Calls to Freephone support line soar over last 12 months

April 23, 2021

The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) reported an additional 1,000 calls to its Freephone support service in the last 12 months. This is a 44% increase in calls recorded for the same period in the previous year.

The increase in calls was as a direct result of COVID-19. Many of the callers were people who had just lost their jobs, parents who struggled with understanding information from schools and older people who wanted help using technology to stay in touch with family. Details of the calls and services provided by NALA will be discussed at NALA’s AGM on Saturday 24 April.

The most common reasons for calling NALA’s Freephone were:

  • Just lost their job
  • Can’t understand information from school
  • Can’t pay bills online or do online shopping
  • Need help reading health information that came in post
  • Want to know how to use FaceTime to talk to loved ones
  • Difficulty filling out forms, such as social welfare and carers forms
  • Can’t use technology and grandchildren don’t have the patience to teach them (older people cocooning)

“A lot of callers during the lockdown rang us as they were reflecting on their own life. They were suddenly out of work and had more time on their hands. They felt very different to their family and friends who could all work from home. When the pandemic happened and they lost their jobs instantly it felt like their lives came to a sudden full-stop. This happened to people in all age groups and they were annoyed and depressed that they were being left behind. We spent a lot of time on these calls as they needed to know someone was listening and we took the time to talk to them and discuss what options they would have if they wanted to return to education,” said Jennifer Dowling, NALA Freephone Operator.

Sample of callers’ stories:

  • A person who had been out of work for 5 weeks with the pandemic, and this made her relook at her life. She decided she would like to do a Special Needs Assistant course but felt her spelling was holding her back so she mightn’t be able for it. We set her up with one of our tutors who is teaching her over the phone.
  • There was a young woman who had to do an interview with a college but when the first lockdown happened she was asked to do the interview by Zoom. She rang us very worried as she had never used it before and was relieved to know we could help her.
  • There was a mother who was upset and in tears that her son with Down Syndrome was losing his reading ability due to the closure of his centre. Her son also lost his job in the local hotel due to its closure as a result of the pandemic. We set her son up with one of our tutors so he could keep learning on the phone and online.
  • A taxi driver told us he would like to learn to read and write. He left school at a young age. He covers up that he cannot read. Some people hand him an address but he pretends he forgot his glasses saying ‘can you read it out for me I can’t see it.’ When he was unable to work during the first lockdown he thought this is the chance and rang us.
  • A woman told us she was afraid of using technology. She works but she could not continue over the pandemic because she was not able to use ZOOM and work online. We set up her with a tutor who is teaching her over the phone.
  • We got call-backs from people we helped which was lovely. They rang to say ‘Thanks, I was able to do a zoom call and see my grandchildren on the screen’.


In 2020, 450 people learned over the phone with NALA’s distance learning tutors (4,882 one-to-one learning sessions were completed). 1,965 people learned online through our eLearning website Learn with NALA. 250 people received 458 QQI awards through our eLearning website (420 Level 2 awards 38 Level 3 awards).


“COVID-19 took us all by surprise and many of us felt overwhelmed by it. However for those with unmet literacy and digital needs it has been an especially difficult time. Workers with low educational attainment have been most impacted by the restrictions, volumes of information and digital transition. They have suffered greater levels of unemployment and no doubt social isolation and stress. While many people are likely to return to work, there is a real risk that some people may find their jobs gone once restrictions are lifted. It is important we acknowledge these challenges and try to alleviate them for those most at risk. Throughout the pandemic, NALA has been able to provide continuous and vital support to our learners and wider stakeholders.  We are committed to reaching and supporting those with the greatest unmet literacy, numeracy and digital needs to reach their potential and fully participate in life and society.” said Colleen Dube, NALA CEO.

Speaking at the AGM, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris TD said: “One in six Irish adults can’t read, or struggle with reading. This is not a figure I can live with. Next month, I will bring the first ever National Adult Literacy Strategy to government, currently being prepared by SOLAS in consultation with learners, education and training providers, and civil society groups.”

“We will deliver an inclusive strategy that is good for individuals with literacy needs, their families, employers and society as a whole. I am determined to see an end to unmet literacy needs, including digital literacy. My department will work across government to promote plain English and to support adults with the skills they need to navigate daily life, achieve their ambitions and reach their full potential, in work and at home.”

“I want to congratulate NALA on all it has achieved over the past 40 years and the real impact its work has on people’s lives. Particularly during the pandemic, NALA continued to assist people with key services which has made all the difference to quality of life for our people during a very tough time.”

Three other takeaways from NALA’s AGM

Literacy, numeracy and digital skills needs in Ireland

In Ireland, 18% (one in six) of the adult population (18-65) are at or below level 1 on a five-level literacy scale. 25% (one in four) are at or below level 1 for numeracy.  55% of the adult population has low digital skills. This means they may struggle with reading text, doing simple maths or searching and understanding information online.

People with the lowest skill levels have low educational attainment, earn less income and are more likely to be unemployed and report poor health. They are less likely to vote, trust others, and understand health or other information. This costs individuals in terms of lower life chances and society in terms of increased costs for social services and supports.

Linking literacy and resilience

Increasingly our international counterparts are focusing on the link between basic skills and a nation’s resilience. For example, in the current pandemic, strong literacy, numeracy and digital skills are an essential part of this resilience as the public need to understand ongoing public health messaging, access services online and identify fake news.

New thinking – new solutions

Higher literacy allows people to engage with public institutions; to understand and act upon new information; to use technology; and to seek better employment opportunities, especially as job markets change.

NALA has been calling for a new strategy to address these inequalities and is looking forward to seeing the Government’s new 10-year strategy for adult literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy. Now more than ever it will be vital that we support people with literacy, numeracy and digital skills needs, so that individuals have the capacity to process information, make constructive choices, self-advocate and ultimately respond to external pressures and change.


For further information contact:

Clare McNally, NALA Communications Manager, 087 648 6292

About NALA:

The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) is an independent charity committed to making sure people with literacy and numeracy difficulties can fully take part in society. We are involved in tutor training, developing teaching materials, policy making, research and awareness campaigns. We operate a distance learning service and provide tutor support over the phone and internet. We also manage an e-learning website called Learn with NALA where people can have their skills assessed across a number of areas and then be prescribed an individual learning plan to improve these areas.

NALA is a registered company with limited and charitable status. We receive a grant of two million euro from SOLAS, the further education and training authority in Ireland, which enables us to staff a national office in Dublin and carry out our work. SOLAS also funds specific research and development work together with other government departments, state bodies, the European Union and the private sector.

See for more information.

Stats cited:

3,370 calls were recorded from April 2020-March 2021 and 2340 calls were recorded from April 2019-March 2020.

CSO (2013). PIAAC 2012 – Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies: Survey Results from Ireland and Cedefop (2020) – Empowering adults through upskilling and reskilling pathways. Volume 1: adult population with potential for upskilling and reskilling.

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