What are adult literacy theories? Here’s 3 accessible ones you should know

Adult literacy theories are ideas about how adults learn literacy skills, like reading. There are a range of theories and different educators tend to subscribe to different theories - although sometimes without really knowing. Here’s a selection of some of the main adult literacy theories:

Adult literacy theories

Adult literacy theories are ideas about how adults learn literacy skills, like reading. There are a range of theories and different educators tend to subscribe to different theories – although sometimes without really knowing. Here’s a selection of some of the main adult literacy theories:


This refers to the ability to read and write in order to do things, such as carry out a task at home or in a workplace.

Literacy skills in this approach are a kind of technical skills that learners need because they are the foundation for other higher level functions.


Literacy is shaped by social practices and it’s also culturally specific. In this viewpoint, literacy is often about multiple literacies.

The sociocultural approach holds that the main purpose of literacy is is to encourage greater understand, challenge the status quo, and perhaps contribute to social justice movements.


This approach is based on the work of Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire who say literacy as a means for oppressed or marginalised groups to rise to critical consciousness, collective social action, and eventual overthrow of oppressive structures and political or other discourses.

Freire’s social justice approach grew into the critical literacy approach that encourages learners to analyse texts from a critical point of view in order to uncover the underlying messages.

Professional reading on adult literacy theories

The background to the listening, speaking, reading and writing progressions outlines a mostly sociocultural framework.

Review the questions below then read the article

  1. What are some of the groups mentioned here that illustrate how they can both influence and be influenced by the communications of its members.
  2. What are some of the reasons critical thinking (and critical reading) is important?

Sociocultural practices

Social and cultural contexts and adult literacy theories

Written and oral language practices exist within specific social and cultural contexts.13 This means that individuals are members of a society (which consists of groups or organisations that are not all organised on a formal basis) and the language practices of individuals can be seen as part of the activities of those groups or organisations.

The group both influences and is influenced by the communications of its members. For example, consider the graffiti and rap music associated with hip-hop culture, in which the graphic and oral forms of communication are important parts of the identity of the group. The legal jargon used by lawyers is another example of the way in which a group influences the form of communication used by its members and is in turn influenced by it.

This has implications for adult education, where social and cultural factors are particularly significant for adults who are developing their expertise with written and oral language. Adult learners bring a wealth of diverse social and cultural experiences to most learning situations and belong to a wide variety of social and cultural structures, all of which influence and inform their learning.

Purpose and audience

All oral and written texts have a meaning and a purpose. The ability to distinguish between the different purposes of texts may be developed through examining the purposes that adults themselves have as they prepare to listen, speak, read or write. These purposes can be very diverse, for example, to entertain, to build a friendship, to get something done, to comfort, to influence, to subvert, to deceive, to persuade, to build community or to shock.

The purposes can be direct, indirect, or a combination within one text. The purpose may be to express the writer’s or speaker’s point of view, perspective or attitude and these may be expressed in direct or indirect ways. Listeners and readers who think critically are able to consider different perspectives along with the different intentions of texts.

Given that all texts (oral and written) have a purpose, it follows that all texts have one or more intended audiences. Even personal diaries have the writer of the diary as an audience. The audience may be obvious (a children’s picture book is usually assumed to be written for children), less obvious, or even obscured (sometimes adults may speak to children in a way that carries a different meaning for an adult audience)


The concept of vocabulary, as used in the progressions, encompasses understanding as well as recognising words in written and spoken language. More than this, knowledge of vocabulary includes knowledge of how words work in relation to each other and within specific contexts.

Learning vocabulary is a complex and sometimes difficult task for adults. For many adults, understanding the differences between oral and written language can pose problems. The fact that about 70 percent of English words have more than one meaning14 adds to the complexity of the task and the different ways in which words are learnt can make it even more complicated. Learning new words takes time. A word is unlikely to become part of a learner’s vocabulary after a single exposure to the word or one definition of it.

Adult learners have several different and overlapping kinds of vocabulary. Stein (2000) identifies the following four:

  • Receptive vocabulary. The words an individual understands, either orally (heard) or in print (read).
  • Productive vocabulary. The words an individual is able to use orally (by speaking) or in print (by writing).
  • Oral vocabulary. The words an individual can use or recognise in speaking or listening.
  • Reading vocabulary. The words an individual recognises in a printed form.

Because of this complexity, word learning is incremental and occurs over many exposures. For example, the word bright has numerous shades of meaning and it takes multiple exposures to the word in different contexts to understand the full complexity of its meanings and applications (The light is bright; The future looks bright; John is bright; Sarah has a bright personality).

Critical thinking

Texts are never neutral. The values and beliefs of the writer or speaker affect the messages that are communicated. For this reason, it is important for adult learners to develop the skills for thinking critically about the texts they read, view or hear. Thinking critically involves analysing and interpreting meanings, responding critically to texts when reading and listening, and being critically aware when writing and speaking.

Adult learners need to develop their awareness of speakers’ and writers’ different perspectives and purposes in order to gain deeper levels of meaning, to avoid being manipulated by writers and speakers, and to gain insights and enjoyment from the texts they engage with.

Adult literacy theories – Journal Task

Write at least 250 words on how some aspects of literacy theories underpin your own teaching. If you need a prompt to get started, answer one or more of these questions:

  • What aspects of your teaching or training embraces aspects of a functional approach to literacy? Why? Can you give examples?
  • What aspects of your teaching or training embraces aspects of a more sociocultural approach to literacy? How? Can you give examples?
  • Does any part of your teaching lean more towards a Freirean approach? Explain in more detail.

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

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