The standards are part of a national campaign by the Government to tackle Britain's vast problems with basic skills.
Around one in five adults in the UK has poor basic skills but only around 250,000 adults are currently on a programme to improve them.
The Basic Skills Agency and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority produced the standards after Sir Claus Moser's basic skills report six months ago.
He said the development of new standards would enable the establishment of new curricula, assessment tools, national tests and qualifications.
The standards are divided into three levels: entry level, level 1 and level 2. Each level defines what an adult is expected to do in each basic skill. The entry level is divided into three sub-levels.
At the lowest level, in reading, an adult will be expected to possess a limited vocabulary of words, signs and symbols. Moving on, they should be able to recognise frequently-used words, and those with common spelling patterns. Next they should be able to read and understand words and phrases commonly used on forms.
The adult is now ready for level 1 which involves using reference material to find the meaning of unfamiliar words and level 2 where the adult has to read an argument and evaluate the points of view.
The adult may start by merely being able to recognise the titles of videos or magazines in a shop. As they proceed they will be able to write a note for a child's absence at school, follow product instructions, read a school report, reply to a letter of complaint.
The draft standards are out for consultation until the end of the month and should be available for use by March 2000.
Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, said: "We have tried to concentrate on the real day-to-day basic skill needs of adults today."
The Government has commissioned a new review of the BSA. Its chairman, Sir Claus Moser, has agreed a two-year extension to his appointment to steer it through the review.