6. Adults

In good company

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2011-2012 survey of adult literacy in Australia shows that nearly half of all adults are not really literate enough to cope with all the demands of our complex, modern society. This is a similar result to the two earlier surveys of adult literacy done in 1996 and 2006.

If you think I made those figures up, because you don’t remember there being an outcry about them (I still can’t work out why there wasn’t) check out the report yourself.

So if you’re the parent or relative of an adult with poor literacy skills, the first thing they need to know is that they are not strange and unusual, there are heaps of adults who spend their lives avoiding situations in which they’ll have to read and spell, and pretending they can do it well when actually, they can’t.

Pinning down the reason

The adults I’ve known who are ready to admit that they can’t read or spell, and see if something can be done about it, have typically had the same two underlying problems as most younger learners with literacy difficulties:

1. Poor phonemic awareness, i.e. the ability to hear the identity, order and number in words.

2. Poor spelling pattern knowledge, i.e. understanding of which letters and spellings represent which sounds, especially vowel sounds, and how some meaningful word parts have special spellings.

Often they have never been directly and explicitly taught how to segment and blend words, manipulate sounds in words, or what the main spelling patterns of English are, starting from simple and working to more complex.

The free low frequency spelling test on this website might help you explore with them what spelling skills and knowledge they have, and what they might still like to learn. It is not intended as a substitute for a proper standardised assessment, but it might be a good starting point, and a way to point out that lots of spelling stuff is finite and learnable.

Getting a proper assessment

A proper, professional assessment is of course the best place to start in planning intervention, This assessment should examine at a bare minimum phonemic awareness (beginning and advanced), real and pseudoword reading (click here to read a blog post about pseudowords), spelling, working memory and rapid automatised naming. Specialist speech pathologists, psychologists, teachers and some other professionals can provide such assessment, and a psychologist/neuropsychologist can also test nonverbal skills, memory and nonverbal skills.

If you’re in Australia, your local branch of SPELD might be able to help you with an assessment, or a GP may be able to provide a Medicare referral (under Enhanced Primary Care/Chronic Disease Management) to see a suitably qualified and experienced private Speech Pathologist or Psychologist/Neuropsychologist.

You can find local private Speech Pathologists via the Speech Pathology Australia website, and Psychologists via the Australian Psychological Society. Ask what the assessment involves and what it will cost (including the report) before booking an appointment. If you’re outside Australia, try this website.

Make sure that the assessment report will include recommendations about how to address problems identified, and when you get it, if you don’t understand exactly what to do to follow the recommendations, just keep asking questions till you do know what to do.

Intensive, synthetic phonics programs for adults

A lot of the quality resources designed to teach literacy to beginners are too teddy-bearish to use with adults, and too focussed on having fun, which motivates children, whereas adults don’t usually care too much about fun, they just want to cut to the chase and learn to read and spell as fast as possible.

Resources that are worth investigating if your assessment report recommends an intensive synthetic phonics program, but doesn’t specify which one, include:

I also think the workbooks, movable alphabet and games in this website’s shop are worth considering, but please decide that for yourself. I don’t have any randomised controlled trials I can show you to prove they work, but they are based on the same principles as programs that do.

You can also use the materials I’ve listed under Phonics Resources that are primarily designed for young children, if you don’t mind dodging a few bunny rabbits and teddy bears.

Mainstream adult literacy programs

There seem to be a lot of adult literacy programs out there, but it’s very hard to work out from their public information exactly how they analyse literacy as a skill, and what their program content and sequence is.

If you’d spent your entire school years throwing mud at a wall, and none of it had stuck, you wouldn’t want to do that any more, you’d want to try something different. Before embarking on a literacy program with an adult literacy provider, make sure that they can explain to you, based on assessment results, why the person can’t read or spell well, and can tell you exactly what skills they will be teaching and what the expected skill improvements will be, in measurable terms.

Ask whether they teach the ability to discriminate, blend and manipulate sounds in words,  whether they teach the main spelling patterns of English in an explicit way, and if so, in what order.

Elsewhere on this website I’ve mentioned that as a university student, I volunteered in an adult literacy program, but it wasn’t very effective or enjoyable. With the benefit of my 20-20 hindsight, I can see that was because the curriculum was just more mud being thrown at learners’ walls, the same sort that didn’t stick last time.

Learners’ and volunteers’ time is precious, and shouldn’t be wasted. Experts providing programs for volunteers to run need to have clear, measurable course objectives based on sound theory and research, and be able to explain these clearly and concisely in plain English, plus provide resources that really do target the skills in the course objectives. Perhaps don’t pursue any “lots of authentic literacy activities” courses consisting mostly of writing-shopping-lists-and-filling-in-forms activity traps, but very little encoding or decoding skill development.

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