The Surprising Lack of Low-Literacy Programs and its Impact - A Tutor's Perspective
Posted by Ben Davis on May 23, 2018

We recently received a message from Larissa Phillips, a tutor in New York City and the author of City Stories, an illustrated collection of leveled, decodable stories written for adult beginning readers. She gives an interesting perspective on the necessity of adult basic literacy programs and the importance of reading materials designed for adults who want to learn how to read or improve their literacy skills.

Larissa asked ProLiteracy two very good questions about the lack of reading programs for adults who have zero reading skills and what needs to be done to increase access to these programs. In response, we had our Editorial Director for ProLiteracy and New Readers Press, Terrie Lipke, and our Director of Programs, Michele Diecuch, address Larissa’s concerns.


When I was hired as the supervisor of an adult literacy center in 2006, my students were mostly GED-prep and college-prep students. These were the people we were funded to serve; but they weren’t the only ones who asked us for help.

Another group trickled in, one by one. They usually came with an administrator. “He can’t read,” the administrator would stage-whisper, looking stricken. “Like, not at all.” We were an adult literacy center, but nobody knew what to do with the non-reading adult.

“We’re not equipped to serve this level,” I would say, as the student stood stiffly, clearly waiting to be turned away. “But…um, sure. We can give it a try.”

This was perhaps a nice gesture on my part, but it was also foolhardy and pointless, as I then proceeded to waste several years of my students’ time. In our considerable library of educational materials, we had nothing aimed at the absolute beginning reader, someone who had no mastery of the phonological relationship between letters and sounds or how to blend them. Worse, they were now in the hands of inexperienced volunteer tutors and a supervisor (me) who had no ability to explain or teach these skills. Add to this mix an administration and a general era that have marked virtually no funding for the pursuit of basic reading skills, and we had a recipe for no progress. 

Eventually, my program invested in a methodical, explicit, phonics-based curriculum for adults. This is what we still use, and I train my volunteers to use it with our ever-growing group of dedicated, hardworking literacy students. The students progress at a slow rate; but the progress is significant and life-changing. 

There are 36 million Americans reading below a third-grade level. The non-reading adult is all but unemployable, severely hampered in his or her ability to navigate the digital world—never mind something as basic as public transportation or a utility bill. Recent calculations have suggested that for every dollar invested in literacy programs, $5 is saved in public assistance funds. It seems so obvious, and yet, across the country, low literacy programs are the first to go when the inevitable budget cuts arrive. 

Many of my volunteer tutors are expats from programs that suffered brutal budget cuts that cast out their entire corps of low literacy students (and thus the volunteers devoted to them).

I have questions for you all:

1. Why has adult ed come to mean only high school completion and college entry, when there is such a critical need for beginning-reading programs? 

Hi Larissa, this is Terrie Lipke, the Editorial Director of New Readers Press.

Those of us working in the adult literacy/adult basic education space are well aware that learners range from the lowest level, such as immigrants who want to learn English to get a job but are not even literate in their native language, all the way up to people who dropped out of high school and just need to brush up on some skills to get a high school equivalency diploma or to start college. But the reality is that many of these students end up together in programs that don’t have enough money or instructors to give each one the personalized attention he or she deserves.

Sadly, test results are driving the funding that adult ed programs so desperately need. From a big-picture standpoint, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to require educational programs to prove that they can help students achieve success—whether that means standardized tests for third graders, college entry exams for high schoolers, or tests of adult basic education (TABE) to assess level gains for adult learners. But linking test results to funding takes the emphasis off the learner and focuses the spotlight on the assessment results.

The tests are not the problem. Don’t blame the Common Core or the SAT. The problem is that the educational programs our learners need, live and die by the numbers they report. And there’s nothing we can do about that. Funding streams come and go, and programs choose curricula and change testing programs accordingly. It doesn’t matter whether it’s EL Civics, Title II, or WIOA, the educators and programs dedicated to helping adults achieve their goals will adapt.

As you know, Larissa, there are still dedicated instructors who look beyond the reporting systems and listen to their students. We need to celebrate every victory adult learners achieve. Every day in the news I read about adults who pass the GED®, HiSET®, or TASC tests to achieve their high school equivalency diploma. Where are the stories about the lowest level learners who achieve their goals?

There are occasionally stories about adults who learn to read, and we need to share them. Everyone should know how empowering it is for an adult to become literate. In last week’s Washington Post, I read about Freddie Sherrill: Once a homeless addict, he learned to read at 37. Now, he’s a college graduate.

2. How can we increase access to high-quality programs? 

Hi Larissa. This is Michele Diecuch, Director of Programs at ProLiteracy

As has been mentioned, high school equivalency or college prep have become more of an emphasis in the adult education world. Federal policy has moved towards programs that can move learners along a faster and smoother trajectory towards gaining employment. This, of course, has left out the lowest level learners. ProLiteracy is one of the few organizations which still very much seeks to help literacy programs that serve those with the lowest skills.

New Readers Press, ProLiteracy’s publishing division, has its roots in developing materials for the lowest-level adult learners. Laubach Way to Reading (named after one of our founders, Frank C. Laubach) is still one of our highest sellers. We have 400 other titles that are designed to help adults of various skill levels to gain the necessary reading skills they need.

One of the benefits ProLiteracy provides for members and customers is advocating on a national level for adult literacy legislation and policies. This includes contacting legislators and commenting on potential policies that will impact learners at the lowest levels. It is our goal to help fight against potential “creaming” of students that can occur when focus is on HSE or employment. ProLiteracy will continue to focus its advocacy efforts in this area.

ProLiteracy also knows that learners at the lowest levels are often intimidated to seek help at traditional adult education programs or community colleges. One of our initiatives, Expanding Access to Adult Literacy, involves helping social service agencies of various types to add adult literacy instruction to their services. This has helped us reach low-level learners who may not have otherwise sought services through a traditional program.

ProLiteracy continuously strives to help adult literacy programs gain the tools needed to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of providing instructional services. We want to help programs use a mix of one-to-one and classroom instruction; blended learning; and technology for independent supplemental instruction in order to help learners at all levels learn to read, persist in education, and make progress towards the credentials they seek.


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