Receiving high quality instruction that is relevant to the goals and needs of learners is a critical part of retention. Key components of quality instruction include:
- Skilled, caring practitioners
- Effective initial and ongoing assessment and training plan development
- The use of sound adult education principles
- The use of effective instructional strategies
- The use of effective learning materials and resources
- Knowledge of some of the major barriers to learning such as learning disabilities
- Knowledge of ways to encourage learning such as the use of learning styles and multiple intelligences
- Having an awareness of the unique needs of each learner in order to tailor instruction and learning materials to his or her needs
- Holding regular “check ins” with learners to find out which learning activities and materials were the most helpful for them
The role of the literacy practitioner, whether a paid staff person or a volunteer, is critical to learner retention. Literacy practitioners are vital to the creation of a supportive, welcoming and effective learning environment for adult students. Luckily, we work in a very caring profession, where practitioners tend to be extremely supportive. In fact, OLC’s “Seeing the Need; Meeting the Need” found that of the learners who dropped out of their literacy programs, none of them cited “Staff not supportive” as their reason for leaving.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of caring and skilled practitioners to learner retention and success. For example, in“Retention through Redirection” (produced by the College Sector Committee for Adult Upgrading) adult learners reported that practitioners were the most important overall positive influence in helping them make progress.
To increase retention, literacy practitioners should:
- Offer a learner-centered learning environment
- Create a welcoming environment
- Engage in open and ongoing communication with learners
- Be friendly, open, caring, encouraging and respectful of the needs of adult students
- Understand the issues and barriers affecting students
- Support and build on learner motivations
- Conduct effective assessment and refer students to the most appropriate literacy program
- Use engaging and relevant instructional strategies
- Teach using sound adult education principles
- Teach using effective adult learning techniques and strategies
- Use and adapt learning resources based on individual needs
- Provide a variety of support to students, whether program-based or by referring students to appropriate community services
Literacy practitioners may not be fully aware of their strong impact on learner retention. New staff and volunteers should receive training and orientation about their important role in retaining learners. Having friendly welcoming staff, volunteers and board members across all levels of the agency (instructors, administrators, management and governance) is absolutely critical.
Using effective instructional strategies that are learner centered, engaging and relevant to the goals and needs of each adult learner is important for retention.
Luckily, you can find information, tools and resources on effective strategies for teaching adult learners on Community Literacy of Ontario’s “Instructional Strategies” training module. This module can be found at: www.nald.ca/literacybasics/instruct/intro/01.htm.
Another valuable tool for practitioners is the SNOW website (Special Needs Ontario Window) at http://snow.utoronto.ca. This website was developed by the University of Toronto’s Adaptive Technology Resource Centre. Click on “Snow E-Learning Workshops – Educational Strategies”to access free and self-paced practitioner training workshops on topics such as “Learning to Learn: Thinking and Learning Skills” “Problem Solving in the Classroom” “Organizing the Disorganized Learner” and “The New Literacies: The Global Classroom.”
An Internet search, or a search of the library of your own program, regional literacy network, local library or AlphaPlus will help you to find some great resources on instructional strategies. Community Literacy of Ontario has also developed a list of resources that you will find under “learning materials” later in this training module. Here are two valuable resources to get you started.
Campbell, Pat. Teaching Reading to Adults: A Balanced Approach. Edmonton: Grass Roots Press, 2003.
Harwood, Chris. Handbook for Literacy Tutors. Edmonton: Grass Roots Press, 2001.
Adult Education Principles
It is important for literacy agencies to provide instruction based on the principles of adult education.
Adults learn best when:
- They are active participants in the learning process and they feel they have some control and choices
- Their attitudes and opinions are valued and respected
- The teaching builds on their previous experience and life knowledge
- The learning is directly relevant to their needs and goals and they can apply it to their daily lives
- A variety of relevant learning activities and resources are used
- Learning takes place in a relaxed, welcoming, comfortable, informal environment.
- Clear and measurable learning goals have been set
Laubach Literacy of Ontario’s “Training Post” has excellent online information on adult education principles that can be accessed here:www.trainingpost.org/.
Self-management / Self-direction
The learning environment should be structured to encourage the development of self-management and self-direction skills in adult students. To help students succeed as lifelong learners once they have left the agency, the environment should encourage students to take ownership for their own learning.
These skills, known by a variety of names including non-academic or soft skills, are so important to learning. Without them, academic skills-based learning is just a set of skills; with them, learning becomes integrated into our daily lives.
Luckily, Community Literacy of Ontario has written a training module on this very topic of “Self-Management” that you can access here:www.nald.ca/literacybasics/s-manage/intro/01.htm.
Essential Skills are the skills needed for work, learning and life. They provide the foundation for learning all other skills and enable people to adapt to workplace change. Through extensive research, the Government of Canada and other national and international agencies have identified nine Essential Skills. These skills are used in nearly every occupation and throughout daily life in different ways and at different levels of complexity.
There are nine Essential Skills:
- Reading Text
- Document Use
- Oral Communication
- Working with Others
- Continuous Learning
- Thinking Skills
- Computer Use
You can get more information on the Essential Skills at: www.rhdcc-hrsdc.gc.ca/eng/workplaceskills/essential_skills/general/home.shtml
It is commonly accepted that up to 10% of the general population may have learning disabilities. Research tells us that in adult literacy programs, between 30 and 60% of participants may have some kind of learning disability. Literacy practitioners must have some understanding of learning disabilities, of how they affect learning, and of how to teach and provide support to students whom they suspect have learning disabilities.
Learning disabilities, as defined by the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, refer to “a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or non-verbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and or/or reasoning. As such, learning disabilities are distinct from global intellectual deficiency.”
Three of the most common learning disabilities are:
- Visual processing
- Auditory processing
In its “Best Practice and Innovations Bulletin on Learning Disabilities”,the Ontario Literacy Coalition (2001) notes “The practitioner should explain in as many ways and as often as possible that having special difficulties does not mean that the learner is not intelligent or cannot learn.” This bulletin emphasizes the critical importance of practitioners instilling in learners with learning disabilities a belief that they can learn and be successful.
Learning disabilities are an extremely complex topic. To learn more, visit the websites of both the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (www.ldao.ca) and the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (www.ldac-taac.ca). Both organizations have a wealth of resources and provide many links to valuable tools and information.
You can also access two excellent resources on learning disabilities produced by Literacy Link South Central (www.llsc.on.ca). The first one is “Learning Disabilities Training: A New Approach”(www.nald.ca/library/research/ldtrain/cover.htm) and the second one is“Learning Disabilities Training Phase Two”(www.nald.ca/library/research/ldtrain/tools/cover.htm).
Another valuable source of information can be found at the CESBA (Ontario Association of Adult and Continuing Education School Board Administrators) website: www.LBSpractitionertraining.com. Refer toModule Three: Working with LBS Adults with Learning Disabilities.
Everyone has a style of learning that best suits their needs. Some of us prefer to learn by hearing about something, some of us prefer to read about it on our own, some of us need to see the information (on a slide, flipchart or blackboard for example), and some of us need to physically do or touch something to learn about it. While there are many different learning styles, generally they are grouped into the three main areas of visual, auditory and tactile (or kinesthetic).
While everyone has a way of learning that is most helpful and natural to them, often we are not formally aware of what is our preferred way to learn. Assessing learning styles can be extremely helpful. When practitioners know which style best suits a student, they can tailor materials and activities to the learning style that is most suited to each learner. When students understand which learning style best meets their needs, learning becomes easier and less intimidating. They may also come to understand why learning may have been so difficult in the past. All of these benefits may in turn increase retention.
It can also be important for us as practitioners to understand our own learning styles. After all, our teaching styles are directly impacted by our learning styles!
Another way to validate different ways of learning for adult students is through multiple intelligences (or MI). The MI theory, designed by Howard Gardner, highlights that we all have a variety of strengths and ways of learning that should be recognized and supported.
Gardner has identified eight intelligences:
In the past, certain types of intelligence were sometimes more highly valued than others (for example academic strengths). Gaining a better understanding through the use of multiple intelligences of someone’s areas of strength can increase confidence and the ability to learn.
“Literacy Works”’ has produced a great resource on multiple intelligences that includes and overview of MI, teaching strategies and an assessment tool. Check out: www.literacyworks.org/mi/home.html.
Questions and Activities for Reflection
- Do you think that all practitioners in your literacy agency (whether paid staff or volunteers) are fully aware of the extreme importance of skilled, caring practitioners to the learning process? If not, what could you do to promote this knowledge?
- What steps does your agency take to ensure that practitioners are highly skilled and caring?
- Do you need to modify your practitioner or tutor training or orientation to continue to ensure that high quality instruction is delivered in your program? If so, how?
- How does your agency involve your staff and volunteers in retention planning?
- How do you ensure that Self-Management/Self-Direction skills are integrated into learner training plans?
- Do you think that a high percentage of learners in your literacy agency have learning disabilities?
- How does your agency meet the needs of adults with suspected learning disabilities? Are there things you could do better or differently?
- How can you effectively incorporate information on learning styles and Multiple Intelligences into your day-to-day literacy work?