LBS Practitioner Training

Professional development support for Literacy and Basic Skills educators in Ontario

2.1 Who are adult literacy learners?

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Judy, an LBS practitioner at the Mimico Adult Centre comments on the importance of understanding the learners we serve,

"In my opinion, getting to know each individual learner really well is the whole key to meeting literacy needs.
The more you understand the about the learner, the more effective you can be.”

In this section we take a close look at the following questions related to adults and adult learning:

  • Why do adult learners come to programs like ours?
  • What do they expect from LBS?
  • How are adult learners different from learners who are children or youth?
  • How can this information help us develop effective adult literacy programs?

Who are our adult learners?

Click here for a brief look at some typical adult learners that attend school board LBS programs.

Adult literacy learners are individuals who want to improve their literacy skills and abilities because they have experienced difficulty or failure in some areas of their lives. Many have not been able to:

  • find and use information when they need to
  • communicate ideas and information effectively
  • solve problems involving numbers
  • use technology
  • self-manage or self direct successfully

Adults in literacy programs have come for different reasons, at different stages of their lives, bringing with them different background experiences, different skills and abilities, different challenges, and different expectations.

Despite the differences, they also have many things in common. While we know people are individuals who don’t fit neatly into categorical boxes, based on the research, some generalizations can be made that describe literacy learners as a group. They are not, as some have tagged them, all poor, on welfare, lazy, and slow learning, i.e., the “drop outs” in life. Though you may discover one or two learners in your class who fit those descriptors, they are certainly not typical of literacy learners as a whole.

According to the booklet, “What Adult Literacy Learners Would Like YOU to Know”, produced by the Learners Advisory Network of Movement for Canadian Literacy, learners want the world to see them as:

  • unique individuals who have different goals and dreams, apart from their shared literacy needs,
  • lifelong learners - people with skills and strengths they are building upon,
  • parents involved in their children's education,
  • workers who want to improve their skills,
  • activists on behalf of literacy and other issues in their communities,
  • voters and taxpayers,
  • active in pursuit of their goals,
  • competent and able to succeed in life.

Click here to see the full report.

What the research tells us about literacy and adult literacy learners:

Research describes varying levels of literacy.

According to the IALS (International Adult Literacy Survey) Report, the range of literacy competencies for adults above the age of 16 can be described at five literacy levels.

NOTE: IALS levels are not the same as LBS levels. By reading the descriptions of the levels in the IALS report, you will easily recognize that most of the adults who come to our LBS programs fit within IALS Levels 1 and 2.

The first three IALS levels are described in this way:

IALS Level 1 - very poor literacy skills, where the individual may, for example, be unable to determine the correct amount of medicine to give a child from information printed on the package. (This IALS Level 1 description corresponds to the skills level we would see in LBS learners at LBS level 1, or perhaps level 2.)

In Canada, 42% of all adults aged 16 to 65 are at IALS levels 1 or 2 on the prose literacy scale, while 43 % are at levels 1 or 2 on the document and quantitative scales.”
(“Literacy in the Information Age” IALS Report)

IALS Level 2 - can deal only with material that is simple, clearly laid out, and in which the tasks involved are not too complex. It denotes a weak level of skill, but more hidden than Level 1. It identifies people who can read, but test poorly. They may have developed coping skills to manage everyday literacy demands, but their low level of proficiency makes it difficult for them to face novel demands, such as learning new job skills. (This IALS Level 2 corresponds most closely to skills we would see in learners at LBS levels 3 and 4.)
IALS Level 3 - People who score at IALS Level 3 (again, not LBS level 3) can “demonstrate the minimum skills for coping with demands of everyday life and work in a complex, advanced society. IALS Level 3 denotes roughly the skill level required for successful secondary school completion and college entry. Like higher levels, it requires the ability to integrate several sources of information and solve more complex problems.”  (IALS Level 3, corresponds to skills we would see at LBS levels 4-5.)

Research identifies difficulties of adults with low literacy skills:

Research reveals that adults who score in the bottom two (maybe three) levels of literacy encounter many of the same kinds of challenges and barriers. A good summary can be found on the Ontario Literacy Coalition website.

Click here
to read their article: “Economic and Social Implications of Literacy Skills”.

What is it that makes adults decide that now’s the time to upgrade their literacy skills?

Learners who enter literacy programs do not just happen to drift in out of the blue because they are bored and want something to do with their time. Usually, something has given them a push in the right direction.

Many LBS learners are job-seeking Employment Ontario clients who have been directed to LBS programs because they need to upgrade their literacy skills in order to participate successfully in other Employment Ontario programs and services on the road to employment. Other learners come as a result of, or in preparation for a life-changing event such as marriage, impending divorce, relocation, a promotion at work, death of a loved one, loss of a job, an accident at work, children starting school, a brush with the law, or a significant and sudden change in their health or personal circumstances.

For many, singular events or experiences can be a turning-point or “wake-up call” that provides good reason, focus and motivation for coming back to school. Practitioners who uncover this kind of background information early on in the program find that it gives them valuable insight into the learners’ attitudes and feelings about learning.

What are learners expecting when they come into the program?

For many adult learners, there are high stakes involved in a decision to come back to school, and high stakes can be emotionally charged. While, at one end of the spectrum, we may have learners who are required to take literacy upgrading, and they just don’t want to be there, at the other end, we have learners who feel that this is their last and final chance at a better life. Learners can be extremely anxious about the risks they are taking when they remember their past experiences of frustration and failure in school. A high level of anxiety can make it difficult for learners to have realistic expectations for their training. They tend to expect either too much or too little.

Dave: “I’m having a little trouble with long division but once I get that OK, I’ll be getting my grade 11 math no problem. Probably by January. I want to get my grade 12 by next year.”
Justine: “I never did so good at school. I’ll probably blow it again but I have no choice, right? My worker says I have to come. This like so sucks.”
Denise: “It’s been a long time since I was at school. I don’t even know if I can learn. I really need to get a job to support myself. If I can’t get a job, I don’t know what I will do! I have to move out of here on my own.”

Instructors need ways to help alleviate anxiety, melt resistance, and assist learners move towards realistic expectations. Two basic but key strategies are these:

  1. provide a safe place to learn in a welcoming environment that promotes mutual respect, acceptance and trust,
  2. spend the necessary amount of time with each learner in conversations and in activities that can help them:

a.    develop reasonable expectations for what they can accomplish,
b.    set short-term goals that are realistic,
c.    map out some clear steps to follow,
d.    decide what to work on first.

Explore Creating Safety for some practical ideas for welcoming learners into the class and for fostering a sense of community. You will recognize that several of these ideas would be especially appropriate for learners at the lower LBS levels.

The bottom line question for most learners is, “Will I get any real help?”
Will I be able to:

  • develop new skills and gain more knowledge for real life situations?
  • learn how to do things on my own and be less dependent on others?
  • make fewer mistakes and be more successful at work?
  • improve my life and find real solutions to real problems?
  • see that I am making progress; have any real evidence of learning and change for the better?

A range of goals

Goals of learners who come to LBS usually fall into three broad categories:

  • to be successful as a student in an adult secondary school credit program, college postsecondary program, or pre-apprenticeship training - explore Education
  • to become more actively independent - better able to participate in the community - explore Independence
  • to get a job, keep a job, or prepare for a better job - explore Employment

Learners with no particular goal in mind

Sometimes learners are convinced they really need/really want to come back to school but, beyond that, they don’t really know why or what it is they want to learn. They expect the instructor will tell them that.

This evident dependency and lack of self-direction on the part of the learner may be rooted in any one of a number of misconceptions or problems including

  • learned helplessness, “I don’t want to be in charge of what to do. I can’t do that.”
  • inexperience with learning in a formal setting “I‘m not sure what I’m supposed to do first. I don’t know how to get started.”
  • expectations based on childhood experience, “When I was at school before, the teacher always told us what we had to do and we just did it. That’s what it’s supposed to be like. We never did this training plan stuff.”
  • inability to determine steps towards a goal. “I don’t know what I have to know to be able to do that.”
  • misapplied respect for authority, or eagerness to please “You’re the expert. You’re the boss. Whatever you say is good enough for me.”
  • not understanding the adult learner’s role in the learning process.  “Why are you asking me what I want to learn? I’m not the teacher. You are. That’s your job!”

How directive should the instructor be in helping a learner set goals and plan out training?

Helping the learner come to understand and accept his role and responsibility in setting goals and planning out the steps to take is definitely a professional challenge, but also an important part of the instructor’s responsibility. The tricky part is getting the balance right between providing answers and expecting the learner to come up with answers on his/her own. You don’t want to overwhelm the learner by expecting more than he/she is ready or able to do, but, at the same time, you want to encourage the learner to assume some responsibility for his training, and participate in the planning part.

Instructors who are successful in goal-setting with learners, say there’s no hard and fast rule; it all depends on the individual learner, and you can’t make assumptions. While one might assume that learners working at lower LBS levels would require a considerable amount of instructor support, while learners working at higher levels would be able and willing to take more ownership, that is not always how it works.

As one instructor expressed it,
“I’ve often thought that asking a learner to take on his new role, and understand the teacher’s new role straightaway, as they engage in the tricky job of goal-setting together, is a lot to ask.  Their roles perhaps need to be made explicit, and discussed beforehand, or along with, goal-setting.”

To whatever degree instructors and learners share the responsibilities in goal-setting, the main thing is that they work together and bring the learners’ individual goals into focus so that they both have a clear picture of what lies ahead.

(Note: For goal-setting ideas, tools, and methods, go to Program Delivery)

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?
Based on your understanding so far of adult literacy learners, what do you think might be some immediate felt needs of adults on entry into LBS? What kinds of questions would be on their mind?  What fears might they have? What specific things would you do to respond to these issues?



Principles of Adult Learning

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