apple Learner Recruitment


From our personal experiences as literacy practitioners, from our knowledge of our local communities and from the results of provincial and national surveys, we know there is a need for literacy programs. Literacy agencies spend considerable time and effort recruiting learners using a variety of promotional tools. However, despite the need and our efforts to respond to that need, learner recruitment is often a challenge for many literacy agencies.

For example, Community Literacy of Ontario ( delivered live, online training workshops to 50 Ontario literacy practitioners in May 2006. During those workshops, practitioners answered the following question: how important is learner recruitment in your agency? Here are their responses:

  • What we do now seems to work well. There are always new learners. (18%)
  • We used to be able to attract new learners quite easily, but lately there are fewer and fewer. (33%)
  • It’s becoming a serious issue. Our numbers of new learners are down. We need to do something about it. (31%)
  • It has been a problem for quite some time. We have tried a number of strategies but nothing seems to work. (12%)
  • Code Red! We are in desperate need of more learners in our program. (6%)

Where are they are all? Why aren’t adults with low literacy skills banging down our doors? What can the current research tell us? Could we be better at recruiting students and designing our programs around their needs? What are the barriers to attending programs, and what can we do about it? What typically motivates learners to upgrade their skills? What effective recruitment strategies are other literacy agencies using? Are there useful tools and resources that can help literacy organizations with recruitment? In this online training module Community Literacy of Ontario explores these key questions.

The Need for Literacy

Literacy is a serious issue in Canada and in Ontario. The International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) was released in 2005. IALSS, along with previous surveys, clearly demonstrated that millions of Canadians struggle with literacy challenges. The Ontario statistics are equally alarming.

The Essential Skills Ontario and the Canadian Literacy and Learning Network prepared the following analysis of Ontario’s results in “Responding to the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey” .

Four in ten Ontarians aged 15 and over do not have the literacy skills they need to meet the demands of modern life. 1.3 million people (16.2%) struggle with very serious literacy challenges. They have difficulty with even the most basic written materials. Another 2.1 million people (26%) can work with print information but not well. A further 1.8 million (21.3%) working age Ontarians struggle with very serious numeracy challenges and they have difficulty with even the most basic math. Another 2.4 million people (29.1%) can work with numeracy but not well. Despite the need less than 5% participate in literacy programs.

You can learn more about the IALSS survey by visiting this Statistics Canada link.

These statistics are not news to Ontario’s literacy practitioners because we work with these issues every day. However, the statistics can be a powerful recruitment tool. You can let potential learners know that literacy issues affect a lot of people and that they are not alone. Sometimes the “you’re not alone” factor can encourage people to enroll in literacy programs. The statistics are also a valuable resource for promoting literacy programming to the family and friends of potential learners, to local organizations and to the community in general.

When considering these statistics it is important to think about Statistics Canada’s definition of literacy as “the information processing skills necessary to use the printed material commonly encountered at work, at home, and in the community.”

It is also critical to remember that literacy is no longer considered an all or nothing skills. We now know that literacy abilities exist along a continuum. Community Literacy of Ontario has prepared an excellent statistical overview resource about why literacy matters in Ontario. Visit: Literacy – Why It Matters!

Here in Ontario, adult literacy organizations are funded by the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD). MAESD’s Literacy and Basic Skills (LBS) Program provides literacy, numeracy and essential skills services that help learners achieve their goals related to further education or training, employment or independence. LBS services are offered through almost 200 agencies at some 300 sites across the province. For more information please visit:

Reasons for Non-Participation: What the Studies Show

Based on a variety of external research sources Community Literacy of Ontario’s “Strategies of Our Own: Learner Recruitment and Retention Toolkit” identified the following common barriers to participation.

  • Learners face a wide variety of socio-economic barriers on a daily basis such as family and work-related responsibilities, financial constraints, daycare, transportation and health barriers.
  • Learners face personal barriers such as their values, perceptions, attitudes and past experiences.
  • Other barriers include low self-confidence, a previous negative school experience and perceived risks associated with attending a program.
  • Learners may also face barriers such as waiting lists, unhelpful contacts, lack of access to existing agencies, poor agency environments and lack of information about literacy services.
  • Some may lack opportunities to move ahead. Their literacy skills may be quite adequate for their current circumstances, but not for a higher level job. As well, if jobs are not readily available as is often the case in rural areas or areas of high unemployment, the motivation to train may be reduced.
  • And sometimes adults just do not see the need for literacy training. Their lives may be full and busy and they have been getting along just fine in life as things are.

In the live, online training workshops delivered by Community Literacy of Ontario to 50 literacy practitioners in May 2006, we asked practitioners about barriers to participation. Practitioners responded anonymously to the following question: Of the choices listed, what do you think is the most significant barrier that prevents people with low literacy skills from participating in literacy programming in your community? Here are their responses:

  1. Lack of awareness about literacy programs and what they offer (31%)
  2. They don’t perceive the need (22%)
  3. Childcare/transportation problems (22%)
  4. Conflict with employment (16%)
  5. Fear or lack of confidence (9%)
ABC Life Literacy Canada’s “Who Wants to Learn?” Study

In 2001, ABC Life Literacy Canada released the results of a national study it conducted with Literacy BC called “Who Wants to Learn? Patterns of Participation in Canadian Literacy and Upgrading Programs.” This report, written by Ellen Long with assistance from Sandy Middleton, was based on findings from interviews with 300 people who were seeking information about literacy programs. Research finding are used with ABC Life Literacy Canada’s permission. To view, click here.


When asked about their primary motivation for contacting a literacy organization, here is what respondents had to say. Percentages do not equal exactly 100% because of rounding.


Employment Barriers

ABC Life Literacy Canada’s research found that nearly half of those seeking literacy education were employed. As well, job-related conflicts were a factor for more than a third of those who do not enroll.

Statistics from the Ministry of  Advanced Education and Skills Development bear out that employment is an important goal for adults in Ontario. According to the Information Management System for the period of April 1, 2004 to March 31, 2005 there were a total of 38,462 adult learners enrolled in literacy programs in Ontario. For these enrolled learners, their stated training goals (all sectors and streams) were as follows: further education/training(55%); employment (29%) and independence (16%).

Since many potential students are already employed or seeking employment, many program design issues must be addressed. Are our literacy programs flexible and adaptable enough to meet the needs of working adults? Does our programming and promotional materials reflect that the goal of many learners is to get or keep a job? Do we use relevant curriculum and goal-focused, authentic workplace material for learners with employment goals? Do we actively link with employment counseling and training services in our communities?

Financial Barriers

Lack of money is a very serious issue for many adult students. In ABC Life Literacy Canada’s research nearly a quarter of potential students are receiving some form of social assistance and close to half of potential learners live in households with annual incomes of less than $20,000 a year. Thirty percent of those who do not enroll cite a variety of socio-economic factors such as money as their main barrier to participation. Almost half of those who do not enroll cite money problems as acontributing factor for not enrolling.

Literacy practitioners must show sensitivity to adult learners’ financial circumstances, and literacy program planning needs to address this issue by promoting the following:

  • Adult literacy programs in Ontario are free. Some people assume there is a charge for our programs.
  • Training support may be available to help offset the costs of travel and/or childcare.
  • Our programs are flexible so people can continue to work (or look for work) while participating in a literacy program.

Our agencies should also link with other community stakeholders who may be able to provide needed services.

The new research report by the Canadian Policy Research Network called “Too Many Left Behind” discusses how a lack of money is a substantial barrier to accessing adult education for many Canadians, especially low income Canadians. You can access this study here.

As well, for more information on literacy and poverty you could read the Essential Skills Ontario’s fact sheet at:

Childcare and Transportation Barriers

ABC Life Literacy’s research found that of those with children, more than 40% of women and close to 20% of men cite childcare conflicts as a factor in their decision not to enroll in a literacy program. Transportation was also identified as a barrier. Urban and rural areas face different types of barriers but both are impacted by transportation issues.

In Ontario, childcare and transportation supports for eligible participants in LBS programs are available through MTCU. Please contact your field consultant for specific details. In your recruitment materials, be sure to mention that childcare and transportation supports may be available through MTCU or through other agencies from which learners receive service.

The Fear Factor

The “Who Wants to Learn” study found that fear, embarrassment and nervousness were least likely (15%) to be cited as the main factor for not enrolling. Older callers and those with lower levels of formal education were the most likely to cite fear as a contributing factor. However a later study by ABC Life Literacy of people who had never enrolled in a literacy program found that 34 % cited fear and nervousness as a contributing factor in their decision not to enroll. It is important to keep in mind that some people will be fearful and nervous of upgrading, especially those who do not ever enroll in our programs.

Program/Policy Issues

ABC Life Literacy also found that less than half of those who contact a literacy organization actually enroll in a program. Forty-three percent of those who do not enroll cite program/policy related problems as the reason. Not being called back, long waiting lists, inconvenient course times, wrong content or teaching structure and unhelpful program contact are the major reasons cited for not enrolling.

Might we be alienating some people at initial contact? Literacy programs need to carefully consider and evaluate their internal processes and policies to address the above barriers.

ABC Life Literacy’S “Why Aren’t They Calling?” Study

In 2002, ABC Life Literacy Canada released a second national study called “Why Aren’t They Calling? Nonparticipation in Literacy and Upgrading Programs.” This publication was written by Ellen Long and Leanne Taylor. For this groundbreaking study, researchers contacted 866 Canadians who had not completed high school and who had never enrolled in a literacy program. Research highlights are used with permission. You can see this document here.

ABC Life Literacy found that close to 60% of those interviewed had thought about upgrading. However, only 20% thought they will actually take a program in the next five years. Program awareness was reasonably high with 59% being aware of literacy programs in their communities. The desire to gain or keep a job was a clear motivator and work-related reasons were most frequently cited as reasons for thinking about taking a program, especially among younger adults. Work conflicts, family, and lack of interest were the most commonly cited reasons for not upgrading.

ABC Life Literacy Canada’s “Why Aren’t They Calling?” study identified the following as the greatest concerns people had about enrolling in a literacy program:

  • Money problems in general (50%)
  • Conflict with paid employment (40%)
  • Program too far away (39%)
  • Program too difficult (37%)
  • Not able to work at own pace (37%)
  • Transportation too costly (35%)
  • Worried/nervous (34%)
  • Program too long to complete (34%)
  • Program too rigid/structured (32%)
  • Skills not related to work (29%)
  • Not relevant to daily life (28%)
  • Not enough one-on-one attention (28%)
  • Too late to learn (28%)
  • Difficulties with childcare (27%)
  • Older than other students (24%)
  • Might feel embarrassed (20%)
  • Teacher not friendly (18%)
  • Won’t be treated as an adult (17%)
  • Other students not friendly (12%)
  • Family members not supportive (10%)
  • Embarrassed if others knew (6%)
The “Too Many Left Behind” Study

In June 2006, the Canadian Policy Research Network (CPRN) released a key study on Canada’s adult education system and the many access issues and barriers facing adults who want to upgrade their skills. Appropriately, this study is called “Too Many Left Behind.”

The CPRN has this to say about their research: “A new study from CPRN provides answers and makes recommendations to improve the effectiveness of Canada’s adult education systems. “Too Many Left Behind: Canada’s Adult Education and Training System”, by Karen Myers and Patrice de Broucker, documents the availability of formal adult learning opportunities in Canada and the factors influencing the participation of less educated and less skilled workers. The authors pinpoint gaps and suggest ways to overcome them”.

You can find out more about this important study by clicking here.

Questions and Activities for Reflection

  1. What barriers prevent people with low literacy skills from participating in literacy programming in your community?
  2. Why do these barriers exist?
  3. How could these barriers be reduced by your agency? How could they be reduced by others?
  4. In your experience, how accurately do these studies reflect the needs and barriers of potential learners in your area?
  5. Thinking about the concerns, barriers and needs of adults identified in this training module, how well does your literacy agency address them in its recruitment strategies and materials? What could you do differently?
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