apple Breaking Down the Barriers

Some barriers that adults face to participation in literacy programs are beyond our control, but many others are not. In this section, we will review some of the program design issues and talk about how we might better address the needs and barriers of potential learners in order to encourage more people to join our programs.

Suggestions from ABC Life Literacy’s “Why Aren’t They Calling?” Study:

Based on its research, ABC Life Literacy made recommendations to Canada’s literacy programs on how to reduce some of the barriers to learner recruitment:

  • Use images and concepts that dispel the myth that adult learning is similar to early schooling. Show that the classroom might be as simple as a group of people sitting around a table or a student/tutor pair working together.
  • Explain exactly what small groups, tutoring and classes are like, who the learners and teachers are, and what kinds of materials are used.
  • Highlight the variety of programming options available at your literacy agency.
  • Make it clear that most programs do not mix adults with children or teenagers.
  • Clearly explain that literacy instructors and tutors have a great deal of sensitivity in dealing with adults who have been away from the classroom for a long time.
  • Reinforce that upgrading is for adults of all ages.
  • Clearly show that your program is learner-centered and that adults have much more control over their learning environment than they did as children.
  • Demonstrate that adults do not have to pick up their schooling where they left off. Highlight that programs are learner-centered and learners decide what it is they want to achieve.
  • Highlight that programs are of differing lengths and that people can work at their own pace. This doesn’t mean that programs run indefinitely, but rather that learners will set-up a learning timeline best suited to their needs and to program requirements.
  • Present upgrading as an important step in providing opportunities to achieve their dreams!

Suggested Program Improvements from the “Who Wants to Learn” Study

ABC Life Literacy’s “Who Wants to Learn” research also found that 88% of current students reported high degrees of satisfaction with the program level, content and teaching structures. However, some areas of improvement were also identified. Consider your own program and whether it requires and can accommodate the improvements requested by learners in this survey.

Program improvements suggested by adult students:

  • More hours per week with an instructor or tutor
  • Smaller classes
  • More individual attention
  • More relevant material
  • Teachers and tutors who are more knowledgeable
  • Diverse program locations


Insights from the “Reaching Across the Barriers” Study

A study by Kingston Literacy ( called Reaching Across the Barriers: Increasing Outreach and Participation in Family and Adult Literacy Programs resulted in some important program design findings. This resource was written by Trevor Pross and Susan Barry. Based on their research, Kingston Literacy made the recommendations described below. This resource is used with permission.

Literacy agencies should place a stronger emphasis on outreach and promotion in their daily planning since often not enough time and effort is spent on planning for recruitment. Literacy agencies could address some of the barriers to participation through well-planned outreach and promotional strategies. Do not think of this as a once a year activity or a special planning activity, instead embed it in your regular program activities.

To ensure that there are some clearly designated resources for promotions, agencies should create a separate budget line for outreach. It is great to take advantage of free opportunities like public service announcements but sometimes you may have to spend some money. Think about what will get the most impact for the dollars spent. What would be most effective in your community – promotional items like pens or magnets or a series of radio ads? Advertising is not a one-shot deal. People hear and react to things that are of immediate interest to them. Because of this, you will need to advertise regularly.

Literacy agencies need to pursue collaborative relationships with other local organizations to increase enrolment and build closer ties with the community. Agencies should develop outreach programs to allow literacy practitioners to connect with people with low literacy skills in non-threatening, low-key ways such as setting up bookmaking classes, parenting groups and computer skills workshops.

In order to make the best use of sparse resources and focus on key community needs, agencies need to focus their outreach strategies on one or two key communities. This could be a geographic community or other kinds of communities such as the unemployed, single parents, or young people. Agencies should gather as much information as possible about the target community. Then, both the recruitment message and the programming can be tailored as much as possible to the specific needs of the target community.

Programming must be highly relevant to the daily lives of participants. This should be clearly stated in all promotional material. Agencies need to offer as much choice and flexibility as they can when designing class schedules. Within reason, program length should be as flexible as possible to accommodate people who learn at different paces.

Transportation (either lack of access to a car or lack of funds for public transit) is a major barrier to many potential learners, especially in rural and remote areas where public transportation may not exist. Locating literacy agencies whenever possible on public transportation routes and in accessible locations should be a priority. Kingston Literacy also highly recommends using multiple outreach methods to meet the diverse needs of learners and their communities.

Recommendations from the “Seeing the Need; Meeting the Need” Study

The 2002 report called “Seeing the Need; Meeting the Need” (written by Yvonne Roussy and Doug Hart for the Ontario Literacy Coalition) describes the recruitment and retention research conducted with 92 adult students. The Ontario Literacy Coalition found that there were many different reasons why people chose to enroll in a literacy program. Highlighting why and how learners were attracted into the program gives us another viewpoint for thinking about effective strategies.

The most important reason for enrolling in a literacy program (74%) was that the features of the program were attractive (this includes the approach to learning, time, location and personal interactions with staff and other students).

Another key reason for 70% of learners was that their personal health and confidence had increased. As well, OLC’s report found that 52%of learners said that they had support and encouragement from their family and friends to enroll. This support seemed to have been a crucial factor in the learner’s decision to enroll.

The study also found that 52% of potential learners found the initial contact they made with the program, its staff and students was encouraging. Their initial interaction with people in the program appears to have made a positive impact on their decision to enter.

Employment was once again identified as a very important goal. When asked what learners expected from enrolling in a literacy program almost 85% said “better employment prospects.”

Other top expectations from program enrollment were:

  • Increasing confidence and motivation (61%)
  • Increasing the chance of getting into credit or diploma programs (50%)
  • Gaining better computer and Internet skills (34%)
  • Increasing literacy skills (32%)

Program-Related Questions

Given the many factors that affect a potential learner’s decision to attend a literacy program, we have ample information to draw from in order to improve our approaches to recruitment.

Use the following list of statements as a means of assessing your program’s current strengths and weaknesses related to successful recruitment. Talk over these questions with agency stakeholders such as students, volunteers, board members and community stakeholders. But remember, if you are asking these questions; be prepared to act on key findings within what is reasonable and manageable for your literacy agency. And if you find that your agency is already acting on most of these suggestions, you might need to ask if you are promoting your strengths forcefully enough.


After thinking about the above statements on effective recruitment practices, you may decide that now would be a good time for your agency to take a closer look at what you do and how you go about it. Perhaps it is even time for some changes. If so, be sure to check out CLO’s self-directed training module on program evaluation on our Literacy Basics website at:


An Example of Program Design in Action

The Red Lake Adult Learning Centre’s promotional material has effectively addressed both the barriers faced by adult students and some of the most important program design issues. Here is what they have written up in their program newsletter to share with potential learners, their families and friends and the broader community:

Unfortunately, adult learners are hard to get into the Centre and here are a few reasons why. Adult learners:

  • Feel embarrassed about returning to school
  • Feel embarrassed to join classes with younger students
  • Hold negative impressions of their own abilities
  • Hold negative impressions of schools and teachers
  • Have problems with childcare and transportation
  • Lack time
  • Lack confidence
  • Lack information about opportunities to learn

So here at the Red Lake Adult Learning Centre, we are dedicated to:

  • Establishing a friendly, open atmosphere where the participants can learn
  • Making learning a stress-free experience
  • Teaching things that are important to the participant
  • Helping with transportation
  • Making sure that learning is fun and free
  • Teaching things that are important to every day life, such as computers, healthy living, job readiness, budgeting and problem solving

Questions and Activities for Reflection

  1. List the features of your program that effectively meet the needs and address the barriers faced by adult learners.
  2. Based on the information in this section, how might you adapt or change your program to attract new learners?
  3. What could you do differently to make the first step of coming to your program even easier for adult students?
  4. How could you get feedback from current or former students about your agency’s approach to recruitment?
  5. What additional steps could your agency take to provide a welcoming, non-threatening environment for adult learners?
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