Empowering Learners | Total Literacy | Flexibility | Caring | Science of Reading | Inequality and Power | Further Reading

Empowering Learners

The Citizen Literacy programme has been designed and developed to offer learners a route into adult education that has not existed for them before. Learning how to read and write not only builds skills, but it also opens many doors by replacing guesswork with structure and replacing stigma with confidence which empowers learners to embed these skills in every part of their lives. The impact of improving literacy cannot be overestimated:

Total Literacy

We call our approach ‘Total Literacy’*, because we seek to take learners forwards simultaneously across a broad number of literacy skills to quickly build confidence and provide the practical applications of useful functional skills. It is a good fit with the ideas connected to the Science of Reading and its use of phonics, but a very different approach to those methods used with children, who are mostly emergent readers and spellers with limited experience of language, the world in general and education in particular. Adults bring a much richer life experience and are nearly always able to draw on a range of metacognitive tools and strategies that are very different from those of children that can be used to enhance their learning. Adults and post-16 learners who are still at the early levels of reading acquisition arrive at a literacy class with a personal bank of sight words already in place and, with this, usually at least some knowledge of sound-symbol relationships.


Post-16 learners also come with a variety of experiences of education, potentially negative. They may carry with them some embarrassment, shame or frustration around previous unsuccessful attempts at reading and spelling, and the lack of equity in the educational system. Most adult emergent readers and writers will be aware that their surrounding society expects adults to be confident readers and writers already. As adult literacy practitioners, we know that learners may not attend regularly, new learners will start at any time, and others will leave due to the many, many challenges of adult life. For these reasons, we have tried to make the design of the programme and its resources as flexible, positive, motivating, and engaging as possible (e.g. the free web app and connected learners feature in the Tutor Hub can help). Because of these learner characteristics, in addition to literacy knowledge, there are two key skills that adult literacy tutors need to develop – flexibility and caring for our learners. As far as flexibility goes a tutor will need to be able to move between a range of different literacy skills with different learners in a single lesson. Chapter 1 of the free ‘POST-16 PHONICS APPROACHES: A TOOLKIT’ provides really useful guidance on the need for flexibility and personalisation when working with adults.

These are the skills we seek to develop in our learners:

Phonics – blending (i.e., Phonological Awareness and Letter Correspondence)
Decoding – breaking down
Alphabetical Awareness

* The Total Literacy concept is inspired by the ideas of the ‘Total Football’ system where each player is expected to have all the skills needed to be flexible enough to play in any position on the pitch – much like the flexibility needed by an adult literacy tutor!


The other essential skill of an adult literacy tutor is caring for their learners. Unlike children in elementary / primary schools, adults have a choice whether to attend their literacy classes. Making the choice to attend their first class is often a very big step and keeping with the class over time can be difficult as they face all the many, many challenges of adult life. The ability of a tutor to make learners feel welcome and at ease with each other is crucial to getting off to a good start (as in any educational programme). In our programme peer learning is an important component, where the learners help each other on tasks – this also helps to break down barriers and build bonds that can support the class as a whole – it also helps to reduce the load on the tutor.

One aspect of caring is to aim to make the content of the classes relevant and useful to the individual learners – this is where our free Personal Learning Plan (PLP) template can help – available from our Resources page. The idea is simple – during the first few classes the tutor works with learners to compile their PLP to discover what their background is, their interests, their level of literacy, and what they would like to get out of the course and create their own learning aims. The great Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire, was a pioneer of this kind of approach of making learning relevant and useful. Armed with this knowledge about their learners a tutor can try to make the content of the classes more relevant to them. The free ‘POST-16 PHONICS APPROACHES: A TOOLKIT’ provides useful guidance on personalisation when working with adults [link].

Science of Reading

Our programme fits many of the ideas and principles of the Science of Reading Movement with its emphasis on using phonics, which has been gaining ground in the USA and elsewhere. This movement seeks to improve teaching literacy skills to children, and is relevant to adult learners as well. In this section, we describe how we think our programme meets some of the objectives of the Science of Reading.

Inequality and Power


Literacy, particularly for children, is a lightning rod for raising issues of inequality and power in society. In the USA addressing poor levels of literacy is increasingly seen as a matter of social justice (as we do in Citizen Literacy). Seen through this lens, poor adult literacy is also a product of inequality. An article in the Irish Times provides a useful and thought-provoking exploration of this topic in the context of Ireland, that applies equally to the rest of the English-speaking world.

This takes the parameters of discussion well outside the normal narrow and usually disconnected fields of educational practice, management, theory, research, government policy, educational publishing and Ed-Tech ‘solutions’. This can be uncomfortable for those who believe that personal progress in society is a matter of individual and family responsibility and ‘choice’.  It is easy to focus on the negative symptoms of low literacy; self-esteem, personal development, economic productivity, individual and inter-generational life chances, and social cohesion. Rather than consider the causes. Tackling the root causes has involved Civil rights organisations, educationalist and activists in the USA to take legal action calling for the adoption of phonics-based approaches to literacy instruction.

We think it is only in this larger social and economic space that we can effectively work towards improving low literacy amongst adults by identifying the factors that obstruct progress and addressing them. The situation facing those of us who want to improve adult literacy is neatly summed up in this proposal for a national USA plan for adult literacy and applies equally well to the rest of the English-speaking world

The work of teaching literacy skills to adults is overlooked and undervalued.

The field of adult basic education, which includes literacy instruction, receives far less attention in academia than early childhood, K-12, or tertiary education. Thus, there is not only a lack of data and research—which means a paucity of high-quality, evidence-based instructional resources—but also a lack of investment in professional development for adult literacy instructors, most of whom are part-time or volunteer and few of whom receive competitive compensation. The lack of competitive salaries and professional development opportunities deter many promising teachers from entering the field, as does the dearth of proven, accessible training materials.

For these reasons, access to adult literacy programs has not significantly improved over the past few decades


Barbara Bush Foundation

Our contribution to a solution is to work with others involved in adult literacy to develop and share the high-quality, evidence-based instructional resources and the proven and accessible training materials for tutors that the report identifies as an urgent need – it is something we can do in the here and now as a small non-profit company. More funding for community adult education, improving pay for tutors, and research are also desperately needed and are in the realm of activism for social change.

The scale of the educational inequality and its direct links to economic and political inequality is nicely summarised in this statement:

“It’s a national problem that cuts across demographics, but it’s painted as a minority issue. If it was a minority issue, then all these soccer moms wouldn’t be spending twenty, thirty-thousand dollars sending their kids to private tutoring because they didn’t learn how to read in school.”

Kareem Weaver – The Right to Read Documentary Film

Power and Politics

Education in general and literacy in particular are intensely political topics in society, especially in the USA due to its high levels of poor literacy. It would be foolish of us in the extreme to pretend that literacy is not a political issue or linked to inequality and how it affects our work. A good place to start is with this reminder from the American educationalist Michael Apple:

“until we take seriously the extent to which education is caught up in the real world of shifting and unequal power relations, we will be living in a world divorced from reality. The theories, policies, and practices involved in education are not technical. They are inherently ethical and political, and they ultimately involve…intensely personal choices about… ‘the common good’.”

Ideology and Curriculum, Michael Apple

Discourse about education involving the use of technology is often the most removed from reality, presented with a sugar coating of ‘Silicon Valley’ hype suggesting the right tech and positive thinking can overcome any problem. In this view, the key to improving education becomes a choice of ‘product’ in the market place rather than identifying and tackling the structural and systemic factors that that are the cause of poor educational outcomes. It takes a particularly determined form of naivety to maintain this position in an increasingly unequal society, and is driven by media statements, conferences, ‘thought leaders’, ‘disruptors’, and of course ‘research’. The economic driver of all this is the huge global market that education represents to tech companies.


Change in educational institutions and systems tends to be slow, we can borrow two terms from physics to help describe the forces involved. Inertia i.e. resistance from; tradition, dominant groups, publishers, commercial interests, political forces and their ideologies etc.  Another force obstructing change is entropy, educational systems are in our view highly entropic, by which we mean the tendency to return to the previous existing state unless a high enough degree of energy is put into making the change ‘stick’. These factors are nicely illustrated in an article from Time magazine in the context of trying to introduce phonics-based instruction into the public education systems of the USA. Despite being recommended by the USA National Reading Panel back in 2000, based on clear research evidence, this had been resisted or diluted in school systems. The article describes how advocates and civil rights activists for dyslexics and Black kids, groups of learners particularly disadvantaged by traditional methods of instruction, have been able to drive forwards the debate and pressure local governments to start to act.

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Further Reading

Inside the Massive Effort to Change the Way Kids Are Taught to Read

A Time Magazine article about efforts to introduce phonics-based instruction into the public education systems of the USA. Despite being recommended by the USA National Reading Panel back in 2000, based on clear research evidence, this had been resisted or diluted in school systems. The article describes how advocates and civil rights activists for dyslexics and Black kids, groups of learners particularly disadvantaged by traditional methods of instruction, have been able to drive forwards the debate and pressure local governments to start to act. Now the subject of a documentary film – The Right to Read (release 2023)

Ideology and Curriculum: Fourth Edition (2019), by Michael W. Apple, Routledge, New York

Can Education Change Society? (2016) Lecture at University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Education. English language lecture starts at 13:10

Equality Trust UK

1000% Increase in Billionaire Wealth

A report from the UK Equality Trust highlighting the negative effects of high levels of economic equality on individuals and society