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The Key to Success in Adult Literacy Training: Adapting Training Programs to Adult Learners’ Needs

by Philippe Orfali

One of the first steps in creating a learning community is to prepare a realistic picture of the community, from analyzing demographic data to identifying the particular assets that this community has to offer. Events that bring the members of a community together—for example, a festival celebrating the contributions that generations of pioneers have made to that community, or an annual fundraising activity to send local students to study abroad—clearly show just how such rewarding experiences outside of school and the workplace can benefit the community as a whole. Logically, in a learning community, such initiatives can only proliferate, thanks to the support of all the individuals who compose that community.Donald Lurette

Donald Lurette is a leader in adult education. When he first started working to establish employment-related training programs for Francophone adults with low literacy skills, through the Centre d’apprentissage et de perfectionnement (CAP, a community-literacy organization in the eastern Ontario town of Hawkesbury), he knew nothing about the concept of learning communities. And yet the project he was working on was a perfect embodiment of this ideal.

Life isn’t always easy for the workers in this primarily Francophone small town, located some 100 kilometres east of Ottawa, on the Ontario/Quebec border. As of the last census, the average household income in Hawkesbury was $25 000 lower than for the province as a whole, a fact partly explained by the low proportion of the town’s population who have completed secondary school or postsecondary studies.

In fact, no fewer than 33% of the people in Hawkesbury have not completed secondary school, while 28% have completed secondary school but have gone no further in their education. The needs for occupational and qualifying training in this town are therefore quite real, argues Donald Lurette, a training and literacy consultant who has worked at the CAP in Hawkesbury for over 15 years. He explains: “In an area where it’s not easy to find a job, people are not always aware of their own needs for literacy and other training. They are far more concerned about finding a job as soon as they can than they are about getting their high-school diploma. And there’s also the fear of being labelled—no one wants to be called illiterate.”

The importance of meeting needs effectively

In the late 1990s, with the goal of more effectively meeting the needs not only of job-seekers but also of companies looking for qualified workers, CAP, in partnership with various other organizations in the Hawkesbury area, established a set of scholastic and occupational training programs for adults with low literacy skills. These partner organizations included local school boards, colleges, employment and income support agencies, and private companies. As Mr. Lurette explains, “These public agencies and our Centre understood that instead of competing, it was in our interest to work together to really meet people’s needs. Our first step was to create a consultative committee, and our next was to develop a common mechanism for making referrals.” The training programs for adults with low literacy skills were an outgrowth of this committee’s work.

This initiative also gave CAP the opportunity to garner testimonials from its partners, which in turn let the centre more effectively publicize its programs for adults with low literacy skills within the community.

CAP and its partners made a particular point of adapting their programs to unemployed workers’ actual levels of literacy and to the particular kinds of training that these workers needed to help them re-enter society and the job market. “Instead of offering a typical 12-week occupational training program, we decided to expand our program to six months. We adapted the vocational content to the literacy levels of the targeted learners, a strategy that specifically addresses the needs of learners with low literacy skills and the human-resource development needs of local employers.” On top of that, the program also included some strategic and applied literacy activities that Mr. Lurette regards as an essential component of this training.

The results speak for themselves. Every year, some 50 workers receive training through the adapted qualifying training programs provided by CAP and its partners. According to Mr. Lurette, the placement rate for workers who have completed the program is around 85%, and “in a community of 10 000 people, that’s no small thing.” And, he adds, most of the workers who subsequently quit these jobs do so either because they are moving or in order to continue their education.

The key: developing literacy strategically

In this kind of training program, adult-education expert Lurette explains, developing adults’ literacy skills in a strategic way plays a central role. “It’s no accident that people who are employed have higher literacy skills than people who are unemployed, regardless of how much schooling they have completed. It’s because they are constantly applying their literacy skills on the job. Literacy is like a muscle: the more you use it, the more it grows. The secret of our programs’ success is not only that they adapt the training to the skills that the learners already have. These programs also push the learners to start using this “muscle” again, in hope that when they start their new jobs, they will continue to develop it further.”

Donald Lurette believes that training programs like these can restore not only workers’ sense of confidence, but employers’ as well—a genuine first step toward a learning community! And hence he also believes that with a little bit of political will, Hawkesbury can indeed become a learning community. “The important thing is to create conditions that help foster the desire to learn, while also meeting the public’s needs.”

The author is a journalist with the Ottawa French-language daily newspaper Le Droit, for which he covers Ontario and Francophone affairs.