What does it mean to have limited literacy skills?

Imagine the many things which require your signature in daily life, such as:

  • job applications
  • registration forms for services, health benefits, events, courses
  • permission for your children to participate in activities and events
  • informed consent forms for medical procedures
  • permission to release personal information about you or your family members
  • applications to receive social assistance, UIC, Worker's Compensation
  • insurance application forms and reports (vehicle, accident, life, house, etc.)
  • statements to police or other officials

Now try to imagine what might happen if you signed some of these forms without being able to read them. Many people will sign forms without understanding them because they are told they have to in order to receive the service or benefit, and they are ashamed to admit that they are unable to read.

People with limited literacy skills "cannot easily gain access to the information and services which others take for granted.... [They] have more difficulty in gaining information about their rights which , at times, may be infringed upon. People with no literacy skills must rely on others to gain access to daily services and information in telephone books, newspapers, maps, schedules and special instructions on medication, etc. People with low literacy skills have fewer opportunities to have input in [to] their children's education." (Winnipeg Core Area Initiative, p.8)

"...lack of easy-to-understand information materials on health issues and medical care is [a] major health barrier. [There is] a need for plainly written health materials, including information about: prenatal and infant care; birth control methods, sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS; assistance with Medicare premiums; and consumer protection and consent forms. Plain writing is also needed for signs in health centres and for all public health materials sent to people's homes." (NAPO, 1992: p.51)

"Legal language is a barrier for everyone, but particularly for the undereducated. ...People may get into trouble because they are unaware of laws or the implications of legal agreements they have signed. If a person facing charges gets a subpoena, cannot read it and fails to show up for a court date, she or he now faces an additional charge. Many know little about the workings of the legal system." (NAPO,1992: p.52)

"Children of parents with low basic skills are less likely to finish school or to see the value of education, and are therefore also at risk of having low literacy skills as adults. The cycle of "Intergenerational illiteracy" once established can rarely be broken through schooling alone." (Baker, D., p. 2)

"Social workers are often too overworked to take the time to explain the material to people seeking assistance. As a result, many people sign forms they don't understand with consequences that may range from the loss of welfare payments to charges of fraud...

...The result of difficulties with the social assistance system is that people who lack literacy skills - those people usually most in need of assistance - often end up unable to access benefits they are entitled to." (NAPO, 1992: p.46)

How does low literacy feel?

"[Poor and poorly educated people] live with the constant pain of being treated as second-class citizens and they long to fully contribute to, and be recognized by, society." (NAPO, 1992: p.3)

Many illiterate people often have feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and helplessness.


  • they may not see a way out of their situation
  • they may not be able to afford re-training because of family obligations, etc.


  • they have to depend on other people and social services, therefore, they often have little control over their lives
  • this dependency becomes a way of life


  • they have difficulty accessing information (newspapers, news about what the rest of the community is doing, educational programs, self-help opportunities)
  • for many, few contacts outside of home are made, leading to isolation and loneliness.

Low Self-Esteem

  • they may feel they cannot learn ("I feel stupid.")
  • they may not feel good about themselves because they cannot support their family, provide proper nutrition, help with homework, or provide adequate "housing"
  • they can't obtain suitable employment
  • they feel like "failures" in society

(Winnipeg Core Area Initiative, p. 8)

Personal Experiences of Non-Readers

(Unless otherwise indicated the following quotes are taken from Clarke, M. 1991. Goodwill Literacy Tutor Handbook. The name of the speaker is indicated after each quote.)

"I felt sad because I didn't know how to read. If you don't know how to read, you can't have a good job. You have to get the dirty job. That's what you have to get, cleaning floors, just being a janitor." (Susieler Johnson)

"You're just held back on a lot of things. You just can't do a lot of things that you'd like to. You don't want to go up to someone and say, "I can't read that," because they'll say, "You're nothing but a dummy," or you'll get teased. That is the hardest thing. There's a lot of people come up to me and say, "You look very intelligent," but deep down inside I know I'm not very intelligent. I might talk big, but I know I'm not because when it comes down to reading, I can't do it. That's the whole ball game right there." (Tim Hicks)

"It's most embarrassing when your daughter asks you something and you can't answer or read. That's when a person should consider trying to go get some help. Shopping - sometimes I used to try to hide it from my wife - say I couldn't find some things. Finally, I told her that I wanted to find a class where I could get some help. If I had known this class had opened in '85, I'd have been here sooner." (Jesse Hopson)

"The scariest thing was when you walk by a sign and the person you're with says "Read that over there, that's funny." Sometimes, you might not know the word or even know what sign they're pointing to. Then you laugh anyway because you don't want them to know that you don't know what's on that sign. Just going out...just going out is hard. It hurts when you can't read. It just hurts walking down, knowing you can't read certain things, you don't know the word for certain things." (Shawn Bradford)

"The scary thing is being embarrassed and thinking that people are going to laugh at you. This is crazy, but it's blinding - not being able to see anything. It was a mental block. It's like building a wall around you and boxing yourself in. For instance, when we're in a meeting at work, I have a fear that someone would ask me to read in the meeting and knowing I can do it silently, but to do it out loud is the fear. The fear of being embarrassed and maybe my co-workers won't understand if I miss a few words. Maybe they would, but I'm afraid to take a chance. Because fear can hold you back or you can use it to push you forward." (Cleo Coleman)

"To me it's scary reading medical forms and releases because I'm afraid that I'm signing my life away." (Carl Furioso)

"When I was visiting my oldest brother in Chicago several years ago, I also wanted to go see a friend of mine who was in the hospital. Since I wasn't able to write and she couldn't hear, I needed someone to go with me. The only one I knew who could read and write broke their leg. So I couldn't see my friend. This made me so unhappy, I cried for three days." (Bertha Barnes)

"No one knows the anger that people who can't read go through. You can't pick up a paper and learn the latest news. You can't carry on a conversation because you don't know what's going on in the world. You're left in the dark. You just try to carry on the best you can. We're living in a different world than other people who can read." (Ron, literacy learner, Ottawa, in Calamai, 1988: p.41)

"You want to experience what illiteracy is like? Go into a restaurant and ask a waitress to read the menu to you. Go to the supermarket and ask for a particular brand when standing right next to the display. Go to any government office and say you can't fill out the form. Ask the phone company for a waiver on directory assistance charges because you can't read the phone book. That will give you some idea. But you can never feel the frustration, the anxiety." (Rick Parsons, former "illiterate", Toronto, in Calamai, 1988: p. 25)

"Many people think you're stupid. If we could get rid of the prejudices, life would be a lot easier." (Pike, 1991: p.3)

"A woman inherited a bit of money and did not report it, which created an overpayment [in social assistance]. The social assistance office deducts a sum from her monthly cheque in compensation. She asked if her overpayment has been paid back yet, but staff tell her they're too busy to check. She's afraid that she is still paying when she shouldn't be." (NAPO, 1992: p.45)


A dark way of life
with unbearable despair illiteracy

and struggles through life
...with a masked secret

Screaming silently
for the passion of expression
...a sad situation

...from society

A fact that's held inside
a hard life
outside the front door

depending on only
...sights and sounds

A wild and wayward problem
flushed with pressures
...and dread

Colleges and teachers
hold a new lease on life
...with vast rewards

A leading barrier
for personal quest learn how to read and write.

By Jacki Matvichuk, June'1983,
A new Canadian poet(As found in Baker)

Why learn to read and write as an adult?

There are many practical and functional goals for learning to read and write as adults. Some common ones cited by learners themselves are: to be more independent, to cope better with everyday challenges of filling out forms, getting around town on their own, managing money, getting a driver's licence, being able to read the Bible, the newspaper, or AA materials, deaf learners wanting to use a telecommunications device for the deaf. ... Some young prostitutes and young offenders hope literacy will lead them to a different lifestyle. ... Some for general self-improvement, to overcome feelings of inferiority. ... But the most common motivation is financial: to get off welfare, get a job, have a chance at better- paying jobs, or protect existing jobs.

How Adult Learners Feel Learning to Read and Write

(Unless otherwise indicated, the following quotes are taken from Clarke, M. 1991. Goodwill Literacy Tutor Handbook. The name of the speaker is indicated after each quote.)

"Learning to read is a wonderful thing to know. I know because it is happening to me." (Prentis Wiley)

"I feel a lot better talking to my grown children now. I am doing something special and they are proud of me. I have some goals and we talk about them." (Bertha Barnes)

"Reading made me feel better. Knowing that I can read better makes me feel good about myself. I can pick up a book and I can read it when I couldn't before. I improved my reading a lot. I began to understand the messages in Sunday school." (Susieler Johnson)

"No longer do I fear filling out job applications and things now. I have a better outlook on life. Now my mind has a clearer point of view." (Lionel Hall)

"I notice more now. Everything I see, I read. I read the sports in the paper. Most of the things I understand now. I understand my bills more. Once you start to read better, you notice things. You'd be surprised. Safety signs you notice, you didn't notice before. Like at work, like if you're on the street, they have a safety sign. If you can't read, you don't notice those signs. To me, the most important thing I've gotten from this program is a better understanding of what's going on in the world. You know, reading the paper, watching the news, listening to people talk to one another. That's another thing I've noticed, how people speak. I can understand them better. I really pay attention to how people say words. You'd be surprised at how much more I pay attention to things now." (Shawn Bradford)

"From time to time, I have much more confidence in my abilities to function as a literate person. That is changing my life in a positive way. To me it is very important that I function as a literate person. The reason I am doing these classes is so that I function on an even footing with everyone else in society. This is the hallmark of my program." (Carl Furioso)

"Thanks to Goodwill Literacy and to a teacher by the name of Joyce, I can read better. I'm not ashamed to tell people I go to the Goodwill Program. I'm proud of myself. I am now able to read with other people. I read out loud in Bible class now. If I make a mistake, I don't feel they will jump all over me or hurt my feelings. I don't feel threatened anymore or like I'm stupid. I no longer fear these things." (Elizabeth Gross)

"I feel a lot better about myself. I feel more confident since I started to learn to read. I went home the other day and there was a note on the door from my daughter and I read it. I felt wonderful because I could read a note from someone. I didn't think I could read." (Lee White)

"I read so many books, I can't remember them all. Now I can read my Bible. Anything I pick up, I can read. My wife writes a grocery list and I can read it and go to the store for her. I could never have done that before." (Henry King)

"Almost everyone who had taken a program said they felt better about themselves. They said they were more hopeful, understand themselves better, enjoy greater independence, enjoy life more and have healthier lifestyles. They blossomed in an environment where they were accepted and invited to participate in spite of not being able to read and write." (NAPO, 1992: p.69)

Chapter Three References

Baker, Diane. The Literacy Tutor. Wetaskiwin PALS (Program for Adult Literacy Skills). Wetaskiwin, AB.

Calamai, Peter, Broken Words: Why Five Million Canadians are Illiterate: The Southam Literacy Report . Southam Communications. 1988.

Clarke, Mallory. Goodwill Literacy Tutor Handbook. Fifth edition. Goodwill Literacy. Seattle, WA. 1991.

National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO). Literacy and Poverty: A View From the Inside. Research Report. 1992.

Pike, Sue. Put it on the List... United Way of Canada. 1991.

Winnipeg Core Area Initiative, PAL (Project for Adult Literacy) Tutor Guide.

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