apple Learning Environment

The previous sections talked about the barriers learners face and the main reasons they drop out. To increase retention, literacy practitioners need to not only understand the barriers, they also need to understand the supports and resources that can help adults to continue in programs. Although literacy programs may not be able to address all of the barriers that learners face, there are a number of ways practitioners can support learners and encourage them to remain in programs. Firstly, they need to create a welcoming and supportive learning environment.

Creating a Welcoming Environment

Creating a welcoming learning environment in your literacy agency is critical for retaining adult students. For many learners, returning to school is a big step. They may have been out of school for many years, or they may have less-than-positive memories of their school years. Some might think they are too old to learn or that they don’t know how to learn. Others might be afraid that family and friends will make fun of them. It is important to remember that not all learners will know what to expect when they return to school. That fear of the unknown might also make them hesitant to enroll.

Literacy agencies can help to create a welcoming environment by:

  • Providing a welcoming atmosphere. For example, a greeting at the door, interesting posters on the wall, neat and clean facilities, a tour for new learners, a comfortable learning space (chair, desk, table, etc.), a variety of learning options (quiet space, group work, music/no music)
  • Ensuring that all programs and services of the literacy agency are offered using a highly learner-centred model of delivery
  • Ensuring that people are treated with warmth and respect at all times
  • Ensuring that a non-judgmental environment is provided where the choices and backgrounds of learners are honoured
  • Having coffee, tea and refreshments available
  • Holding social events for students and practitioners
  • Offering appropriate field trips and/or team building activities
  • Encouraging learner involvement in all aspects of the literacy program including fundraising, or joining committees or the Board of Directors
  • Providing training to staff and volunteers in the importance of having a friendly, nurturing environment
  • Reviewing program rules and policies so there are no surprises later: program start time, finishing time, expectations, break times, smoking rules, absenteeism, etc.

Mutual respect is also an important part of creating a welcoming environment. To encourage mutual respect, one community-based LBS agency gets all learners to formally agree to the following statement:

  • I agree to respect everyone I am working with (staff, volunteers, other learners), and I will behave in a mature and reasonable manner. I will also be treated with respect by staff, volunteers and other learners.
  • I will not discuss other learners or school business outside of school. Staff, volunteers and other learners will not discuss my business outside of school.

The council finds that having such a policy in writing and agreed to by everyone involved with the agency creates awareness around mutual respect. Such a policy also makes the issue more tangible than if the council had just assumed that respect would automatically happen.


Effective orientation can help establish a welcoming environment right from the very beginning. Orientation should be designed to help new learners understand the programs and supports offered by agencies, the commitments they will need to make in order to successfully achieve their goals, and the processes and timelines involved in joining a literacy program. Orientation should give new learners a clear understanding of the literacy program and the supports available to help them succeed. Effective orientation is critical to helping adults make an informed decision about enrollment in the literacy agency. Current learners should be actively involved in the orientation process.

As well, it is important to follow-up on a one-to-one basis after orientation to ensure learners have a clear understanding of the literacy program and the supports available to them. In fact, spending extra time with new students in the first few weeks is time well spent as practitioners will identify, and be able to better address, their needs, barriers and comfort level with the program.

Orientation programs usually have the following elements:

  • Introduction to the agency learners, staff and volunteers
  • Overview of programs and services
  • Overview of the supports available for learners
  • Overview of agency processes and resources
  • Overview of the commitments and expectations of learners
  • Share existing student experiences and successes
  • Information on ways to get involved in the literacy agency
  • Introduction to the learning process
  • Share information on study skills

Some examples of orientation models:

  • Combine orientation within the first few weeks tutoring/classes
  • Have current students be mentors by answering questions or being “buddies”
  • Offer an evening Q & A session with  current and past students and an opportunity to meet staff (everyone can share their experiences, suggestions and study tips)
  • Provide orientation sessions or mini workshops for learners on the waiting list to maintain their interest and to begin the process of getting ready to learn



For many learners, returning to school is a big step. Unfortunately, despite years of public awareness, for some there is still a social stigma about attending a literacy program. Some learners might not be comfortable having their family, friends, co-workers, etc. know that they are attending a program. Because of this, literacy agencies have always done their best to ensure confidentiality for their learners. With today’s privacy laws, it is even more important than ever that we keep personal information safe and secure.

On the other hand, some learners are more than happy to have people know that they are improving their literacy skills. Some are delighted to have their picture in the newspaper or have an article written about them. However, it is important to always receive permission before releasing names, photos or articles about learners.

Ensuring that their personal information is safe and that the agency will respect their right to confidentiality can help reduce the initial nervousness that some learners might feel when joining a literacy program.

Here is a sample oath of confidentiality that could be signed by staff, volunteers, board members and students.

I promise to keep confidential all information I learn while being at the Literacy Council. I promise to respect the privacy of others and their right to confidentiality. I will not discuss the progress or attendance of others. If I do not respect confidentiality, I may be asked to leave the Literacy Council.

Relevant Programming

Adults tend to be practical learners. They seek training that meets the needs that they recognize. Adult learners will, therefore, be more likely to stay with literacy programs that deliver practical literacy training focused on the needs and goals that the learners themselves identify.

Literacy programs should strive to meet individual learning needs where possible. For example, some learners prefer to work one-to-one with a tutor while others prefer a small group or a classroom setting. Some learners are very independent and will ask for help when they need it while others require more frequent “check-ins”. Learners with employment goals will usually have different training needs than learners with independence goals. Be open and honest with learners about what you can and cannot offer to meet their training needs. If you can’t provide what they are looking for, you need to refer them to another literacy program or community service.

As mentioned earlier in the modules, the Ontario Adult Literacy Curriculum Framework can be very helpful to determine appropriate programming.

Program Planning

Literacy agencies have limited funding, resources, and staff and volunteer time. It is important to focus agency time and energies on the students whom you can serve best rather than trying to be all things to all people. For example, some programs are best at serving students at the lowest Literacy and Basic Skills levels while others focus on learners with employment goals. Some programs offer one-to-one tutoring while others offer small groups or a classroom environment; some programs offer a combination of approaches. Still others focus on serving Deaf, Native or Francophone students.

The Literacy Services Plan (LSP) will be helpful for agencies to assess which community needs are best served by which literacy agency. The LSP can also help identify if there are gaps in service and how those gaps might be filled. We can’t be all things to all people. It is important that we are clear about the programming we can provide and that learners know the options available to them.

Proper service coordination is extremely important to ensure that learners receive the appropriate services.  For more information on this topic, check out CLO’s Service Coordination in LBS – Trials and Tribulations  webinar and the  Service Coordination in LBS – Let’s Talk  Newsletter which are freely available on CLO’s website.

Making Changes

ABC Life Literacy’s “Who Wants to Learn?” research 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.

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

Unfortunately, some of these things are difficult to do given the limited resources literacy agencies have to work with, but even small changes can be beneficial.

Planning for Retention

Literacy agencies need to be mindful of retention issues when doing regular program planning. Often, we focus our efforts on simply getting learners into programs. However, it is equally important to think about how we ensure that they want to stay in programs and how we can help them do so. Retention needs consistent thought and attention. It won’t just happen!

To help ensure a focused approach, some agencies create a retention team made up of a staff person, learners and volunteers to brainstorm and plan for retention. Still others talk about retention strategies at board meetings or at board / staff retreats.

In addition, talking about retention issues doesn’t always have to be a formal activity; it’s also important to take time to talk informally to learners and colleagues about ways the program can encourage and support learners to stay and work towards meeting their goals.

Core Quality Standards

While older, the  eighteen “Core Quality Standards” for adult literacy agencies developed in 1995 by  the Ontario government (through the Literacy and Basics Skills Unit) and the Ontario literacy community, still stand the test of time.  While there are others issues that could be added as well, these core quality standards cover many important factors that encourage an effective learning environment for adult students.

  1. Program mission

    A quality literacy program has a clearly written statement of mission, and objectives which it follows and shares with the people involved in the program and with other stakeholders in the community.

  2. Community focus

    A quality literacy program is rooted in the community it serves. Learners participate in decisions that affect them and their communities. The program reflects its own philosophy and objectives and strengthens individuals, their communities, and their cultural identity.

  3. Program Commitment to learners

    A quality literacy program values, plans for, and provides opportunities for learners to increase literacy and numeracy skills, life skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

  4. Learner commitment to program

    A quality literacy program asks for a realistic commitment of time and effort from learners to meet their identified goals.

  5. Respect for learners

    A quality literacy program maintains a good rapport and promotes mutual respect among learners, practitioners, and others in the organization. Programs provide a supportive learning environment, respect for learners’ privacy, and constructive feedback on achievements.

  6. Learner-centred approaches and methods

    A quality literacy program uses approaches and methods that respect learners as individuals and that are learner-centred. It supports learners to participate individually and collectively in order to take control of their learning.

  7. Access and equity

    A quality literacy program respects differences. It has structures and supports in place to increase access and equitable outcomes and to help learners from all backgrounds reach their goals.

  8. Learning assessment

    A quality literacy program evaluates learners’ progress on an ongoing basis. The process involves the learners and contributes to their development.

  9. Instruction time

    A quality literacy program offers instruction often enough and long enough to allow learners to make reasonable progress toward their literacy goals. The frequency and duration of a program may vary according to learner needs and objectives as well as to the resources available to programs.

  10. Ratio of learners to instructors

    A quality literacy program has a ratio of learners to instructors which is appropriate to learners’ needs and levels as well as to the mode of instruction.

  11. Learning materials

    A quality literacy program uses a wide variety of learning materials which are consistent with the program’s philosophy, suitable for adults, and relevant to learners’ needs. The materials are in accord with the Ontario Human Rights Code.

  12. Practitioner training

    A quality literacy program has practitioners trained in adult education with a focus on basic education. They have initial and ongoing training.

  13. Outreach

    A quality literacy program uses positive and effective strategies to attract learners and other participants.

  14. Support services

    A quality literacy program helps learners get the support services they need, either in the program or in the community. For example, these services are transportation, child care, counseling, assessment, and information and referral for economic, cultural, and social needs.

  15. Organizational links

    A quality literacy program has community and organizational links: to meet program goals; to help learners move successfully from one educational program to another, to greater community involvement, to further training, or to employment; to integrate and strengthen literacy delivery at the local level; and to ensure that literacy education is integrated within the broader educational and training system.

  16. Program accountability

    A quality literacy program does what it says it will do. It is accountable to its learners, sponsoring organizations, partners, community, and funders. All stakeholders, not only program staff, are accountable for the success of the program.

  17. Administrative accountability

    A quality literacy program develops and maintains sound financial and administrative systems in order to provide accurate and timely program, statistical, and financial information.

  18. Program evaluation

    A quality literacy program evaluates its effectiveness annually. Evaluation of the program is a participatory and continuous process.

(Source: “Quality Standards for Adult Literacy”, Literacy and Basic Skills Section, Ontario Training and Adjustment Board, October 1995).

Questions and Activities for Reflection

  1. What additional steps could you take to ensure that adult students feel welcome and respected in your agency?
  2. Which of the suggestions for creating a welcoming environment do you follow in your agency? Are there others that you use that were not talked about in this module?
  3. What could you do to gather information on how welcoming your agency actually is?
  4. How do you orient new students in your program? Are there other things you could be doing to increase their comfort level and knowledge of program supports?
  5. Is having a welcoming agency only important to the adult literacy learners associated with your program? What about volunteers, current and potential funders, the general public, other social service agencies and others?
  6. How do you balance the cost of creating a learner-centred, welcoming environment with the fiscal restraint that our tight budgets require?
  7. How does your agency ensure that programming is highly relevant to individual learners? Are there ways you could improve this?
  8. In your community how well do all literacy providers and other community partners understand each other’s services? What techniques do you and your community partners use to ensure this understanding? What steps could you take to help improve this situation?
  9. Are there ways you could make your services more convenient, flexible and accessible?
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