apple Learner Retention

The reasons why adult students decide to enroll in a literacy program and then choose to either continue or drop out are multiple, complex and varied. Adult students come to literacy programs with their individual sets of motivations, barriers and personal needs. In this training module, Community Literacy of Ontario explores issues around the important topic of student retention.

We know that we live in the information age where an ever-increasing level of literacy is needed. However, in Canada millions of people face literacy challenges. Surveys indicate that here in our province, four in ten Ontarians aged 15 and over do not have the literacy skills they need to meet the demands of modern life. There is simply no denying the need for literacy. You can learn more about this issue by checking out the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey at:  IALLS 2003 Survey

Along with the need for literacy, Ontario has a diverse and effective range of adult literacy organizations funded by the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skill Development (MAESD). Two hundred agencies at 300 sites are funded to help adult learners achieve their literacy and basic skills goals. As well, these agencies offer a range of delivery formats (one-to-one tutoring, small groups and classroom-based learning). Literacy instruction is delivered in four streams: Anglophone, Francophone, Native and Deaf. For more information on Ontario’s literacy agencies see Ontario LBS Programs

CLO’s June 2016 survey  of Ontario’s community-based literacy agencies notes that meeting mandated learner numbers is still a top issue for programs. Once adult students are in your programs, how do you ensure that they will continue? How can you best meet their needs?

The 2016 report of the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel, Building the Workforce of Tomorrow: A Shared Responsibility  emphasized the importance of ensuring that adult learners have access to high-quality learning opportunities that are adaptable and appropriate to their diverse needs and contexts. The Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD), the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration have been consulting with  current and prospective learners, those who work with adult learners, and other key partners supporting the delivery of adult education to determine how to best support the diversity of adult learners’ needs and abilities and to gather feedback on what has been planned to date. The Strengthening Ontarios adult education system discussion paper is a great example of work that recognizes challenges facing adult students.

In 2011, MAESD implemented a competency-based framework to support the development of adult learners and literacy programming delivered through the Literacy and Basic Skills (LBS) program. To ensure relevancy for adult learners, the Ontario Adult Literacy Curriculum Framework (OALCF) focuses on task-based programming that relates to specifically to their literacy-related goals within the  pathways of apprenticeship, secondary school credit, postsecondary, employment and independence. For more information on the OALCF, visit

Concerns related to the OALCF’s milestones and culminating tasks were raised at the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development’s (MAESD) Literacy and Basic Skills Symposium held on October 5 and 6, 2017. The summary of the Symposium can be accessed here for October 5th and and here for October 6. Building on the results of the Symposium and as part of their plans to improvement and expansion plans for LBS, MAESD has established a Steering Committee, 3 working tables and 2 reference groups. One of these reference groups will be looking at issues and concerns relating to the OALCF and assessment. Information about these plans and working groups are available on the Employment Ontario Partners’ Gateway under LBS Updates.


Where do we go from here?

CLO’s research has shown consistently that the top  three challenges that adult learners face related to retention are:

  • Situational barriers (daily circumstances in a person’s life)
  • Personal barriers (emotional/previous experiences/values)
  • Institutional barriers (limits of the program that prevent a learner from participating or persisting)


It is critical for literacy practitioners to be aware of the barriers faced by adult students so that we can better understand what supports and motivators might help them to stay. It is also important for practitioners to note that many of the barriers are personal or life issues that may be beyond our control to change.

The following questions and activities are a productive way to start to understand your agency’s retention challenges and strategies and to plan for moving forward.

Questions and Activities for Reflection

  1. Are there any common reasons why learners leave your literacy program before achieving their goals?
  2. How does your literacy agency support students who are at risk of leaving the program? What actions could you take to improve in this area?
  3. Does your program identify at-risk learners when they first enter your program? If so, how?
  4. What are the characteristics of your program’s at-risk learners?
  5. What new strategies or program changes might you be able to put in place to help learners cope with the barriers they face?
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