I wish to argue in this paper that when considering adult literacy, our most fundamental concern should be to explore the question 'literacy for what?'. To take this task seriously is to acknowledge the worth of philosophical and (other) theoretical works on literacy, whilst nevertheless recognising the necessity of confronting the issue of adult illiteracy in a practical way. The paper falls into four parts. The first section provides a brief overview of the literature on adult literacy, while the second makes some critical comments on this literature. The third section concentrates specifically on adult literacy research in New Zealand. The final part proposes a particular orientation toward the problem of literacy and explores some implications of this approach for research.