Alan Rogers

It is not only the learning of skills and competencies in the classroom that is crucial to the success of literacy programmes, but also their application in everyday private and occupational life. How can adult educators help to ensure that this transfer is made? What factors need to be borne in mind in literacy learning programmes, what should be taught, and what form should teaching materials take? Alan Rogers describes some new approaches. He wrote this paper for a conference of the Department for International Development (DFID). Professor Alan Rogers is Director of Education for Development, has taught at the Universities of Reading and Surrey, and is the author of Adults Learning for Development.

Some Contemporary Trends in Adult Literacy from an International Perspective


I start this review of adult literacy learning programmes in the context of developing societies from a new premise: that the economic and social benefits of literacy do not spring from learning skills literacy but from using literacy skills. I would argue that virtually no-one has benefited from learning literacy skills; people only benefit from using their literacy skills to achieve some purpose.

If this is true, then the aim of literacy classes is not to encourage learning but to encourage the use of literacy skills. This is the goal of all literacy learning programmes.

And if this is true, then the success and failure of literacy learning programmes must be judged by how far they succeed in getting the participants to use their skills. We can give an example: out of a class of 30 literacy learners, 25 pass the test at the end of the course. But after six months, we find that only five persons are reading and writing in their daily lives. In that case, the success rate is only 5, not 25.

This insight – which is growing among development agencies – gives rise to two main themes in modern approaches to literacy:

a) how can we help the participants to transfer the literacy skills out of the classroom/centre into daily use?

b) how can we help those who do not go to classes to use literacy skills in their daily lives?

Transfer of Literacy Skills

The transfer of literacy skills from the classroom/centre to daily life is now widely recognised as the major problem area of adult literacy learning programmes. A recent study of the income-generation programmes which go alongside many adult literacy classes shows this failure. The participants in these programmes do not use literacy in these activities. For example, one adult literacy group in Kenya engaged in goat rearing said they could not read the word ‘goat’ – “because it is not in the primer”. This is typical of many programmes. What they learned in the literacy class was not used in the income-generation group work. There are of course a few projects which do make this transfer (for example, a group in Delhi sewing advertising banners to hang across the roads are using their literacy skills to earn money), but these are rare.

The reason for this failure is that the words used in the literacy primers are decontextualised. They are specimen words, not real words. To give an example from an English primer:

ball: The book shows a picture, but the word itself does not say what kind of ball. Could it mean a ball of wool? (The picture suggests a play ball or a football, not really of relevance to adults). And what is it being used for? In English, the word ‘ball’ can also be used to mean a dance.

cat: Again, what sort of cat? A lion or tiger? Or what kind of domestic cat? In any case, in some contexts, cat can also mean a whip.

In Jaipur, a literacy class recognised this. Two of the words used in the primer were ‘agni’ (fire) and ‘pani’ (water), words chosen carefully by the (male) writers of the literacy primer “because women are interested in water and fire”. But as the women said, “When do we need to read the word ‘water’? When do we need to write the word ‘fire’?” The words had been decontextualised, translated into letters for learning, not put into any meaningful context. The pictures attached suggested specific meanings (a cooking fire; a well or a tap); but water may mean drinking water or floods/droughts (particularly true of Rajasthan); fire may mean cooking or a slum disaster (very relevant to town dwellers). It is the context which gives the words meaning; and adults learn best through meaning. The result of such decontextualisation is that the learners learn to read words in the context of the page of the primer; but they cannot read the same words in a different context. As more than one adult literacy class participant has said, “I can read the primer but I cannot read anything else”.

The question then that a number of literacy agencies are facing is how to help the participants to transfer these skills from the classroom into regular use in their different daily lives.

At the basis of this question is the view that adults learn for a purpose. In this, they are different from children. Children learn in school because they are told to. But adults (if we treat them like adults) learn for a purpose which they have chosen. And it is not possible to separate this purpose from the learning programme if it is to be effective.

So that we need to ask the participants why they wish to learn literacy skills, what they intend to use these skills for. What literacy tasks do they wish to do? On the whole, literacy agencies do not ask the participants this. Perhaps they are frightened that they will answer with something which is felt to be not appropriate – to read film magazines, for example! In Jaipur, a literacy project asked the participants what literacy task they wanted to do. Many of them said they wanted to read the cinema notices in the newspapers since they went to the cinema regularly. They brought along several advertisements for films currently showing in the town. The facilitator used these ‘real’ notices for the class, and the learners learned to read them very quickly because they knew all the words and their meaning. Their confidence and pride quickly grew; they took the notices home and showed their new skills; and others joined the group, saying “We did not think literacy classes were like this”. All kinds of activities could be built on this – numeracy work based on the price of seats and class numbers; visits to the film; discussions on gender as portrayed in the film; writing brief reviews of the film which they could show to others in the community, etc. I am not suggesting that we should use cinema notices as a new primer; I am suggesting that adults will learn best when they are encouraged to learn what they want to learn, to learn to read through texts they have brought to the classes, to write not the textbook exercises but what they want to write (poems, songs, letters etc), to do real literacy tasks which they have chosen.

A question has been raised in some of the contexts where this approach is being used as to whether some words in texts which the participants have brought along are too ‘difficult’ for them. The idea that there are ‘simple’ and ‘difficult’ words lies behind the production of ‘easy reading material’ for adults at different levels based on the words used and the length of sentences. It is taken from school where such graded readers are common. But recent research shows that even for children, there is no such thing as a uniform level of difficulty. Children (and adults) cope with reading material according to their experience. One child will find one book easy because he or she knows and understand the background well; another child of the same age and level will find the same book difficult because he or she does not have experience of it. There is no such thing as a level of literacy, no such thing as ‘difficult’ words in general. Words depend on the context in which they are used. Adults will use any written words, however ‘difficult’, if they are engaged on a task which they wish to complete.

This raises a second question: do adults have to learn literacy skills (or anything else for that matter) first and then practise afterwards? This linear approach to learning is appropriate for children, who usually learn first and then do later. But adults in their lives learn by doing; they do not learn in a linear fashion. They learn to cook by cooking; they learn to weave by weaving, they learn to farm or to fish by farming and fishing, they learn to ride a bicycle by riding a bicycle. In the same way, adults learn literacy by doing (real) literacy. One of the most striking pieces of research done in Brazil, the Philippines, Sierra Leone and other places shows that a significant number of adults (about 10%) learn literacy skills without ever going to primary school or adult literacy classes – they learn these skills through life. To put adults through a literacy class with a literacy textbook first and then ask them to use literacy skills later is to treat them like children (grown-up children but still children).

Such an approach then asks the participants to decide not simply when and where they wish to meet but also what they want to learn; what tasks they wish to do. These tasks are brought into the classroom from real life; and therefore it is easier for the participants to take the same tasks back out into the community. In one model of this, at first the class uses the textbook but gradually an increasing number of real literacy tasks are brought into the classroom and more and more time is spent on these tasks rather than on the primer. The following diagram may help to explain this:

adult literacy class

A third issue which is raised here is that the real literacy tasks which the participants may wish to follow may not always look like traditional ‘development’. For example, a recent evaluation of a Freirean literacy project in Brazil was aggrieved that the women were not using their new literacy skills for ‘further learning’ but for reading fashion magazines and writing Christmas cards. The implication is that this was not development.

And this of course challenges us to ask ourselves what we mean by the term ‘development’? Modern approaches to development (as we all know) stress participatory approaches. This is a great change from the early days. Most current approaches (at least in rhetoric) are based on the principles that the people will make their own decisions; that all such decisions will be local and therefore different; that development agencies must listen to the people, not talk at them. Development is based not on needs but on what the people want to do, their intentions. Even in literacy, we must accept the people’s own agenda, not impose our agenda on them.

This new approach to literacy learning programmes (which can be found in parts of Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa among other places) says that we need to encourage the participants to bring into class their own chosen real literacy tasks and the printed and written materials (found and created texts) which go with these tasks. Let the people choose. Literacy learning needs to be placed in a specific context.

There are two main difficulties with this approach:

a) that the animators/facilitators/promoters may not be able to cope with such real literacy tasks. This is a major problem. Most facilitators want to use a primer because it gives them confidence. What we need are new ways of training and especially of supporting the facilitators to help them with this task.

b) that it does not lead to social change, the transformation of inequalities. This is a real issue. But if the literacy learning programme helps the participants to develop critical literacy – that is, they examine the tasks and texts critically, then it can lead to real change. One example will show this: in Ghana, the participants brought into the class a text they found written on the walls of the city: ‘Don’t urinate here’. They learned to read it quickly; they also discussed who wrote it, who it was intended for, why it was in English and not in the local language; why it used a long word ‘urinate’ which most people did not use in common speech, etc. They wrote out their own version of the same kind of notice. This certainly led to awareness and to some change.

This example shows how the things the participants learn in the classroom – if they are real literacy tasks – will be transferred back out into the community. For the participants will read the signs and other texts, will discuss them with other people, will try out their own writing in their own lives if they are helped to do real tasks inside the classroom. In Uganda, they have been using health census forms; in Bangladesh, marriage registration forms – in both cases being critical of the forms which others have produced for them to use. It can be done; it takes a long time, but the result is an increased use of literacy tasks and texts in the daily lives of the participants.

Helping Those Who Will Not Come to Classes

The traditional approach adopted by the agencies is to motivate these people to come to classes. But this approach has major problems:

a) It does not treat the adults like adults; it says, “We want you to learn literacy even though you don’t want to learn literacy.” In other words, it treats them like children.

b) It exaggerates the disadvantages of being non-literate. It says that if you are illiterate, you cannot communicate, you cannot connect up with the outside world, it says you will be unable to engage in development. It treats the people it calls illiterate as excluded from society, needing to be ‘brought in’. But none of this is true – many non-literate are rich and many are engaged in development projects and in community activities.

c) It exaggerates the benefits of being literate. It says, “You won’t be cheated”. This is not true. Literacy learning by itself does not alleviate poverty; only activities (some of which may use literacy in them) will alleviate poverty. And learning to sign one’s name and to read texts does not stop people being cheated (though they may be cheated in different ways).

But even if we make brave efforts to motivate non-literate persons to come to classes, we still know that there are many adults who will never come to classes at all. Are we to do nothing to help them with their own literacies?

When we examine literacy in the community, modern studies have shown there are lots of local literacies. One project in the Philippines studied 13 local communities and found all kinds of literacy practices in them. In South Africa, studies showed that different groups have different literacies. For example, the literacy practices of taxi drivers (maps, road signs, engine manuals, receipts, building names etc) are very different from the literacy practices of hospital porters (ambulance, drugs, bandages, names of wards etc). To take them away from their work and put them through a common literacy programme (‘the cat sat on the mat’) is simply silly and is certainly ineffective. A study of a Tamil Nadu village in India found several literacy focal points, each with its own literacy:

  • the school and adult literacy centre (school-based literacy)
  • a women’s group (developmental literacy)
  • the church (religious literacy)
  • the clinic (health literacy)
  • the shop (commercial literacy)

Apart from this, there were the domestic literacies throughout the village – shopping lists, weddings and funerals, notes to school, calendars on the walls of most houses etc.

Some agencies are now trying to find ways to help people with their own literacies where and when they are – not asking them to come to a class but at the time and point of need.

Two main strategies are being tried out:

  1. Literacy comes second: The traditional approach to learning literacy skills says that literacy comes first and development tasks second. The ‘literacy comes second’ approach says the development task comes first and – if the group wants to learn literacy during the development task – literacy can be built on the development task, using the written materials of the task. In the REFLECT projects, the group starts with a PRA exercise and then (in many cases) go on to learn literacy skills. In a sewing class in Nepal, some of the women said they could not read the pattern books, etc. To take them away and put them through the national literacy primers would have meant they would have stopped what they wanted to do (their sewing) and done what the agency wanted them to do. Instead, they learned through the pattern books. In India, some groups of women are learning to read through hand pump manuals, while engaged on learning to maintain these pumps. There are a growing number of examples of this.
    One kind of ‘literacy comes second’ approach is ‘work-based literacy’. This is growing fast. In Botswana nearly 40% of the government programme is now work-based (meat companies, car manufacturers, Botswana Power, transport drivers, mining companies etc). Again, to give them all a common national programme is not the most effective way of helping them with their literacies. They need to learn a work-based literacy using the written materials of their workplace. We need to remember that – unlike children – adults learn through doing their real work, not through a classroom and textbook approach followed by real use.
  2. The second strategy which is being talked about but not yet implemented is to develop a literacy extension service for those who live in the communities. There is an extension service to help farmers with their farming – at the time and point of need, on the farms. Why not an extension service for literacy? In Nigeria, a literacy shop was opened in a market: the aim was that ‘customers’ would come in to get help with their literacy tasks (filling in forms, writing shop signs etc). The shop workers would not do the task for the ‘customers’; rather, they would help the clients to do it and thus learn literacy skills through doing the task.


The main conclusion that I want to draw from modern approaches to helping adults to learn literacy skills is that there are different literacies for different groups. We therefore need to try out all kinds of different approaches to meet the real literacy needs of all of these people. This is not really different from income-generation programmes, where every group is engaged on a task which they have chosen and which they feel is immediately relevant to their own local situation. So too with adult literacy – each group can be encouraged to do their own literacy, not a common national or district programme. In that way, the uses of literacy will be encouraged and with that will come social and economic benefits.

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