Adult Illiteracy (Distance Learning)


The issue of illiteracy is a serious one, especially for adults. Worldwide, 880 million adults have been labeled as illiterate, and in the United States it is estimated that almost 90 million adults are functionally illiterate—that is to say that they do not have the minimal skills needed to function in society. Children of school age have ready access to programs and remediation to help them acquire literacy skills, and with the advent of federal policies such as No Child Left Behind, more students are being caught before they fall through the cracks and become illiterate for life. Adults, however, do not have this type of access to remediation programs meant to target illiteracy, and in most countries (especially underdeveloped countries), there are no such programs even in the planning stages. These illiterate adults are often forced to hide their inabilities and are cheated out of better jobs, proper health care and benefits, and helping their own children with schooling. Because of these issues and the stigma that illiteracy carries, most adults do not ever admit that they have poor to nonexistent literacy skills. This stigma forms a cycle of poor literacy skills, which becomes hard if not impossible to break. Only through effective literacy programs, which use strategies that work for adult learners, can this problem be solved.


Providing a definition of adult illiteracy is difficult. There are many definitions that are suitable, but for the purposes of this paper we will use the definition provided in 2002 by the National Center for Education Statistics as to what literacy is. It states that literacy is, “Using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” So, it goes to reason that illiteracy would be an inability to use “printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” This definition was chosen as a focus due to the fact that it goes beyond the skills of literacy including comprehending and decoding. It also includes the wide range of information-processing skills that adults use daily whether in work, school, community, or personal lives (Burggraf, 2002). It is inclusive in all areas in regard to daily life and the skills needed to function in society. Literacy cannot only be thought of as an ability to read and write. It must be viewed, especially in relation to adults, as an ability to read print, write print, and use what is read or written to function as a contributing member of society. Without this, an adult is viewed as an illiterate person. The issue of illiteracy must also be viewed separately from the issue of alliteracy. Alliteracy is when a person is perfectly capable of reading but chooses not to. He or she will only read when necessary or when it is required for work or a needed activity. Alliterates have become more pervasive in society and are often thought of when discussing illiteracy. However, alliterates have a major advantage: They can read and write, and use the information gleaned to apply to society and their personal lives. Illiteracy is the inability to use the literacy skills necessary to function.


In a study commissioned by Congress in 2002, the National Center for Educational Statistics found that approximately 40 million functionally illiterate adults cannot perform the reading and writing tasks required to function in society or in their jobs. Another 50 million adults have only marginal literacy skills. Functionally illiterate adults refers to the category of adults who might have some literacy skills, but seemingly cannot read or write. A functional illiterate can read such things as menus or environmental print (signs, wrappers of food, labels, etc.) but cannot read a sentence or make meaning out of text. Again, these types of illiteracy cause problems in both society and in the work environment. As the number of illiterate adults continues to grow, technological and scientific advances make the availability of jobs for people with low reading and writing skills less and less. There are no longer jobs available that do not require some form of literacy skills. This need for jobs which are not available can hurt the United States’ economy, its workforce, and its standard of living. As more and more jobs require a high level of literacy, even to receive supplies and such, more people are unable to function in the job market. With today’s economy causing so many layoffs, this could cause the cycle of poverty to continue or to start in many families. Gaining literacy skills in and of itself does not guarantee a better way of life or higher standard of living. It means, rather, that there is the possibility of gaining a better and higher paying job.

Illiteracy can also cause a lack of competition in the workplace, leaving many service industry jobs unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants. This is harmful to society as a whole as many jobs are necessary for society to function. When they are unfilled, it causes gaps in services provided and in community relations. Certain services are taken for granted until they are not there. Jobs that are commonly viewed as service jobs such as repairmen, garbage collectors, construction workers, and maintenance jobs now require a high level of literacy skills to function. There are stricter guidelines that must be followed and certifications that must be received. It is no longer good enough that someone can work with his or her hands, or is good with people. Literacy surrounds us on a daily basis and is pervasive in our way of life. Those who are illiterate are faced with daily obstacles to providing support for themselves and their families.

Worldwide, the problem of adult illiteracy is larger. As stated before, 880 million adults have been labeled illiterate. It could be assumed that most of these illiterate adults live in underdeveloped nations, but that assumption would be wrong. Many countries such as Brazil, France, Germany, and Australia are tackling illiteracy among adults in an attempt to help eradicate the problem.


The focus on adult illiteracy has only recently come to the focus of the media and the public. Although the definition and statistics are current, adult illiteracy is not a new problem. In 1990 the National Governors’

Association identified adult illiteracy as one of the six key areas for improvement over the decade. This was to be one of the areas that the nation needed improving on with the goal that each state could focus on this issue to help alleviate its problems. This identification was followed in 1991 by the passage ofthe National Literacy Act by Congress. The goal of the National Literacy Act was to enhance the skills of adults and to ensure that all adults in the United States acquire the basic skills that they must have to effectively do a job. Working from the definition of illiteracy, the goal of the act was to ensure that all adults could be literate. Another goal of the Literacy Act was to strengthen adult literacy programs provided to these illiterate adults (Bowen, 1998/1999). These programs were ones that received federal and state funds and were aimed at specifically increasing illiterate adults’ ability to read, write, and function in the workplace.

This act was followed in 1996 by President Clinton’s launch of the America Reads Challenge. The purpose of the America Reads Challenge was to improve the reading abilities of children, however one of the goals of the challenge was to support and increase literacy throughout the family (Bowen, 1998/1999). It has been found that those who grow up in an illiterate family often remain illiterate themselves. This is the cycle of illiteracy. Even if adults in a family value literacy, it becomes cyclical due to the fact that illiterate adults cannot help their children, nor do they set a reading example for their child. Therefore, by strengthening the literacy of an entire family, it not only strengthens adult literacy, but a child’s or children’s literacy as well.

Despite these wide-sweeping governmental policies, there has been little to no gain in the area of helping to end adult illiteracy. This lack of progress can be attributed to many reasons. One of these is that there is no standard method or program used to address the issue of illiteracy among adults. There are a group of different methods and objectives depending upon the funding, the objective, the program, or the adults themselves. Another is that most programs focusing on adult illiteracy believe that adults need to gain literacy skills for the sole purpose of economic gain. This narrow focus sends the message to adults that there is no reason to become literate other than to make more money or to have a higher standard of living. This is not worth the effort to some adults, especially those who have had negative experiences with literacy in the past, or those who feel that their standard of living is high enough. If the adult has a job, then he or she feels confident that no further skills are necessary to survive.

Other countries are following the United States’ lead in passing legislation to address this wide-sweeping issue. According to a former minister of education, Brazil has had adult literacy programs in place for over 100 years and Brazilians view the issue as one of patriotism rather than of pragmatism. But it is only in recent years that countries around the world have attempted to address the issue on a widespread level.


So what causes adult illiteracy? There is no one definitive answer. Gallego and Hollingsworth (2000) suggest that there are at least three types of literacy which coexist in society: school literacy, community literacy, and personal literacy. They point out that it is only school literacy that is valued in school, leaving many adults (after schooling) to believe that literacy and the acts of reading and writing are only things to be done in a school building for a grade. It is often this idea of literacy that causes an adult to be unwilling or unable to see past the negative images in his or her mind in order to become more literate. Another reason for adult illiteracy, according to Nespor (1991), is an overuse of labels and groups. He argues that these practices can cause an adult to view himself or herself as a weak or nonreader even after leaving school. These types of labels can cause low self-esteem or low self-confidence, which often means that the adult will not seek out literacy help. McKenna (2001) states that particular reading attitudes are precursors to literacy behaviors. He identifies these reading attitudes as follow.

• direct impact of reading

• beliefs about the outcomes of reading

• beliefs about cultural norms concerning reading

• learner’s cultural experiences with reading

• learner’s personal experience with reading

• learner’s preferences about reading

• learner’s beliefs about the importance of reading

McKenna goes on further to link these attitudes with the inability to read. He argues that every experience that a child has in school affects him or her either positively or negatively. Those who have negative experiences come to view school and learning as a bad experience and not one which they wish to participate in. Schools who only promote school literacy and who do not value the attitudes and perceptions of students risk disengaging students for life. This disengagement rolls over into adult illiteracy. A disengaged learner quickly gives up on school and views it as a place that is not for him or her. This type of learner never invests into the educational process and often does not view it as valuable. He or she may stick it out to earn a diploma, but still graduate with minimal skills and are functionally illiterate.

Another cause of adult illiteracy can be family background. Illiteracy seems to work in a cycle just as poverty does. When a child is raised in a household where literacy is either not valued, not visible, or where parents are unable to read, the child begins to think that literacy activities are unimportant. As literacy activities begin to get harder as the student progresses through school, the parents are often unable to help the student. This cycle continues: The child becomes an adult with poor skills and then raises a new child to do the same. Over and over it repeats. Most parents who are illiterate have the desire to help their child; it is only their skills that make them unable to. This lack of skills can transfer into a conveyance that school and literacy are not important, and this lack of skills often makes teachers believe that the parent wants to be un-involved or does not care about the child’s education. Usually, nothing is farther from the truth. Only through breaking the cycle can the area of adult illiteracy begin to be addressed. But often times the cycle is unable to be broken due to shame, indifference, or programs that do not suit the needs of adult learners.


Adults who cannot read or who read on a very low level often begin classes with a negative attitude. This is due in part to their past experiences with schooling and especially their past literacy experiences. There are a variety of programs and methods that have been implemented with adults, yet there is very little research on effective reading instruction for adults with poor literacy skills. There are huge amounts of research on how to teach reading effectively to children, yet there is little to none about how to effectively teach reading to adults. However, there is some new knowledge about the fact that some basic reading-skill deficiencies mirror each other regardless of age. This same research, conducted by Morais, Bertelson, Cary, and Kolinsky (1988), showed that deficits in the area of phonics with adult learners can be successfully remediated with practice. Their findings also showed that there was no critical period for learning to analyze sounds. This is a beneficial finding for adult learners. First of all, phonics, one of the main components of reading, has no critical period. This means that a learner, whether at age two or age 82, has the same chance to learn the sound-letter relationship easily. This can be a stumbling block for adult learners as not all schools taught phonics. However, this phonics instruction can quickly help the adult learner taste success and begin to see how letters make sounds, sounds make words, and words make sentences. This understanding is crucial before the bridge of comprehension can be crossed. Also, since the skills of an adult nonreader mirror that of a child, there can be successful instruction in the area of phonics by utilizing methods used with children. The difference that would need to be made would be to make sure that the phonics is taught in an age-appropriate manner.

Gottesman, Bennet, Nathan, and Kelly (1996) point out that teaching basic reading skills to adults who have poor to nonexistent skills is a huge challenge and one that calls for specially planned instruction. This is for many reasons. First, adults need age-appropriate activities and texts. It is not acceptable to use the same materials and methods used with children. However, finding these methods and materials is often daunting. While there is a wealth of easily decodable text for children, it is almost impossible to find these materials for adults. But, if the materials are not found, the adults often cannot learn. Second, every adult learner is different and needs different instructional methods for success to be reached. Literacy instruction cannot be a cookie-cutter approach nor should it be. It has to be specially planned for each individual student with his or her specific needs kept clearly in mind.

Adult learners also need to view their past experiences with an honest depiction. Many educational theorists argue that adult learners bring more experiences to the table that can be used as instructional tools. Not only have adults had more experiences than children, they have internalized these experiences. Merriam and Carffarella (1999, p. 272) call these experiences a “rich resource for learning.” However, these experiences can also prove a deep drain for learning. Lytle (1991, p. 122) points out that “adult learners bring with them to [adult literacy programs] powerful images of schooling from the common culture; often these appear to function as scripts or plans.” These scripts or plans can get in the way of adults being able to learn and become effective readers. While many adults hold beliefs dominated by school-like literacy practices (focusing on only school literacy), they do show their beliefs in practice. Instructors working with adults can become frustrated as the adults’ experiences do not transfer into practice.

Another need for instruction is to help the adults learn that they need help. In the study done by the National Center for Educational Statistics (2002) that was discussed earlier in this paper, it was shocking to find that those with the most limited literacy skills still reported that they read and write well. If a person sees himself or herself as a strong reader (regardless of what the actual skills are), then no amount of pushing or prodding will get him or her into a program for adult illiteracy unless mandated by job or personal needs.

Adult learners, especially in the area of literacy, need to be engaged in learning and need to feel enthusiasm about the task of reading. Without this, adults will not choose to read and may not learn to. Proficiency can only be gained when a learner is engaged and excited about the task at hand (Verhoeven & Snow, 2001). Without this engagement, educational programs are letting adult learners down just as their previous schooling did. Engagement comes from the use of real-world materials and strategies that can be applied on the job, and an understanding of how this learning will be helpful to the learner.

As the issue of adult illiteracy comes more and more to the attention of the public, there are more programs meant to educate both the adults and the public about the need. However, the fact that more people are aware of the problem is simply not enough. Literacy efforts operate under a seemingly “quick fix” ideal meant to fix the problem with minimum time and effort. This ideal actually hampers the efforts of adult learners. To operate effective adult education programs, it requires carefully put-together materials, outstanding instructors, and sufficient time for the learners to improve their skills and internalize the processes of reading and writing. There is no way to fix any type of educational problem quickly, but in regards to literacy, it is not only difficult, it is impossible. Adult learners in the area of literacy must not only learn new skills but also change their point of view about the purpose of literacy and why they need it.

The stigma of illiteracy also must be broken. Adults who are functioning at minimal skill levels are often held back both in their job and in their lives. A simple trip to the grocery store can become a nightmare experience to someone who cannot read. Most adults hide behind excuses such as, “I lost my glasses,” or, “My head hurts.” Or they simply refuse to participate in tasks that require literacy skills, even when those tasks deal directly with their health or the health and education of their children. These excuses or refusals are often a simple cover-up of the embarrassment and shame that the adult feels. Imagine how hard it would be to admit to your child that you cannot read. It would be immensely difficult, not to mention self-deprecating. Effective programs must seek to end the shame and self-doubt that illiterate adults hold. If the stigma can be broken, adults might be encouraged to admit their poor skills and receive help that is desperately needed.

Most programs and agencies that serve to educate adults in the area of literacy do not have a way to diagnose or assess learning disabilities (Demetrion, 2001). This ability can be invaluable to any program or organization. If an adult learner has some type of undiagnosed disability, it often does not matter what program or instructional method is used. It is only when the disability surfaces that a true plan can be made for learning for the adult. If a disability is undiagnosed, the adult remains floundering and can add yet another disappointing and painful educational experience to an already full repertoire. Having someone to diagnose or assess learning problems could be an invaluable tool for effective literacy programs, as a true diagnosis of a disability could cause even better instruction to be formulated and implemented.


There is not one true list of goals for adult students. This is one reason why instruction in the area of literacy is so difficult. Each learner has different goals and different reasons for holding them. Some of these goals include the following:

• to get a job

• to advance further in a job

• to take on greater responsibilities in a church or organization

• to take on more community responsibilities

• to access higher education

• to read for pleasure

• to write for pleasure

• to obtain a GED (General Education Development) certificate

• to remain safe on the job

• to be able to learn more

These goals serve as a guide for adult learners while serving as a frustration for teachers. No one adult learner has the same goal for achieving literacy, so no one program or method can serve an entire population of learners.


There are many strategies that would be beneficial for illiterate adults. First, adult educators need to encourage adult learners to separate the experiences with literacy that occurred inside school and outside school while growing up. These experiences need to be explored and discussed with the adult learner to come to a realization of how the experiences helped form him or her both as a person and as a reader. These experiences can then become the key to learning as they unlock some deep-held beliefs and convictions about literacy (Belzer, 2002). This exploration into experiences can not only help adult learners see why they have difficulties, it can also help adult educators see how to best help the learner. One way to do this is to develop a literacy autobiography in which the learner shares literacy experiences throughout his or her lifetime. This autobiography allows reflection on the part of the learner while allowing the educator valuable insights into the learner’s background.

Another effective strategy is to utilize high-interest, engaging, practical, informative, and self-chosen texts in various forms. High-interest texts will hook the learner into wanting to read them. Engagement with the text is crucial in building a solid foundation. Practical texts will help the learner see how literacy can help him or her function better in both a job and in society. Informative texts provide the learner with more information about a topic of interest. Self-chosen texts allow the learner to guide his or her own learning. All of these texts work together to provide a print-rich environment and an environment in which the learner can see the varied uses of literacy. As the learner moves toward self-selection of text, he or she is gaining confidence and skills necessary to overcome illiteracy.

Another strategy for instruction is to avoid educational techniques such as ability grouping. This grouping technique can be traced back to leaving a bad taste in many adult learners’ mouths. They were traditionally placed in the lowest group and whether or not the teacher called it a low group, they knew they were the lowest. This placement often caused a negative self-image and a lack of self-confidence in regard to literacy, which then carried over into adulthood. By refusing ability groups, adult learners gain confidence, work with their peers, and gain needed skills. One wonderful grouping strategy that can be done without any ability grouping is that of a literature circle. This inviting group allows adult learners to discuss their efforts, the text that they are reading, and to participate in an open dialogue about text and literacy in general. This type of collaboration among adult learners helps all to make meaning out of text (McKenna, 2001).

According to Earl (1997), incentives can also play a major role in adult learning in regard to literacy. The use of rewards can increase motivation to read, which is crucial in learning. Motivation is the one best factor in learning to read and write. This motivation can increase engagement, which then increases the potential to increase skills and make reading possible.

Encouraging adults with poor literacy skills to work with their children is another valuable strategy to utilize in educational programs. In this type of strategy, parents and children are colearners. The adult learns something and then teaches the child. In this manner not only does the adult gain confidence, the child sees literacy as important. This strategy helps to break the cycle of illiteracy and build success for both learners. And, as the adults build stronger reading and writing skills that can equal better job performance, so do their children and families (Richards, 1998).

Using a constructivist methodology in teaching literacy skills is often beneficial to adult learners. The constructivist approach allows adult learners to construct their own meanings and to control his or her own learning. This type of approach allows the adult learner to feel more in control, which is often a barrier to adult learning. An adult is used to being in control of his or her own life; when going into classes where he or she has little to no control, there is often negativity or hostility that can develop. Using a constructivist approach allows an educator to overcome this attitude.

Within this approach, adults can readily benefit from the use of the Internet or distance-learning-based programs (Krishana, 2000). The Internet is written on an intermediate level of reading, meaning that the average fifth to sixth grader can read it. This will allow adult students to access topics of interest while not overwhelming them with a high reading level or talking down to them with an extremely low reading level. Distance learning programs are also a way to hook reluctant learners into reading. Because of the technology component, adults (just like children) are more willing to try and learn. Online programs are much more confidential than other on-ground programs, which helps eliminate some of the stigma of illiteracy. If shame is one of the reasons an adult is not learning, then online instruction can remove that issue.

Literacy instruction for adults needs to be active. Learners must be engaged and actively involved. This means that each learner needs to have hands-on experience in a meaningful and relevant way with literacy. Otherwise, learning mirrors the negative experience of schooling. Activities that are relevant, meaningful, and active promote lifelong learning and continued growth in the realm of literacy.

When the human resources department of a company gets involved in adult learning, there are often positive results. As companies realize that their employees have issues with literacy, they can address the need in house. Although there has been success in this realm by developing special programs to address the needs of adult learners in particular companies, it is still important to remember that literacy for the purpose of working is only one part of the goal. Literacy for literacy’s sake is the ultimate goal, and companies worldwide need to hold this as the ultimate goal.


As this problem continues to be brought into the collective consciousness of the world, it warrants further research and study. First, there is a need to find which programs work with all students, and if there are specific strategies and programs that work better with different cultures. Second, there is a need to study the effectiveness of specific technological programs for use with illiterate adults. There are many voice-activated programs and programs that read text aloud, but there have not been studies to show effectiveness in helping an adult learn to read. This could have critical ramifications because these programs could prove to be cost effective and easily widespread.


Illiteracy in adults can no longer be pushed under the carpet, nor can it be thought of as a problem of only the underprivileged. There is a true need for effective adult education programs in this realm around the world. Through a variety of strategies and methods, adults can overcome their barriers to literacy and become truly literate people. It takes meeting unique instructional needs and using current constructivist methods to reach success.


Ability Grouping: The practice of forming learning groups of students of similar abilities, for example, putting students who read on a third-grade level with other students who read on a third-grade level.

Alliterate: A person who has the ability to read, yet chooses not to use it.

Constructivist Methodology: A teaching method based on the works of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky by which the instructor helps the student construct meaning rather than simply lecturing. This method is learner centered and learner driven.

Functional Illiteracy: A person can read such things as menus or environmental print (signs, wrappers of food, labels, etc.) but cannot read a sentence or make meaning out of text.

High-Interest Texts: Those types of text that easily hold interest for the reader.

Illiteracy: The inability to read any text such as signs, books, or magazines.

Literacy: “Using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002).

Literacy Skills: Those skills needed to read, write, and make sense of text in various forms.

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