Teaching Adults to Read

A surprisingly high proportion – a shockingly high proportion some might say – of American adults are unable to read.

The current figure is estimated as 14% of the population, equating to around 32 million people, and this figure hasn’t changed in the last ten years.

While much effort goes into teaching schoolkids to read, a lot less is done about those adults who have somehow been “left behind”.

In an article, Ashley Hager, an expert on teaching adults, talks about her experiences of helping adults acquire basic literacy. She explains that reading comprises of a suite of skills that need to be learned separately.

“Our class meets two evenings a week for three hours each evening. Because skilled reading depends on the mastery of specific subskills, I find it helpful to teach these explicitly.

I organize the class into blocks of time in which, with the help of two volunteers, I directly teach eight components of reading: phonological awareness, word analysis, sight word recognition, spelling, oral reading for accuracy, oral reading for fluency, listening comprehension, and writing.

These components embody the skills and strategies that successful readers have mastered, either consciously or unconsciously. My curriculum also includes an intensive writing component.”

To read the full article, click here.

One of the problems with teaching adults is that some tried and tested methods that work very well with children may not be suitable for adult learners.

One such technique is teaching phonics.

Breaking words down into individual sounds is how kids begin to piece words together, but adults may resist this activity, finding it childish and patronizing.

In the British newspaper The Guardian, Peter Kingston discusses a study that shows that, once this initial hurdle is overcome, the technique is just as invaluable for adults.

“The phonics argument appears to have been cut and dried, at least so far as the teaching of children in primary schools is concerned. In the world of adult literacy, however, the battle continues. Opinions remain divided on the effectiveness for older learners of this method, which connects the sounds of spoken English with letters or groups of letters.

The fact that phonics is primarily associated with teaching very young children the basics of reading has led many teachers working with adults to make scant use of it.

And there has been a widespread assumption that adult learners will not be very receptive to a method they could perceive as babyish and of which some might have unfavourable memories.”

To read more, click here.

Anyone involved in education will be aware that people have a range of different learning styles, including visual, auditory and tactile. Successful teachers must be able to develop lessons that are suitable for learners with these different styles.

This is just as true when teaching adults to read, especially if the reason for their lack of reading ability is a learning disability. If the student is a tactile learner, teaching them in a more visual or auditory way will not meet with much success and may only frustrate them.

An article from the Learning Disabilities of American website discusses a range of different teaching methods that can be combined to ensure lessons are suitable for all styles of learner.

“A well-trained teacher or tutor in an adult literacy program should be trained in at least three methods, including the multisensory approach, which has proven to be effective for adult students with learning disabilities.

A multisensory method uses a combination of visual, auditory and tactile-kinesthetic instruction to enhance memory and learning.”

To find out more, click here.


The American illiteracy rate is one of the highest in the developed world and not being able to read can be a source of great embarrassment as well as being a serious handicap in daily life.

Yet by focusing specifically on the different aspects of reading, as well as using tried and tested methods that are equally as useful with adults as with children, there is no reason why adults can’t become literate.

Teaching should focus on different learning styles to ensure the greatest chance of success, even with adults who never managed to learn to read successfully before.