To investigate the reasons why at least 20% of Scotland’s adult population is functionally illiterate.

This research was undertaken by students from Hutchesons’ Grammar School, Glasgow in 2015 as part of their joint research into global educational issues with students from schools in several countries.


Several reports over the last ten years state that at least 20% of Scotland’s adult population is functionally illiterate, with the figure in some areas reaching as high as 40%. In addition, a Scottish Executive report in 2008 revealed that 39% of men and 36% of women of working age had literacy abilities at a level that was likely to impact on their employment and life chances. Not only do poor literacy skills affect the person’s standard of living, it also deprives them of the pleasure of reading. In addition, with such large numbers involved, it threatens the government’s aim to build a high-skill economy.

Research methods

Many reasons have been put forward to explain the number of functionallyilliterate people in Scotland. This research focuses on two: that some adults do not read well because they did not enjoy reading when they were children and that people for whom English is a second language have difficulty learning English.

Two hypotheses were tested:

  1. Children don’t enjoy reading.
  2. Recent immigrants don’t have enough opportunity to learn English

Ten pupils tested these hypotheses by issuing questionnaires to pupils and adults, interviewing schoolteachers in five schools within Glasgow and central Scotland and interviewing staff at adult literacy centres and at an asylum seeker centre in Glasgow.

Hypothesis 1: Children don’t enjoy reading

P7 pupils in 2 primary schools and S3 pupils in 2 secondary schools completed the questionnaire.

51 of the 114 children (45%) did not enjoy reading at all or only a little, but this figure was 59% for boys. Yet 62% of the children thought that reading was important (54% for boys).

66% of the boys also stated that their fathers did not read more than they did, and only 12% of men thought that reading was important.

The teachers and experts interviewed agreed that a significant number of children do not enjoy reading and this problem is greater amongst boys. Most, but not all, believed the problem was getting worse. These were their views on the causes and solutions.

Why some children do not enjoy reading

  1. Some children do not enjoy reading because they have learning difficulties, for example dyslexia
  2. The lack of enjoyment may also be due to the teaching method used or even the teacher’s enthusiasm.
  3. Parents have a huge effect on their children’s literacy if they don’t value reading or if they are illiterate themselves. That is why the problem is worse in deprived areas.
  4. The decline in enjoyment was attributed partly to parents having less time to read to or with their children.
  5. For several reasons children living in poverty have less opportunity to develop their literacy skills and their enjoyment of reading. If the stress of poverty is removed, illiteracy will decrease.
  6. It was suggested that children value reading less now because of televisions, computers and mobile phones

Possible solutions

The schoolteachers interviewed have devised many ingenious ways of increasing pupil enjoyment of reading. These include reading clubs, reading competitions (readathons), talks by authors, use of a wider range of books (fiction and non-fiction) as well as changing the layout of books and the text fonts and sizes used and making the covers more appealing. The teachers agreed that early intervention of learning difficulties was important.

Parents also need to be educated on the importance of encouraging their child with his/her reading and the importance of reading together. Some parents and children still need to be more aspirational and to believe that education in general is important – to know how important education is to their child’s standard of living and quality of life and to be committed to helping as much as possible.

In the long term, it was felt that a reduction in poverty would give parents and children more opportunity to improve their literacy skills and gain enjoyment from reading.

Hypothesis 2: Some adults cannot read well in English because there are not enough opportunities for recent immigrants to improve their English

Why some immigrants cannot read and write well in English.

Some asylum seekers who arrive in Glasgow can speak English well as they have learnt it in school previously. However others have not had the opportunity to learn English before arriving here.

It is mainly the most recent immigrants to Scotland, such as those from Poland, Romania who don’t speak English. In some cases the immigrants that come here don’t expect to come here. They don’t come because they want to or because they want to scrounge benefits but it is strictly due to circumstances, so many are not able to learn English before they come.

When moving here, if neither the parents nor the children speak English, it is difficult for the child to get into nursery school and this makes it harder for them to learn the language.

The demand for English classes is increasing and there are not enough places available for all those who want to learn and improve their English. It was also felt that Glasgow City Council did not advertise the courses well, possibly knowing they would be greatly over-subscribed.

One person interviewed believed that, although the number of classes available is insufficient, this should not stop people from learning the language. Immigrants have the incentive of knowing that the ability to read and write in English will help them a lot in obtaining a job. Also, asylum seekers have every encouragement to learn English as it helps them to earn ‘the right to remain’ in the UK.

Another problem is that asylum seekers are often housed in North Glasgow before they gain ‘leave to remain’. Then they are re-housed in another area so they are often transient and drift away from classes and courses because they cannot afford the bus fare or they have appointments. Some get places in college quickly while others wait for several years.

It was suggested that perhaps the provision for immigrant children to learn English in school is limited, especially if they do not arrive until they are of secondary school age.

Possible solutions

There is clearly a need to provide more classes and college courses in Glasgow. There is a great and increasing demand as immigrants are generally committed and keen to learn.

The tutors were concerned that there needs to be more co-ordination within the city to help people learn English more quickly. The DSS have advisors for asylum seekers but they do not liaise with the staff at asylum seeker centres. Ideally, every asylum seeker should have a well-coordinated ‘life plan’ covering their learning of English as well as career advice.

ESOL classes are places to learn English but they are also valuable areas for people to meet and socialize, especially recent immigrants. To encourage more people to attend these classes, it would be helpful if the environment was made very welcoming with opportunities for the people to take part in other social activities there as well.

To help ESOL learners to read there are resources such as easy English books with interesting topics for older children and adults but these books are hard to find. There needs to be more. It is also important to cater for the individual needs of the learner and to use different learning methods.