Literacy: Let’s listen to what adults want to learn

By Anna Robinson-Pant, Professor of Education, University of East Anglia

The fourth Education for All goal is to halve adult illiteracy between 2000 and 2015. How is the world faring? To mark International Literacy Day on September 8, we asked Anna Robinson-Pant, who belonged to the advisory group for the 2006 EFA Global Monitoring Report, Literacy for Life, to weigh progress and look to the future, as part of our countdown to the launch of the 2012 report on October 16.

The rapid pace of events in the Middle East provides a glimpse of how ordinary people are harnessing the Internet through Twitter, Facebook and other social media to organize and mobilize people for radical change. This seems a world apart from what we often talk about as ‘literacy’, particularly in low income countries. Yet the goals of empowerment are not so very different from those early adult literacy classes that Paulo Freire pioneered in the Brazilian slums in the 1960s: people learning to ‘read the word and the world’. At that time, only literate people could vote in the country’s presidential elections. Voting was a tangible right that came along with literacy, an opportunity to challenge social and political marginalization.

Literacy has long been recognized as central to addressing inequality, particularly for ensuring that people have a say in decisions that affect their lives and societies. Basic literacy and numeracy are also regarded as essential elements of the skills agenda. So why have we made so little progress on the EFA goal to halve illiteracy by 2015? While many of those aged 15 to 24 are now literate, this is largely a reflection on the improvements in schooling systems of many countries of the world. Adult literacy still hardly features within any government and aid agency educational budgets. Education For All has all too often been reduced to Education For Children.

Not surprisingly – given this lack of resources and political commitment – the adult literacy programmes that do run tend to be poor quality, relying on untrained and semi-volunteer teachers who struggle to keep up attendance night after night. There are exceptions: some NGO and government programmes have demonstrated how properly resourced adult education can help facilitate real change within rural communities.

I have spent a lot of time in rural adult literacy classes over the years. I remember the many times that both teachers and students told me what a  pain it was to come every night. The teachers either saw the literacy class as casual labour that would last for six months at a very low rate of pay, and then disappear when the programme moved to another area. Or they started with a real commitment to contributing to their community, but quickly found it hard to teach if the participants found the materials boring or too difficult (especially if not in their mother tongue).

The women attending classes were so tired after a day’s work in the fields and at home that they were often late, literally fell asleep or complained  when they could not see the page to read in the dim lamplight. By the end of six months, only the younger unmarried women (some of whom had previously been to school and saw this as a refresher course) would have managed to finish the course. Then it was a question of what next?

Alongside this image of adult literacy classes is the reality of adult women and men learning to use mobile phones in these same rural communities – learning to text and carry out transactions across distances that they would never before have envisaged. This informal literacy learning is taking place in everyday life. Yet many adult literacy programmes continue to adopt what I see as a ‘schooling for adults’ approach – based on a textbook telling women how to improve their lives (build latrines, adopt family planning and cook nutritious food). It is not surprising to me that providing access to this kind of literacy – with the huge gulf between the literacy class and everyday learning – is seen as the last priority by both communities and governments.

When I was part of a team scoping the topics to be covered by the 2006 EFA Global Monitoring Report, Literacy for Life, I remember many discussions around what we mean by literacy. Was this to be about children’s literacy learning in schools and, if we were talking about adults too, should we include all the elements beyond reading and writing, such as confidence-building and life skills?

The ‘three-pronged’ approach eventually advocated in the report emphasized all these aspects: quality schooling for all children, scaling up literacy programmes for adults and young people, and ‘development of environments conducive to the meaningful use of literacy’.  In practice this resulted in a continued emphasis by governments and donors on the first  and most straightforward ‘prong’ to pursue: schooling. This  left little room or resources for the complementary task of providing and scaling up quality literacy programmes for adults (the second prong).

More significantly, literacy programmes still need to respond to – rather than seek to inform – the third prong (environment). This might mean, for instance, increasing access to information and communication technology for poorer groups in society, rather than only trying to create a literate environment through tin trunk libraries and wall newspapers. Now more than ever, literacy providers need to listen to why and what adults want to learn, and to engage with their agenda, rather than the reverse.

So how can we formulate an effective literacy goal after 2015?  We urgently need to challenge the negligible resources allocated by governments and donor agencies to adult literacy, particularly to address the gender equity issues implicit in several of the other goals. But to avoid the continuation of ‘one-size-fits-all’ adult literacy programmes, we have to look at what kind of literacy and numeracy people want and require in their everyday lives.

A future goal should focus on improving the relevance and quality of adult learning – it is not enough to specify how many people should be made literate. This would give a real impetus to donors and governments to find ways of resourcing and adapting the innovative approaches to adult literacy that have already proved effective on a small scale.

The most successful adult education programmes have embedded literacy in other sectoral and learning activities, including vocational skills development. This will link closely with the question of what kind of education and skills training should be provided for adults and young people and how – the focus of the forthcoming 2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report. Reformulating the literacy goal in the context of lifelong learning would emphasize its relevance to high income countries too.

Until we acknowledge that the word ‘literacy’ means different things to different people at different times, basic adult education is likely to continue as the poor relation and offspring of formal schooling.

The next post in this series will look at progress in education quality, the focus of the 2005 EFA Global Monitoring Report.



  1. Adult literacy is also key to people understanding and exercising their human and democratic rights. Is it possible that in some countries adult literacy does not get government funding because some undemocratic governments fear what will happen if the people are educated and can vote and advocate for their rights!!!!

  2. Literacy should be a basic human right, access for everyone. However, literacy remains a challenge, even in well educated countries. Especially health literacy should be encouraged as many even of the literate counties score low on health literacy ratings. Educational pamphlets should be written from 5-7th grade, however, the internet does not help in educating those who need help. Confusing and often not reliable.

  3. I am an educational doctoral student and I am looking into how globalization is impacting the educational expectations of women. I am quite interested in Ann-Gret’s comment on health literacy – I never thought of this approach even though I am a nurse. What are your opinions on the impact of globalization of health literacy/educational expectations for women?

    1. How funny, I am an educational doctoral student as well and I am a nurse too. The subject is of major interest to me as I firmly believe that health literacy needs to be highly considered when patient teaching is performed. Health literacy in women can be proactively addressed to ensure that they understand the instruction. Methodology such as teach back will ensure that they understood what was taught. Just imagine, a women in a third world country is taught about birth control, the provider needs to be competent by providing the instructions.
      Let me know if this helped or provided clarity.

      1. This is so coincidental – both in the same journey. I agree – educating others is extremely important and as Anna Robinson-Pant above states it has to be more than just educating it has to be related to everyday life experiences. This is where the educator has to change to meet the realistic needs of women.
        What do you see to be the influence of western countries on women in third world countries regarding health literacy?

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