Literacy skills

What is literacy?

The definition of literacy according to UNESCO institute for statistics is the following:

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy 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. Generally, literacy also encompasses numeracy, the ability to make simple arithmetic calculations. The concept of literacy can be distinguished from measures to quantify it, such as the literacy rate and functional literacy.”

Why is literacy important?

Literacy is extremely important to have the opportunity to participate and contribute to the society. Illiteracy is closely connected to shame and social immobility. Poor literacy also increases the risk of poverty and social exclusion and limits the everyday life. Today’s society demands everybody to absorb information through many different kinds of media. Furthermore, skills are required to be able to express oneself both orally and in writing to gain access to the labor market, read instructions, prescriptions, make an appointment with, for example, doctors, understand the children’s schooling etcetera. Literacy is fundamental to individual development and increases the possibilities to live meaningful and complet lives, literacy skills also lay the foundation to further education. 

Statistics in Europe

According to UNESCO there are still 781 million illiterates in the worldand nearly 75 million adults living in the EU lack basic reading and writing skills. 

Europe consistently shows a high rate of literacy even though EU LFS data shows that adults (25-64 years) who have not completed uppers secondary school corresponds to approximately 51,5 million people. The educational profile of migrants living in European states demonstrates that the number is higher compared to adults born in the country. 34,1% in the migrant group born outside the country versus 19,6% among native adults. This pattern is more notable in Belgium, Germany, Greece, France, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland where it differs more than 15 percentage points. In some European countries (EU Member States and non-EU countries), more than 50 % of all adults with low levels of educational attainment were born in a foreign country.

Learning to read and write as an adult – basic literacy

Migrants who move to a new country lose their previous privileged use of writing and reading. Their prior skills in for example language linked to a particular profession or religious context, loses its value and is no longer the same resource for the individual. Even individuals with no former education have had access to domains where writing is used for different purposes in ways that no longer is a considered recourse in their new country. e.g., selling vegetables in a market in Kabul involves a series of written language events that require a range of skills from the individual, but which in a grocery store in the new country is no longer needed and hence is not a resource. 

Learning to read and write in a new language as an adult is a demanding challenge. For those who have not previously had the opportunity to learn to read and write in their mother language, the challenge is even bigger. To learn reading and writing is an abstract situation and the individuals in the most cases need some form of organized support like for example through formal education. All previous experience the individual already has from the use of writing in their former community and professional life will be of great importance. Adults bring with them different kinds of knowledge and a highly developed cognitive ability which means that they have a different consciousness than a child when it comes to learning new subjects. They can perform more challenging tasks such as learning to read and write comparing to a child, an adult can more easily see different kinds of connections, plan and practice a certain skill to achieve their goals.

It is important to create learning situations that build on the individual’s previous knowledge and skills in reading and writing which enhances the literacy development. The basic literacy teaching should be closely linked to the individuals’ everyday needs, to give them opportunity to develop the skills they need in their daily lives and to motivate them to invest a lot of time and commitment.

Study guidance in the individuals’ mother tongue

Individuals with a short school background who cannot read and write in their own mother tongue may need the support of a study guide in the mother tongue. By being supported alternately in their new language and in their mother tongue, the individual develops tools for their own learning. The individual’s mother tongue should be used as an implement for the continued development of language learning. It often makes it easier for individuals to have words and concepts explained in their own language to be able to absorb new knowledge in another language. Several studies highlight the positive aspects of developing both mother tongue and second language in parallel. Tomas and Collier (1997, 33-47) demonstrate the importance of the mother tongue for multilingual language learning success. The study shows that if multilingual individuals are taught and confronted cognitively in both mother tongue and second languages this benefits their language learning. The development of the second language is affected by how much cognitive and knowledge the student has in the mother tongue.


How to teach illiterate adults


Lecturer and author Margareta Mörling has many years of experience in teaching illiterates and has written many textbooks in the subject. Margareta believes that the professionals must build the teaching based on the individuals and their prior experiences and knowledges since no two are alike. Illiterates have never read anything, which means that their perception of reality is only based on their own experiences. This leads them to often interpret life from a concrete perspective and the difficulty then becomes in transforming the concrete into the abstract. Furthermore, she says that there must be continuity when building up the language. Both in terms of content and approach, it is important that the individual recognizes himself in the various moments. The teaching must be structured and have a fair amount of variation. As instructions can be very difficult for the target group to understand, each task needs to be shown concretely how it is to be carried out so that it becomes clear what they are expected to do. Motivation is a crucial factor for the individual to learn. The individual must understand why reading and writing skills are important to them. They need to see that they have direct use for what they are learning.

Tips and ideas from experienced teacher working at Vetlanda Lärcentrum


Anette Carlson has many years’ experience of working with illiterate adults. She says that one of the most important things to keep in mind is that we are working with adults. We should never treat them like children or use materials aimed at children. It is significant to have an adult relationship and work with materials that they recognize. For example, flyers, letters, or information they receive in the post.

Anette says that there should be a clear structure of each lesson. The individual must know what to practice today and in which order since they are not used to go to school or learning situations. They need to know that the teacher has a plan. She uses a lot of image support to facilitate the understanding, including different pictures for listening, reading, talking and writing. 


How to start reading – Anette’s experience

“We always start with a vowel. In Swedish it is A and then comes O. Then we build on with consonants and in Swedish it is S, R, M and L. We do not start by showing the letter, we always talk about it first. It is the sound that is most important. Knowing what the letters are called is not important for learning to read, it only complicates the learning situation therefore we do not practice the alphabet.

The individuals listen and imitate, listen and imitate until they know the sound of the vowel. Then I show the letter and later they practice writing it. When the individual has learned both the sound and what the letter looks like, we work with it in different ways. For example, we look in texts or on signs to see if individuals can recognize the letter. We also work with a material called Fonomix which contains different mouth-pictures. Pictures that show what the letter looks like, how the mouth should be shaped and what word it is.” 

You can see an example of this below:

“When the individual has learned a sound / a letter, we continue with the next vowel and work with it similarly until we can put two sounds together e.g., SO, OS, LO, AL. When they have sufficient knowledge and can put together two sounds / letters, we continue to work with words that contain three sounds / letters for example ROS, SOL and SAL. 

We work in a similar way when they must learn, for example, the different colours. We listen to the word. How does it sound? Are there different sounds in the word? We look at a picture of the colour and imitate the sound. It is significant that they know how to pronounce the world before they see it written. Then we write the colour and read it. We repeat in different ways and ask each other questions. What colour?

It is very important not to rush the process, to be patient. Each step must be confirmed before we begin a new one. It is important to return to what you have learned, to repeat. Vary the different moments as all individuals learn in different ways. It is important to be patient and not rush too fast. Do not work too long with the same steps, these individuals often have a limited working memory as they are not used to learning situations. It must not be stressful! Break the lesson into different parts and do something completely different such as break gymnastics or listening to music in between. “

Mapping model

The following mapping model has been used for many years in the teaching of illiterates in adult education in Vetlanda Sweden. The purpose of this survey is for the professional to gain knowledge about the individual to be able to support them in their language development and in this way increase the opportunities for the individual to learn the language.

Background information:

  1. What country are you from? Where have you lived? In a smaller village or larger city?
  2. Have you lived in any other countries? How long did you live there?
  3. Now you live in XXXXXX. How long have you lived here? Do you live with your family, friends or alone?
  4. If the individual has children: How old are your children? Do they go to preschool / school / high school?


  1. What languages did you speak at home with your parents when you were a child?
  2. Do you know any other languages? When / how did you learn them?
  3. Can you read and write in your mother tongue? In another language?
  4. Which alphabet is used in the language (s)?
  5. Do you want to learn to read and write in your mother tongue (it can be important to be able to learn a new language)?

School background:

  1. Did you go to school? How many years?
  2. What kind of school was it (religious / state)? Who was the teacher in your school?
  3. What subjects did you have in school? Did you have one teacher or several different ones?
  4. What was the most important thing you learned in school?
  5. Have you learned languages before (the language in the country the individual is in)? Where and how?


  1. What kind of work did you have, or did you do where you lived before? (Ask about jobs at home, on the farm, with animals, sales etcetera)
  2. Have you worked or practiced in your current country? How did you talk to your co-workers?
  3. Do you know someone who works in XXXXXX (current country)?
  4. What do you think about work in the future? What are you interested in? What experiences do you have? What do you want to learn more about?


  1. How do you do if you must remember something important? For example, an appointment or if the doctor tells you to take medication on a certain time?
  2. How did you learn such things as names and songs? Laws and regulations? Words in Swedish?
  3. How do you do when you need to find out something important?
  4. Do you remember when you learned something difficult? How did you do then?
  5. How do you think it should work in school? How do you take responsibility for what you learn?