Lesson 4 - Principles of Adult Learning Illinois State Library


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Georgia was a literacy volunteer who was assigned to work with her first student. She was going to begin with Beverly as soon as she completed her volunteer literacy tutor training. Georgia is coming to the training with a very common question. Should she use phonics to teach adults how to read? Her philosophy is that once a learner understands how to decode words, they will have all the skills needed to read.

Questions for consideration as you work through this lesson

What is the definition of reading and reading comprehension? What is the process needed for adults to acquire language skills?

Key Point

For many people, reading is defined as the ability to pronounce words. Others define reading as the ability to recognize words and understand their meaning. Still others define reading as bringing together words in a text in order to get meaning. Current literacy research supports a more comprehensive definition of reading which includes all of the above definitions and places learning skills in the context of authentic reading and writing activities.

This lesson will introduce you to the theories that underpin adult literacy tutoring. We will introduce you to definitions, approaches and processes. Think globally as you read this lesson. Specific strategies and techniques to teach reading or English as a Second Language and to choose the best materials for tutoring are discussed in detail in lessons six through ten.

Clarification of Terms

These are general terms used in discussion of adult literacy and learning. This training does not promote any theory. However, we want tutors to understand these often-used terms.

Language development is not linked to one specific strategy or skill. Literacy development is not a linear process. Adults improve their reading skills by experiencing a variety of tasks and by experimenting in a supportive, safe, and guided environment. Remember, in adult education - the adult learner is goal driven.

General principles of adult literacy development:

  1. Literacy development occurs at a higher level if the skills taught are connected to an overall topic.
  2. Literacy development is a multi-dimensional social process requiring interaction.
  3. Literacy development requires focus, engagement, and practice.
  4. Literacy development requires exposure to a variety of materials and genres.


  1. Should phonics or the whole language approach be used when teaching reading?
  2. What types of materials should be used when teaching reading to adults?


Some of the learning principles in this lesson were adapted from material in the publication What Does It Take to Learn? developed by the Coalition of Limited English Speaking Elderly (CLESE), Bright Ideas - ESL for Elders, at 53 West Jackson Blvd. #1301, Chicago, 60604. Permission to cite this material granted on October 15, 2008. To access the complete article go to http://clese.org/elder-programs/bright-ideas/esl-products-papers/, and scroll down to What Does it Take for Adults To Learn?