Reading Teacher

Adult Literacy Reading Programs

Adult Literacy Reading Programs

At Reading Teacher, we often talk about early childhood literacy -- but how do adult reading skills compare?


While a majority of adults in the U.S. are functionally literate in English, a striking minority cannot perform basic literacy tasks. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in five U.S. adults lacks sufficient reading skills, such as the ability to paraphrase, compare and contrast information, or make low-level inferences.


This translates to approximately 43 million adults who possess low literacy skills -- and this is just in the U.S. Worldwide, poor adult literacy remains a primary concern, given the relationship between literacy skills and education, earning potential, and physical and emotional well-being.


To fill the gap, several adult literacy reading programs have developed powerful, age-appropriate lessons for mature readers. Today, we’ll highlight some of these programs and examine the driving forces of low literacy in adults.

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Causes of Low Literacy In Adults


Poor literacy skills in adulthood are often byproducts of intersecting, intergenerational factors. Some common causes of low literacy in adults include:

  • Undiagnosed learning disabilities
  • Undiagnosed or unresolved physical disabilities, including hearing or vision loss
  • Poverty
  • Family or household dynamics in childhood that limit access to education and/or opportunities to read outside of school
    • Examples include frequently switching schools, childhood illness, or caring for a family member
  • Community violence or violence within the home
  • Needing to learn English as a second language


Whether separate or combined, any of these issues can lead to challenges with school attendance and success in other academic subjects, and ultimately create barriers to employment and other opportunities in adulthood.

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Adult Literacy Reading Programs


If you identify as an adult with poor reading skills, you are not a failure. More than often, low literacy skills stem from educational systems that do not grant people the time, resources, and strategies they need to succeed.


Even in adulthood, it’s possible to recover essential literacy skills and work toward higher-paying jobs, further education, and a more fulfilling life. Below are some of the top literacy reading programs for adults, which give mature students the tools and confidence they need to become effective readers.


1.   Orton Gillingham For Older Students

Orton Gillingham offers a program for older students, which refers to students in junior high and beyond. This well-known program was created by Samuel Torrey Orton, a neuropsychiatrist, and Anna Gillingham, an educator and psychologist. Their approach to literacy is primarily used for readers with dyslexia who struggle in reading, writing, and spelling.


The program emphasizes several essential elements of literacy, including:

  • Multisensory teaching, which recognizes that people learn in different ways; some readers are visual learners, whereas others learn better through sound, movement, or touch
  • The logical connection between sounds and symbols in the English language, which is also known as the Phonetic-Alphabetic connection
  • Diagnostic instruction, which requires instructors to continuously monitor -- and celebrate! -- students’ progress


The program specializes in structured, sequential, and repetitive lessons, so that adult readers have time to process the foundational tenets of literacy and return to them as needed.


2.   Barton Reading & Spelling System

The Barton System is specifically designed for adults with dyslexia, many of whom did not receive a proper diagnosis or support for their literacy needs. The program was developed by Susan Barton, who created her reading system to train tutors for adults with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.


Research shows that this program is highly effective for teaching students with dyslexia how to read, regardless of their age. The system utilizes direct instruction and multisensory techniques, which combine listening, speaking, reading, and tactile or “hands-on” approaches to teach phonics.


3.   Multisensory Teaching Approach (MTA)

Like the Barton Reading System, multisensory approaches to phonics are based on Orton-Gillingham literacy techniques. MTA is similarly designed for readers with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. The program is student-centric, which means that its evidence-based lessons are tailored to the unique needs of both groups and individuals: adult readers included.


Today, MTA is frequently used in dyslexia intervention for younger students, but it also functions as a literacy reading program for mature students.

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4.   The Slingerland Approach

This literacy program offers a meaningful, structured curriculum to improve students’ phonological awareness, reading fluency, vocabulary, and overall comprehension. Like the other programs on our list, the Slingerland curriculum is an adaptation of the Orton-Gillingham approach. Through this program, teachers use multisensory instruction to teach reading, writing, and even handwriting.


For adult literacy learners, the Slingerland curriculum reinforces the interdependence of reading fluency, writing, and handwriting: essential skills that shape any person’s ability to navigate the adult world.


  • Statistics indicate that low literacy levels in adulthood are relatively common.
    • In the U.S. alone, one in five adults lacks the reading skills to perform basic, literacy-related tasks.
  • Several major literacy programs can support mature students who seek to improve their reading skills, including:
    • The Orton-Gillingham Approach
    • The Barton Reading & Spelling System
    • The Multisensory Teaching Approach (MTA)
    • The Slingerland Approach

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