials did not have the breadth of content that a fourth-grader would encounter. Literacy programs taught reading by emphasizing a relatively narrow body of knowledge about the military, and they used reading books designed to build on a new re­cruit's prior experiences. For instance, the Private Pete se­ries starts with Pete at home on the farm. Then Pete goes to a recruiter and signs up to join the Army. Then he rides a train to camp and is assigned to a barracks, etc. Because the vast majority of new recruits went through these steps when they joined the Army in the 1940s, this was content (prior knowledge) that the sol­diers who were not readers could comprehend and talk about, even if they could not yet recognize words like "farm," "recruiter," "train," and "barracks" in the written Ianguage. Thus, getting them to recognize the familiar terms as words on a page was a relatively easy step.

Because of the severe time constraints, the programs were designed so the recruits would only have to learn what they did not know. For soldiers who already had some basic decoding skills and could recog­nize some words in print, study materials emphasized reading in order to give them practice in word recog­nition and help them develop the new vocabulary needed for military life. Soldiers who required more training in word recognition learned techniques for sounding-out and recognizing words in the written lan­guage, using vocabulary that was already familiar to them in the spoken language. These soldiers did not have to learn decoding skills and a new vocabulary at the same time. They practiced word recognition dur­ing reading instruction using familiar vocabulary, and they learned new vocabulary and concepts through discussions and "hands-on" training.

The Vietnam War Era

During the war in Southeast Asia, the U. S. Army re­cruited more highly literate personnel than it had in World War II, but the new soldiers also needed higher levels of literacy because of the increased technologi­cal complexity of warfare. To help recruits whose literacy fell below the required level, Army literacy special­ists developed programs that continued the practice of focusing on a narrow body of functional content. However, the new programs used materials about spe­cific jobs rather than general military life. For example, recruits about to become cooks learned word recogni­tion and comprehension skills by reading from cooks' materials that included recipes; illustrations of equip­ment such as large, automatic dishwashing machines; and instructions for setting up a field kitchen as well as rules and regulations for establishing, operating, and maintaining a cafeteria-type food (mess) hall. Soldiers who were going to be automobile mechanics read me­chanics' materials; and those becoming medics read medics' materials.

Because most of the new recruits in the military's lit­eracy programs of the late 1960s and 1970s were not beginning readers—generally their skills were at the fourth- to sixth-grade level—emphasis was on reading for comprehension and thinking. For instance, soldiers read passages about first-aid procedures and were taught to draw pictures about what they read. Because drawing is a way of representing information that peo­ple acquire before they learn to write, drawing pic­tures allowed semi-literate students to express the ex-tent of their comprehension of what they read better than writing. Students also learned to make flow charts of the first-aid procedures, and they made classification tables using information culled from passages of connected prose in order to compare and contrast various types of materials, equipment, or methods. For example, if they were reading about various communication techniques, making classification tables might help them think more clearly about the differences between hand and arm signals, messengers, telephones, and radios. Transforming information from text into a picture, a flow chart, or a table encouraged students to think about what they read and fix it more firmly in their minds than would have been possible had they simply read the material; the technique thus improved long-term recall.

When researchers compared the new, job-related, functional literacy programs of the Vietnam era to gen­eral literacy programs the Army already had in place, they found the job-related programs to be much more effective. General literacy programs, which allowed six weeks of full-time study, made only small improve­ments in soldiers' ability to read and comprehend their job-related materials. On the other hand, the job-re­lated literacy programs made four to five times as much improvement in job-related reading as the gen­eral literacy programs and as much or more improve­ment in overall reading skills. In addition, the troops in the job-related programs felt they were getting job training, not "remedial" training, with all the stigma at­tached to that concept.

Applications to Teaching and Learning for Civilians

The military work has applications to teaching and learning in adult literacy education as well as for youth in the K-12 school system. Most adults do not want to attend literacy programs labeled as "remedial" any more than military personnel wanted to. Adults gener­ally want to learn to read better in order to pursue some goal, such as getting a job or getting into a job training program. Certainly, this is true for the millions of adults who wish to get off welfare and find a good, well-paying job.

The military research and experience indicate that reading can be taught in the context of job training—as well as other contexts such as parenting or religious study—right from the beginning. Adults who want job training to qualify for a better job and who are beginning readers can learn and practice decoding skills during part of the study period. During the rest of the period, they can learn job-vocabulary and concepts through audiotapes, working with job tools, demonstrations, conversations, illustrated books, and so forth. Adults who have difficulty using phonics in decoding may need training in phonemic awareness, so they can hear the different sounds in the oral language, before they proceed with using phonics. Those who have fair decoding skills can develop their word recognition and comprehension skills by reading job‑related materials. They can improve their analytical thinking skills by working with graphics tech­nologies such as lists, matrices, flow charts, and illustrations, which are widely found in textbooks and workplace materials.

It is still true that becoming highly and broadly literate when one starts from a low baseline of both knowledge (vocabulary, con­cepts) and word recognition takes a long time. However, the functional content ap­proach is a speedy and effective way to get adults from basic literacy to the point where they can get better jobs or achieve other goals like more-informed parenting. Then, if they care to, they can embark on a program of life-long learning, including continuous, well-rounded reading, that will make them literate enough to qualify for higher education or ad­vanced job training or simply to enjoy the many personal, social, and cultural benefits that require a high level of literacy.

The K-12 Education System

Within the public schools, the military re-search supports the use of "contextualized" teaching and learning that was recom­mended by the Secretary of Labor's Commis­sion on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS). Unlike small children—who tend to do things to please their parents or teachers—teenagers usually want to understand why they should invest time and mental energy in learning something. In this respect they are like adults. Functional Context Education can adapt the same principles first used to teach young military recruits to teach today's high school students who are in danger of being left behind be-cause they have inadequate reading or math skills.

Much work in this area remains to be done. However, Dale Parnell, former head of the American Asso­ciation of Community and Junior Colleges, has already shown how Functional Context Education prin­ciples can be successfully applied to secondary school and community college education. His colleagues at the Center for Occupational Research and Development, Inc., have developed "contextualized" curricula for teaching mathematics and science, and they have worked with other groups to develop sec­ondary and college level courses of study based on FCE principles. For instance, a visit to the Internet site at www.cord.org provides access to summaries of work with the Appalachian Contextual Teaching and Learning Network, funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission. This work shows how teach­ers can use multimedia technology to teach the more abstract, academic content of mathematics and sci­ence in the functional contexts of familiar commu­nity and workplace settings. So students both know the reason for learning the material in question and are able to use their prior knowledge of familiar contexts to relate to the more abstract content of mathematics and science.

It's clear that Functional Context Education can help meet our nation's needs for more effective youth and adult education. We already have extensive experi­ence using its principles to help semi-literate adults, and it should also be possible to develop new applica­tions designed specifically to raise the skill levels of high school students who are struggling to meet new and higher standards. As we embark on this mission, it is satisfying to remember that we are continuing a tra­dition established by General George Washington and drawing on more than 200 years of the military's suc­cess in using pens, as well as swords, to preserve our nation's freedom.

Thomas G. Sticht directed the R & D team that devel­oped the military's functional literacy programs dur­ing the latter part of the Vietnam War and the begin­ning of the All Volunteer Force. He served as associ­ate director of the National Institute of Education in the U S. Department of Education and as a member of the National Commission on Working Women and the Secretary of Labor's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills; and he has written and consulted widely on youth and adult literacy education. This article is an adaptation of one that appeared in The CORPS Report, a journal of the Youth Policy Institute, in 1997.


Goldberg, Samuel. Army Training of Illiterates in World War II (New York: Teachers College Press, 1951).

Murnane, Richard J. and Frank Levy. Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children To Thrive in a Changing Economy (New York: The Free Press, 1996).

Parnell, Dale. Why Do I Have To Learn This? Teaching the Way People Learn Best (Waco, Texas: Cord Communications, 1995).

Sticht, Thomas G., William B. Armstrong, Daniel T. Hickey, and John S. Caylor. Cast-off Youth: Policy and Training Methods from the Military Experience (New York: Praeger, 1987).

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