Dreaming of dangerous adult literacy ideas

Skills for Life

At the turn of this century, probably the most significant investment in UK history, was made in adult literacy, ESOL and numeracy in England, through the Skills for Life Strategy.  Standards were set; curricula designed; assessment strategies developed; teachers trained and qualifications created.  A research programme was commissioned to underpin development.  Evidence was generated which indicated that the strategy had a positive impact on learners, families, employers, workplaces and teachers.  Part of the legacy of Skills for Life is a universal acknowledgement of the key contributions of literacy, ESOL and numeracy to the development of employability, an effective economy and social cohesion.


PIAAC, the Adult skills survey

The Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), revealed (2013) that England and Northern Ireland were ranked 15th in literacy and 17th in numeracy out of the 24 nations that took part.  Wales and Scotland chose not to participate at this stage.

This is not the place to debate the details of the survey process or results. However, PIAAC is very useful for casting light on adults’ lives and learning and illuminating issues within countries, as well as between them.  PIAAC results triggered discussion and debate, further analysis and country-based responses about adult literacy, amongst both providers and policy-makers.



So, one has to ask, why, in spite of investment, data tables continue to suggest that there are some big challenges around developing literacy and numeracy skills amongst adult populations in England and Northern Ireland, when compared with some other countries.

Some might argue that the answer could lie in the mismatch of timing of investment in adult literacy and numeracy and the PIAAC survey.  Future PIAAC surveys will confirm or deny this. Others seem very quick to blame schools for not preparing children and young people adequately.  Part of the response might be that comparing performance in, for example, Finnish (a phonically regular language) with English, is not a fair basis for comparison tables.

However, thinking about adult literacy only, I think that much more of the insight into the challenge lies in the complex and multi-layered facets of literacy development, in the lives of thousands of adults.


Some dangerous ideas

We make massive assumptions that everyone is able to develop their literacy to the levels indicated by ‘the powers that be’.  Over more than a century, the ‘bars’  to be reached in relation to all aspects of literacy have risen higher and higher.  The majority of adults who could be assessed as having low levels of literacy have been to school for many years.  We know that many adults involved in organised and systematic learning make progress, gain confidence, demonstrate impact in their lives but do not take the leaps and bounds needed to reach the ‘bar’ of the prescribed levels.  So this suggests that something more ‘deep-seated’ underlies the persistent data.


Is it a dangerous idea to suggest that some of us will always find these skills difficult?  We might be competent in other areas of skill and knowledge but find literacy a great challenge.  This is not because we have global learning difficulties, but because our genetic ‘make up’ means we have specific difficulties that prevent us stretching to the ‘bar’ imposed. There are few areas of life and learning where we assume that everyone is able to achieve defined levels. 

If many people are not able to meet the ever-increasing demands of literacy levels, perhaps we should question why so much information is complex and complicated.  If information, which supports public services, seems difficult then those who are responsible for communication could take more responsibility for the clarity of what and how they communicate.  Health literacy seems to be one of the few domains where debate has taken place about how to support both users and providers of information.  Not only do patients need help with understanding the complex specialist language but medical professionals need help to simplify their jargon to benefit those they are treating.


Is it a dangerous idea to suggest that all providers of public information should receive training in how to present their messages in clear and accessible ways?  Using such standards as ‘the Crystal mark’ or the ‘Plain English Campaign’ could help both providers and consumers.  This should apply to information offered face to face as well as written documents.  Is it a dangerous idea that both users and providers of public literacies should improve their skills?

There is strong rhetoric that says learners should be placed at the heart of learning.  In practice, many experiences have been driven by a curriculum designed to develop the specific skills deemed to be necessary to demonstrate functioning at a particular ‘level’.  Literacy is more than working out the meaning of diverse texts, writing in different genres or examining intricacies of punctuation or the contrary nature of our spelling.  It’s about making sense of the world.  Putting learners at the heart of learning means that they are in control; their literacy behaviours, activities and interests should drive the curriculum and their existing knowledge and skills are used as platforms for development.   I know that qualifications and accreditation are important and are used as ‘passports’ to further study or work, but they appear to have failed to really act as proxies for developing relevant capabilities, for many people.


Is it a dangerous idea to put trust in adults who know their own learning histories, as well as many of the daily literacy challenges they face or avoid?  Is it dangerous to place trust in tutors who can explore with those adults the best ways to build upon existing knowledge and literacy purposes and practices?  Is it dangerous to develop competences and effective coping strategies rather than focus on gaining a qualification or passing a particular assessment?  And is it a dangerous idea to be accountable through the impact on individual lives, captured by learners’ records, testimonies and illustrative examples of change?

What many adults want are learning and support, offered in a continuing way, as and when they need it.  Intensive periods of learning could be interspersed with short bursts of tutorial support to address specific challenges or difficulties.   Time-bound courses and qualifications can be convenient parcels of funded activity from which funders seek evidence of impact in the form of qualifications.  Sustaining support and offering ‘open-ended’ tuition has been seen as ‘stopping progression’; ‘clogging up the system’ or ‘keeping people in learning silos’ as well as being extremely expensive.  However, if continuing support is what’s needed, surely we should try to find ways to provide it.

During the 1970’s and 80’s huge numbers of volunteers were recruited and trained to support learners, under the guidance of a trained tutor.  In the 21st century volunteers rarely appear in ‘mainstream’ funded provision.


Is it a dangerous idea to bring back volunteers, particularly at a time when the population of older people is living longer and healthier, many of whom seek opportunities to contribute to communities and society?   Is it a dangerous idea to think that well qualified, tutors could be supported by teams of trained volunteers? Is it a dangerous idea to train volunteers as champions in the workplace, in services such as public libraries, Citizen Advice centres, health centres, faith centres, refuges and shelters, pubs, clubs and even super-markets, to whom individuals can turn as and when they need mini tutorials or support into more sustained times of learning?  Is it a dangerous idea for volunteers to support learning circles or clubs, in a wide diversity of settings and contexts, where they are guided and advised by a specialist or advanced tutor and where costs of learning opportunities would be cheaper than much current provision?

Research and development have informed much of our understanding of literacy.  We have learned how to assess and diagnose literacy abilities, train and equip tutors, identify the literacy skills and knowledge needed for different purposes and create relevant resources.

However, reading and writing themselves are experiencing a revolution through digital technologies. It is difficult to predict the impact of these changes on the way we handle information, communicate with and respond to each other.  This uncertainty and rapid change is challenging but also offers us opportunities.  You only have to sit on a train or bus to realize how almost everyone is reading an electronic device and using it to communicate.  Many, especially younger people, are digitally ‘literate’, able to navigate, manipulate and weave their way through complex processes and procedures and communicate effectively, but in ways that often flout the ‘usual’ conventions of literacy.  Many curricula and courses barely take account of this reading and writing revolution.


Is it a dangerous idea to harness the digital skills and knowledge which are ‘out there’ to form peer and partnership learning, where buddies learn from each other, exchanging and enhancing each others’ knowledge and skill?  Is it a dangerous idea to think that some ‘excluded’ younger adults might develop literacy through sharing their digital knowledge and skills with older people who know quite a bit about conventional literacies?  Is it a dangerous idea to risk exploring and testing out new and different ways of engaging in learning, through approaches which use ‘unconventional literacies’ but which relate to the lived realities of many people? 

I could go on about valuing the importance of speaking and listening.  These competences are not only the bedrock of literacy, but are at the core of our humanity.  They help us to organise, explore and express thoughts and ideas as well as communicate individually or in groups.  Speaking and listening shape, inform and support the other literacy skills.  Many employers complain that we don’t have the ‘right’ communication skills.  We need to develop them to express and explain who we are, as well as value and appreciate each other.  Dangerous ideas could be encouraged and expressed in organised and facilitated discussion and debating groups in pubs, clubs, faith organisations, work-places and community-centres.  They could offer vibrant learning experiences where people explore concepts, discuss differences and defend the right to speak and be heard.  In some current contexts, these could be considered very dangerous ideas indeed, but, particularly in a general election year, I think they are vital.  Speaking and listening are the skills that help us to relate to others and learn how to be more tolerant and understanding.  What price could we put on such outcomes of literacy learning?

I do not advocate that all those people who diligently learn to gain qualifications and recognition of their literacy knowledge and skills should stop. Nor do I suggest that these opportunities should cease to be advertised and available.  Such courses and outcomes are important.  But I do believe that, for all those adults who find these learning routes and standards unattractive, and unachievable, alternatives must be sought.  Adult literacy learning practitioners and policy-makers must not only build on the wealth of knowledge, which exists already, but they must also dream dangerous ideas; take risks; develop trust in learners and tutors; and identify and celebrate successes.  Only then will the challenges and issues highlighted in such surveys as PIAAC begin to evaporate.