Daniel A. Wagner

A large number of thematic studies were commissioned in preparation for Dakar. Together with his colleagues, Professor Daniel Wagner, Director of the International Literacy Institute, Pennsylvania University in Philadelphia, USA, surveys and summarizes ‹n his paper the present state of the debate. The complete version can be requested from UNESCO in Paris at www.education.unesco.org/efa

Literacy and Adult Education
Executive Summary


The 1990 World Conference on Education for All (WCEFA) in Jomtien, Thailand included adult literacy as one of its six major worldwide goals. Specifically, a number of national educational goals related to youth and adult education were agreed upon, including: (1) to reduce the number of adult illiterates to half of the 1990 level by the year 2000; and (2) to improve learning achievement to an agreed percentage of an appropriate age cohort (which might vary from country to country). As part of all Jomtien goals, a new approach to learning was emphasized, one that focused on measurable learning achievement (rather than mere class attendance or participation). These challenges, then, have formed the basis for much of renewed international interest in literacy and adult education over the past decade, and, in many ways, remain the continuing Jomtien challenge for the first quarter of the new millennium.

Although the complete elimination of illiteracy by the year 2000 was adopted as a goal of UNESCO and a significant number of its member states in the Udaipur Declaration of two decades ago, the Jomtien Conference scaled back such promises, and chose a more modest, and theoretically achievable, goal of cutting illiteracy rates in half by the year 2000. The reasons for this reduction in targeted goal were numerous. As this report will describe, important gains have been made in literacy and adult education over the past decade since Jomtien – in various places and using various methods – but the overall literacy situation remains still today one of the major challenges of the 21st century.

During the 1990s, views on literacy and illiteracy have changed dramatically. Many literacy specialists and policy makers have moved away from the monolithic view of illiteracy as a disease in which the germs might be ‘eradicated’ with an appropriate drug or vaccination. Rather, literacy is now more broadly viewed as a product of educational, social and economic factors that cannot be radically changed in short periods of time. Indeed, while numerous efforts have been undertaken in both research and practice in the past decade, it comes as no surprise that the fundamental problems, and the global statistics, on literacy have changed only moderately, whether in industrialized or developing countries. Nonetheless, due in large part to increasingly competitive and knowledge-based economies across the world, most governments and international/bilateral agencies have expressed increased concern about illiteracy and low literacy since Jomtien, even though resource allocations have remained at a disproportionately small fraction of what is contributed to formal schooling.

The present global thematic study on literacy and adult education considers trends and innovations that have been particularly salient over the WCEFA decade, though many of these same issues have been present during the preceding decades. The particular focus here is on the knowledge base that is currently available as well as the gaps that need to be filled in order for the field to make substantial progress in the coming decade and beyond. The ‘bottom line’ of this study is that the overlapping fields of literacy and adult education can and must do much better in the future, but will require not only more fiscal resources, but professional expertise (including teachers, specialists, programme directors, and policy makers) as well.

Concepts and Definitions

Many countries have been actively striving to meet Jomtien’s major goal of meeting the basic learning needs for all children, youth and adults, as well as the conjoint necessity for an adequate methodology for understanding whether such goals are being met. Current national and international capacities remain limited, however, for a variety of historical reasons. In the literacy domain, there is a long tradition of statistics gathering, but due to changing definitions of literacy, as well as a dearth of human capacity in the educational measurement field, the data on literacy have long been open to question and debate.

Many definitions exist for literacy. All relate in some way, at their core, to an individual’s ability to understand printed text and to communicate through print. Most contemporary definitions portray literacy in relative rather than absolute terms. They assume that there is no single level of skill or knowledge that qualifies a person as “literate”, but rather that there are multiple levels and kinds of literacy (e.g., numeracy, technological literacy). In order to have a bearing on real life situations, definitions of literacy must be sensitive to skills needed in out-of-school contexts, as well as to school-based competency requirements.

Historically, it was possible to make an arbitrary distinction between those who had been to school and those who had not; this was especially obvious in the newly independent countries of the developing world, which were just beginning to provide public schooling beyond a relatively small elite. Those who had been to school were labelled as “literate.” However, this situation has changed dramatically. While there are still millions of adults who have never attended school, in even the poorest countries of the world the majority of the population in the two youngest generations (up to about age 40 years) has received some schooling. While this leaves open the serious question of the level of literacy of this perhaps minimally-schooled population, it nonetheless points to a world with a much more variegated landscape of literacy skills, levels of achievement, and degree of regular use.

Jomtien influenced the definitional aspect of the literacy goal by broadening the discussion to that of basic learning needs or competencies (BLCs), which are seen not only in terms of mastery of the 3 R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), but also in terms of other knowledge, problem-solving and life skills. Together, BLCs are thought to promote empowerment and access to a rapidly changing world. They should support independent functioning and coping with practical problems or choices as a parent or worker or citizen, and are seen as critical gatekeeper to job entry and societal advancement in all countries. Thus, when defining BLCs, there is a need to refer both to formal school-based skills (such as ability to read prose text or to understand mathematical notations) and also to the ability to manage functional tasks and demands, regardless of whether such competencies were developed through formal or nonformal education, or through personal experiences in diverse informal learning situations. The challenge of changing definitions is not a trivial one, and will influence not only how policy makers view literacy goals, but also how programme developers will seek to promote literacy and adult education in the 21st century.

Status and Trends in Literacy Statistics

In order to provide worldwide statistical comparisons, international agencies have relied almost entirely on data provided by their member countries. According to the most recent UNESCO statistics (and estimates), world illiteracy rates have been dropping over the last 2–3 decades, apparently due primarily to increases in primary school enrolments. Yet these data also indicate that the actual numbers of illiterates have remained relatively constant, due to population growth. It was once assumed that increased efforts for achieving universal primary schooling would lead to a drop toward zero in adult illiteracy around the world. These optimistic views are no longer widely held, for a variety of reasons including: continued increases in population growth in developing countries; declining quality of basic education where rapid expansion has taken place; upward changes in the skill standards for literacy, both in developing and industrialized countries; improved measurement of literacy through surveys which show that previous estimates of literacy based on school grade levels achieved often overestimate actual basic learning competencies.

According to UNESCO, there were an estimated 962 million illiterates in the world in 1990, 885 million in 1995, and an estimated 887 million in 2000, constituting 27% of the adult population in the developing countries. Of these illiterates, the majority are women, in some countries accounting for up to two-thirds of adult illiteracy. Regionally, Eastern and Southern Asia have the highest number of illiterates, with an estimated 71% of the world’s total illiterate population. The Sub-Saharan Africa and Arab regions have about the same (40%) adult illiteracy rate, with Latin America at about half this rate. Overall, the geographic distribution of adult illiterates has not changed very much over the Jomtien decade (or over the past several decades). However, it should be noted that comparisons of illiteracy rates in developing and industrialized countries can be misleading, since definitions of literacy and illiteracy now vary widely, and the UNESCO statistics on industrialized countries are no longer seen by OECD countries as applicable. One consequence of these changes in standards (and the international surveys that have been done in recent years) is that adult literacy has become, during the Jomtien decade, a greatly increased policy interest in OECD countries. Policy interest in literacy in developing countries remains high, but competition for resources has remained a major impediment.

Domains of Innovation

Innovations are central to future success in literacy and adult education, and learner motivation, once access is achieved, is a key dimension for any programmatic improvement. This is true whether one is in Bangladesh or in Bolivia. A major problem consistently mentioned by service providers and policymakers is that participation levels drop off rapidly after the first weeks or months of programme participation. Many varied and valid reasons have been cited as causes of this problem, such as: inadequate programme quality; lack of time and resources of learners; poor quality of textbooks and pedagogy; lack of social marketing; and so forth. There is little doubt, however, that the general factor behind all of these technical issues is that learners, for whatever sets of reasons, do not feel motivated to participate and remain in such voluntary programmes.

Innovative ways of meeting learner needs while at the same time enhancing learner motivation include: language policy and planning (e.g., providing more robust methods for introducing mother-tongue and second language literacy), empowerment and community participation (e.g., decentralization of literacy provision through NGOs), learning, instruction and materials design (e.g., better concatenation in materials development and production between formal and non-formal education domains), gender and family (e.g. further growth of intergenerational, mother-child literacy programmes), multi-sectoral connections (e.g., adapting literacy instruction for integration with health education and agricultural extension programmes), post-literacy and income generation (e.g., integration of literacy with income generation schemes), technology and distance education (e.g., use of multimedia for improved teacher training). Case examples of developments in each of these areas are provided in this study.

Capacity Building, Professional Development and External Agency Support

Capacity building is at the heart of the renewal of effective and high quality work in literacy and adult education. The committed involvement of professionals is required for any system-wide change. One major limitation for change in adult literacy is that the large majority of the instructional staff is part-time (including volunteers with high turnover). Furthermore, there have been only limited resources and strategies for involving full-time professionals as well as volunteer and part-time instructors and tutors in meaningful professional development. There is a major need to develop systems and capacities that enable administrators, teachers, and tutors to engage in professional staff training and development as an ongoing process within programmes and to link staff development more closely with service improvement and evaluation/monitoring. Teachers and administrators should have more opportunities to understand and learn from local problems and to invent local solutions. Increasing the proportion of full-time instructors is an essential element of enhanced professional development; without more full-time staff, programmes have little incentive to spend scarce resources on professional development.

Many agencies, bilateral and multilateral, provide support for literacy and adult education, but only UNESCO has put literacy in its top list of educational priorities over recent decades. Two UNESCO-supported institutions – UNESCO Institute for Education in Hamburg, which organized CONFINTEA V in 1997, and the International Literacy Institute, which organized the World Conference on Literacy (Philadelphia, 1996) and a series of regional forums on literacy – have helped UNESCO’s international agenda in literacy and adult education. In addition, UNDP, UNICEF and the World Bank have supported adult literacy programmes over the decades, along with a number of key bilateral agencies (such as NORAD, SIDA, DFID, CIDA, DSE, DANIDA, USAID). As part of its Education Sector Review (1997), the World Bank, in collaboration with Norway, has begun recently an important initiative on adult basic education and literacy in Africa. Various evaluation projects have been commissioned such as in Uganda, and projects in Ghana, Senegal, Gambia and elsewhere are underway or in planning. UNDP was active in the 1960s-1970s with the Experimental World Literacy Programme, and UNICEF remains active in promoting basic skills and life skills for out of school youth (particularly girls and young women).

Challenges for the Future

Literacy and adult education will need to focus more than ever before on which kinds and what levels of literacy are required for each society, as well as for specific groups within that society. The year 2000 international statistics, dramatic as they remain, do not fully reveal the endemic problems associated with adult literacy work. The central problem, as with the broader field of education, is the quality of the education as it relates to the individual adult learner. National campaigns and programmes have often gone wrong because of the need for too rapid progress and for economies of scale. This combination of factors has led to low motivation on the part of adult learners around the world, and to poor outcomes in both learning achievement and participation rates. What is needed is a greater focus on programme quality along the following themes: professional development, learner motivation, knowledge-based programme design, and increased openness to new approaches. Each of these challenges is described very briefly below:

Professional development. The professional development of administrators, directors, teachers, and tutors is an ongoing and critical process for programme improvement in literacy and adult education. Teachers and administrators should have more opportunities to investigate local problems and to invent local solutions. By assuring a greater percentage of full-time teachers, literacy programmes will have a great incentive to invest in staff training and development, which are central to improving the quality of all literacy and adult education programmes.

Learner motivation. The motivation of adult learners is a key dimension that either can promote participation and retention, or, when lacking, can lead to poor take up and retention of literacy and adult education programmes. In contrast to what was thought over recent decades, the challenge of motivation lies not in providing the “political will“ of governments, but rather in finding ways to provide what the private sector terms, rather simply, “customer service”. Thus, in order to reach the unreached and the most excluded (e.g., unschooled, women, ethnic-linguistic minorities, rural, and migrants) programmes will need to be tailored to address diverse needs, and have direct, discernable outcomes, and incentive-rich experiences.

Knowledge-based programme design. Much more needs to be done in order to build the knowledge base and expertise employed in the service of literacy and adult education. Relative to other education areas, few research studies are being produced in literacy and adult education, and donor agencies have been too reluctant in their support for serious evaluation studies or applied research. To move the field forward will require a greater emphasis on what works and what doesn’t, as well as further support from donor agencies.

Openness to new approaches. A striking aspect of adult literacy work is its relative isolation. For the most part, literacy and adult education specialists and practitioners have little contact with mainstream specialists in education, and even less with sectors outside of education. There is an overall need to be open to diversity in learners and in the contexts in which they reside. No new approach is more obvious than technology, which has been taken up increasingly in the formal school settings, but has yet to have a serious input into adult education in most countries. Indeed, in developing countries, the overall limitations in fiscal and human resources have meant that technology remains far from being implemented, even though substantial cost-effectiveness appears to be achievable.


At the Jomtien conference, the literacy goal was to reduce the illiteracy rate in each country by 50% in one decade. This has not happened in any country. And yet there is a widening recognition that low literacy and poor basic learning competencies (by varying standards) are even more prevalent today than had been assumed a decade ago. Furthermore, with population growth the absolute number of illiterates has declined very little since Jomtien.

With national economies and civic participation more dependent than ever on an educated and literate citizenry, the world education community is faced with multiple and serious challenges. On the one hand, agencies which support or engage in literacy work need to be more realistic about what can be achieved within budget constraints. Such realism entails lowering expectations about major changes in individual, social, and economic outcomes, while at the same time holding literacy service providers to higher standards of accountability and professionalism. As in formal schooling, literacy and adult education do not provide a magic answer for any society, but they are part and parcel of all aspects of national development. On the other hand, agencies can enhance adult literacy programmes by:

  • building a more solid knowledge base for field-based innovations
  • improving professional development and human resources capacity
  • providing better pathways from non-formal youth and adult literacy programmes into the formal school system
  • combining non-formal programmes for adults and early childhood programmes
  • taking advantage of new technologies
  • investing resources in assessment, evaluation and monitoring, surveys and applied research
  • creating new synergies and collaborations between governmental and non-governmental agencies

This global thematic study has attempted to highlight some of the most important problems and prospects in improving the quality of literacy and adult education work, and efforts to meet the needs of people who are often excluded or marginalized from quality education. The importance of literacy and basic learning competencies in the lives of people the world over is difficult to overestimate. The simple fact that even today nearly one-quarter of humanity lacks such essential – and obtainable – competencies still shocks the world. It will be all the more striking in the year 2020, if we have been unable to substantially improve this situation. Yet the tools for making major gains are within reach if the best know-how can be put into service. Future literacy and adult education work will require a sustained, coherent, informed and increased effort.

For more information, please contact:
E-mail: wagner@literacy.upenn.edu
ILI website: www.literacyonline.org

Adult Education and Development


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