Learning styles and Adult Literacy Materials

Index of Contents

1. Adult literacy students who did poorly at school , with adverse learning styles
2. Counterproductive methods and materials
3. Assessing and countering 'adverse response' learning styles.
4.Particular 'adverse' responses and their treatment.

Disliking Worksheets.
Disliking Learning to read by writing
Repetition as the prime learning mode -
Short attention span.
Poor response to praise and reassurance.
Fragile egos.
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 difficulties

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 research


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 effectiveness?

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 further investigation.

1. Adult literacy students who did poorly at school

Acquired and unchanged 'adverse learning styles' that literacy materials should be designed to counter.

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 arouse.

2. Methods and materials that are likely to be 'more of
the same' for failing lerners include:

• Being questioned and tested
• Worksheets
• Learning to read by writing.
• Repetition as the prime learning mode
- or- on the other hand - never reading or doing the same thing twice.
• 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.

3. Countering 'adverse response' learning styles.

1. Assessing adverse reactions to learning materials and methods.
i. Simple 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 process.

4. Treatment of particular 'adverse' responses.

Poor 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 them.

Many people dislike reading anything which has questions at the end of it.


Failing learners often respond badly to worksheets for many reasons.

  1. They have had too many before
  2. They do not have a 'clerical learning style' at all - particularly if they are boys. They may learn to read better than by writing.
  3. 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 by writing'.

I recommend 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 fluently.

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 TV."

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.

Short attention span.

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 concentration lapses
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 due.

Fragile egos.

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 stand it.

Expecting to be pushed.

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 intellectual disability

(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 too.

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 think, been

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 hopeless.

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.

The German 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 English spelling.

But like any other skill, learning to read, then as now still requires a learning style of understanding, mental application, motivation and practice.

Yet adult 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.

 5. Evaluation of materials and approaches to
meet those learning styles

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 evaluate them.

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 ahead.

2. 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. 'Books 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 interest them.

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.
Catering for distractibility
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 'readability'.
Transfer of 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 pdbq, 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.

Comprehension of reading materials

Problems and helps toward solutions here include

i. 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 verbs.

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

"A red-dog fox came back to his den where he lived .. . "
"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 . ."

v. Structure. 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.

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 learnt
i. Both 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 . .

6. Note on research

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.

 Since 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.

Action research in adult literacy is the best way to go.

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