The needs of adult students should be the focus for all decisions and program activities. It is helpful if students are active participants in all aspects of the literacy agency. It is also beneficial to continually gather their feedback on program operations. Students (and the agency) will benefit from the creation of a learning community (social events, support groups, peer tutoring, etc.).
Although direct involvement in their learning environment may be new to some students, such involvement greatly supports learner-centered programming. Having meaningful involvement from all stakeholders – students, staff and volunteers – can help your literacy agency become more vibrant and more connected and relevant to your community.
Involving Learners in Your Agency
Student involvement in your agency builds ownership, commitment and self-esteem. It motivates and inspires the students. All of these outcomes directly help with retention. Student involvement also gives students valuable experience that can help them in a job search or with their future educational or personal goals.
Students can be involved in literacy agencies in many ways including:
- Serving on boards and committees
- Providing orientation to new students
- Providing peer support to fellow students
- Speaking to the community about literacy issues
- Writing newspaper articles
- Writing a student newsletter
- Contributing to a book of student stories
- Providing information to the agency about what is working and what needs to be improved
- Serving on an adult student group to support students and provide input into agency operations
- Participating in social events to build community and support other students
East End Literacy wrote an excellent resource called “Let’s Get Together”. This resource helps students to volunteer in literacy programs and gives support to help students participate in meetings. It can be found at: http://en.copian.ca/library/learning/get2ther/cover.htm
The Ontario Literacy Coalition has produced a valuable resource to help literacy programs start up a learner speaker program: “Let the Experts Do the Talking! A Manual for Literacy Organizations Starting a Learner Speaker Program” (http://en.copian.ca/library/learning/experts/cover2.htm).
Current and former learners can be a wonderful source of information. Through informal discussions, a survey or a focus group, you could ask questions about retention issues and potential program improvements such as:
- Do you have ideas about how we can better support you or other students?
- What books, materials, resources, software, etc. do you find most useful?
- What learning activities work best for you?
- What is the most difficult thing about attending our literacy program and what could we do to help with this?
- Have you ever thought about quitting? Why? What made you decide to stay?
You will surely get some great suggestions (after all, students are the experts!) or you may notice some overall patterns or needs. You can then adjust programming, learning approaches and materials as you are able and as needed.
Peer Tutoring, Study Groups and Support Groups
Research shows how valuable it is to provide opportunities for adult learners to share their experiences. This opportunity helps learners stay in programs since sharing experiences helps people deal with day-to-day challenges and barriers as well as build friendships and support. It reduces isolation and encourages teamwork, communication and problem solving skills. It can also give adult students a strong sense of belonging to a community.
Peer tutoring helps in two important ways. Firstly, it helps the studentproviding the peer tutoring as he or she is reviewing learning material with someone else and is therefore “learning twice”. As well, being a peer tutor can be a great confidence booster. Secondly, peer tutoring helps the students receiving support because it is provided one-on-one on an as needed basis at the pace needed by the student. A peer can also relate to specific student needs and issues. Peer groups usually involve a more experienced student helping another person to learn.
Study groups are groups of learners working together on learning materials. These groups can either be formally or informally arranged and they can be short-term or long-term, depending on the needs of the group. They could include “study buddies”, a study circle or a group of adults working on an assignment or homework together.
Learner support groups are set up based on the needs of the learners in your literacy program. Such groups could provide general peer support and encouragement to learners. They could also be more specific and be set-up around a particular issue, for example a support group for single parents or a job seeking club.
New Brunswick’s “Second Chance Learners Group” has written a handbook called “Steps To Success” that provides information on how to set up a support group for adult literacy learners.
Linking with other Community Service Providers
No matter how hard we might try, no one organization can fully meet everyone’s needs. Part of being learner-centred means developing strong linkages with other community organizations and services. This help to ensure that learners receive the services they need (transportation, childcare, housing information, legal aid, counseling, financial supports, medical services, elder care, etc.). Make a point of knowing what services are available in your community and what their mandates, missions and current requirements are.
Questions and Activities for Reflection
- What steps does your literacy agency take to make it learner-centered? What steps might you take to improve?
- What methods would work best for your agency to gather feedback from learners on ways to improve agency operations?
- How are adult students involved in your agency? Are there additional ways they could be meaningfully involved?
- Do you think learner support groups would work in your agency? Why or why not?
- What kind of resources (human and financial) do you think it takes to support learners in a more meaningful way?
- How can literacy program staff best find out about community services resources so they can refer learners to the additional services they may need?