Adult Education & Literacy





One of our nation’s biggest challenges is to bring basic literacy and workforce skills to adults across America. It is essential for preserving the core principles upon which our nation was founded. It is vital if America is to remain competitive in the global economy. (See a copy of the final report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy, Reach Higher America, and its peripheral documents.)

In the U.S. today, as many as 90 million out-of-school adults (aged 16 and over) need help with their basic literacy and workforce skills to qualify for jobs or college. Some college education is required for most current and new jobs. A third of these individuals are high-risk, low-income people whose circumstances call for special help so they can climb the ladder to college, a better life, jobs that pay a living wage, and full citizenship. Among those in need of services are low-skilled recently incarcerated individuals (most of whom will return to our communities), under-skilled parents who cannot fully support their own children’s learning, those without jobs or who are stuck in jobs that don’t use their full abilities, recent immigrants who need both basic English language and literacy services, and millions of others who face some educational barrier that blocks their progress and participation.

The need for adult education and literacy in our nation far outweighs available programs. Nevetheless, day in and day out, instructional services are offered across the country by public and private sector organizations—voluntary organizations, libraries, family literacy groups, school districts, colleges, ESL programs, correctional institutions, distance learning groups, unions, businesses, and others.

Poetry is a popular feature of many of these programs. It helps overcome stigma and develop students’ reading and writing skills. It also encourages self-expression and instills confidence in learners themselves, who bring their own personal backgrounds to the learning experience.

This page is dedicated primarily to the use of poetry by adult literacy learners and their teachers. However, under EXPLORE at the bottom of the page, links are given to the use of poetry to improve communication among adult educators, medical professionals, and patients, in an area of Adult Education called Health Literacy.




—In “Poetry in the Adult Literacy Classroom,” adult education teacher Nancy Padak briefly explains why and how poetry can enhance adult literacy teaching and learning, with emphasis on reading and writing. Ms. Padak observes that poetry is a “good source of reading material, especially for beginners, since the melody provides a scaffold for reading success.”



In an adult GED writing class in Oregon in 1999, on a poetry assignment about the weather, a student named Lilly wrote:


First Snow

First I come to town.
First I see the snow come down.
First I scared what is come.
First hurry to run in my home.
First call father-in-law to come.
See out what is come.
Father said, ‘Oh, oh, snow come.
The seasons go, seasons come.
I still remember what he say.
The time is another forty years ago.
I wonder, I am getting old.



In an adult ESL class at National-Louis University in Chicago, Associate Professor Kristin Lems used American poetry to teach adult immigrants between 18 and 65 years old. Students were given a list of poems from which to select a favorite to memorize and talk about. In an article for an online forum of the U.S. State Department, Ms. Lems included several students’ responses to the experience (see “An American Poetry Project for Low Intermediate ESL Adults”.) One student wrote:

“I was very happy because our program included American poetry….I know many poems by heart in my native language…. I chose ‘Annabel Lee’ because it is a love story told by a man in a very sensitive way. This love story happened somewhere, we still don’t know where. We don’t know when it happened. We only know that it was many years ago and in a kingdom by the sea. I think the importance here is the love, not the place. Also it’s not important how this maiden looks. We don’t know because he loves her for herself. He loves her by soul. This is more than just love. I like the rhythm of this poem. That was the additional reason that makes this poem lovely for me.”



In an adult literacy ESL class of the Eastern Parkway Learning Center, Brooklyn Public Library, as part of a Citywide initiative by the NYC Literacy Assistance Center, students were invited to write about the effects of 9/11. In Student Writing: September 11, 2001, Literacy Assistance Center, NYC.

“Why why why, my my my? Why did the plane fly and the people die. As the sunshine in the town, now tell me why the towers go down? I stick my head through the window and I saw the wind blow from door to door. I cried loudly, wayne wayne wayne trouble fall like rain. Then I ask my god if my work on earth is gong to be in vain because this is no joke the whole world is in pain. Why why why, my my my. As the news travel far over yonder it makes me wonder it take us closer to one another. Blows are throwing from place to place but it seems like we will never meet whomever did this face to face. My my my, why why why."



Haiku from five ESL students in the Workers United Education Program of New York City’s Consortium for Worker Education, written April 2011.


Like the plants need sun
Mothers need to hear voices
In the loneliness.
[Rocio Ramirez]

My son was as spring;
He became summer very fast;
He’ll skip fall.
[Ruben Juarez]

Beggar on the road
He’s asking for food to eat.
So miserable life.
[Lily Ho]

I sleep in my bed
Birds sing their morning song
What an awesome day!
[Shun Ying “Suzie” He Gao]

Hide away when cold;
Suddenly comes a warm front
Full of energy!
[Kit Ling Lo]




—From the Working Writers Project of the Joint Labor/Management Workplace Education Program, an adult education effort carried out with printing support from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.


Going Home

[I hate to acknowledge the danger I face every day just walking into this place. If I can push every accident I've seen, every death I've heard about here, into a hole so deep that the memory will not surface; if I can remove the humanity of the person involved in the accident; if I can do these things, I'll feel that much safer. I won't find myself staring mortality in the face.]

Sometimes we forget that we're walking on pins
And the switch can be thrown on our light,
And we're playing with fire
As production grows higher,
Going home with a paycheck tonight.

A digit in the wrong place at the wrong time
Soon it’s a bloody sight,
And it makes you want to yell
Because you're watching your pal
Going home with nine fingers tonight.

The bar slips and the weight falls.
The blood drains from his face; it turns white.
It makes you want to spew.
It could've been you
Going home with a snapped leg tonight.

The splashed liquid metal contacts the skin.
You see his eyes filling with fright.
Your thoughts start to swim
Feeling sorry for him
Going home wrapped in white gauze tonight.

A precarious position's been taken before.
The man's not prepared for this flight
And you ramble and talk
Because he'll never walk
Going home in a wheelchair tonight.

The man in the box a hundred feet in the air
Comes crashing to the ground like a kite.
And you rant and you rave
’Cause his next stop is the grave
Going home in a coffin tonight.

The wrong button pushed, the wrong lever pulled
Some minor thing done just not right,
Makes you want to scream
About shattered dreams
Going home as a mortal tonight.

Co-workers maimed, good men who have died
Hidden back in my mind with such might
It’s such a disgrace
These are thoughts I can’t face
Going home in denial tonight.

The victim’s pained face soon starts to fade;
The accident’s now a distant plight.
And it's such a regret
That so soon I forget
Even I may not get home tonight.

[Jerry Torres, Institute for Career Development, United Steelworkers]



Appalachian Woman

Nimble fingers weave magic spells
With scraps of cloth and spools of thread.
Capable hands made beautiful by labor
Caress and cool a fevered brow.
Loving eyes memorize
The cherub face of her sleeping child.

[Jennie Greear Hill, Alliance for Employee Growth & Development]



A Quiet Room
To My Laura - December 4, 2004

I go into a quiet room
And softly close the door.
I shall sit forever still
And think of ways to love you more.

I will take away the blinders
That are hindering my view,
To see through eyes of love
And watch the beauty inside of you.

There was a time in my life
When love seemed far away,
But as I gaze deep into your eyes
Your heart loves me in every way.

I thank the Lord above
For sending you my way.
I’m grateful for the blessing
That you’re with me every day.

When we were only children,
Little girl and little boy,
I never in my wildest dreams
Knew I could have such joy.

I think of the past and
How your laughter made me smile,
Your kindness and generosity,
Your caring and loving style.

As I sit inside this quiet room
And think back from the start,
I see I’ve loved you all along:
It is you who has my heart.

[Henry DeHoyes, Institute for Career Development, United Steelworkers]




From parents in FACE programs on Indian reservations, operated by the National Center for Families Learning. (The acronym FACE stands for Family and Children’s Education.)


Another Chance!

I thought that I’d never get the chance to be the person that I am today.
A person that I can be proud of.
A person that I can brag about and say.
I am working on my future, for my littles ones and my people too!
To set an example for my babies.
Seven Months and Two
FACE Program gave me a second chance.
A second graduation
To be an example for people just like me across the nation

[ Xia American Horse, Theodore Jamerson FACE Program]


Opening My Mind and Setting It Free

FACE is a newly found, exciting place, I’ve learned computer skills, writing skills,
Math skills, reading in front of all these ladies,
Some days, it just drives me crazy, being the only man, sharing my plans,
So we all can share and understand life’s battles or a big old war,
As we all walk out these doors,
I will leave FACE knowing I have my GED, and was set free to accomplish all my new goals,
This is something I look forward to,
After I’m not at home chewing my shoe, thinking of something to do,
I hope this hits someone as it hit me right here, as I have only this year.

[Brad Little Whitman, Little Wound FACE Program]


My Little Rainbow

You are my miracle baby.
I thank God for bringing you into my life.
You are my rainbow.
You brighten my pathway.
And the end of my rainbow there you are,
My treasure.

[Myranda Martinez, Ramah Navajo FACE Program]



I.READ.I.WRITE is an ongoing project and blog of photojournalist Laura Boushnak, a Pakistani photographer born in Kuwait.  It focuses on the importance of literacy and education to the lives of Arab women, and the barriers they must overcome to gain access to even the lowest level of education. Ms. Boushnak captures in a most eloquent even poetic way the challenges that young women in the Middle East face in pursuing literacy and further education. The site is deeply inspiring and rich with stories of women who have overcome incredible odds to improve their educational levels and improve their own lives and lives of others around them.

HEALTH LITERACY — Adult education and literacy services are devoted primarily to moving low-skilled adults along pathways to college and job readiness, strengthening parents’ abilities to support their children’s learning, and improving citizenship and community participation.  But health literacy is an important area of adult education too because it has implications for the ability of workers, parents, and citizens to function effectively or at all. In health literacy, medical professionals and adult educators work together to develop clear materials and ways of speaking that patients with low basic skills can understand.  The goal is to improve health and health care by increasing patient access and choice and to increase the understanding that medical professionals bring to interactions with their low-skilled patients. 

—In 2006, at the International Initiative in Mental Health Leadership Conference in Edinburgh, poetry workshop leader Elspeth Murray reads a patient’s poetic appeal for clear, jargon-free communication (2.17), called This is Bad Enough

—Jessica Ridpath, research communications consultant for the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle ( currently uses the This is Bad Enough video in her own plain language workshops.  As a guest on a recent “Health Literacy Out Loud” podcast, Jessica Ridpath talks about “problematic words in health research,” at

—The  Institute for Healthcare Advancement (IHA) maintains a free Health Literacy listserv with a large subscriber base of doctors, nurses, other medical personnel, researchers, and adult educators (  The website of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) offers a Health Literacy section featuring information, resources, training, and a blog (  The LINCS Literacy Information and Communications System of the U.S. Department of Education offers a range of health literacy resources at (search box: health literacy). 


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