About Adult Learners

Some Adult Literacy terminology

Adult literacy programs often call the adults they help Adult Learners. Within adult literacy there are two main groups these programs typically serve:

Basic Literacy (BL) - this term encompasses native or fluent English speakers who are not able to read at a level that they find sufficient to live their lives

English as a Second Language (ESL) - refers to learners who are learning English but may already be able to read in their native languages

Some programs just serve one of these populations and many serve both. My personal experience is mostly with BL, so that is the focus of this website. However much of the information in the Program Toolkit portion of this site is very translatable to serving ESL populations as well.

Characteristics of Basic Literacy Learners

BL learners come from a wide variety of backgrounds and the reasons they did not learn to read can be just as varied. For some of them it was a matter of not getting the individualized attention they needed in their first years in school. The class may have moved just a little too fast for them, which after enough time left them very far behind. Unfortunately the main building blocks of reading are really only taught in the first few grades. After that the focus shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. At that point a child who is behind in reading is not going to be able to catch up unless there is some type of additional help available outside of the regular classroom. As they keep being moved along through the higher grades, the gap just gets wider and reading seems more and more unattainable.

There are some general experiences that many illiterate adults share. For many of them, the fact that they can't read is a secret that they share with almost no one else around them. It's completely socially acceptable to say to someone "I'm bad at math", but it is totally embarrassing to confess you can't read. I have met adult learners who have been able to keep their inability to read even from their spouses.

The experience of making it through life without being able to read usually means adult learners have compensated by developing other skills to a degree that most readers never do. Some are very good at listening and recalling information they receive orally. When your only chance to learn how to do something new is when someone is explaining it to you, you are going to listen very carefully. Readers on the other hand know they always have the option to go look up or take notes on what they are having trouble with if something doesn't work the first time they try it. Other learners are very good at figuring out how things work by taking them apart and putting them back together or even reading diagrams and maps (using spatial skills), bypassing most of the actual text involved. Some have developed reading vocabularies that are specific to their vocations or hobbies, but are unable to read new information taken out of those contexts.

BL learners typically have average intelligence, which is something many people find surprising including the learners themselves. Many of them have been made to feel otherwise throughout their lives, due to their lack of reading skills. They think the reason they can't read must be because they are stupid. This can engender feelings of isolation and low confidence. It is common to want to avoid situations where someone might find out you can't read.

Many BL learners have learning disabilities. This does not mean in any way that they cannot learn to read, but rather that they have a greater chance of success getting individualized attention and trying a variety of different methods with their tutors. Many tutors feel nervous when they hear they may be paired with someone who has a learning disability. They are worried that they won't know how to teach someone who learns differently--but any good tutor training covers all the tools a tutor may need to help anyone read. It is really the one-on-one attention of a tutor who has tried a variety of approaches and observed with the learner what seems to be most effective that is going to help the most.

In practice, it is often impractical to actually get a formal diagnosis of a learning disability for an adult, and for the actual purposes of learning how to read it doesn't matter all that much. Most literacy programs do not have the requisite staffing to perform and make those types of diagnoses. It is often prohibitively expensive. If someone does not receive a diagnosis when they are in school (where it is free to that person), they are probably not going to receive one later on in life. Diagnoses are helpful, though, in terms of receiving accommodations on tests (e.g. GED).

Another commonality among BL Learners is that they rarely grew up in a reading house. They did not see their parents reading, were not read to as a child and there were few books sitting around. This is why literacy is often very much an inherited skill. It's a type of privilege many of us take for granted. It's very easy not to realize the life advantages one has growing up in a home where reading is normalized and encouraged.

It really varies how far BL learners made it through school. It often surprises people when I tell them how many learners I have met with who had high school diplomas, and they weren't just the people on the more advanced end of the low literacy spectrum. I've met learners who had trouble with three letter words, but were awarded high school diplomas anyway. I had one man say he thinks his teachers just passed him along because they didn't want him to feel bad. There are still plenty of others though, who did drop out of school earlier on because they felt there was no point in continuing when they couldn't read anything their teachers assigned.

Experience of BL Learners

For most readers it is almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to go through life not being able to read. Most of us don't really remember a time we could not read. Here are just some of the things adults who cannot read struggle to do:

  • Voting
  • Using computers/Sending email/Engaging in social networks
  • Texting
  • Reading maps
  • Understanding Health information/Reading labels on medication
  • Applying for jobs
  • Reading the newspaper/Understanding world events
  • Helping children with school work and writing notes to teachers
  • Using a bank, saving money and writing checks
  • Reading ingredients/Preparing nutritious meals

When do BL Learners reach out for help?

Many adults have a major life event that sets them out to look for help. Many adults get used to not being able to read and many suspect that they will never learn now that they are older. It takes a lot of bravery to go try to find reading help and many don't know where to even start. Here are some of the more common reasons I've seen for adults to pursue learning to read:

  • A child or grandchild is beginning to read. Many people realize that their young children will learn to read better than they can and they are embarrassed. Others want to improve their reading so they can help their children to succeed and not perpetuate the cycle of illiteracy in their families.
  • Some learners experience a job loss. Perhaps they had a job they were successfully able to do without reading, but now have to struggle with how to apply for jobs as well as finding one where they can continue to work without reading.
  • Divorce or a spouse's death can force people to confront their reading struggles. Often an adult learner's partner takes care of all the things in the house like paying bills, filling out paperwork, etc, so this type of loss can be an additional blow to what was already a traumatic life event.
  • Retirement can be an impetus for some adults to improve reading skills. I've met with many older adults, who simply have more time on their hands and decide they really want to be able to read before they die. I also think it is easier sometimes for older people to overcome the embarrassment of not being able to read, which is of course is often the largest barrier for getting help.

People who can't read very well are already coming into our libraries

As public librarians, I know we have all experienced the many long computer help questions, where you end up standing over the patron's computer and telling them what to click on as they fill out a long online form. The more I began to work with adult learners, the more I began to interpret some of these interactions differently. We all certainly encounter many adults who are so overwhelmed by having to use a computer that they just don't know what to do. However, some of these patrons are having trouble with more than just the computer part of their task. For many, being able to read what's on the screen and make the right selection accordingly is the biggest part of their struggle. It is a lot easier to come up to someone and say you are having trouble using the computer than to say you can't read what's on your screen.

Understanding adult reading struggles has also completely changed my attitude towards teens who come to the Reference desk saying they only want the audiobook for whatever book their teacher has assigned and have no interest in reading the actual book. Before, my default reaction was to just think the teen in front of me was being lazy. But now I know that in all likelihood, this teen is far behind their grade level in reading skills. I could hand the teen the book, but it's not usually that they just won't read it but probably can't. I also interpret the statement that "reading is boring" completely differently. Of course it's boring when it doesn't make sense and is too hard to do!