Adult Literacy: Literature Review

Adult literacy is a term used to describe the sector of literacy provision designed for adults. It is relative a new field of education; however, it has already caused an intense debate among educators. Concerns over the level of literacy among adults of western nations did not emerge until the 1970s due to the mass-education systems compulsory for education. Castleton (2000) argues that the awareness of, and anxiety about, levels of literacy among adults, and official responses to that concern cannot be directly related to any real changes in the actual situation” (37). It is believed that the level of literacy among adults has declined in recent years. Therefore, adult literacy is increasingly framed as a problem. Reports, studies, researchers on literacy crises have become a regular theme or modern-day mass media. From a theoretical perspective, the literacy crisis should be interpreted within wider societal economic, and political concerns. Long-term consequences of the adult literacy crisis include a change in literacy standards of moral and social vision about what defines the ideal literate student and citizen (Castleton 2000).

All aspects of modern life are marked and changed by the globalized economy and increased international competition. The adult literacy crisis is directly related to the economic challenges for the most developed countries including U.S. and Australia. Castleton (2000) suggests that many countries find it difficult to compete at the international level due to reliance on outdated forms of production and unskilled (uneducated) workforce. According to the survey of the status of literacy among the adult population in Australia, between 10% and 20% of the adult population are not functionally literate (Castleton 2000). Moreover, poor literacy skills are no longer associated with immigrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds. The study highlights that a significant number of native English speakers lack literacy skills.

Literacy Programs and Challenges

Learning Programs

Teaching basic reading skills to adults is a challenge for all educators. Instruction for adults who read below fifth-grade level needs to be specially planed. While a lot of studies and researches were conducted to assess the scope of adult literary dilemmas, little attention has been devoted to effective reading instruction for adults with limited readings kills. Greenberg (2002) suggests that today “a literature review indicates that reading instruction for adults continues to lack a theoretical and developmental research-based approach to reading acquisition” (626). Furthermore, Greenberg (2002) argues that current programs do not apply to adult learners. Unlike children, adults with limited readings skills come to literacy classes with significant experience and they have already adapted their mechanisms to survive in the print-rich world. From a theoretical perspective, adults with limited reading skills need intense instruction to undo their old habits of word guessing.

One of the fundamental reasons why adults are not motivated to learn new reading strategies is the lack of differentiation between programs for adults and children. For example, Greenberg (2002) writes that many adults do not attend specific programs because their classes meet daily. Since meeting daily is not possible for most adult learners, they are not motivated to attend programs in the first place and, more importantly, are not willing to practice newly learned skills at home. In addition, instructors working with adult students should be flexible enough to hear the reactions of adults and make necessary changes in the programs accordingly. The study conducted by Greenberg raises both philosophical and theoretical perspectives.

Guided Reading

Approximately 25 percent of adults in the United States report low literacy. Adult literacy educators strive to meet the needs of a quarter of the adult American population. However, one of the primary challenges is to provide meaningful programs to adults that will enable them to gain literacy skills within a short period. Many methods have been testing to achieve this goal. Massengill (2004) supposes that many of the approaches used with children, with modifications, may be effective when teaching low-literate adults. The research on guided reading is limited; however, the conducted studies reveal that it can be exceptionally effective in promoting adult literacy.

The theory of guided reading was developed by Marie Clay in the 1980s. She noted that reading is a strategic process, and children must be actively engaged in reading text that allows them to solve problems (Clay 1985). The word of Clay has significantly shaped the development of guided reading instructions for adult literacy programs. It appears that guided reading can play an exceptionally important role in improving low-literate adults’ reading proficiency. Moreover, the guided reading methodology is based on principles of literacy research and theory and, therefore, can be implemented in adult literacy programs.

Adult Education Challenges

The primary goal of adult education programs is to help adults increase their reading skills to be able to attain their educational, vocational, and personal goals. Adult illiteracy rates are surprisingly high even in the most developed countries such as the United States and Canada. Bell, Ziegler, and Mccallum (2004) argue that “adult education teachers are challenged with providing effective reading instruction for a diverse group of adults who have widely varying reading goals, skill levels, and learning difficulties. Adult basic education practitioners may have had little direct training in reading instruction and none in how to address the learning needs of adults” (542). Federal legislation prompts interest in providing research-based reading instruction to ensure that the educational needs of adults are met.

The primary idea behind introducing scientifically based research findings into adult education is their potential to contribute to more effective instruction for adults. According to the research conducted by the Reading Research Working Group, there are four areas of interest in reading instruction for adults: the process of using letters to represent spoken words, ability to read with speed and accuracy, understanding the meaning of the words in a language, and constructing meaning from the text. In addition, the Reading Research Working Group concluded that almost no studies have examined the level of knowledge needed by teachers to provide effective reading instruction to adults (Bell, Ziegler & Mccallum 2004). In other words, there is a lack of theoretical and empirical foundation to develop effective adult education programs.

Alisa Belzer (2002) makes an interesting point suggesting that adult literacy practices are constructed within a social context. Literacy acts differ depending on who engages in them and under what conditions. New Literacy Theory separates the school literacy and adult literacy practices. Belzer (2002) argues that at least three kinds of literacies coexist: school literacies, community literacies, and personal literacies” (104). However, only school literacy is valued in school while the cultural, personal, and other factors are not taken into account. In this respect, instructors are in isolation from the social context of their learners. The philosophical implication here is that adult school is destructive to make students as it separates the able from the less able constructions a monolithic definition of the reading. From a psychological perspective, three factors affect the acquisition of reading attitudes in adults: the direct impact of the reading, the expected outcomes of the reading, and the cultural norms concerning reading. Adults attend programs to gain primary literacy skills; however, the schools often fail to establish the link between literacy practices inside and outside the program. Current adult literacy programs are not effective because they are based on the devaluation of learners’ preferences, vulnerabilities, cultural and personal experiences (Belzer 2002).

Effects of Low Literacy

Illiterate Adults and Their Children

Several studies have been devoted to establishing the link between illiterate adults and their children. Smith (2002) argues that “adults who struggle with literacy are likely to have children who will struggle with literacy” (156). Parents are expected to monitor the progress of their children in school and support homework, take their children to libraries and buy books, and encourage reading as a free-time activity. Undoubtedly, parents affect the reading habits of their children and influence their reading achievements. In other words, parents are literary role models to their children. Illiterate parents are not able to fulfill any of these roles. Smith (2002) suggests that young children whose parents read to them tend to do better in school. Adults with poor reading and writing skills are unable to have literacy-related interactions with their children.

Delgado-Gaitan (1990) highlights that parents with low literacy are incapable of helping with their children’s school work and are less likely to communicate with their children’s teachers. From a philosophical perspective, illiterate parents slow down the development of literacy skills in their children. In addition, parents regularly receive “school newsletters, notes from teachers, homework assignment books, parent-teacher organization announcements, school supplies order forms, notices of upcoming events and cancellations, head lice alerts from the school nurse, school policies and student rules of conduct, and–frequently–homework to be completed” (Smith 2002, 158). Parents with low literacy are not able to keep track of the school of their children.

Social Literacy

Kazemek (2004) suggests that there are many types of literacies rather than some universal literacy in which all people engage. Adult literacy in particular is a set of social practices and processes of informal and vernacular use. Adult literacy intersects different aspects of life, personal needs, and interests and is “embedded into complex webs of language use, media, and technology” (Kazemek 2004, 448). From a philosophical perspective, adult literacy is not a commodity isolated from individual factors and the economic and social demands of the contexts. Formal adult literacy education does not attribute sufficient value to these factors though. Kazemek (2004) argues, “We should not ignore teaching decoding skills, “sight words,” comprehension strategies, grammar, spelling, and so forth. If, however, these things do not arise from people’s particular (and often peculiar) journeys and stories, and if they do not become embedded within people as new links in their journeys, new stories, and fresh perspectives, then such knowledge is little more than a commodity, bought and sold at often too high a price” (449-450).

Comings and Soricone (2007) researched adult literacy and concluded that participants in adult literacy programs are given the best possible opportunity to gain skills workers need to become successful in the current labor market as well as in their roles as citizens and parents. While most of the research is focused on assessing higher test scores among adults with low literacy, more attention should be paid to the impact of literacy education on outcomes in other fields. For example, Comings and Soricone (2007) highlight that investment in education has an impact on the economy, health indicators, and even crime rates. In other words, educated adults have better health and are less likely to become criminals. Comings and Soricone (2007) identified several types of hypothesized positive impact of successful participation in adult literacy services, including increased income and labor market participation, improved school performance of participants’ children, and greater civic participation” (7). Moreover, most of the adult literacy programs have focused curriculum aimed at promoting specific adult roles. For example, workplace literacy programs have a direct impact on income and employment while family literacy programs empower parents with low literacy skills to impact the school performance of their children.

Adult Learning Theories

There are several theories of adult learning; however, the vast majority of adult literacy programs are based on the theory of Andragogy developed by Knowles. According to Knowles, there are four assumptions of adult learning: 1) as the person matures, his self-concept revolves to self-direction; 2) adults accumulate experiences that become the resources for learning; 3) desire to learn is oriented to the development of social roles, and 4) adults expect the immediate application of the newly gained skills and enriched knowledge (Beder & Patsy 2001). Adults are psychologically and socially independent and they are exposed to more choices than children for example. In other words, adults may lack the motivation to attend literacy programs. The theory of Knowles is based on the idea that a wealth of life experiences should be the foundation of adult literacy instruction. Learning should not be theoretical or hypothetical but rather be oriented towards solving the specific role-related problems of a parent or a worker.

Adult educators usually refer to themselves as “facilitators and view themselves as resources for learning, rather than as didactic instructors who have all of the answers” (Beder & Patsy 2001, 23). Special attention should be paid to the implication of Knowles’ theory in a classroom setting: educators participate in a dialogue with adult learners who expect to be viewed as their equals. In other words, adult educators lack decision-making power. The major focus of the theory in adult literacy education is whether teaching adults differs from teaching children. The literature on this distinction is contradictory and inconclusive. While no specific conclusion can be reached, adults possess specific attributes such as the ability to use diverse techniques, create a comfortable learning atmosphere, and adapt to meet diverse needs. These differences should not be neglected by adult literacy educators.

Literacy Programs Positive Outcomes

Report “U.S. Adult Literacy Programs: Making a Difference” (2004) outlines several positive outcomes of literacy programs on employment and earnings. The authors argue that there are very few employment options available for those with poor reading and writing skills. In simple words, low literacy skills lead to unemployment or low-paid jobs. Adults with low literacy skills qualify for no more than 10 percent of all new jobs. In addition, lack of fundamental literacy skills often means poor earning prospects. Usually, adults with low literacy skills are the ones who do not have a high school diploma. According to statistics, high school graduates on average earn 40 percent more than those who do not have high school education (U.S. Adult Literacy Programs: Making a Difference 2004).

Undoubtedly, all employers are looking for an experienced, educated, and high-performing workforce. Therefore, adults with low literacy skills are less likely to find well-paid employment. While many of the large companies offer basic skills training to their employees, smaller business units cannot afford to spend funds on training. Limited literacy skills are directly projected on profits and productivity. Interestingly, almost half of manufacturers report that they cannot implement new productivity improvements due to workers’ insufficient reading, writing, and communication skills (U.S. Adult Literacy Programs: Making a Difference 2004).

In summary, adult literacy programs help people with poor literacy skills to 1) obtain a better job, 2) be more productive, 3) adapt to changes in the workplace; 4) achieve financial independence; 5) lead healthier lives; 6) succeed in society without getting involved into criminal activity; 7) help children with homework; 8) engage in responsible family planning; 9) develop a positive self-image, and 10) become valuable members of society. As this list of benefits suggest, literacy skills programs are essential components of all aspects of society. Poor literacy skills make people vulnerable to economic and social challenges of the present time. Thus, participation in adult literacy programs improves adult’s literacy skills and ability to be more effective community members, family members, and workers.

Future Research Recommendations

According to the article titled “Adult and Family Literacy: Current and Future Research Directions – A Workshop Summary” (2004), most of the research studies on adult literacy are deficient in methodological issues. They lack a clear description of the study samples (gender, family structure, race, learning disability, linguistic characteristics, etc.). These descriptions may provide valuable insight into the essence of adult literacy, motivations, and achieved results. In addition, insufficient attention is paid to the research design. In particular, studies on adult literacy should provide empirical findings rather than general conclusions based on assumptions. Finally, as the workshop summary highlights, current studies did not establish a link between an intervention (specific adult literacy programs) and outcome (improved literacy skills).

As the reviewed studies suggest, research should demonstrate how adult literacy programs work as well as why they work and for whom. Target populations are not clearly defined; there are not reliable theories to examine how adults learn to read and educators cannot reach a consensus on whether adult literacy programs should be based on research conducted for children. These deficiencies undermine the value of current adult literacy initiatives. “The field of adult literacy would benefit from investigation of the factors that affect how adults learn to read – including learning characteristics of adults who are learning to read for the first time”, “learning characteristics of adults learning to read in English as a second language”, and “development of instructional strategies and methods that will best accommodate those learning characteristics” (Adult and Family Literacy: Current and Future Research Directions – A Workshop Summary 2004).

Finally, future research should determine the most effective method to provide adult literacy instruction. For example, more attention should be drawn to workplace education programs and family literacy learning. It is recognized that the benefits of adult literacy programs go beyond the instructional setting. However, the available literature is not sufficient to assess the effectiveness of the existing theories, methods, and teaching tools. While the problem is widely recognized on national and international levels, there is a gap in research on adult literacy. Almost a quarter of the American population needs literacy improvement; however, they are not able to get real help due to the lack of research in the field of adult literacy.

Concluding Notes

Adult literacy educators strive to build their profession through experience, respect, and intuitive insight about effective programs. Lack of scientific studies of adult literacy instruction, generalized theories, and insufficient understanding of the successful practices undermine all efforts to help adults with poor literacy skills. While there is no need to stress the illiteracy rates in poor countries, it is important to mention that the number of adults with poor literacy skills is steadily increasing in the developed countries such as the United States of America, Australia, and Canada. The research does not provide specific answers to questions about how adults learn literacy skills and which programs are truly effective.

Literature review suggests that adult literacy educators recognize the importance of teaching fundamental reading and writing skills to adults. Nevertheless, adult literacy educators are not able to develop, test, and implement effective and working programs due to a lack of scientific studies. As a result, the vast majority of modern programs are based on theories covering literacy skills development in children. However, the literature review proves that studies analysis literacy programs for children are not applicable for adults due to a wide range of factors including social, economic, and political.


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  10. Kazemek, F. (2004). Living a Literate Life. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47 (6), 448+
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  12. Smith, S. (2003). Primary-Grade Educators and Adult Literacy: Some Strategies for Assisting Low-Literate Parents Primary Teachers Can Play Several Important Roles in Adult Literacy. Here Are Some Helpful Suggestions to Guide Them. The Reading Teacher, 56 (2), 156+
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