Teaching adults to read

Teaching adults to read
Read and Spell Blog
Teaching adults to read

In 1999 The UK government published “A Fresh Start” a report of the working group chaired by Sir Claus Moser which took a hard look at literacy and numeracy in the UK. The report acknowledged that approximately seven million adults – which works out to about one in five - were not reading at a level which could be expected of an eleven-year-old child.

The report also included a target: that by 2010 this statistic should be reduced by half, lifting approximately 3.5 million adults out of functional illiteracy.

It was recommended that as a longer-term strategy, the elimination of functional illiteracy and innumeracy should be made a government commitment. Sadly, it's now twenty years later, and the literacy target has not yet been met.

The National Literacy Trust provides this statistic for the end of 2015: 5.2 million adults still struggle with reading and are functionally illiterate.

What does it mean for adults to be “functionally illiterate”?

Well, it means that although short uncomplicated writing on familiar topics can be understood at a very basic level, reading new sources or new topics are likely to cause difficulties. Some everyday tasks could very well prove problematic.

The level of literacy competence is often not good enough to be able to attend a College of Further Education to take one of the many focused courses available. In addition, many areas of employment, even if they are based on manual skills rather than literacy, are not achievable.

A person who is functionally illiterate might struggle reading the instructions on a household cleaning product, the words on a bus timetable, a form, or even helping their own children with elementary level homework, not to mention reading them a bedtime story.

Struggles with literacy not only impact on the UK economy, but at a personal level affect the quality of life of a significant number of people. A disproportionate number of adults who cannot read are unemployed; a disproportionate number of adults who cannot read live in poverty; a disproportionate number of adults who cannot read end up in prison.

The statistic also includes the significant number of adults who struggle because they speak English as an additional language - and different ethnic communities show differing levels of mastery of reading and writing in English.

Self-esteem and confidence for adult students who struggle with literacy

Self-esteem and confidence for students who struggle with literacy

Self-esteem and confidence are common issues for many adults who experience struggles with literacy. These adults come from a range of different previous learning experiences which might include having missed some of the basic building blocks of literacy because of an interrupted educational history – such as truancy or exclusion, for example – or being on the receiving end of bad teaching.

It also might be that a learning difficulty, including a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia, is involved. Learn more about the signs of adult dyslexia.

Many adult learners with unrecognised specific learning difficulties have had a difficult time in the classroom. Far too many were labelled thick or stupid as young students, when in fact they were not. In an article that appeared in The Lasallian Magazine, Brother Matthew Sasse describes his experience as a teacher of adult learners.

He cites an example of a mature woman attending one of his classes for adults who had literacy difficulties. She was holding down five jobs as a carer, an office cleaner, etc. all while parenting a grandchild.

At the end of one of her lessons, she scored 100% on a module of the Touch-type Read and Spell typing and literacy course, stood up and shouted “I’ve got 100%. I’m somebody!” Here is an example of a woman with tremendous coping skills whose feelings of self-worth were very much influenced by her literacy difficulties.

As a dyslexic himself, Brother Matthew knows how it feels to fail to grasp what others seem to grasp so easily when it comes to reading, writing, and spelling – and the awful, gut heavy feeling that comes with failure.

It’s important to recognise that literacy tutors have a hard task taking on such a complex problem, where a range of different teaching strategies will be appropriate to teach students reading. It’s most likely that many struggling students will have mastered a number of sight words like “and, the, but, from” and only about one percent will be unable to read at all or be unable to name the letters of the alphabet.

Resources to help adult students develop basic literacy skills

Strategies and resources for teaching the adult student

Adult students who find the courage to try to improve their literacy skills will have a range of motivations, and tapping into these may well be the key to success if a teacher can recognise and respond to them in designing an appropriate learning program.

For example, while children’s storybooks might be at an appropriate reading and spelling level for adult students, it can, of course, be humiliating for adults to be presented with children’s books as learning materials. On the other hand, if someone presents as wanting to help his or her child read, or wants to read them a bedtime story, then the books the child loves may be the ideal resource.

An overall effective strategy which applies to all teaching is to “tell ‘em what you are going to tell ‘em, then tell ‘em, and follow this up by telling ‘em what you told ‘em.”  It makes expectations clear and reinforces learning. There’s an elegant clarity to this approach of goal setting, information giving, and confirmation, which is comforting. If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?

Learn more about spelling strategies for adults.

Learning tools

Computer assisted learning can be especially helpful when it comes to providing the repetition needed for literacy skills development. Computers never get bored repeating the same information over and over, and can allow the learner to work entirely at his or her own pace. They can supplement your teaching and offer an adult student the practice he or she needs with reading and spelling words.

Using a computer course can help adults with reading and spelling

Touch-type Read and Spell

Touch-type Read and Spell develops and improves reading, writing, spelling and computer skills by teaching touch-typing in a unique, “dyslexia friendly” way. The first module of the course names and covers the finger positions of the vowels and from then on the course takes a whole word approach, including punctuated sentences. It can improve an adult learner's confidence as it offers an opportunity to build literacy without the embarrassment of an overtly phonics-based method.

Learn more

Learning the skill of touch-typing can also open up new career opportunities for adults as it helps with basic computing skills -- and it doesn’t have to take that long

Do you have any tips or strategies to share on helping adults develop basic literacy skills? Leave us a comment and join the discussion!


Improving Literacy and Numeracy: A Fresh Start. The report of the working group chaired by Sir Claus Moser, 1999.

Martin, Adult learner with severe dyslexia

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For adult learners

TTRS is a program designed to get adults with learning difficulties touch-typing, with additional support for reading and spelling.

About the Author 

Chris Freeman

Chris Freeman has a BA cum laude in Sociology, and has undertaken post grad work in education and educational technology. She spent 20+ years working in public health and in the charity sector.
Reviewed by 

Meredith Cicerchia

Meredith Cicerchia is a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from speech and language difficulties and specific learning differences, to strategies for teaching English as a second and additional language. She is also an education consultant, an applied linguistics researcher and a former teaching affiliate at the University of Nottingham.

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