Alan Rogers

In this article, Professor Alan Rogers draws on his thirty years of experience of the field to describe what he has learned about the motivation which drives many men and women to struggle to master the skills of reading and writing. He outlines the implications of these motives for policy planners and literacy facilitators. Alan Rogers is Director of “Education for Development”, an independent development charity. He has taught at the Universities of Reading and Surrey, and is the author of the book “Adults Learning for Development”. This text is a revised and extended version of the section on motivation on pages 6:5-6 of “Widening Literacy: a training manual for managers of adult literacy learning programs” published by Save the Children (US), 54 Wilton Road, Westport CT 06680, USA, from whom copies may be obtained.

Adult Literacy – Adult Motivation

Trying to determine quite why some people wish to learn to read and write is important for all policy and programme makers as well as for those who teach them. For it is generally agreed that adult learning programmes, in order to be effective, must be based on the ‘felt needs’ of the learners. It is important to identify what the adult potential literacy learners aspire to, what their intentions are, if we are to help them to achieve those desires.

One traditional way of doing this is the missionary approach: to “get at” the potential participants and to try to “make them motivated”. Agencies often work hard to make non-literate adults feel inadequate, to help them to come to appreciate why they simply must learn to read and write, how their lives are blighted by being “illiterate”. Arguments which by now have become traditional (“you will never be cheated if you become literate”; “you cannot use medicines properly unless you can read the labels”; etc.) are used to help non-literate adults to appreciate how in the modern world they need to become like the literate population if they are to “succeed”. Illiteracy, it is often alleged, will confine them to a non-developmental future: “without literacy, there is no development”, and “literacy is the key to health, wealth and happiness” are two of the many slogans which bodies such as UNESCO have drummed into the heads of agencies which provide adult literacy classes. I well remember the question I was asked in Madras on my first visit to India thirty years ago by an adult literacy facilitator: “How do you motivate the learners in your country?” That concern still exists.

But it might be better to try to start with what adults already feel, what they wish to do – to take their existing aspirations seriously. It is surely important to help them to feel good rather than to feel bad about themselves, to start where they are rather than try to change their motivations first. And that means exploring in some detail just what these desires and intentions are. The area of motivation of adult literacy learning (as with other forms of adult learning) is still under researched. It is of course highly localised . What will impact on one social group will often not move those in other social groups. We need much more localised research into the real motives of those who attend – and also the aspirations of those who do not attend.

Over the last twenty or so years, I have visited many countries and collected different statements from adult literacy learners in different contexts about why they were attending adult literacy classes. I am omitting those many participants who come, not to learn literacy skills but to be a member of a group which discusses common issues, or those who come to learn other life-related skills such as income generating skills or health skills. These are important motivations. But my concern here is: why do some people really want to learn literacy skills; why do they persist week after week with learning the skills of reading and writing different scripts and texts? It may be worth trying to sort some of these out so that we can see how these will relate to our teaching-learning programmes.

Needs and Felt Needs, Aspirations and Intentions

There are of course a number of problems in conducting such a survey. Many adult literacy learners will tell us what they believe we wish to hear. They see us as a representative of the major international donors – and they already know what such agencies feel about literacy. After all, it is the international agencies which created Education for All with its emphasis on statistical targets. It is the international agencies which have divided the world into two, the literate and the illiterate (900 million if UNESCO is right). It is the international organisations which speak about eradicating illiteracy as if it were a disease, of waging war on illiteracy as if it were an enemy, which talk incessantly of meeting the people’s “needs”, which the agencies can see clearly but which the people themselves often do not see. The discourse of needs is well known even in the smaller villages of Asia and Africa; and those we speak with repeat it back to us because they think that is the answer we want to hear.

But more seriously, many people have come to internalise it. They really believe that literacy is the basis of all else, that they lack it and that therefore they are really ignorant, unable to think and calculate and reason; in so many hegemonic ways they are made to feel deficient. They have come to ascribe to themselves all the negative attributes which such agencies assert belong inevitably to the illiterate. Like Adam and Eve, they have come to see that they are “naked” – a thing they had not appreciated until some external person or agency told them so.

Four Groups of Motivation

Trying to get past these two barriers is very hard – but it can be done at times, usually with a good deal of patience. And the result can be rewarding; for a pattern seems to emerge from such a survey. Taken together, I fancy I can see some four groups of existing motivations. There may of course be others which I have not identified, but these four seem to me to be important in determining the way we plan our programmes and teach the participants. I outline these four, not necessarily in any significant order.

1. There are what I call symbolic reasons. Some adults have told me that they have joined their classes, not because they want to use their new literacy skills but because they want to join “the literacy set”. Such reasons relate to social status. These people have a relatively clear picture of a world divided into two, the literate (actually in some contexts a minority but nevertheless very dominant) and the illiterate, an inferior race, ignorant and powerless. And they have joined an adult literacy class to transfer from one class to the other, to gain ascribed power. They feel that other people (especially the literate group) regard them with scorn because they cannot engage in the dominant textual communications. They often try to hide their non-literacy: “They look at you as if you are stupid,” as one participant in a Bangladesh programme told me. To avoid this scorn, they feel that it is worth all the effort of attending adult literacy classes and doing the work of the class. “Literacy” for them is not a tool to be used but a badge which will identify them as belonging to a particular group; it has symbolic value. This will affect their relation to the work of the learning programme. Their motivation to do the actual learning will sometimes tend to be relatively low. Indeed it looks as if some of these quite quickly find the class work less than satisfying. It seems as if the effort and time required to help them to transfer fully from one group to the other are both too great to justify it. They have no clearly defined milestones to help them through, no stages by which they can measure their progress towards their final goal, no rewarding intermediate objectives which can spur them on. And they see no actual use for their literacy skills after the end of the class – they simply wish to “belong”.

2. Other adults join for instrumental reasons. They want to learn literacy skills because they want to accomplish some literacy task. Several aspire to read the Bible or the Quran. “I want to learn to use the hymnbook for myself” was the comment of one literacy learner in Namibia – a daunting task which the literacy primer did not help her with, for the activity combines understanding various different forms of numbers (page numbers against hymn numbers) and reading a text set out in a particular order. Reading magazines was popular, but very few persons said they wanted to read the newspapers, except the film or sports sections. No-one has yet suggested to me that they are attending a literacy class because they wish to keep a diary (although several persons are engaged on that activity after completing their course).

What is surprising is that many of these tasks are seen to be writing tasks although most adult literacy learning programmes spend more time on reading than writing. Among the reasons given in India tend to be writing family or formal letters rather than relying on others (members of the family, friends and neighbours or even paid scribes), especially keeping in touch with members of the family overseas. Filling in forms is another such task frequently asked for – a bank loan or a housing grant application or a post office money form. Again this is a task which requires specific knowledge and skills such as the appropriate use of numbers and the skill of writing within a small boxed area, tasks which primer literacy classes rarely equip the literacy learners to do. Writing a job application was high in Kenya and in some other countries, again calling for special language and lay-out. 

Several told me that they wished to draw up and keep accounts. But my experience is that those who really need to keep written ac- counts will find their own way of doing it, often very informal notes in a specially-made short-hand. I found one small shopkeeper who kept a note of his daily transactions by scratching his own notes on his hand with a toothpick stick and asking his wife to write up the accounts in the evening when he got home. Others who say that they intend to keep their own accounts often do not in the end use the skills they asked for. In Egypt, a member of a literacy class ran her small millinery business without keeping written accounts despite the fact that the class had specialised in doing this kind of activity. I suspect that many of those who say they wish to keep accounts are repeating what the agencies have told them during motivational sessions.

Such motivations will of course vary according to the context of the learning group. Literacy classes set within an existing development group such as a credit and savings group or an environmental action project such as forestry users will see these tasks within the context of that group activity. A class in Bangladesh based on a men’s group running a taxi (tempo) service saw the literacy tasks as being keeping records of journeys, giving receipts, counting cash, and maintaining the vehicles. In other contexts such as the work-based literacy of Botswana, other instrumental needs could be seen. One man said that he wished to read health and safety notices as he had been charged with being safety officer in his workplace. Another had the chance to become a trade union official and wished to read and write texts appropriate to that work. These people will often come to classes with clearly set stages and end goals in their minds. They will normally learn fast when they see the work of the literacy learning programme as directly helping them with their desired literacy uses; they will learn much more slowly when what they are learning does not seem to contribute to the tasks they have chosen. They will often be able to identify their own milestones, and they will frequently seek and receive reinforcement of their literacy learning from engaging in their own activities. If they can see that the class work contributes to their own purposes, then they will stay with the learning programme. 

Perhaps among this group are those who wish simply to learn to sign their names – not to read what they are signing but just to sign in order to show that they are now “literate”. These participants will often “switch off” when they have learned to do this or even stop attending the sessions. They have achieved what they want to do and as adults see no reason to continue with what they feel is a burdensome chore keeping them from more important activities. They may be seen by others as “drop-outs” but they will actually have completed the learning task they set out to do.

3. Thirdly, some adults join adult literacy classes, not to learn literacy skills for use but for the opportunities the course will provide subsequently. They come because such learning will open doors for them at the end. In Botswana, some said that they had joined because they could then get a driving licence. In some contexts, obtaining a loan is dependant on being able “to read and write”. In Nepal, some came to classes because with the certificate of literacy they obtained at the end of the course, they could become Community Health Volunteers. In various parts of the world, some adults see clearly that completion of a literacy learning programme in the dominant literacy would help them to obtain paid employment or get promotion in the workplace. This is not just the motivational propaganda of literacy agencies – for many people, it is very real. The jobs and the promotions are there but the literacy skills required are not.

As with those who come for symbolic reasons, these participants frequently do not intend to use their newly acquired literacy skills after the end of the course. Their goal is, however, more concrete than that of the symbolic participants. They aspire to obtain the very real benefits that completion of the learning course may bring to them personally. But like the symbolic participants, their goal is far away, after the end of the programme. Keeping them going through the whole of the course and providing them with milestones which they feel are relevant to their own aspirations will be difficult. These persons will tend to drop out more quickly and more often, and they will be less concerned to learn practical literacy skills than those who come for instrumental reasons.

4. Finally, many agencies stress that the main motivation for adults to come to literacy classes is to be able to go into a formal or non-formal educational programme; it provides access to further learning. This is a kind of opportunity motivation – the end of the literacy learning programme will open the doors of education to them; but it is also an instrumental motivation, for the literacy skills will be learned for use. They hope to use their literacy as an entry point into second stage education – for example, to get into school through their adult literacy classes. 

My experience is that this is far less frequently a motivation for adults to come to classes. Very few of those over the age of 25 want to enter either formal or non-formal continuing education programmes with a set curriculum and equivalency qualifications. It is certainly quite common among young adults (those aged between 15 and 20, for example) and it appears to be more frequent among younger women than men. It is certainly true of certain contexts – it is immensely important in South Africa and Namibia, for example, where large sections of the population were denied any formal education or any effective schooling; these are now, for social and political reasons, not only demanding adult literacy but also adult continuing education on an equivalency basis. But it would be a mistake to take this as a model for everywhere. Most adults in other contexts clearly do not require or feel that they need socialisation education on a primary school basis, for they have arrived at a position in society. And only a very few adults feel that gaining some form of certification (apart from vocational qualifications) will add to their standing in society or increase their effectiveness. 

For these persons, their aspirations will affect the way they see the adult literacy class work. They will learn quickly and happily if they feel that it is contributing to their goal to get into some kind of adult schooling after the end of the course. Their milestones will be the staging posts which seem to relate to the work of primary schools – especially tests and certificates provided at various stages along the route towards what they see as their goal.


There may be other kinds of motivation for adults to learn the kind of literacy offered by the various literacy agencies today. They will be very context dependent, so we need to look closely at the context within which our programmes are being offered to see what are the expectations of the participants in our programmes and whether our programmes will help to meet those expectations. But these four – the symbolic reasons, the instrumental reasons, the opportunity reasons and the access reasons – seem to be clearly present and distinctive.

However, we should not assume that such motivations will remain fixed for all time. As the programme progresses, such motivations can sometimes be seen to change. Someone coming for symbolic or opportunity reasons may become convinced of the instrumental value of literacy. But others will become discouraged and demotivated as the class does not seem to meet their needs.

Finding out the real existing motivations of our literacy learners is important for many purposes, especially for finding appropriate teaching-learning materials, and for setting goals and milestones (staging posts on the course to completing the initial programme, those breathing spaces when the progress made so far can be reviewed and some measure of satisfaction can be felt by teacher and learner alike) during the learning programme. Such milestones are the key elements in maintaining and developing motivation.

The task of discovering and keeping under review the existing and changing motivations of the participants falls of course on the literacy facilitators. This is one more example of the way in which literacy agencies frequently underestimate the complexity of the process of teaching adults. They seem to assume that anyone can teach literacy to adults and they provide a minimum of training and ineffective ongoing support for what is a very difficult task. Primary school teaching is the worst possible basis for training adult education tutors; for the teachers in primary school are unused to taking into consideration the aspirations and intentions of the learners in their classes. Constant open discussion between facilitator/animator and the learners is needed in adult education, not externally determined needs and an externally prescribed curriculum using externally prescribed learning texts. Engaging in such discussion is hard for inadequately trained, inadequately supported and often under-confident teachers.

For we must not imagine that the participants in our programmes are simply passive. All adult literacy learners will be judging their programme in terms of how far it will help them achieve their own aspirations and objectives – whether it will help them to move from one category to another in society; whether it will help them do the literacy tasks they wish to accomplish; whether it will open the particular doors they have set their eyes on; whether it will lead them to some kind of certification which will open the next door to their linear progress. Our programmes are being assessed by the participants shrewdly in terms of how far the activities being required of them are relevant to their own sense of purpose, their own intentions. While it is true that some adult participants continue for a long time in literacy classes out a sense of loyalty to the facilitator, even when they are bored and cannot see any purpose in the work, in the end if the class does not meet their purpose, they will stop coming. This is one of the key differences between adult learning programmes and primary schools. It is vital that all adult literacy teachers talk frequently with their learners about what the learners want and how far they are being satisfied. Motivation can be built up and destroyed so easily – but we need to know what it is before we can help to develop it further.

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