The Museum’s Role in Adult Literacy Education

The specific statistics vary depending on the source, but according to the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the United States of America, or 14% of the population, struggle with basic literacy.[1] This means that they cannot fill out a job application, understand the labels on foods and medications, or read a bedtime story to their children.[2]

There are numerous reasons why so many people make it to adulthood in the U.S. without ever learning to read. Some have learning disabilities that went undiagnosed when they were children. Some are caught in a cycle of illiteracy, having had parents who could not read. And some are immigrants or children of immigrants from countries where English is not the first language or where literacy is not emphasized. These are only a few of the possible reasons.[3]

Unfortunately, scientific research seems to still be focused mainly on how to help children with literacy difficulties improve their reading, although it has been proven that the mother’s literacy level is the most important factor in determining a child’s academic success, even more so than factors like neighborhood and family income.[4]

Therefore, it was difficult to find recent research on how adults with literacy difficulties learn best and on strategies for teaching them most effectively. Much of the research I did find was extrapolation from research done on children with literacy difficulties or speculations based on small case studies. However, many of them did have something in common. They implied a connection between textual literacy and visual literacy.

According to some of the research, there are several key tools for helping adult literacy students improve their reading comprehension skills. Two of these strategies are self-questioning and visual imagery. The self-questioning strategy involves looking for word and picture clues in the text to make a prediction, then reading closely to check that prediction; and the visual imagery strategy involves finding descriptive word clues in the text and creating a visual image from the clues.[5] If the strategy is reversed and a student first looks at an image, then thinks of descriptive words to create a story, isn’t he or she building similar skills?

Both of these strategies share commonalities with object-based learning and visual thinking strategies, which are methods that facilitate important skills for reading comprehension, like critical thinking.[6] Incorporating more visual literacy into existing adult literacy education seems like a natural step, and evidence shows that working with actual images in person, rather than reproductions, evokes a stronger personal response, which affects how well the learner will remember the experience.[7] These examples were mostly from art museums specifically, but an object-based approach and Visual Thinking Strategies routines can certainly be utilized in other kinds of museums as well.

I was able to find a few blog posts from various literacy centers that had taken learners on trips to local museums or encouraged learners to visit a local museum,[8] but it is unclear whether or not these museums have specific ties to the literacy programs. If anyone knows of any great adult literacy programs at specific museums that I have overlooked, please comment!

Most of the great adult literacy programs are in museums’ sister institutions, libraries, and in non-profit literacy centers. This leads me to the question: How can museums best use their resources to improve adult literacy in our society? Is it by creating and staffing their own special programs at the museum for adult literacy students? Or is forming partnerships with libraries and local literacy centers the better option? Museums and libraries often collaborate due to common educational missions, and to share financial resources.[9] The adult literacy mission would make for a particularly strong partnership between these two institutions.

Beyond these special programs, however, since such a large portion of the population has difficulty reading, museums should be moving towards accessibility and inclusivity for these adults with low literacy skills independent of special programs. The environment in a museum can be overwhelming and intimidating with so much complicated text on display. There are already some wonderful steps being taken in the right direction. For example, Kris Wetterlund’s wonderful idea of text panels that mostly reference what you can actually see in the object. The rule is: “If you can’t see it, don’t say it,”[10] and text panels like these would be wonderful resources to support object-based visual literacy lessons in the museum. If some museum labels are making the current, well educated demographic feel stupid, imagine how visitors who have trouble reading might feel.[11]





[5] Reading Comprehension Strategies for Adult Literacy Outcomes. Hock, Mike, Mellard, Daryl. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 2005

[6] Fostering adult literacy in Art Museums. Coman, L. Journal of Visual Literacy, 2004

[7] Fostering adult literacy in Art Museums. Coman, L. Journal of Visual Literacy, 2004

[8] ;

[9] Weil, S. E. Esq. New frontiers for museum workers. Paper presented at the Writing for Publication Workshop, John F. Kennedy University, California, 2001.



5 thoughts on “The Museum’s Role in Adult Literacy Education

  1. rachelquimby

    I thought Meg’s initial question of whose responsibility it is to promote adult literacy was a tough one. I think museum educators feel an enormous sense of responsibility to any audience in the moment: making them feel comfortable, trying to engage with personal questions, encouraging conversation, etc… but when it comes to attaining a skill so fundamental as reading, society seems to give people the first ten years of life, and after that, they’re on their own. I was struck by one expert’s comment in the video: children have a few years to learn to read, and then it’s assumed they’re reading to learn.

    While museums are in some ways ideal places for people with low literacy to learn (yay, VTS! yay, objects!) I think museums must partner with libraries or community centers or schools when it comes to teaching the mechanics of reading. These could be natural partnerships: books and articles related to an exhibit, short writing assignments about what’s hanging on the walls…the possibilities there are nearly endless, but museums are so strapped for resources, I think forming special departments of literacy is untenable. (Hey– where is all the cash I entered this profession for, anyway?)


    1. Patty Arteaga

      A beautiful thing about museums, looking/creating art, contemplating objects in general, is that it evokes a feeling that at times cannot be put to words or expressed in text. That is not to say that not having the means to read is a wonderful thing, but here is an activity that does not require reading at all. Instead the use of your eyes and your contemplation as tools to extract meaning is a very powerful thing that museums can catch up on. Let’s see the people with literacy difficulties as a manner to better improve on inquiry methods to produce that narrative, the power of a story, using visual contexts.


  2. Allison Van Gilst

    As someone who grew-up with a parent with a reading disability I can relate in a sense to some of the stories from families of adults with low literacy. It was hard at times to go to museums with a lot of reading because while my parent wanted to know more about the objects, they really only interacted with the objects if they were told about them rather than having to read about them on exhibit labels. Something that I would love to see more of is museums providing programs specifically for adults that incorporate VTS or even perhaps just guided tours of museums that are very much discussion based. From my experience, a lot of times these types of programs seem catered towards children and adults can feel out of place participating.


    1. valeriebundy

      I, like Rachel in the first comment, was also struck by the statement in the video: children have a few years to learn to read, and then it’s assumed they’re reading to learn. I know we in the informal education field are vividly aware of the gaps in formal education. We are also aware that all of these issues do not fall on to the teachers or on to the standards that are being forced to uphold and the curriculum they are required to stick to. But it becomes apparent that there are definitely gaps. It must be relatively easy to slip through the cracks of the system if it can be assumed that they learned to read when they actually did not learn how to read. We now have an entire population of adults with low literacy. I struggle to think of how hard daily life must be with out the skills to read. I am also impressed with the skill set and ingenuity it must take to navigate the world without this skill.

      So should and could museums step up and help promote literacy in adult learners? I would like to think so. I am a museum person. I love museums because I love objects. I find myself often only skimming the insane amount of text that is often plastered everywhere near the objects because it is overwhelming. Its overwhelming to someone who can read to think that ALL OF THIS TEXT MATTERS to make some sort of meaning out of what I am looking at. And I get that context and history and dates are all great and wonderful information. But I also believe in the powers of observation and think that VTS is a great way to introduce meaning making with out having to read a panel.

      I am replying back to Allison’s post because I agree that VTS is often used with kids and is typically viewed as a children’s program. I wonder though if this is more the case of children willing to except this style of facilitation over adults? It seems to be this kind of internal struggle to get older populations interested in a less didactic approach to museum learning where kids are generally more open. I believe in the power of Visual Thinking Strategies though, and am hopeful that the link between visual literacy could lead to stronger literacy skills or in the very least can make Museums more accessible to those with lower literacy. You do not need to be able to read to make meaning from objects.

      I’m interested to see how Meg’s facilitation with her adult learners with low literacy goes!


  3. kitsa179

    I wasn’t sure how to comment on this audience or the issues of illiteracy at first. I’m not even quite sure how to address the problem now…however, the question is out there (thank you, Meg) and it has been tickling the back of my mind since this blog was posted.

    I was a peer reviewer for Meg yesterday and it was a unique opportunity to see the issue of illiteracy in action. It was a fascinating experience to see Meg facilitate with her audience’s needs in mind. She color coded her Advanced Organizer, she used body gestures, and she employed facial expressions to punctuate her instructions and clarify her descriptions. I thought that was clever. I watched her audience and found that where they might be lacking proficiency when confronted with text, they were profoundly expert at reading visual cues. Their interpretation of emotional states as evidenced by expressions and body language were unfailingly accurate. It almost seemed to me that where one skill was lacking a heightened ability to compensate for it had developed.

    I still believe that the responsibility to learn is with the individual, but I do think there are untapped opportunities by institutions– museums– to facilitate and encourage learning. Meg underscored her audiences desire to become literate by encouraging them to not only look at (read) the work of art, but to also figure out where they could find further information. I was inspired by the audience as they approached the text panel and collectively deciphered the information there. They encouraged each other and offered help when someone struggled. THIS is what museums can offer! Safe spaces. Small groups with members of similar ages and abilities. Patient and enthusiastic educators.



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