Functional Context (T. Sticht)


The functional context approach to learning stresses the importance of making learning relevant to the experience of learners and their work context. The learning of new information is facilitated by making it possible for the learner to relate it to know ledge already possessed and transform old knowledge into new knowledge. By using materials that the learner will use after training, transfer of learning from the classroom to the "real world" will be enhanced.

The model of the cognitive system underlying this approach emphasizes the interaction of three components: (1) a knowledge base (i.e., long term memory) of what the individual knows, (2) processing skills including language, problem-solving, and learning strategies, and (3) information displays that present information. The performance of a task requires knowledge about what one is reading or writing, processing skills for comphrehension and communication, and displays of information to be processed.

The functional context approach also proposes new assessment methods. Instead of using grade level scores, tests should measure content knowledge gained and distinquish between functional learning and academic learning. For example, an assessment of readi ng should measure both reading-to-do (e.g., looking up information in a manual) and reading-to-learn (e.g., information needed for future decisions).

Functional context theory shares a similar emphasis with Situated Learning theory which also stresses the importance of context during learning.


The functional context approach was developed specifically for adult technical and literacy training (reading/writing/mathematics) in military programs, but it has implications for learning of basic skills in general (e.g., Sticht, 1976) and reading in pa rticular (Sticht, 1975). Sticht's functional context framework has been the basis for major workplace training and literacy programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Education.


The Experimental Functional Skills Program in Reading (XFSP/Read) was developed by Sticht and colleagues for the Navy. The purpose of the program was to improve the reading and mathematics skills of enlisted personnel using the functional context approach . A job/task analysis was performed to identify the reading-to-do and reading-to-learn skills needed in Navy jobs. On the basis of this analysis, print and computer-based instructional materials were developed for the program that involved Navy content (s uch as technical manuals). In addition, a Navy-related reading test was created in order to measure achievement in the program.


1. Instruction should be made as meaningful as possible to the learner in terms of the learner's prior knowledge.

2. Use material and equipment that the learner will actually use after training

3. Literacy can be improved by: improving content knowledge, information processing skills, or the design of the learning materials.

4. Valid assessment of learning requires context/content specific measurement.


Carnevale, A., Gainer, L. & Meltzer, A. (1990). Workplace Basics: The Essential Skills Employers Want. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sticht, T.G. (1975). Applications of the audread model to reading evaluation and instruction. In L. Resnick & P. Weaver (Eds.), Theory and Practice of Early Reading, Volume 1. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sticht, T.G. (1976). Comprehending reading at work. In M. Just & P. Carpenter (eds.), Cognitive Processes in Comprehension. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sticht, T. (1988). Adult literacy education. Review of Research in Education, Volume 15. Washington, DC: American Education Research Association.

Sticht, T., et al. (1987). Cast-off Youth: Policy and Training Methods from the Military Experience. New York: Praeger.