The research team tracked 2,000 students on courses at level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) and below to investigate whether literacy and numeracy improved more quickly if they were taught in a more co-ordinated way alongside vocational subjects.
This involved encouraging key skills lecturers to look at the jobs in which their students' literacy and numeracy skills will be used.
The results were "startling", according to the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy. Helen Casey, director of the NRDC project, said: "Our study shows that, if the vocational relevance of literacy and numeracy is made clear to learners, their attitudes can be transformed."
At Wirral Metropolitan college, information about individual students and courses is shared by vocational trainers and key skills tutors on a computer system.
This way, both gain a better insight into their students' needs. They also learn about each other's teaching disciplines.
The research found that 93 per cent of literacy students gained key skills qualifications on such so-called "embedded" courses, compared with just 50 per cent elsewhere. In numeracy, the percentage gaining a qualification went up from 69 to 93.
The survey found a joined-up approach between two sets of tutors is more effective than expecting individual lecturers to provide both key skills and vocational training. Ms Casey said: "It's asking too much. Vocational teachers prefer, understandably, to teach in their areas of expertise.
"Literacy and numeracy teachers would be equally out of their depth if they were to try to teach an unfamiliar vocational skill."