Campaigns to boost literacy usually focus on providing children greater access to reading materials. Children’s reading is important. But efforts to make better young readers and writers can overlook the reality that many adults struggle with low literacy.

Seeing nonliteracy

Adult nonliteracy occurs for various reasons, typically connected with poverty and complicated by factors like unequal quality of schooling.

"...adult learners have intentions that are not necessarily about getting jobs or returning to school. Sometimes they want to write so they can make changes in their communities."

The common view that a person who can’t read is a person who can’t “know” ignores the experiences of some Americans and denies their knowledge. Just because a person doesn’t read or write doesn’t mean that person is unable to think. The accounts of nonliterate Americans go unheard because this population is voiceless in a society that equates the ability to know with formal education.

Adult literacy learners are the best people to ask about their needs. They tell us about the importance of quality programs—in libraries, community centers or other accessible sites—that provide services determined by learners’ individual goals. Often people request help with tasks, such as completing forms or writing a note to a child’s teacher.

Know the goal

Adults also seek literacy for reasons that are not functional. They may wish to read for pleasure or to participate in political conversations. Personal uses of writing might include composing letters to relatives and reflecting on one’s life experiences.

Although training for workforce and GED preparation matters, adult learners have intentions that are not necessarily about getting jobs or returning to school. Sometimes they want to write so they can make changes in their communities. They create newsletters for their church or write on behalf of single mothers.

When people choose literacy for their own purposes, they may hope for a more public voice. Adult learners want their voices to be heard and their stories to be told to people who will listen.