[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J27, 2000/1 pp33,34]
[See other journal articles by Gwen Thorstad and articles about Adult Literacy.

A new drive to improve adult literacy in the UK.

Gwenllian Thorstad.

Dr Thorstad reviews the report of the BSA working group chaired by Sir Claus Moser Improving literacy and numeracy: A fresh start, DfEE Publications, March 1999, ISBN 1 84185 005 5, 108pp.

1. Launching the programme.

According to the British results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (OECD, 1997) 23% of adults had very low literacy levels and are not able to read, write and speak English at the level necessary to function at work and in society. As a result the Government launched the National Literacy Strategy for schools to prevent illiteracy in the future. In the meantime a Working Group was set up by David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment in June 1998 to discover how the basic skills of illiterate or semi-literate people can be given 'A Fresh Start' so that they can get jobs with prospects. Sir Claus Moser, Chairman of the Basic Skills Agency (BSA), was appointed Chairman, while the 12 committee members came from university Departments of Education and Economics, local councils, the Trades Unions, Directors of Education, with advisers from the Department of Education and Employment (DfEE) and the BSA. Written evidence was taken from a wide range of educational institutions including the Adult Dyslexia Organisation.

The purpose was to advise the Government how the present 70,000 adults receiving remedial education per year could be raised to 500,000 by 2002 and 750,000 by 2005 by appraising the effectiveness of the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), Local Education Authorities (LEAs), programmes for the unemployed, as well as Work Place Basic Skills Development and other initiatives. Then, by 2010, 3.5 m. people should have received help, leaving another 3.5 m. older people still with the problem (p36, §5.9 in the report).

At present local action is fragmented partly due to their many funding sources. To remedy this the Government is proposing Local Learning Partnerships with responsibility for improving adult basic skills. They should be models of good practice in delivering and funding basic skills, and increase volume, quality and effectiveness. Nationally, there should be a National Adult Basic Skills Strategy Group, chaired by a Minister, while the BSA would continue to promote and disseminate good practice. It would work closely with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and the DfEE Standards and Effectiveness Unit to develop curricula and qualifications with the Further Education National Training Organization (FENTO).

2. What is to be done?

The problem is now being addressed through the National Literacy Strategy. To help the younger half of the 7 million adults with a literacy problem, a National Strategy for Adult Basic Skills with ten elements has been designed: National targets, an entitlement to learn, guidance assessment and publicity, better opportunities for learning, quality of teaching, a new curriculum and system of qualifications, teacher training and improved inspection, the benefits of new technology, planning of delivery.

The University of Industry (UfI) will play an important role and agreement from employers will be needed. Teaching hours will need to increase from the current 2-4 each week in a wide diversity of places and programmes. The role of voluntary organisations and community schools is crucial. Family literacy, for parents and children together, needs expansion. Many interactive electronic teaching materials will be delivered on computer screen. Employers need to demand more skill from their employees. A publicly funded Workplace Basic Skills Development Fund should be established to help employers set up basic skills programmes. All individuals with basic skills problems should be entitled to free confidential assessment, whether they are employed or not.

Research by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) for the BSA has divided the overall 19% with weak literacy skills into two categories, 6% judged very poor with a reading level below 7 yrs and a further 13% between 7-11 yrs. The percentage of adults with poor literacy increases with age. This affects not only their earning, but their ability to manage their affairs and help their children. They are more likely to be unemployed, to live with an unemployed partner, have children early who in turn struggle with basic skills, are less likely to own their homes and be in good health, and more likely to be homeless or in prison or young offenders institutions.

This National Strategy aims to provide a context in which adults with poor basic skills can choose from a range of study opportunities of assured high quality. The programmes will focus on all the needs and achievements of learners, embrace national targets, include a National Framework of Standards and Qualifications, incorporate funding arrangements only available for quality-assured programmes, and ensure that teaching is accessible throughout the country including industry, business and community contexts. They will ultimately be the responsibility of the DfEE together with the QCA, the BSA, the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), as well as local partners in Lifelong Learning Partnerships, such as Further Education Colleges, LEAs, the Careers Service and Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs), employers, trade unions and voluntary organisations. The ultimate target should be the virtual elimination of poor basic skills.

All adults with basic skills below Level 2, i.e. below GCSE standard, would be entitled to a confidential assessment of their skills with access to free information and guidance. Some 11,000 extra full-time teachers will be required above the present 4,000.

3. Chances of success?

This proposal is as momentous as the Education Act of 1872 which brought in compulsory education for all children. LEAs already supply vocational training, but this implies that they must supply adult education in basic skills of literacy and maths. It does not occur to these authorities that the prime cause of illiteracy is the present spelling. It takes children of average ability from age 5-10 to attain an adult reading standard, unlike in Germany and Italy where that can be attained by 7-8 yrs. Nor do they realise that most of the bottom 10% could be literate if the spelling was transparent, whereas now they are likely to be semi-literate for all their lives. Adults given identical nonsense-syllable tests in Germany and Britain attained only 12% low scores in Germany, but 23% in Britain (Wimmer & Goswami, 1994).

The Moser report now proposes (p17) that children should start learning to read at 4 years, although most children cannot reliably distinguish the sounds of consonants until 5 yrs. and vowels at 6 yrs. Those who learn easily by sight reading will manage, but the rest will become confused and miserable. The educationists Montessori (1912) and Froebel (1826) advocated creative play, music, painting, model making until about 7 years. Children do not start formal schooling in continental Europe until 6 or 7 years, when most quickly learn to read. While Bernard Shaw and James Pitman wanted to introduce simplified spelling to help English-speaking children, Mont Follick, founder of the Regent School of Languages, now Westminster University, wanted to help those who were learning English as a second language (Pitman, 1969). The ultimate product mainly designed by Pitman was the Initial Teaching Alphabet (i.t.a.), which most of the children could read fluently by 6½ years and in which they could write long exciting stories, instead of the usual half page of repetitive diary (Downing, 1967). When Thorstad (1991) compared the same adult passage read by English and Italian children and in particular the same words, such as perceptible, perseptibl (i.t.a.) and percettibile (Italian), the Italian and English i.t.a. children could read and spell them, but the average English child could neither read nor spell them until 10 yrs. in traditional orthography.

Thus the misery of thousands of children unable to read and spell in school or as adults is unnecessary.


Downing, J (1967) Evaluating the Initial Teaching Alphabet, London: Casssell.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 1997) Literacy Skills for Knowledge Society.

Office for National Statistics (1997) Adult literacy in Britain.

Pitman, Sir I J (1969) The late Dr. Mont Follick - an appraisal. W. Haas, ed. Alphabets for English. Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp14-49.

Thorstad, G. (1991) The effect of orthography on the acquisition of literacy skills. British Journal of Psychology. 82. pp527-531.

Wimmer, H & Goswami, U (1994) The influence of orthographic consistency on reading development: word recognition in English and German children. Cognition, 51, pp51-103.