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Dispositional coping styles and adult literacy : exploring stress and coping in adult vocational training environments : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology at Massey University, New Zealand
Since the publication of the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) findings in 1996,
governments internationally have been cognisant of the need for functional literacy skill training
for large segments of the New Zealand working-age population (Culligan1, Arnold, Noble, &
Sligo, 2004; Ministry of Education, 2001; OECD, 2000). Individuals with low literacy levels
generally report negative prior experiences of formal learning environments that are due to and
have contributed to their current functional literacy capability (for example, see Neubauer &
Dusewicz, 1988; Ross, 1987, 1988; Tilley et al., 2006).
The present study aimed to systematically investigate and measure the dispositional coping
styles and strategies associated with differing prose literacy capabilities. The purpose of this
project was to provide an understanding of the coping-literacy relationship as a first step toward
the development of coping strategy training interventions specifically targeted at improving the
educational experience (current and future) of low literacy individuals. Secondary aims of the
current study included exploring the relationship between persistence and coping style,
adaptability, and prose literacy; determining whether and how coping styles, adaptability, and
prose literacy changed over time; and, assessing the relationship between prose literacy, coping
style, adaptability, and post-course goal achievement.
Fifty-six students in adult vocational programmes were interviewed pre- and post-course. At
each time point assessments of dispositional coping style and strategies via use of the COPE
tool (Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989) were gathered, as were measures of emotional
intelligence (including adaptability), and prose literacy score. Participants also took part in a
semi-structured qualitative interview which gathered information on their educational and
employment history, and goals post-course. Situational assessments of coping behaviours
outside of the course were also gathered as part of a larger study for future analysis purposes
and are outside the scope of this thesis. Respondents were also interviewed at three and six
months post-course to determine achievement or non-achievement of post-course goals.
Low prose literacy scores were significantly associated with more frequent use of emotionfocused
coping strategies (particularly avoidance). Higher prose literacy scores were
significantly associated with more frequent use of problem-focused coping strategies. Indicative
data showed that non-persisting participants showed higher emotion-focused coping strategy use
than their persisting counterparts alongside lower prose literacy scores. Further, emotionfocused
coping, adaptability, and prose literacy score were found to change significantly over
time. However, post-course goal achievement was not significantly associated with any of the
variables of interest except bivariately with prose literacy.
The model of transactional stress and coping (Lazarus, 1966; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984)
and the control theory of self-regulation (Carver & Scheier, 1981, 2000) provided a framework
for the discussion of the dispositional coping styles and strategies used by individuals of
differing prose literacy ability. It was argued that a negative self-schema of the individual as a
learner is developed through prior negative experiences of formal education. It was
hypothesised that this negative self-schema, built from a low self-confidence and fear of
educational failure and rejection, predisposed the individual to a heightened negative self-focus.
This in turn was proposed to direct attention to the self and the associated emotional aspects of a
response to a stressor, leading to a bias towards habitual coping strategies of avoidance and less
frequent use of problem-focused strategies by this group.
These findings and the associated interpretations have implications for the future
development of coping strategy training interventions for individuals with low functional
literacy competencies who wish to re-engage with formal education.