[AAACE-NLA] Fluid and Crystallized Literacy
tsticht at znet.com
tsticht at znet.com
Wed Mar 14 11:58:37 EDT 2007
March 13, 2007
Fluid and Crystallized Literacy: Implications for Adult Literacy Assessment
International Consultant in Adult Education
Psychometric research on intelligence over the last half century has
resulted in a trend to draw a distinction between the knowledge aspect and
the processing skills aspects of intelligence. Beginning in the 1940s and
continuing up to the 1990s, the British psychologist, Raymond B. Cattell
and various collaborators, and later many independent investigators, made
the distinction between "fluid intelligence" and "crystallized
intelligence." Cattell (1983) states, "Fluid intelligence is involved in
tests that have very little cultural content, whereas crystallized
intelligence loads abilities that have obviously been acquired, such as
verbal and numerical ability, mechanical aptitude, social skills, and so
on. The age curve of these two abilities is quite different. They both
increase up to the age of about 15 or 16, and slightly thereafter, to the
early 20s perhaps. But thereafter fluid intelligence steadily declines
whereas crystallized intelligence stays high" (p. 23).
Cognitive psychologists have re-framed the "fluid" and "crystallized"
aspects of cognition into a model of a human cognitive system made-up of a
long term memory which constitutes a knowledge base ("crystallized
intelligence") for the person, a working memory which engages various
processes ("fluid intelligence") that are going on at a given time using
information picked-up from both the long term memory's knowledge base and a
sensory system that picks-up information from the external world that the
person is in. Today, over thirty years of research has validated the
usefulness of this simple three-part model (long term memory, working
memory, sensory system) as a heuristic tool for thinking about human
cognition (Healy & McNamara, 1996).
The model is important because it helps to develop a theory of literacy as
information processing skills (reading as decoding printed to spoken
language) and comprehension (using the knowledge base to create meaning)
that can inform the development of new knowledge-based assessment tools
and new approaches to adult education.
The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), the new Adult Literacy and
Lifeskills (ALL) survey, the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) of 1993
and the new 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) all used "real
world" tasks to assess literacy ability cross the life span from 16 to 65
and beyond. Such test items are complex information processing tasks that
engage unknown mixtures of knowledge and processes. For this reason it is
not clear what they assess or what their instructional implications are
(Venezky, 1992, p.4).
Sticht, Hofstetter, & Hofstetter (1996) used the simple model of the human
cognitive system given above to analyze performance on the NALS. It was
concluded that the NALS places large demands on working memory processes
("fluid intelligence"). The decline in fluid intelligence is what may
account for some of the large declines in performance by older adults on
the NALS and similar tests. To test this hypothesis, an assessment of
knowledge ("crystallized intelligence") was developed and used to assess
adult's cultural knowledge of vocabulary, authors, magazines and famous
people. The knowledge test was administered by telephone and each item was
separate and required only a "yes" or "no" answer, keeping the load on
working memory ("fluid intelligence") very low.
Both the telephone-based knowledge test scores and NALS door-to-door survey
test scores were transformed to standard scores with a mean of 100 and a
standard deviation of 15. The results showed clearly that younger adults
did better on the NALS with its heavy emphasis on working memory processes
("fluid literacy") and older adults did better than younger adults on the
knowledge base ("crystallized literacy") assessment that was given by
Consistent with the foregoing theorizing and empirical demonstration,
Tamassia, Lennon, Yamamoto, & Kirsch (2007) report data from a survey of
the literacy skills of adults in the Adult Education and Literacy System
(AELS) of the United States. Once again they found that performance on the
literacy tasks declined with increased age, that is, the higher the age of
the adults, the lower their test scores became. They state that, "
negative relationship between age and performance is consistent with
findings from previous studies of adults (i.e., IALS, ALL, and NAAL; NCES
2005; OECD and Statistics Canada 2000, 2005)." They go on to say,
"Explanations of these previous findings have included (a) the effects of
aging on the cognitive performance of older adults, (b) younger adults
having received more recent and extended schooling, and (c) the finding
that fluid intelligence may decrease with age causing older adults to have
more difficulties in dealing with complex tasks (Douchemane and Fontaine
2003; OECD and Statistics Canada 2000, 2005)"(p. 107).
Strucker, Yamamoto, & Kirsch (2005) assessed short term, working memory for
a sample of adults who also completed Prose and Document literacy tasks
from the IALS. They found a positive relationship between performance on
the working memory task and the literacy tasks, showing that adults with
better short term memories performed better on the IALS. Again, this is
consistent with the idea that the literacy tasks involve a complex set of
skills and knowledge, including the capacity to manage information well in
working memory or "fluid literacy."
Given the differences between younger and older adults on "fluid literacy"
and "crystallized literacy" there is reason to question the validity of
using "real world" tasks like those on the Prose, Document and
Quantitative scales of the IALS, ALL, NALS, and NAAL to represent the
literacy abilities of adults across the life span. In general, when
assessing the literacy of adults, it seems wise to keep in mind the
differences between short term, working memory or "fluid" aspects of
literacy, such as fluency in reading with its emphasis upon efficiency of
processing, and the "crystallized" or long term memory, knowledge aspects
It is also important to keep in mind these differences between fluid and
crystallized literacy in teaching and learning. While it is possible to
teach knowledge, such as vocabulary, facts, principles, concepts, and
rules (e.g., Marzano, 2004), it is not possible to directly teach fluid
processing. Fluidity of information processing, such as fluency in reading,
cannot be directly taught. Rather, it must be developed through extensive,
guided, practice. Though I know of no research on this theoretical
framework regarding the differences between fluid and crystallized
literacy and instructional practices in adult literacy programs, it can be
hypothesized that all learners are likely to make much faster improvements
in crystallized literacy than in fluid literacy, and this should be
especially true for older learners, say those over 45 to 50 years of age.
Cattell, R. (1983) Intelligence and National Achievement. Washington, DC:
The Cliveden Press.
Healy, A. & McNamara, D. (1996) Verbal Learning and Memory: Does the Modal
Model Still Work? In J. Spence, J. Darley, & D. Foss (Eds.), Annual Review
of Psychology, 47,143-172.
Marzano, R. J. (2004, August). Building Background Knowledge For Academic
Achievement: Research On What Works In Schools. Washington, DC: Assn. For
Supervision & Curriculum.
Sticht, T., Hofstetter, & Hofstetter (1996) Assessing Adult Literacy By
Telephone. Journal of Literacy Research, 28, 525-559
Strucker, J., Yamamoto, K. & Kirsch, I. (2005, May). The Relationship of the
Component Skills of Reading to Performance on the International Adult
Literacy Survey (IALS). Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of
Adult Learning and Literacy.
Tamassia, C., Lennon, M., Yamamoto, K. & Kirsch, I. (2007). Adult Education
in America: A First Look at Results From the Adult Education Program and
Learner Surveys. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.
Venezky, R. (1992, May) Matching Literacy Testing with Social Policy: What
Are the Alternatives? Philadelphia, PA: National Center on Adult Literacy.
Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
2062 Valley View Blvd.
El Cajon, CA 92019-2059
Tel/fax: 96190 444-9133
Email: tsticht at aznet.net
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