Peter Audi Oluoch

Kenya’s adult literacy programme was launched with pomp and circumstance in 1979 but has since experienced a downward trend in learner participation to the extent that observers wonder whether it still exists. In this article, the author describes the factors that contribute to low participation rates among learners and discusses the possible factors which research suggests might be responsible for this problem. Peter Audi Oluoch lives and works in Kenya.

Low Participation in Adult Literacy Classes: Reasons Behind it

Education is a fundamental human right enshrined in all major United Nations and other international charters, and the need to provide adult literacy education and eradicate illiteracy among adults and provide them with occupation-oriented skills necessary for increased economic productivity has been of great concern worldwide. The adult literacy sub-sector is therefore important for acquisition of skills, especially for those outside the framework of the formal school system. Kenya realized that illiteracy was a serious obstacle to development and in 1979 set the eradication of illiteracy as a priority. This led to a huge resource commitment to the programme, resulting into very high learner enrolment.

The Problem

Over the years however, there has been concern that the programme that once thrived was doing very badly. It has become low-keyed and ineffective and characterized by poor participation, making it impossible to achieve the goals of adult literacy. The study was conducted in Kisumu Municipality, Kenya, where the enrolment in 2005 was only 0.253%. The purpose of this study was therefore to look into the factors that contributed to this deplorable state of the adult literacy programme.

Findings of the Study


The majority of the literacy learners in the study area were aged between 26 and 35 years, and had attended lower primary. They were from low-income areas and were either farmers or petty traders. They recognized literacy as important in acquisition of skills in business and as a factor to improve their lives. Even those not yet enrolled acknowledged the crucial role literacy plays in socio-economic development. Others still saw literacy as a stepping-stone for further studies and to compensate for earlier educational opportunities lost, but the unenrolled illiterates had even higher regard for education as a gateway to even greater professional and highly paying jobs. 


The programme is operated without a curriculum to guide the teachers, who single-handedly decide on the content in disregard of the learners’ needs. The 3Rs and language skills are the most taught, but some teachers teach primary school subjects to adult learners. While the method used should always focus on learning rather than teaching, and be geared towards problem-solving rather than information-giving, teachers use the primer (whole word) approach rather than REFLECT or whole language, which are more innovative and involve the learners in the learning process. Teachers therefore oppose instructional innovations that give learners control over the subjects they learn and over their classrooms.

Although literacy education involves cooperative learning, group or class activities were lacking and the learners could not open up to share views and experiences, as learning was purely teacher-centred. Even the few Income-Generating Projects of ‘merry-go-round’ lacked the capacity to generate sufficient funds. There were no homework or co-curricular activities although it is recognized that learners open up more freely during sporting activities than in the classrooms.

Facilities, Teaching and Learning Materials

The study tried to document the supporting environments at home, conditions of the centres and kinds of materials available. It found that learners lacked literacy support materials at home, except for the primary books for their children, which were irrelevant to their needs. Hence they learned only at the centres, which were not purpose-built for adults. The seats could not be used to ensure concentration in class. Even the posters adorning the walls were meant for nursery school pupils. The lack of toilets in many centres also posed a health risk.

Learners were also found to be travelling fairly long distances to the centres (200 m–2 km), causing low participation.

Teachers had no guides, curriculum or reference materials to guide them. They therefore had great difficulties determining the starting point for learners. This led to lack of detailed content, sequence, uniformity and standardized teaching. The primers used by the learners were obsolete, and learners generally lacked relevant reading materials in all the centres.

Teachers were found to be comfortable teaching the 3Rs only. There is therefore a special manpower problem in the areas of socio-economic skills as teachers have serious inadequacy in vocational skills areas that learners need most. Also, the fact that learners were providing their own writing materials was a disincentive.

Quality of Education Offered

The quality of the output is determined by the input and process measures of educational quality. The study revealed that there are not enough teachers to run the literacy programme, and of those in post, half were not yet trained and therefore not qualified. Many lacked proper formal education and could not provide quality education. Highly qualified facilitators for adult literacy are still very scarce. Also, sufficient and relevant reading materials for learners that are important input variables in educational attainment and quality were lacking in the literacy programme. To enhance quality, the officers and supervisors visited the centres simply to check on the teachers’ performance, but it was not specified what this entailed. This falls below what is expected of them, so they cannot stimulate staff, or be resource persons to give direction on instructional activities and on how to improve the quality of the centres’ operation for quality education.

Learning Achievement

Educational programmes should bring about change and make the beneficiaries function better. The skills acquired in the literacy programme were generally found to be useful, but there are many different learning opportunities provided by various agencies that contribute to functional knowledge, skills and practices, and the literacy programme may not be the sole change agent here to take the credit alone.

Learners’ achievement was found to be assessed on the basis of class performance alone and not by improvements in standards of living, income and social interactions, and the majority of the teachers agreed that they had had no spectacular achievement to their credit. Literacy is therefore probably offered for its own sake and not to help learners solve socio-economic problems.


It should be recognized that various configurations might combine to affect performance. The study found out that the literacy programme operates without any policy directions that put literacy at the heart of education and economic development. There is also little collaboration or defined linkage arrangements between the Adult Education Department and other agencies involved in literacy-related programmes. Literacy educators are paid little, lack job security, have few training opportunities and rarely benefit from ongoing professional support
Source: UNESCO, EFA Global Monitoring Report 2006. Literacy for life. Summary, p. 29

Financial constraint was found to be the most obvious disincentive in adult literacy; however, its alleviation has to be accompanied by the solution to various educational problems.

The convergences of conditions that discourage the able and motivated teachers like lack of promotion and training, poor remuneration and lack of facilities and instructional materials that impose a harsh burden on teachers, need to be urgently addressed.

Strategies that promote learners’ access should be encouraged. There should be men-only classes to encourage more men to attend as most illiterate men shy off if they are to share classes with women. Literacy centres should also be operated away from primary schools and there should also be campaigns to encourage more learners to attend. Besides offering skills-based subjects, there is also a need to have sufficient teaching /learning materials at the learning centres.

Low Opinion

The literacy programme was found to have suffered a low opinion from the public, the teachers and even the learners, and this often discouraged learners from participating, hence increasing their social and economic vulnerability. The literacy programme has often been associated with failures who could not successfully make it in the more prestigious formal education. The programme does not cater for the disadvantaged and marginalized groups in society and it has low quality teachers and offers only the unrecognized proficiency certificates. It also lacks a proper certification and accreditation system. Also, those who have gone through the programme are not noticeably doing any better economically than their illiterate counterparts, and the proficiency test certificates cannot be used to get employment.

Ego of Learners

There is the problem of the stigma attached to being seen as illiterate. Some illiterate adults, especially those respected in society, feel shy and ashamed to be seen attending literacy classes for fear of being identified as illiterate. Men also opt to forgo attending classes if they are to share classes with women, who normally perform better and shame them. Adult learners also stay away if they feel that the teachers are not treating them as ‘adults’as they hate being underrated and become disgusted with the use of desks meant for children.

Capacity and Attitudes of Facilitators and Management

The majority of the teachers and officers were men, while the learners were mostly women, thus creating some cultural and sociological problems in the programme. Some officers were non-professionals and could not therefore put their hearts totally in the renewal of the literacy programme as they hoped to join more lucrative jobs. Lack of proper training definitely incapacitated the officers in their work and there was no training programme designed for training the teachers and officers. There was also no programme for refresher courses that could update staff in new innovations, approaches and delivery systems. The programme also lacks a database, which is an important foundation for participatory decision-making and planning.


From the data collected during the study, it can be concluded that:

  • The basic adult literacy programme operates without a curriculum and it lacks functionality-oriented course components. It is focused on pure literacy skills of reading, writing and numeracy (3Rs) and does not emphasise functionality, integration and day- to-day work activities of the participants.
  • For the literacy programme to succeed, it must have a curriculum and curricular materials that reflect real life situations of the learners.

  • The adult literacy programme is characterized by dismal rates of participation and gross inequalities in terms of gender.

  • There is a policy vacuum for adult literacy, or it has been narrowly defined and kept only in official thinking.

  • Literacy programmes leading to concrete benefits for learners have to cut across sectors such as rural development, community development, health and nutrition.

  • To attract the learners, the literacy programme should replace authoritarian methodologies and skills-based curricula with learnercentred approaches like REFLECT which use bottom-up strategies and involve active learner participation from the very beginning.

  • Literacy and written materials are lacking in the adult literacy programme. Learners cannot therefore have any way to remember and recall what they learn in practical life skills programmes. Knowledge and skills acquired in these programmes can make literacy a practical tool in income-generating activities.

  • Due to lack of adequate and relevant materials as well as insufficient and poorly trained staff who are disaffected due to poor terms and conditions of service, the quality of education offered is wanting and the eradication of illiteracy in future is not possible unless there is a radical change. Adult literacy classes are run at diseconomy of scale as teachers handle too few learners.

  • The context of the literacy classes and the materials used does not relate to the realities of the needs of the local people.

  • Competing priorities at individual, family and community levels that have direct impact on the lives of adults leave little room for the literacy programme, hence the low priority it has.

  • To reach the unreached or the disadvantaged groups with various forms of disabilities, and produce discernable outcomes, the programme should be tailored to address their diverse needs.

  • Literacy instruction alone cannot improve the livelihoods of participants or the country’s socio-economic conditions. It must be accompanied by post-literacy, income-generating activities and other basic education and skills-training programmes. This will make the literacy graduates to acquire skills necessary for self- employment or gainful employment in their respective communities.

  • With the absence of libraries and books to read at home and at the centre, it is very hard to develop a literate environment with opportunities to apply what is learnt.

  • As there are many different opportunities that contribute to the acquisition of functional knowledge, attitudes and practice, literacy classes may not be the most important of these, and the skills acquired may not be necessarily attributable to the literacy programme per se.

  • Insufficient funding remains the most outstanding disincentive in the adult literacy programme, and due to lack of funding the education offered in the literacy programme represents a very poor second-class kind of education for the disadvantaged population.


Course Design


‘A person is literate who can with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his [or her] everyday life.’ This definitionbecame a guidepost for measuring literacy in national censuses.
Source: UNESCO, EFA Global Monitoring Report 2006. Literacy for life. Summary, p. 15



  • There is need to establish post- literacy structures, notably libraries, community learning resource centres, written media and more generally, the written environment. Also, post-literacy should be started in Kisumu so that there is continuity from basic to post-literacy and continuing education and also to help learners not to relapse back into illiteracy.
  • More emphasis should be placed on helping participants to use the new skills acquired in their everyday lives.
  • Courses should be offered after a more systematic investigation of the people’s needs so that educators respond to different needs of learners.
  • Links between adult literacy and formal education sub-sectors should be made to ensure experience sharing and support, and to allow for easy entry and exit.
  • Literacy and adult education should focus more on specific kinds and levels of literacy required by each society as well as by specific groups within that society.
  • Tailor-made literacy programmes should be started for the unreached and disadvantaged groups in society, who also have the right to basic education.
  • As society changes, the curriculum should be changed to adapt to the needs of society and individuals. The curriculum should be accompanied with teachers’ manuals to include suggestions on teaching methods for different educational objectives.

Educational Facilities and Materials

  • Where possible, communities and aid agencies can be asked to provide essential facilities and assist to construct simple adult literacy centres separate from the primary schools so that adult learners have their own institutions.
  • Educational materials that include blackboards, posters, texts, writing materials, and all the necessary equipment and materials, should be supplied by the government or donors with government coordination if EFA goals are to be achieved.
  • Adequate and relevant materials, particularly in the local language, should be provided.
  • Men and women learners should learn in separate classes to avoid gender-related problems prevalent in the adult literacy classes. This may correct the gender barriers restricting participation in the adult literacy learning centres.

Support for Adult Educators

  • There is need for sufficient coordination between the actors engaged in the adult literacy work to avoid unnecessary duplication of work and wastage of scarce resources.
  • The teacher training programme needs to be strengthened. The obsolete two-week face-to-face training and correspondence courses for the full-time teachers and half-day training sessions for part-time teachers instil only the basics and cannot make or produce effective teachers. Particular attention is needed to develop pedagogical skills that can make teachers see learners as active participants and not passive trainees.
  • There should be adequate statistical data and a data-base built around client profiles, institutional projections, researches, surveys and networks.
  • Systems and capacities that enable teachers and administrators to acquire professional training should be an on-going process. In-service training makes teachers to be excited about the challenges they have. The management should also be trained in how to motivate teachers and also how to work with the communities and partners so that literacy centres are made to be integral parts of the larger community.
  • The proportion of full-time permanent teachers should be increased to enhance professional development. Without enough teachers, the programme has little incentive to spend scarce resources on professional development.
  • The salaries and other remunerations for the literacy personnel should be increased to boost their morale.

Mainstreaming Adult Literacy

  • Adult literacy should be in the mainstream of the education system so that it can have the much needed political will, enough institutional facilities and hence enough resources. When put within the Ministry of Education, the literacy programme will at least be sure of well-trained professional staff at all levels and benefit from the Free Primary Education funds. It will also be liberated from the self-imposed isolation which has over the years put the literacy programme in its own cocoon where the majority of the public has been wondering whether the programme still existed, save for its robust activities during the International Literacy Day celebrations in September.


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