Adult Literacy Education: Where Did We Come From?

Adult Literacy: Where Did We Come From?

Back in the 1970’s, the (then) president of Frontier College made the optimistic remark: “Adult literacy is society’s most fixable issue.” It all sounded so easy. So doable back then. However, a review of our history does not support this notion (Quigley, 1997, 2006). In fact, among the many myths we have inherited about adult literacy, this one is probably the most enduring—and most problematic—for our field.

Consider how the United States has had any number of campaigns in that 20th century promising to  “eliminate” or “fix” low literacy (Quigley, 1997). Our own history of literacy/basic education funding, especially federal funding, has been a funding roller coaster since federal funding for ABE began in Canada in 1967 (Thomas, 2001).

Meanwhile, the numbers living with lower literacy continue to rise.

The latest PIACC (Programme for the International Assessment of Competencies)  estimates indicate that there are approximately 107,000,000 adults in North America living with inadequate literacy skills (CMEC, 2012). By OECD definitions, this huge number of adults is not able to fully participate in today’s society.

So how should we be thinking about adult low literacy, including ABE and EAL (English as an Additional Language), into the 21st century?

Will anything change?

Michael Ignatieff (2007) has argued that we are living in an era of a “rights revolution.” We should hope that society might one day accept that adult literacy education is not a “fixable problem” but, simply a normal, on-going stream within lifelong learning. There is nothing “temporary” about low literacy or our field. As Ron Cervero put it: “Learning needs should not be treated as deficiencies of the individual that can be treated and remedied. Rather, learning needs should be treated as an adult’s right to know” (in press).

Maybe, just maybe, a better understanding of our long history will help us dispel this myth. Or at least help put a small dent in this largely unchallenged myth.

We have a fascinating history. A history that I have been researching for over 15 years (Quigley, 1997; 2013). If anything is to change, we need to know more about our history, our heroes and our heroines, and how we arrived at the place we find ourselves today..

Here’s our plan…

This Year’s Theme and Monthly Plan

From this December blog through to next May, the plan is to post a monthly installment discussing a hero or heroine and the literacy landmark they helped found. We expect to post our annual “Lessons learned” wind up blog to conclude the series next June. The “umbrella-term” used will be adult literacy, but it will be meant to encompass what we today refer to as basic literacy, ABE and AEL.

The Beginning of Literacy Education in Canada 

In Canada, the first documented adult literacy program with an organized curriculum in English was held at the Kingston YMCA in 1859. According to historian Murray Ross (1951), “classes in reading, spelling, and grammar” (p. 26) were held on Monday evenings. Friday evenings dedicated to “writing and arithmetic” and “Study of the Old Testament” (p. 26) was conducted on Thursdays. These classes were held well before there was a Canada as we know it today. Interestingly, this was when a public school system was being proposed by Egerton Ryerson for English Canada and Jean-Baptiste Meilleur in Québec. We will return to Canada later in this series, but the origins of adult literacy education go back much farther than 1859 and Canada.

Our Humble Beginnings

Although there is some argument that the very first adult school was started by the Methodist New Connexion Church in Nottingham, England, in 1798, (Peers, 1972), the first documented adult literacy class to make a lasting impact was started in Bristol, England in 1812. Its full name was the Institution for Instructing Adult Persons to Read the Holy Scriptures, now (mercifully), shortened to: the Bristol Adult School.

What we know about this nascent school mainly comes from a book known as Pole’s History,  published in 1814 (republished by Verner, 1967). Actually, this book is where the term “adult education” first appeared in print.

Dr. Thomas Pole

Dr. Thomas Pole

Try to imagine this... According to Dr. Pole, “During the second annual meeting of the local [Methodist] auxiliary of the Bible Society” (Martin, 1924, p. 26),  a letter was handed out explaining how the Auxiliary members had been dutifully giving out Bibles, as was the mission, when they realized that many of the poor simply could not read. Therefore: “Not being able to read, [they] were unlikely to be benefited by possession of the Bible” (Martin, p. 26).  Why give the illiterate Bibles? After some considerable discussion, it was decided there was no point in giving Bibles to the illiterate.

Now appears our first heroic figure. William Smith…and sadly there is no photo of him.

However, he was described by Pole as:

A poor, humble, and almost unlettered individual . . . occupying no higher rank than that of a door-keeper to a Methodist chapel, without the slightest knowledge of what had been done in another province, [yet he] conceived the idea of instructing the adult poor to read the holy scriptures. (Hudson, 1969, p. 2, original printed 1851).

Moreover, Smith, “relinquished three shillings weekly from his small wages of eighteen shillings per week” to cover expenses (Hudson,. p. 4). Smith had the help of Stephen Prust, a local tobacco merchant and “distinguished member of the Society of Friends” (Hudson, p. 3). These two dedicated men set out to help those who wanted to attend “a school for persons advanced in years” (p. 3).

The First Two Students

On March 8, 1812, the first two adult students to enter the rented room were William Wood, age 63, and Jane Burrace, age 40. Soon eleven men and ten women followed, “with the numbers increasing every week, until the rooms were filled” (Hudson, p. 4). The numbers grew to the point that Smith had to “engage other apartments in the same neighborhood, for the reception and instruction of the illiterate poor, who were daily applying to him for admission” (p. 4). In just one year, the Bristol Adult School model spread to Bath, Ipswich, Plymouth, Salisbury, and Yarmouth (Kelly, 1962, p. 150) and, by 1813, there were 21 schools in England with 20 more added by 1815. By mid-century,  “upwards of thirty thousand of the poor in England have acquired the power of reading the New Testament by the means thus afforded” (Hudson cited in Peers, p. 12). But more important for our story, by 1816, the Bristol model had also spread to, “Ireland, New York, Philadelphia and Sierra Leone” (Kelly, p. 150; Quigley, 1997, 2013).

Helping “Our fair Isle”

Why establish these schools? Dr. Pole explains in his 1814 history (which I personally saw in the Rare Book Room of the British Library in London), reading the Scriptures was absolutely essential to English society, not only for personal salvation but because, listen to this: “Perusal of the sacred scripture and other religious books, have a tendency to moralize and Christianize the minds of men—instead of idleness, profaneness and vice—They inculcate diligence, sobriety, frugality, piety, and heavenly-mindedness” (Verner, 1967, p. 18).

You might have noticed that learners had no voice in deciding the School’s learning materials or content. Or anything. Actually, adult learners’ expressed-needs would not be part of our history until well into the late 20th century. The dominant class “Knew what they needed.” As Pole argued how adult literacy would also benefit their “Fair Isle” since: “Industry, frugality, and economy will be their possession. They will also have learned better to practice meekness, Christian Fortitude, and resignation” (Verner, 1967, p. 19). And more: “The lower classes will not then be so dependent on the provident members of society, as they now are” (p. 19).

Morality and the economy drove the earliest schools. Teaching took an essentially remedial approach and the Bible was the curriculum.

But a Controversy was Brewing…

Should the adult schools be teaching writing? This was actually one of two burning issues. The adult schools were normally held on Sundays, but Sundays..the Sabbath Day…was to be held sacred and no work was to be conducted on the Sabbath. So the question was: Is writing “work?”  As Peers put it: “While there was no objection to the reading of the Bible on the Lord’s Day, many took exception to writing as a secular occupation” (1972, p.12). As a result, writing was rarely taught in these first adult schools.

But religion was not the only reason to avoid writing in classrooms. Anyone who has read Charles Dickens’ novels will remember how the lower classes were seen as dangerous, feared people.  Why teach dangerous people to write? As Hobley and Mercer (1911) observe: “While Bible-reading was everywhere encouraged,” to allow the lower classes to learn to write just might, “tempt the poor to commit forgery and crime!” (cited in Freeman, 2007, p. 12). If, knowledge is power; assuredly, the illiterate poor should have only “acceptable knowledge.”

The Bristol Adult School movement was to evolve and created the pedagogical model for many of the British colonies and had a huge indirect impact in America as well. As we will see in later blogs…

Learning From Early History…

  • More than two centuries later, one thing is for certain. Adult literacy education is not a “new” field. It should not be seen as a “temporary fix-it shop.”  Moreover…
  • With the Bristol Adult Schools, we see the beginnings of a long legacy of volunteerism and the beginning of adult literacy being taught in rented spaces. Basic literacy and EAL classes are still being taught today in churches (church basements) and rented facilities across North America.
  • We also see the important role of what we today might today call literacy “sponsors” or “funding agencies.” Here is the start of the influential role of those groups, organizations and, later, governments, who have made the resources available for literacy programs ever since.
  • However, it is important to see the commitment of our heroic founders. To see the self-sacrifice and passionate concern of the earliest tutors and teachers for those who did not have the advantages that literacy affords.

Beginning with,  “A poor, humble, and almost unlettered individual,” and for the more than 200 years to follow, heroes and heroines of literacy have stepped forward to help total strangers who simply want to be able to read and write to a level that gives them greater life-chances.

Our field has a long, proud history.


Cervero, R. M. (In press). Professionalization for what? Fulfilling the promise of adult and continuing education. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 26 (Winter, 2017).

Council of Ministers of Canada (CMEC) (2012). Programme for the international assessment of competencies: PIACC in Canada. Retrieved August 31, 2016 from

Freeman, M. (2007) The magic lantern and the cinema: Adult schools, educational settlements and secularisation in Britain, c. 1900-1950. Quaker Studies, 11 (192-203).

Hudson, J. W. (1969). The history of adult education. London: The Woburn press (Original work published 1851).

Ignatieff, M. (2007). The rights revolution. Toronto: House of Anansi.

Kelly, T. (1962). A history of adult education in Great Britain. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Martin, C. (1924). The adult school movement. London: National Adult School Union.

Peers, R. (1972). Adult Education: A Comparative Study. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Quigley, B. A. (1997). Rethinking adult education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Quigley, B. A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Quigley, A. (2013).  Learning from landmarks: To re-shape adult literacy policy in the Twenty-first century. In T. Nesbit, S. Brigham, N. Taber, & T. Gibb (Eds.). Building on Critical Traditions: Adult Education and Learning in Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Ross, M. G. (1951). The Y.M.C.A. in Canada. Toronto: Ryerson Press.

Thomas, A. M. (2001). How adult literacy became of age in Canada. In M. C. Taylor (Ed.), Adult literacy now! Toronto: Culture Concepts.

Verner, C. (1967). Pole’s history of adult schools. Washington, DC: Adult Education Associates of the U.S.A. (Original work published, 1812).


Next Month: Teaching Freed Slaves in South Carolina

Next month, we head to South Carolina and see how Reverend Richardson and his wife risked their lives to help freed slaves–called the “Freedmen”– to learn to read with the civil war raging around them in South Carolina. We will also see how the Richardsons struggled to convince Northerners that African American Freedmen were even capable of learning.

Stay tuned.


  • Would you be interested in telling the story of how your program got started? Its history? How, where, and why it began? If so, contact Jacqueline Bruce ( or Allan Quigley ( for the guidelines. Why not tell the stories of our own programs?
  • Last year, we had students tell their stories of Transformative Learning (see last year’s blogs at If you have a student interested in telling their story, Jacqueline or I can send out the guidelines used last year. Budget allowing, we can offer them a small honorarium for doing


Dr. Allan Quigley & the SARN Team.

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