The Problem of Adult Illiteracy

The issue of adult illiteracy came up while I was teaching in public schools in central Texas. I worked all but two years of my 14-year career in poor neighborhoods consisting largely of families who did not speak, read, or write English. Many of them did not know how to read or write in their native language, either. This created problems for the students in the school.

Britt (2009) reported that one of every seven Americans is illiterate. Providing possible reasons, Baer, Kutner, and Sabatini (2009) produced a report on the literacy of adult Americans and found that Hispanic adults were more likely to be illiterate in either English or Spanish. This has a negative impact on not only the adults’ lives but their children’s lives as well.

The National Education Association (2014) published data suggesting that students do better in school with parental support at home. The parents who were literate in Spanish needed some accommodations such as translated forms and instructions. Those who were illiterate were unable to help their children, and the grades and progress showed this.

Texas has had mandated testing for years including rating systems and sanctions for low-performance. In an effort to bring these scores up among the Spanish-speaking students, two of the schools for which I worked proposed programs to increase the literacy of the parents. In both cases, the proposal fell through because of difficulty trying to figure out the best approach. Schools in Texas often have very limited budgets, so programs that re-purpose materials already available would be best. Time and manpower to implement a program are also problematic, so a good solution will have a low impact in those areas as well.

Possible Solutions in the Literature

A review of four possible programs turned up some interesting results. One study compared a curriculum called Sam and Pat to a traditional language-acquisition program and showed no significant improvement. There was improvement in the lowest groups of readers, but the researchers indicated that the difference was minute (Condelli, Cronen, Bos, Tseng, & Altuna, 2010). School districts can rule out this curriculum as a valid option.

The other three studies found some success using a more do-it-yourself approach. Larrotta and Gainer (2008) used Spanish reading materials on relevant topics to teach basic skills and encourage discussions. By the end of the study, the parents involved were more confident in reading and writing in Spanish. A few years later, Larrotta and Serrano (2012) used pre-service teachers in a local university as pen pals for their Spanish-speaking parents at a local elementary. This study also produced good results with increased English fluency and confidence. An earlier study by Tse (1996) increased the fluency and confidence of intermediate to high English as a Second Language (ESL) adults by using popular novels in a sort of book club.

Potential Solution to the Problem

These studies meet the criteria of re-purposing available material. The districts where I worked had growing libraries of reading materials at various levels in Spanish and English including low reading level, high-interest texts in English. These materials could be used to teach parents how to read in Spanish then transition to English. This would take advantage of the findings in Larrotta and Gainer’s (2009) study on relevant texts.

Adapting Larrotta and Serrano’s (2012) pen pal study, upper level elementary or perhaps even secondary students could be recruited as pen pals for the parents in the program. For the students, the project could be handled through their language arts classes or as project taken on by a club.

Finally, for both those who have some literacy in English and those who gain skill through the program, novel sets used by the elementary school can be used by the parents to build their confidence and reading ability as shown in the study on book groups (Tse, 1996).

This proposal accounts for issues of materials cost. Many schools have these things already, so there would only be an issue of working out the timing so the classes for the parents would not be trying to use the materials the elementary classes needed at the same time.

Other issues need to be addressed such as childcare for the children of the parents in the program. One possibility would be to have the ESL and literacy classes during the school day. That would take care of the childcare issue for school age children. Something would have to be arranged for the younger ones. Ultimately, though, the scheduling of the class would be dependent on the availability of most of the parents who would want to be involved.

Manpower is another issue. Texas elementary teachers are already overburdened with paperwork, duties, and meetings. One possibility would be to recruit volunteer parents to cover a teacher’s duty or a particular hour each day or week, depending on how often the class met, so the teacher could go work with the ESL and literacy classes.

Research suggests that using relevant materials and authentic activities produces useful results when increasing the literacy of ESL adults. There are other factors to consider, but being able to re-purpose materials a school already possesses overcomes a significant hurdle in the process.



Baer, J., Kutner, M., & Sabatini, J. (2009). Basic Reading Skills and the Literacy of America’s Least Literate Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) Supplemental Studies (NCES 2009-481). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.

Britt, R. (2009, January 10). 14 percent of adults can’t read. Livescience. Retrieved from

Condelli, L., Cronen, S., Bos, J., Tseng, F., & Altuna, J. (2010). The Impact of a Reading Intervention for Low-Literate Adult ESL Learners (NCEE 2011-4003). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Larrotta, C. & Gainer, J. (2008). Text matters: Mexican immigrant parents reading their world. Multicultural Education, 16(2), 45-48. Retrieved from

Larrotta, C. & Serrano, A. (2012). Pen pal writing: A holistic and socio-cultural approach to adult English literacy. Journal of Adult Education, 41(1) spec iss 8-18. Retrieved from

National Education Association. (2014). Research spotlight on parental involvement in education. Retrieved January 17, 2014 from

Tse, L. (1996). If you lead horses to water they will drink: Introducing second language adults to books in English. California Reader, 29(2), p14-17. Retrieved from


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