How to Teach an Illiterate Adult to Read

Knoji reviews products and up-and-coming brands we think you'll love. In certain cases, we may receive a commission from brands mentioned in our guides. Learn more.
It is estimated that there are 40 million illiterate and low-literate adults in the U.S. In 2005, the United Nations reported 16 countries with a more than 50% adult illiteracy rate. Below are six steps that, if followed, will successfully teach an illite

Can you imagine going through life without being able to read? Think about all of the times you use your reading skills in one day. It is estimated that there are 40 million illiterate and low-literate adults in the U.S. In 2005, the United Nations reported 16 countries with a more than 50% adult illiteracy rate. You, a skilled reader, possess a gift that could absolutely change the life of one of these unfortunate people. Below are six steps that, if followed, will successfully teach an illiterate adult to read.

Step 1: Learning the Alphabet

Use a poster, chalkboard, or notebook to write or display the alphabet in the student’s native language. Both upper case and lower case letters should be displayed like this:

         A   a                           B   b                      C   c                         D   d                                        E   e

Go over the letters with the student until he or she learns them all. Make sure he or she knows which letter is upper case and which is lower case is. Use the alphabet song to help the student to remember. Have the student write each letter several times as you teach the names of the letters. If the student has trouble writing a letter, outline the letter with dots and have him or her connect the dots. Generously congratulate the student when writing letters successfully. Point out which of the several letters are written correctly and why. For example, “This one is the best because it sits nicely on the line. This one is not good because this line is too short. It doesn’t look like an 'h' but actually more like an 'n'.

Once the student knows the alphabet in order, challenge him or her by writing several letters out of order and ask to recall the letters. You can also name one of the letters and ask the student to point it out. Be sure to ask the student if the letter is upper case or lower case. Depending on the mental capabilities of the student, this step could take as little as a week or as much as months to learn.

Step 2: Learning Sounds

Go over each letter and teach the sound that the letter makes. Give examples of words that start with each letter and ask the student to give examples as well. The student will likely make mistakes while doing this. For example, if you ask the student to tell you letters that start with “B”, he or she may say “above”. You can tell the student that you do hear the “B” sound in the word “above” but it’s not the first sound you hear. The first sound you hear is [uh] which is made by “A”. “B” is the second letter in “above”. Can he or she find a word that starts with the “B” sound? That means that it’s the first sound you hear in the word, before any other sounds.

Once the student has learned the sounds of several words, you can state a word and ask which letter it starts with. Once the student knows the sounds of all letters, can give examples of words that start with each letter and see if he or she can even recognize which letter some given words start with, it’s time to move on to step 3.

Step 3: Learning Sounds of Letter Pairs

In the English language, there are several letter pairs that make specific sounds: “ch”, “sh”, “ph”, “qu”, “gh”, & “ck”. Teach these letter pairs to students using the same method as step 2, with the exceptions “ck” and “gh” which are not found at the beginnings of words so the method will have to be adapted. You can try to teach vowel pairs using this method as well: “ou”, “oo”, “ee”, “ie”, “ai”, “au”, and more. It’s a little tricky since vowel pairs almost always fall in the middle of words. These sounds are more likely to be learned in step 6.

Step 4: Reading Syllables

Beginning with B, display this diagram in front of the student:

Go over it with the student, pointing at each letter as you say it. “B” with “a” makes [ba]. “B” with “e” makes [be].

This can be repeated with every consonant. Once the student can successfully complete this exercise with every consonant letter, you can write random syllables on the chalkboard or in the notebook in front of the student. Example:

                                                 di             fo            ga             nu              le

Have the student state the name of each letter in the syllable first, and then read the syllable. If the student makes a mistake, ask again what sound the letter makes. The student will reflect and either remember or have to be reminded. Once the correct sound enters his or her memory, the syllable will be read successfully. You can also reverse this exercise by reading one of the syllables listed and asking the student to point out which syllable you have read.

Step 5: Reading Short, Simple Words

Now you can display a simple word in front of the student.


Have the student name each letter, then attempt to read the word. When mistakes are made, make corrections the same way you did in step 4. When the word is read successfully, generously congratulate the student. Then, display another simple word.


Repeat the same thing, and then continue doing so with more words. Once a list of about five words is created, go back to the first word and see if the student can read it more quickly. If not, then have patience, have the student name each letter, and attempt to read the word. If not at first, after going over each word a second time, the student will likely be able to read the words more quickly. This is when the student really starts to get a feel for reading.

After this lesson has ended, go over the same words again the next time you meet with the student. Continue to introduce more words, gradually introducing longer and more complex words.

                                                        rest                banana                  stop                    this

Step 6: Reading Simple Phrases and Stories

At this point, you should find some very simple stories and start reading them with your student. Sit beside your student. When he or she struggles on a word or makes a mistake, repeat the same method as before. Name the letters, remember the sounds, and try again. If no books are available, begin creating simple sentences for the student to read. Once the student can read simple stories, either read more or advance to something a little higher level. Now you have a reader!


About the Author

Caitlin McHale is director and co-founder of a non-profit organization called Project Esperanza which serves the Haitian immigrant population of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Read more of her posts on her personal blog or at


donna pendergrass
Posted on Sep 11, 2014
donna pendergrass
Posted on Sep 11, 2014
denise jackson
Posted on Apr 17, 2012
Posted on Aug 16, 2011