appleLiteracy and Adult Education


Roots of Literacy


Adult Literacy as a field of practice and a branch of adult education became more wide-spread in the late 1970s and early 1980s due to funding and policy changes at the federal and provincial levels.  The practice has its roots in many major adult education movements beginning at the turn of the century.


Our Canadian roots include: the worker-educator model (Frontier College), Women’s Institutes, Farm Radio, the Antigonish Movement, Vocational Education and Community Development.

You can read more about the history of Canadian literacy work here: Literacy’s Heroes & Heroines: Reclaiming our forgotten past by B. Allan Quigley.


Learning Theories and Adult Literacy

As a branch of the larger field of adult education, adult literacy has been informed by the following key learning theories:

The purpose for adult education constantly swings between social change and citizenship AND productivity and worker development.


Principles of Adult Learning

Malcolm Knowles proposed 5 assumptions about adult learners in 1968:

  1. As a person matures, self-concept moves from dependent toward self-directed
  2. An adult accumulates experience, which is a rich resource for learning
  3. Readiness to learn is closely related to developmental tasks of an individual’s social role (parent, spouse, worker, citizen, etc.)
  4. There is a change in time perspective as people mature – from future application to immediacy of application; thus, an adult is more problem-centred than subject-centred
  5. Adults are motivated to learn by internal factors rather than external ones


Popular Education

Paulo Freire’s theory of education for social change, proposed in the 1970’s, focused on a larger framework: “personal empowerment and social transformation are intertwined and inseparable processes.”

Freire calls the act of critical reflection, “conscientization” (consciousness-raising) –

“in which [people], not as recipients, but as knowing subjects, achieve a deepening awareness both of the sociocultural reality which shapes their lives and of their capacity to transform that reality.”


Defining Literacy

 Literacy is more than knowing how to read and write.
People who are literate can use reading, writing, speaking and math skills effectively to understand and participate in the world around them.


Literacy is a means of identifying, understanding, interpreting, creating and communicating in our digital, information-rich and fast-changing world. (adapted from UNESCO, n.d.).


Literacy is “understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential”. (OECD, 2016. The Survey of Adult Skills)

Literacy is not a fixed skill.
It needs to be exercised and challenged, otherwise, the skill may not strengthen and may weaken.    (Project READ Literacy Network Waterloo-Wellington)


Literacy has been defined in various ways over the years.  UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) currently defines literacy as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. [It] involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.


Earlier definitions include: 

Literacy involves a complex set of abilities to understand and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture for personal and community development at home and at work.  The need and demand for these abilities vary in different contexts and societies.  In a technological society, the concept is expanding to include digital media in addition to print alphabets and numbers.  Individuals must be given learning opportunities to move along a continuum that includes reading, writing, and numeracy in print and digital environments and the critical understanding and decision-making abilities they need in their lives.  However a culture defines it, literacy touches every aspect of individual and community life.  It is an essential foundation for learning through life and must be valued as a human right.

–  The Centre for Literacy,1989, revised in 2014


Literacy (1994) is the ability to employ printed information in daily activities, at home, at work and in the community to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.
– International Adult Literacy Survey, Statistics Canada, 1994

Literacy (1975). Literacy work, like education in general, is a political act. It is not neutral, for the act of revealing social reality in order to transform it, or of concealing it in order to preserve it, is political. Literacy is not an end in itself. It is a fundamental human right.

– International Symposium for Literacy, Persepolis, 3-8 September 1975


As you can see, literacy is a very broad concept encompassing a wide range of skills and uses.  Unfortunately, many people do not understand the broader concept of literacy. They may not have a full appreciation of literacy skills and often have a negative opinion of what literacy skills are.  People in the literacy field must constantly educate both the general public and governments as to the importance of literacy as THE foundational skills that support everything else.



Literacy and Second Language Learning


English as a Second Language (ESL) and French as a Second Language (FSL) are primarily about helping individuals to transfer knowledge from one language to another.

Literacy focuses on helping people who speak English or French with some fluency and accuracy, to gain skills in reading text, document use, writing, math, basic computer skills, problem solving and thinking skills, continuous learning, oral communication, and working with others.

There are people at all points in the continuum, depending on the literacy level of their first language and their experiences with formal education.  There are those who lack first language literacy, those who struggle with speaking as well as reading and writing and those who have just enough literacy to get by – functional literacy.


Many people who are newcomers, or whose first language may not be English or French, can be well served by LBS programs and often are referred there.  They must be fluent, or near fluent, English or French speakers but have difficulties reading and writing.  The LBS Guidelines recommend they be at Canadian Language Benchmark 6 to participate in and LBS program.  If the person does not have a formal language assessment, they need to be able to converse with and understand their instructor well enough to participate in programming.

Some organizations that offer Literacy and Basic Skills programs also use other funding to offer ESL, FSL, ESL literacy and/or FSL literacy programs.  Learners can move easily between these programs as their skills levels and needs change.

English as a Second Language (ESL) or French as a Second Language (FSL)
ESL Literacy or FSL Literacy
LBS /Adult Upgrading
First language is not English or French

Can read and write well in their first language

Needs to work on English or French Reading/Writing/

Speaking/Listening skills

First language is not English or French

Has difficulty reading and writing in any language

Needs to work on Reading/Writing skills

Needs to work on English or French Speaking/Listening skills

First language is English or French, or speaks English or French well

Have difficulty reading and writing in any language

Needs to work on Reading/Writing skills

Does not need to work on English or French Speaking/Listening skills -- if people identify oral communication as an area that needs improvement, it has to do with communicating ideas with confidence rather than a problem with fluency in English or French

Questions and Activities for Reflection

  1. How have the ways we think about literacy changed since 1952? How would you define literacy?
  2. As you went through the full module, did your definition of literacy change?
  3. How will your work as an LBS manager change the way you think about literacy?

Check Your Learning Quiz

Literacy & Adult Education

Select one

  1. Adult Literacy as a field of practice and a branch of adult education became more wide-spread in the _______________ due to funding and policy changes at the federal and provincial levels.
  1. Malcolm Knowles is known for

Finish the sentences with the best matches.

An adult's readiness to learn can be determined by

Adults are motivated to learn by

Adult learning policy is sometimes informed by

Select one

  1. Paulo Freire’s theory of education focused on

Finish the sentences with the best matches.

Literacy and Basic Skills learners

English as a Second Language (ESL) learners

ESL Literacy learners

Your score is

The average score is 66%


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