Learning styles and Adult Literacy
Index of Contents
1. Adult literacy students who
did poorly at school , with adverse learning
2. Counterproductive methods and
3. Assessing and countering
'adverse response' learning styles.
responses and their treatment.
Disliking Learning to read by writing
Repetition as the prime learning mode -
Short attention span.
Poor response to praise and reassurance.
Expecting to be pushed.
Diagnoses of mild intellectual disability
Boys seen as more likely to lag in literacy skills
and to be less motivated to learn.
Problems with a difficult writing system
5. Evaluation of materials
and approaches to meet those learning styles and
Catering for one modality at a time.
Catering for distractibility.
Transfer of training.
Comprehension in reading
Problems and aid toward solutions
Ego . . .I am, therefore I think, therefore I read
. . but . .
Learning styles can be learnt -
Both top-down overview and bottom-up from
detail Chunking learning
6. Note on
We know that people have
different learning styles - some learn better visually, through
their eyes, some verbally through auditory memory or through
understanding of ideas, some mechanically, some even by touch.
Many aspects of learning styles depend upon experience and
personality. Learning styles and improvements or deterioration in
learning styles can also be learned.
Adult literacy materials as found in catalogues, resource centres
and used by many tutors tend to match a particular set of expected
learning styles. What does research find about their
Do they match the actual learning
styles of the adult and teenage learners?
The notes that follow are based
on personal observation of learning styles often found among adult
literacy students who did poorly at school. These observations may
be corroborated or rejected. Recommendations are made about
materials that have been found effective, and could be given
1. Adult literacy students
who did poorly at
Acquired and unchanged 'adverse learning
styles' that literacy materials should be designed to
Students who failed at
school constitute a large proportion of those who drop out of
adult courses, and so merit especial concern. Many are on the low
side of average intelligence, although few are as stupid as they
may seem to be, or have got into the habit of being They usually
respond poorly to repetition of the same methods by which they
failed at school - mainly because they have developed an adverse
response to them. Sometimes they have matured sufficiently to
benefit by those methods now, but often
especially good teaching or a novel
tack is required to overcome the 'knee-jerk' emotional block they
Methods and materials that are likely to be 'more of
the same' for
failing lerners include:
Being questioned and
Learning to read by writing.
Repetition as the prime learning mode
- or- on the other hand - never reading or doing the same thing
Primitive-looking materials to read, even if the content
attempts to be adult
Other methods that individuals failed under depend upon
when and where they went to school, so consideration is also
needed for whether individuals have been 'sensitised' to failing
by phonic or whole-language or one-on-one remedial approaches or
experiences of feelings of inferiority in class. Students may not
easily take to personal tuition because of experiences of 'being
under someone's thumb' and being pushed, or to classes in courses
because they remain too alert to the social situation to
concentrate well or dare to try.
Countering 'adverse response' learning styles.
adverse reactions to learning materials and methods.
and available bio-feedback indicators such as galvanic skin
response and heart-rate show how strong anxiety may be aroused
in a learning situation, to block learning.
ii. .Another sign of an
emotional block is that a failing learner may read the first
one or two lines of print at a gallop or reasonable pace and
then dramatically slow down and stumble as their anxiety
catches up with them. Teaching response: That also is a sign
for different methods, and also, for reading to be only a very
easy line or two at a time at first, and gradually increased -
just as other phobics get gradually desensitised. A method of
paired reading is described separately that is excellent for
'desensitising' reading phobia.
iii. A measure that is
otherwise soon apparent to indicate an 'adverse learning
response' is failure to learn, learning very slowly
accompanied by low morale and self-esteem, or simply dropping
out. The emotional block becomes worse and harder to treat.
Teaching response to acquired
anxiety responses. Preferably matters should not have been
allowed to go on to this degree of bog. An even more drastic
novelty in teaching policies is needed immediately. Sometimes a
completely different teachers' personality and style can work a
wonder, but this is more likely at school level, when a child
ruined in one class may be salvaged in the next.
Whenever learners are found to
show paralysing signs of anxiety like any other phobic, that is a
sign to keep clear of that method and those materials, or adapt or
introduce them very carefully. Give them something different to
learn by. This sort of emotional block is a major reason why
sometimes strange and even cranky innovative approaches can raise
morale and allow students to start learning by taking the heat off
the main task through interest in side issues - eg. most students
do not have visual abnormalities requiring coloured glasses, and
bearing mind that bookworms are often relatively physically
uncoordinated, focussing on gym or crawling seems a side-issue.
Drugs should be thought a risky way of obtaining instant change of
brain processes when there is no actual disease
Treatment of particular 'adverse' responses.
response to questions or testing used
as methods of learning
The counter strategy is to subtly encourage the learner to ask
the questions, without asking questions yourself - asking you
about what is being learnt, about the content of a text, about
what needs to be done next. This encouragement has to be subtle,
it too is experienced as testing and pushing. When a learner asks
the questions or makes the comments on a text, this is one of the
very best forms of promoting comprehension strategies. Failing
learners often need teachers who will answer questions, not ask
Many people dislike reading
anything which has questions at the end of it.
Failing learners often
respond badly to worksheets for many reasons.
- They have had too many
- They do not have a 'clerical learning style' at all -
particularly if they are boys. They may learn to read better than
- As worksheets are done and discarded, any learning from them
is also discarded The worksheets often look tatty when they have finished them
or half-finished them anyway, so this is demoralising too.
I would prefer specific
training in not to lose or damage textbooks and exercise-books,
and then starting with a cheap reading-cum-textbook covered
with tough plastic, of a few pages, and then moving on to a
more substantial book which however simply it begins, is
clearly an adult book at the end - motivating. . This book is
not throwaway. It is kept for revision, preferably by the
student in a bag that is kept as the regular bag to bring and
take home. Sometimes just a quick 30-second flip at the
beginning of each new lesson is enough visual revision, except
for the previous lesson. When students have learnt anything,
they hi-light it so they can remember learning it.
'Learning to read
abandoning this for most 'adverse-response' learners, except
where learning to write is part of what the learner wants to
do. Many boys especially are clumsy writers and can learn to
read fluently more easily than they can learn to write
Appalling writers can make
progress when they discover, when they really want to learn,
that it helps to write very very slowly at first, instead of
rushing across the page like a cat on hot bricks, as many do
who feel hopeless about their handwriting. Finished writing on
lined paper is either in an exercise book, or put into a
clipped loose-leaf book, so it looks like building up a real
book, not into a ring-folder where it can get very tatty. In
the book, progress can be seen from possibly awful beginnings.
(Throwing away can be discouraged by 'Let's keep it, so then
you can see how much better you are getting next time," with
allowances made explicitly for downs as well as ups during
progress. . Many students need to be shown how it is possible
to write or read without crumpling pages. (Gee! I hated those
dog-ears but I never knew how to avoid them)
Learning to read by writing
has been fashionable, including writing "My Story', as being a
topic close to everyone's own heart. Some learners do delight
in this. Family histories can also arouse learners' interests
and also raise their self-esteem. However, others would rather
not make their private life public, or would prefer to be
reading about something that they did not know much about, or
are simply bored and produce 'I went to my mates and we watched
Many have no idea of how to
write a piece, because they need to be introduced to reading
examples of the genre, to set a model, for a start.
Repetition as the
prime learning mode - or- on
the other hand - never reading or doing the same thing twice.
Some things, like the
alphabet, have to be learned by heart, and over learning -
learning and practice beyond what is needed to know or do
something the first time - is essential in learning any but even
then, chunked learning and understand what you are doing are
important. If resistance to repetition is perceived, this can be
openly recognised by a tutor, "It's like medicine, keeping going
over something to learn it very well. We are practising, like
sports stars practising sport.' Repetition at any one time can be
minimal, but repeated in quick revision at every lesson.
This is one reason that
until a learners is reading practically independently, the
first reading material should be something that the learner
finds interesting, and that has a good rhythmic style about it,
so that it can be read and re-read and re-read until the
learner is really fluent at reading it. (The first reading of
this interesting material can be by vy's Paired Reading method,
appropriate even for complete beginners)
Unless repeated material is
deliberately absorbed, it is usually just 'going through the
motions', and some learners can repeatedly do the same or
similar drills or reading and never absorb it. Likewise, 'a
hundred ways to learn one thing' is also useless without
understanding. Adults especially need to understand what they
are doing - understanding is a prime mode of learning for
adults, as imitating is for children.
This problem is increasing,
especially by TV practices that reduce attention to spans of
miniseconds, and barrages of stimulation that prevent
concentration. Constant novelty and shocking content are not
creative solutions in teaching literacy - they can feed into the
problem, and literacy requires increasing the power of attention,
not minimising it. Older learners can however recognise when they
have this problem and be shown strategies to overcome it - such as
i. The 'Two-task' strategy of
keeping two tasks at hand, and turning from one to the other as
ii. Using a timer to study for 2 minutes or 5 minutes at a time,
which is like having biofeedback.
iii. High motivation, any way at all, including reading material
that the learner is eager to be able to read.
Many failing learners
cannot concentrate if there is any distraction - such as others in
the room, noises in the room. They often do not hear what the
voices on television are saying because their attention is on the
visual stimulus. Multimodal multi-sensory teaching methods can
also distract them from the intended learning - e.g. the interest
in playing a computer or other game can take attention away from
what the game might be trying to teach. The solution is to ensure
as little distraction and interruption as possible, apart from
what may be needed to turn to as short attention spans are trained
to become longer.
Poor response to
praise and reassurance
Many adult learners respond
negatively to praise and reassurance, because they may have had
too much of this to 'egg them on', when they themselves were
astute enough to know they were not doing as well as the others.
As long as students can feel that the tutor is in there with them,
with faith in them, praise works best when it is clearly honestly
Failing adult learners
often have fragile enough egos from other experiences of failure
and rejection in life; they may be afraid to try anything that
they risk failing in again, because their egos are too fragile to
Expecting to be
A consistent trait of
'remedial' students is that they are liable to expect to be
pushed. As long as they are being pushed they move forward slowly
- but it is the teacher who is putting in most of the work, and as
soon as the pushing stops, they roll back. They have made no
mental investment of their own, but simply 'gone through the
motions'. They have not learnt any way to 'self-help' or control
their own learning. Even asking them to say what they want to
learn and then negotiate how they can learn it is often
unsatisfactory - because they do not know what they do not know in
order to ask for help in learning it.
Diagnoses of mild
(This is what a
psychologist would mean - but others might mean something else.) A
'mild intellectual disability' is usually taken to mean that
someone has a learning style that is slower than average, is
fairly concrete, easily confused, needs revision, not quick on the
uptake, can handle one thing at a time, has a limited memory for
how much detail can be in one instruction (eg. 'take your pen,
paper and ruler and draw a line 5 centimetres wide for a margin'
would be a bit much). Bright enough to be able to learn to read
straightforward materials and stories, and to cope socially, and
to be aware of their slowness, so they are naturally usually very
sensitive about any patronising. They can be regarded as better
workers by employers who treat them well because they can be
steady and reliable and do what they are told.
But of course, a 'mild
intellectual disability' can be compounded by any variety of
personality factors and experiences, including alcohol and drugs,
so learning styles can vary.
However, the important thing
about their learning materials is that they should be very clear
and structured and simple, so the learner can go from A to B to C.
They can often plod through more drills and repetition than other
older learners, unless they have an attention disorder
Boys seen as more
likely to lag in literacy skills
and to be less motivated to learn.
It is widely observed in
statistics and newapapers that boys are increasingly lagging
behind girls in literacy skills. This trend appears even in
Germany, where until recently boys regarded learning as masculine,
and outclassed girls. This is despite a report cited on a recent
educational mailing list that according to the US National
Institute of Health Learning Disabilities Branch there are as many
girls as boys with reading disabilities, and it is just that boys
are more often identified. Anecdotal evidence suggests this
masculine loss of interest in reading and writing may even be
happening in Japan and certainly in Scotland, which once boasted
itself as The People of the Book, claiming that 99% of
unhandicapped adults could and did read the Bible.
What has changed has, I
a) The dropping
cultural status of literacy and learning. When scholars are
revered and learning is agreed by all the way to go up in the
world, boys will apply themselves as strongly as to sports
training today - apart from, as in sports, those who feel
b) Changes in the teaching of
literacy which reinforce for males those perceptions of lower
status for literacy. Even books trying to appeal to boys by
being outrageous or action-packed are seen as pass-time, not
leading on to anything adult that is masculine.
Germany and Japan and Scotland have
in the past offered high rewards, with extremely disciplined teaching
and an acceptance of the need to work very hard. The high standards
in all can be attributed at least in part to the methods of teaching
- structured, clear and linked.
writing system is regular and rational. Japanese children
commence reading by learning hiragana, in which each character
represents a syllable - the easiest form of writing system to
learn when a language has a limited number of syllables. The
difficult kanji characters follow when the children have got
the idea of what reading is about. Scottish children also had a
basis to be able to quickly work out how to decode and encode
an alphabetic writing system because, (I think) they sang the
Psalms so appallingly slowly in church that they could all hear
the sounds that make up words.
So these these children could
start learning to read with confidence because they all could
understand something about what the writing system was about -
unlike today even for adults in the English-speaking world, who
must for a while lay aside their common-sense when imbibing
But like any other skill, learning
to read, then as now still requires a learning
style of understanding, mental application, motivation and
literacy students with high motivation, mental application and
regular practice can still have difficulties. Yet many
Australian adult literacy students have little intrinsic
motivation but come for external reasons. If males, they do not
gladly suffer muddle or dullness or incompetence in others or
in the task. If they have had five or more years' experience of
failure at school, they are likely to have acquired emotional
blocks and what reading they have is held back by unrecognised
gaps, confusions and handicapping reading strategies.
Basically they do not
understand what reading is about or how to do it, and they have
an acquired reluctance to practice what seems too difficult and
too unending a task, in reading materials that are no rival to
television or computer games.
As they learn one task, they
forget the one before.
materials and approaches to
The materials described
below require evaluation beyond personal use and anecdotal reports
from other users. At present materials are not published in a
final form - that requires resources I do not currently have,
although presentation makes a great difference in
user-acceptability. However, they are in course of availability on
this web site, and print copies are being approved. But others
can take up these ideas and apply them to their own materials, and
meet those learning
1. I am currently attempting to
produce an unfunded professional level TAKE-HOME
video that sets out an
overview of the English writing system and what it helps to know to
learn to read, in half an hour of cartoon and animated text., to
'Help yourself to read or find out where you got stuck'. The 1993
experimental version has shown how often adult learners as well as
teenagers and children will discover they have not understood
something basic - even 'Oh, there's only 26 letters, I thought there
were thousands' and that has been enough to get them racing
Content, quality and style of
materials. Ideally all
literacy students would be able to browse through a range of books
and magazines to find the content that would rouse their
curiosity to want to read it.
I would like to
find researchers and educational publishers interested in this
aspect. In the current economic climate publishers can take no
risks in trying anything different from what currently has
sales appeal to purchasers - and purchasers are rarely the
learners themselves. Reader-appeal to learners is, again,not
necessarily the same thing as sales-appeal. A variety of
content is needed - but the range needs to include
life-enhancing books that can help to expand the learners'
potential in knowledge, understanding, abilities and
empowerment. There was an excellent Macdonald series that
produced 'easy reader' editions of beautiful adult books with
the same formats and illustrations, to promote adult
self-perceptions and confidence. These series were more
expensive per book, which may have made them seem too costly
for schools, but actually they were more cost-effective, as
long as they were cared for.
Books that have uniform sizes
and can fit and look good on bookshelves are also desirable.
Adult learners can put them on a shelf at home and be proud of
them. (cf the Trading Post ad.
suitable for bookshelf'.)
Miscellaneous-looking books look disposable - and often are
disposed of after reading or flipping through. On the other hand,
learners can discover that the tatty books are the ones that have
been read most because they have been liked most. Within
reasonable degrees of tatty, of course.
Most of the Macdonald books were
non-fiction. Boys and men typically have preferred
non-fiction, and acquiring knowledge in the areas that
However, narrative has always
been a preferred and beloved way of transmitting culture and
knowledge, but we should look carefully at the sort of
narrative that has come down the ages in the oral traditions for
plain men as well as for women, children and gentlemen.
Legends, folk stories and
myths of all cultures have been notable for concise narration,
memorable imagery, and memorable style with a rhythm and lilt to
it. Structures were predictable. Folktales of all lands have been
funny, inspiring, setting values, and giving models of heroism,
ingenuity, cleverness, enterprise, love, kindness, and how to
retain human dignity under tragedy.
The content and style of
materials given to adult learners is commonly a more diffuse stark
contrast, even in re-tellings of old stories.
Catering for one
modality at a time.
If learners with this
learning style are watching TV they see the visuals rather than
hear the words. (An extreme case of this was a boy of five who had
no language on reading school. I was asked to check if he was
retarded. It turned out that his mother had left him to be
baby-sat by the TV because it was no use talking to him until he
could talk.). This means that tapes to read along with are not
entirely satisfactory - they are liable to hear the tapes but not
learn to read.
Print on coloured
backgrounds is too difficult to disambiguate easily. White on
black has too much glare. Print that wraps around pictures is not
straightforward enough to read with any fluency. All sorts of
layout design aimed to increase 'sales appeal' can reduce
training. Not to be assumed
as easily happening with these learners. For example: -
a) It may be
better for them to learn to read to fluency level with one
or two fonts as visual word recognition is being built up,
before being exposed to dozens - which can be deciphered. but
not so quickly. These fonts should have clear, readily
distinguishable letters, no reversals of
and good spacing between letters, words and lines.
b) 'Activities'. Games
may fill up the time and be fun to play, but these players are
more likely to learn how to play the game and not what they are
supposed to learn from it (Just as most bridge-players are good
at playing the game but only the rare ones remember everyday
hands they played.) It is far better to have all learning
directly applied learning to read text well, with the 'fun' and
'interest' in the content, and breaks for other sorts of
learning. Some of the novel ways of presenting print can be
part of this.
Problems and helps toward solutions
What readers want to know about
and are curious
about is the major key to comprehending it or even
seriously trying to comprehend it.
ii. Remembering the
content of the beginning of a sentence by the time the
end is reached. A phonic strategy for reading and checking
new words also helps the strategy of using short-term
auditory memory to keep track of meaning in reading, which
is the major advantage of good readers, even when they read
at the speed of light.
Early reading aloud to
oneself can also help to develop this strategy until
this is no longer needed.
Re-reading aloud to oneself is also valuable when the
material is complex.
iii. Linking sequences
for coherent meaning. Short sentences are all very well
when beginning to read, but for adult reading they can play
heck with sequential thinking, and sequential memory, and
Microsoft is not benefiting society with its style-checker.
Reading longer sentences at first can be aided by new
lines for clauses, or color-coding nouns and
iv. Too difficult
vocabulary. Most adult learners dont want to use
dictionaries the whole time. Often a good style can be
maintained in reading materials, while including help to
define possibly new vocabulary as part of the story - eg
red-dog fox came back to his den where he lived .. . "
Beginnings, middles and ends are essential to learners.
It may be fine to be ambiguous and sophisticated later. But
when learners think there is no meaning to anything, then
what they do themselves will be meaningless. Many adults
with reading difficulties have had enough experiences of
meaninglessness and chaos in their lives - they need help to
learn to find meaning, even to make their own lives worth
while and with some meaning for them.
"Take a spanner, a metal tool to grip and turn things . ."
"Log on to your computer by turning it on and starting up the
program that you want by . ."
I am, therefore I
think, therefore I read . . but . .
Many adult learners with
fragile or damaged egos are extremely afraid of even touching
anything that may make them look children.
So they may hate submitting to courses and teachers or having
materials or activities that seem childish. Some solutions:
- They do not mind less
adult-looking materials when they are on their own at home,
and not in a social situation where anyone is looking on or
aware what they are doing
- Learning in their own time at
home has advantages, when it can be attractive enough for them
to do it.
- Aid to ego. Multi-level
texts which have an adult-level text in one frame, and aids to
read it or easier versions on the same page.
- Aid to ego. 'Real books'
- not flip-thrus or disposables - that may begin so easy it looks
childish, but each page fast-tracks further, so the final sections
are fully adult knowledge-imparting and 'great culture'. Learners
can see the are going further than just reading
Learning styles can be
top-down overview to "see what there is", at the same
time as and bottom-up from detail, so that there is
understanding of what the detail is about.
ii. Chunking learning so
that it is more easily remembered - for example, 7 letters
can be remembered, but so can seven words, which have far more
letters, and so can seven meaningful linked phrases, which have
more letters still, and so can seven lines of poetry, which
have more letters still, and so can seven paragraphs of a
really good story . . and so can seven really good little
stories . . and . .
In the 1970s I searched the research
literature and compiled a list of 95 causes that had been found for
reading problems, ranging from never having crawled to poor verbal
abilities. They were all defects to be diagnosed in the learner,
apart from a few environmental factors and M. D. Vernon's classic
1957 finding from an overview of research that "the basic cause of
reading difficulty is confusion" - the learner has not been
adequately taught for any of a number of reasons.
then, several more key causes of 'dyslexia' have been discovered. It
is due to a gene, it is due to visual problems that can be corrected
by coloured glasses, it is due to right-brain/left-brain
discrepancies, it is due to food-colourings - and so on.
I think perhaps in literacy we could
follow the example of the history of medicine - which even now has
been far better at finding out what works, driven by a certain degree
of logic, and then later finding out why.
research in adult literacy
is the best way to go.
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