Words and Numbers in Everyday Life

Country Profile: Ireland


4.37 million

Official Languages

English and Irish

Total Expenditure on Education as % of GNP

4.7% (2005)

Access to Primary Education – Total Net Intake Rate (NIR)

Men: 98.8%
Women: 98.9%

Adult Literacy Rate (15-24 years)

PIAAC test results: percentage of adults scoring at each proficiency level in literacy (level 1 represents the lowest level of proficiency, level 5 the highest):

Below level 1: 4.3%
Level 1: 13.2%
Level 2: 37.6%
Level 3: 36.0%
Level 4: 8.1%
Level 5: 0.4%

Source: PIAAC 2012


Programme Overview

Programme TitleWords and Numbers in Everyday Life
Implementing OrganizationThe National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA)
FundingThe Department of Education and Science, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, RTÉ
Date of Inception1980 –

Context and background

Ireland has a long and respected tradition in education, dating back to the middle ages when it was one of the principal education providers of the Western world. Today, it is the Minister for Education who is responsible to the National Parliament, which is in charge of education. The Vocational Education Act in 1930 paved the way for the Vocational Educational Committees (VECs) which are currently the foundation of adult education assistance in Ireland. These committees were set out to establish continuing education programmes for adults throughout Ireland. The period from the 1930s to the 1960s saw an expansion in the way of VEC services.

Up until the 1960s secondary education was fee-paying and the minimum school-leaving age was 14. Today primary, secondary and higher education is free for Irish citizens and school is compulsory until the age of 15. Due to differences in educational policy from one generation to the next, older age groups received less schooling than younger age groups, which might explain the focus now on adult literacy. In addition, migrants make up ten per cent of the population in Ireland, further explaining the need for adult literacy programmes.

Many of the changes in the education system were due to economical growth throughout the 1970s, with further education growing rapidly. However, at this time Ireland still lacked a national strategy for adult education. In 1973 the government set out to appoint commissions to create a report on the problem of adult education but little action was taken. It was not until 1983, when the Kenny report was presented that this issue was received positively.

The 1980s marked a period of change in relation to adult literacy, with the government and the media focusing their attention on this issue. By the 1990s loose adult education frameworks were in place, yet Ireland still had a relatively low level of literacy compared to other industrialised nations. Nearly 30 per cent of the labour force had lower secondary education or less.

In 1997, the OECD’s International Adult Literacy Survey found that one in four adults, or about half a million adults from the ages 16¬–64 surveyed in Ireland, did not possess the literacy skills and confidence needed to effectively take part in society. Therefore, confidence building in literacy and numeracy in adults would be an important step in assuring a society in which the members can fully take part and feel confident while doing so. Access to various types of learning opportunities for adults to motivate them to return to education was an important element to combat illiteracy in Ireland.

The National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) was launched in 2003. It is now the single structure mechanism for recognising all education and training in Ireland. It is a system of ten levels, which capture all learning, from the very initial stages (basic literacy and numeracy) to the most advanced (doctorate degree).The system is used to describe the Irish qualifications system which is a guide to training opportunities and access to education. A key element of the NFQ is to improve access to education and training and monitor progression between education and training.

The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA)

The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) is a non-profit independent membership organisation that campaigns for the recognition of the adult literacy issue in Ireland while working to resolve this problem through advocacy, research and offering learning opportunities to adults with literacy difficulties. Concerned with national coordination, training and policy development in adult literacy, NALA is able to tackle this problem with ready solutions and programmes which meet the needs of the individual. NALA has been using broadcast media since 2000 to motivate hard-to-reach adult audiences and to provide learning opportunities in a variety of ways to attract the widest audience. To date, NALA has produced nine TV series, totaling 49 hours of primetime TV content which is aired weekly. Since 2000, the number of adults participating in adult education has increased.

Project Implementation: Approaches and Methods

In order to meet the needs of the adults participating and motivate people to return to education, the model implemented is a learner-based programme with the opportunity to learn in the privacy of their own home. There are a variety of methods that can be used such as, tutor directed home study, self-directed study, telephone, internet, TV and group sessions. Furthermore, face-to-face courses are available for those who wish to engage personally with their tutor. This array of options for learning allows the participant to create their own approach that is interesting to and suitable for them.

Target group

The main target groups of this programme are young people above the age of 17 and adults who have difficulties with literacy. This would include, adult learners who left school early, those who want to have more confidence in their basic literacy skills, parents who want to improve their literacy skills in order to help their children in school and adults who want to achieve an accreditation award at their own pace.

Project Objective

The main goal of this programme is to assist those with literacy difficulties to develop basic skills, knowledge and competency in literacy, numeracy and ICT. An important aspect of this learning process is that each individual creates his/her learning goals and learning style. In addition, NALA’s aim is to provide recommendations based on empirical evidence to inform and create an outline for adult education programmes for future generations. NALA is committed to awareness-raising and widening access to adult learning opportunities and distance learning methods. NALA’s objective is to have all learners reach Level 2 accreditation meaning they have gained a good understanding of a given subject and can perform a variety of tasks with supervision. This level is based on building knowledge in relation to a certain subject or an industry in order to be able to work and contribute to society.

Learning and Teaching

There are two ways of participating in NALA’s learning opportunities. There is Strand A, which starts in January and goes until March, which is an intensive 104-hour residential course targeted at Level 2 (of the National Framework of Qualifications of Ireland) learners. There are two tutors and one group coordinator for each group. In general, this course has between five and 12 students. Strand B, which takes place from May to December, is a distance learning service which uses broadcast media such as telephones, print, post and technology support for learning. In this case, there is one tutor per learner with one distance learning tutor support worker and one distance tutor coordinator.

Learners are encouraged to express their personal learning needs and interests in order to have a programme that caters to their demands. Together NALA and the student develop a structured individual plan that allows the learner to be fully engaged in his or her programme. The instruction is multi-faceted with face-to-face, one-on-one learning as well as tutor directed home study and independent study, depending on what best meets the needs of the learner.

Qualified and experienced adult literacy tutors are recruited as teachers by NALA. Although most have five years or more experience, onsite training is provided for specific learning difficulties or support skills. Because NALA’s method is learner-based, the tutor is there to guide the course as needed by the learner.


Information and communication technology is an important skill to obtain and necessary to teach in the framework of literacy. ICT understanding is essential in today’s society and indispensable in the workforce. That is why NALA aims to incorporate this element in their learning structure.

Using ICT has proved to be an effective way to reach a broad audience. In Ireland, 99 per cent of households have a TV, 85 per cent of adults have access to mobile phones, while 43 per cent have internet access at home. Therefore, using different mediums of communication is possible and efficient to spread learning opportunities.

Distance Learning

One of the key objectives of this programme is to make it easier for more adults to develop their literacy skills at their own pace. The distance learning programme provides flexibility for the participant to choose where the learning takes place. In this way, they can learn in a non-threatening environment and can develop a capacity for independence as a learner. In 2009, there were 145 participants in the distance learning service. The amount of learning hours depends on the individual, but 30 minutes per week in a telephone conversation with a tutor is typical. The tutor calls generally in the afternoon or the evening, whenever is convenient for the two, to conduct the course.

Another interesting aspect to the distance learning service is their television series on adult literacy that airs on RTE One, Ireland’s national Public Service Broadcaster (PSB). In 2000, NALA began developing literacy through television with TV series attracting up to 293,000 viewers. Each series featured learners describing how their literacy difficulties affect their lives and included five to ten minutes of didactic learning content. The most recent in the series, Written Off?, launched in 2007 which did not include the didactic learning content like the other TV series, followed the lives of eight adult learners as they progress through their learning course. These TV series have been successful as a distance learning tool and showed the benefit, for those who needed it, of returning to education.

In order to monitor the achievements of participants, the course coordinator reviews written records regularly. To evaluate the distance learning programme, all activities are recorded in a central database for easy review. In addition, every year NALA appoints an external evaluation company to conduct a series of interviews with participants to get their feedback on the programme. An evaluation, from April 2008 to the end of July 2008 with 105 participants, confirmed that this service provides participants with a programme that meets their individual needs; 94 per cent of those interviewed were content with the distance learning service.


According to participants of this programme, it has proved to be successful in raising self-confidence and self-esteem in the areas of reading, writing and numeracy. 87 per cent of those interviewed said that their confidence had improved after working with a NALA tutor. Learners interviewed felt that they had gained a variety of skills and benefits having undertaken or completed tutoring with NALA’s distance learning service. These benefits varied from increased confidence to improved reading and writing skills to an increased desire to learn. The distance learning is a positive and effective method for reaching a wide audience who may otherwise not have access to learning opportunities.

Lessons Learned


In February 2009 in an evaluation report of NALA, recommendations were made from lessons learned.



Tom O’Mara
Distance Learning Coordinator
NALA 21 Lavitt’s Quay, Cork, Co. Cork, Ireland
Tel: +353 (0) 21 4278669
Fax: +353 (0) 21 4275680
E-mail: tomara@nala.ie
Web site: www.writtenoff.ie