3 Major Barriers Adults Face when Learning to Read

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read many other things today. From street signs to text messages, from news articles to recipes, if you’re awake, you’re reading. Unless you can’t read. It can be difficult for many literate adults to envision a world in which every label, every TV screen, every warning sign, is covered with mysterious, indecipherable script. Perhaps you’ve felt this way if you’ve visited a country that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet as we do for English. But illiteracy affects 36 million American adults, seriously throttling their opportunities. Here are three major barriers to adult literacy, and how you can help break them down.

1. Stigma

Across the board, most Americans who learned to read as adults will tell you the same thing: “I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know how.” Our society holds an unconscious stigma around those who can’t read. We tend to view the illiterate with less dignity, whether we mean to or not. This compounds the issue, because adults who are illiterate often feel too ashamed to admit that they can’t read. And they go on not learning.

This leads to patterns of adaptation. Rather than reading, people will use pictures when ordering food at a restaurant or buying groceries. They’ll learn to recognize the shapes of certain words on road signs because they see them every day. This leads to a level of survival that they accept, and the desire to learn to read tapers as the years go by.

2. They don’t speak English in the first place

For a large number of adults seeking English literacy, they must first learn English. They may be literate in their primary languages, but understanding English at all can be a major hurdle to clear on their journey toward literacy. The Migration Policy Institute found that in America, immigrants make up 33% of adults lacking in literacy skills

As children, we learn to speak years before we learn to read. According to, “Children have a smaller vocabulary and it is easy to learn enough of a second language to communicate their needs. Adults have a much larger vocabulary and think and communicate in more complex ways than children. This means it takes them longer to acquire the ability to communicate effectively in a second language.” So learning English is more difficult for adults, making literacy that much further away

3. Time

“Well, just take some classes, then.” That’s easy to say, but “classes” are generally something we experience when we’re younger, with fewer responsibilities and open schedules devoted mostly to learning. Even taking 4-5 hours per week to learn to read can be nearly impossible for many adults, who have full work schedules, children to care for, meals to prep, and so on. Between classes and homework, learning to read can be a huge time investment.

Adults have plenty of obstacles to clear on their path to literacy. But that’s why we’re here. At Reading to New Heights, our goal is to eliminate adult illiteracy in the DFW metro, helping each and every person reach his or her full potential through the power of understanding the written word.

And you can help. Your thoughtful donation will help keep us resourced as we educate. Together we can break through the walls of adult illiteracy and empower every adult toward a more successful future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *