One Swede in five is considered to have difficulties reading and writing, and the affected individuals tend to encounter great problems in modern society. A new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg addresses their obstacles at various levels and discusses possible solutions.

Being attractive in today's labour market requires lifelong learning. However, a person has to be quite good at reading and writing in order to benefit from courses and trainings.

Nadja Carlsson, the author of the thesis, interviewed 56 adult students with reading and writing difficulties to shed light on the problems they encounter as adults, in which situations the problems become evident and what the consequences are. Their difficulties are analysed from a lifeworld perspective.

Implicit requirements

The study shows that adult students with reading and writing difficulties struggle in three areas in particular.

'First of all, society implicitly requires individuals to possess certain skills, and those who don't are in trouble. Secondly it's a matter of each individual's attempts to handle his or her problems absorbing the education and to achieve good results. Thirdly, there is an existential dimension where individuals compare themselves with others and feel inferior,' says Carlsson, a special needs teacher with extensive experience with municipal adult education.

Abstract challenges

The study points to the great importance of teachers and identifies ways to achieve successful learning despite the problems.

'It's important that teachers are informed about how students with reading and writing difficulties perceive the learning situation. For example, a teacher might give a presentation too fast, might not explain things from scratch, might assume that everybody has good study skills or might not give clear instructions. And any teacher who gives this group of students an abstract task like "Please pick out the most important parts from this long text" makes a big mistake,' says Carlsson.

Needs time

'Everybody has a potential to learn successfully despite these problems. And there are plenty of technical aids available today. The main problem is finding enough time. Regardless of aid, a student with reading and writing difficulties needs more time to develop a good written language.'


About 20 percent of all Swedes have reading and writing difficulties; one-fourth of this group are dyslexic, which means that they have problems linking the way a letter looks and sounds. Reading and writing difficulties may also be due to a weak short-term memory, problems finding the right word, concentration difficulties, a weak working memory or not being used to an abstract written language.

Nadja Carlsson
University of Gothenburg