Adult literacy classes are failing to help most people improve their spelling or punctuation, according to research.
An investigation in England and Wales into 4,000 adults trying to improve their reading and writing found disturbing evidence that adult literacy classes achieve only patchy success.
There is modest improvement in reading among adults who take up literacy classes, but the average student comes away with no measurable improvement in their punctuation and spelling, leaving many unable to write even an acceptable job application.
Handwriting improves, researchers found, but so marginally as to be "educationally insignificant".
The research, published by the Basic Skills Agency this week, was carried out by a team led by Greg Brooks, principal research fellow with the National Foundation for Educational Research. He is now with the education department of Sheffield University.
"What is disappointing is that adults on literacy courses don't seem to improve their handwriting at all," said Alan Wells, director of the agency. "Yet a well-written and correctly-spelled application is often the difference between getting a job and remaining unemployed.
"Most adults receive only a few hours of teaching a week, and basic skills provision has been a Cinderella service."
Some factors which would improve performance, he says, include ensuring all tutors have qualified teacher status as well as specialist training, that students attend regularly and that classroom assistants are more widely available.
The students targeted by the research between 1998 and 2000, were mostly in FE ollege or local education authority provision, both of which will eventually come under the funding responsibility of the new Learning and Skills Councils.
The report, Progress in Adult Literacy: Do learners learn?, notes that adult literacy tutors, mostly female, are predominantly qualified in arts subjects and mostly teach small groups for a few hours each week.
It also recommends further investigation of the discrepancy between reading and writing. In reading, progress was found in most cases to be "worthwhile but modest".
A total of 3,859 students were included in the study, which involved testing them in reading and writing before and after their tuition had taken place.
While the report paints a gloomy picture, the BSA is upbeat about the Government's commitment to basic skills, and its findings will be regarded as a benchmark for assessing the effectiveness basic skills strategy, the plan for improving adult levels of literacy and numeracy.
Mr Wells said: "The new adult basic skills strategy needs to be so effective that any adult joining a literacy course is guaranteed to make good progress. Then a future report will be a real cause for celebration."
Malcolm Wicks, the lifelong learning minister, reinforced the importance of the task when a separate report estimated that meeting targets set down by Sir Claus Moser's study into numeracy and literacy could put another 145,000 people in work.
"The need for basic literacy and numeracy skills has never been more important in an international knowledge-based economy," he told a basic skills conference in Hertfordshire.