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Monday, 22 January, 2001, 15:33 GMT
Literacy courses 'fail adult learners'
Many adults experience difficulties in writing
Adult literacy programmes are failing to improve the writing ability of those who struggle with basic skills, research suggests.

While most adults surveyed made modest steps in reading, a report published by the Basic Skills Agency (BSA) shows there was no "measurable progress" in writing, particularly in spelling and punctuation.

Adult basic skills training has been a 'Cinderella' for too long

Dr Greg Brooks
One in five adults in the UK is classified as having below functional levels of literacy, but only 13% of those who attended a literacy programme moved out of this bracket.

The survey, carried out in 1998/99 by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), tested 2,135 students in England and Wales before tuition and 1,224 afterwards - highlighting the high drop-out rate among students.

The tests ranged from circling two dates on a calendar to reading a piece of text and extracting and writing down three pieces of information from it.

'Cinderella' service

The researchers believe the results prove the service has been undervalued and that many adult literacy teachers have received inadequate training.

"This is one of the lowest paid jobs for teachers, with low status and little career development," director of the BSA, Alan Wells OBE, said.

alan wells
Alan Wells says punctuation and spelling clearly matter
"We are currently conducting intensive training to update their skills - it's not necessarily their fault," Mr Wells said.

The report also notes that basic skills education for adults has had a very low priority since the 1970s.

"Adult basic skills training has been a 'Cinderella' for too long - it's been underfunded, under-professionalised and has suffered low expectations of students," said Dr Greg Brooks, who carried out the survey for the NFER.

There should also be more provision for classroom support, with results showing students made better progress where they had received such assistance.

"A great deal needs to be done - the search is on for much more effective ways of moving people on," Dr Brooks warned.

Failure at school

The survey findings were also attributed to the fact that students had received too little teaching and should be encouraged to attend classes "very regularly, perhaps on an intensive course".

Many of these adults had had a history of failure at school, Mr Wells said.

greg brooks
Dr Brooks: "A great deal more needs to be done"
"We're not dealing with your average highly educated person at night-school learning a new skill," he added.

"These people have had a lack of access to training and are in low-status occupations with little access to development."

It was crucial to help them improve their spelling and punctuation.

"Clearly that is what matters when it comes to job applications - badly spelt and punctuated ones tend to go in the waste paper basket," Mr Wells added.

Changing world of work

Dr Brooks also pointed to the problem of rising expectations in the world of work.

Factors in progress
Regular attendance
More intensive courses
Trained teachers
Additional classroom help

"There used to be lots of jobs where people with weak basic skills could get an interesting, satisfactory position - but those jobs have now gone," he said.

A chain-saw operator now needed a certificate - which in turn required a user to pass a written test - to do the job, he said.

"And information technology-based jobs - despite the bold assertion of a paperless office - puts more stress and emphasis on the need for good literacy because there is so much text on the screen."

Brighter future

But despite the report findings, Dr Brooks remains confident of seeing an improvement in adults' basic skills.

"Lots of elements have been put in place, like standards in adult literacy and numeracy, new assessment arrangements and an improved service," he said.

Those professionals promoting the issue of adult literacy now had better access "to a minister's ear", he added, with the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit within the Department for Education reporting regularly to the government.

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See also:

22 Jan 01 | Education
How adult learning changed a life
03 Apr 00 | Education
Boost for basic skills
31 Oct 00 | Education
New ways of learning
22 May 00 | Education
Basic skills for adult learners
29 Sep 00 | Education
Bad memories stop adult learners
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