How to help adult learners learn the basics

by Hendrickje Catriona Windisch
Analyst, Education and Skills Directorate

Tackling weak basic skills is hard and incentives to learn are often lacking 

The fact that some adults cannot understand the instructions printed on a box of medicine is not only dangerous, it shows that, somewhere along the line, the education system failed them. People who find themselves in this position are often shy of admitting their problems, and the idea of going back to school is their worst nightmare. A new OECD Working Paper shows that even for those adults who want to improve their reading and numeracy skills, it is not easy to translate that interest into action. Adults with busy working and family lives have little time for learning – as is evident in the high rate of dropout from learning programmes targeted to adults. And even when adults do acquire basic skills in mid-life, they find few jobs open to them in which they can use those skills.

Building and sustaining learner motivation

Research shows that programmes to improve adults’ basic skills need to use awareness-raising measures (like the adult education weeks promoted in Denmark and Finland) and national campaigns (as conducted in France and Luxembourg) to encourage interested, but reluctant adults to participate. Guidance services, such as Germany’s telephone counselling service for adults with poor literacy skills, also help. Learner persistence can be supported through clear learning goals, continued guidance throughout the programme, and the link of basic skills with occupational credentials (for example learning geometry in carpentry). Contextualised learning, whereby basic skills are learned in the work, family or community context, often in combination with occupational skills training, can help to engage adults not normally involved in continuing education. Formative assessment, using frequent assessment and feedback to guide adults in their learning, encourages them to continue their studies.

Teachers need to be well-prepared

Although research shows that high-quality, well-qualified teachers get the best results with adult learners, many adult education teachers have few relevant qualifications, and often resort to teaching practices normally used with children which are unlikely to work for adults. There is no nationally recognised certification for adult education in the United States; Austria and Germany only recently developed specific qualifications for such teachers; and in many countries, adult education programmes that teach basic skills are largely staffed by volunteers.


Successful adult learning programmes need to motivate and sustain the engagement of low-skilled adults; offer a highly skilled teaching force; use proven approaches to basic skills teaching; and make use of relevant learning contexts, including the family and the workplace. Learning basic literacy and numeracy skills is, literally, essential for leading a productive and engaged life.

Adults with low literacy and numeracy skills: A literature review on policy interventions
OECD study Putting the Survey of Adult Skills to Work: Country Studies and Policy Analysis OECD Skills Survey
Photo Credit: Skills for success. Box of pills with a list of positive qualities for employment @Shutterstock

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