A team of experts at City of Glasgow College have created a new phone app that aims to raise literacy skills – and open doors to new careers and opportunities in all areas of life, reveals Andrew Collier.

WE may be in the digital age but basic literacy remains a problem in Scotland and beyond. One person in 28 – that’s 3.6 per cent of the population – cannot progress in society because of a lack of the ability to read and write. Across the UK six million people of working age have poor literacy skills affecting their ability to communicate at home, at work and in society. This compromises their access to many jobs, careers and progression in existing employment.

City of Glasgow College is helping to tackle this issue. Working with a small team of experts, the College has created a new adult literacy app that can be downloaded to smartphones, giving students the ability to learn in an autonomous, enjoyable and interactive way, a first in this educational field.

The educational mastermind of this groundbreaking app is Diane Gardner, Head of Applied Research in Adult Literacy at the College. It follows on from a course she previously created called City Phonics – a pioneering venture that became the first City & Guilds accredited phonics-based adult literacy programme in the UK.

“Put simply, the app is a part of an overall approach that takes students from not being able to read and write to being able to do so. By the end of lesson three they are beginning to read and write short simple sentences,” Diane explains. “We have filled a gap. People are encouraged to get a job and take part in society but if they can’t read and write that becomes very difficult for them.”

The app has been developed under the Citizen Literacy project which the college leads. This partnership brings together some of the UK’s leading experts on the subject, alongside software developers, and is supported by a range of bodies, including the Department for Education, UfI, Nesta Scotland and Nesta UK, the UK’s national innovation agency for social good.

The technical design of the app and management of the Citizen Literacy programme is being led by John Casey, Senior Learning Technologist at the college, and experienced EdTech innovator.

“The app has been specifically designed for low literacy users, so traditional text-driven interfaces are not used,” explains John. “Instead, a voice driven interface is used with virtual tutors’ providing direction and information. Learners interact using the usual smartphone methods – with voice and handwriting recognition. To increase inclusiveness, artificial intelligence (AI) tunes the app to an individual’s local accent.”

“There is a common stereotype that, if people can’t read and write well, they can’t be active in society but many of our students are very successful in a lot of aspects of their lives and employ ingenious strategies to get by,” says Diane. “They have families, a lot of them have jobs, and they have smartphones to connect with friends and family. Our team creating the app, which is called Citizen Literacy, recognised that and were successful in obtaining national funding for its development.”

HeraldScotland: The launch of the new app is a milestone moment for Diane Gardner who is Head of Applied Research in Adult Literacy at City of Glasgow CollegeThe launch of the new app is a milestone moment for Diane Gardner who is Head of Applied Research in Adult Literacy at City of Glasgow College

Diane says the launch of the app has been “a milestone moment on an incredible journey.” She adds: “There is an astounding amount of interest in our work across the UK and globally.

“We have a growing list of national and international educators who want access to the app and its associated classroom resources for their tutors and students.”

How does the course work? Diane explains that students are taught online through a range of different activities that raise their awareness of the sounds of the language they already understand and connect them to their written forms.

These sounds are then blended together to form words.

“We give them a number of words that are used all the time so that they can create sentences and questions. That allows them to build up their knowledge of basic punctuation and grammar. We speak about nouns and verbs and homophones [words that sound the same but have different meanings].”

One criticism from adult learners of existing literacy learning resources is that they are very child-centred. The app addresses this by tailoring its learning specifically to adults.

The new app, with the first five lessons, has just been launched on both Apple and Google stores. The full course, consisting of 30 lessons, will be available by the end of July 2021. “The original City Phonics course was based on having a two-hour class for 36 weeks, which is an academic year,” said Diane. “We hope that the students using the app will be able to get through it in the same sort of timescale.

“However, it depends on people’s individual situations. They might spend five minutes, or an hour at a time on it. We’ve worked to make it interesting and good fun to use.”

The team is planning to eventually offer learning that will bring students up to O Grade level in literacy, though its members acknowledge that further work and funding will be required to do this.

“We have already had more than 1000 visitors to the app. Our learners have clearly been left behind in all aspects of education. If they can be introduced to this platform then they can work through it on their own, though they will also have the opportunity to come to a class and use the resources there as well.”

Use of the app comes at no cost and no registration is needed. There are also no advertisements and no personal data is recorded.

Diane says it is important that the platform is available for free. “No one should have to pay to learn their own language. Being able to read and write is the best thing in the world. It’s so very important – we need it to do our jobs, to interact and to live our lives as fully as possible. It opens up the world to people.

“I was in a class a couple of weeks ago and one student was able to blend the sounds together to form the names of his children. He’s never been able to do that before. It was pretty emotional.”



Course of action empowers adults with reading skills

CITY of Glasgow College has already built a strong track record in literacy learning through its City Phonics course.

Created by Diane Gardner, and originally launched in 2018, at that time it brought a completely fresh and structured approach to teaching adults how to read and write.

It was designed for adults with severe literacy issues: those with dyslexia, non-native English speakers and reluctant readers.

HeraldScotland: The college’s City Phonics course adopts a fresh approach to adult literacy issuesThe college’s City Phonics course adopts a fresh approach to adult literacy issues

“As the name suggests, it’s a phonics-based course, and that’s relatively new in adult education,” Diane says.

“There are 44 sounds in the English language and we teach those sounds. Then we blend them together to make words.

“I was originally teaching family literacy, helping parents to help their children, but wanted to put together something that was more adult-centric.

“So we created a very structured programme that made them aware not just of the sounds of our language but also taught them to read and write in sentences.

“We have to ensure that what we are teaching is making a real difference to people’s lives and is relevant to them.”

Surprisingly, there was nothing similar available in the UK to help adults learn how to read and write.

The synthetic phonics approach City Phonics uses proved to be successful in schools, and it now offers a vital first step in literacy for the lowest level of adult learners.

Achieving the City Phonics accredited qualification prepares students for SCQF Level 2 English and Communication; Essential Skills Entry Level Literacy (England and Northern Ireland) and Essential Skills Level 1 (Wales).

The City Phonics course and its resources have been taken up by a broad range of organisations and it is now being delivered widely across Scotland as well as globally.


This article appears as part of The Herald's The Future Of Education campaign, in association with City of Glasgow College.

If you would like to become a partner in our Future of Education Series, contact Stephen McDevitt, Head of Digital and Branded Content campaign@heraldandtimes.co.uk