Literacy Snapshots: A Look at Three Programs Serving Nontraditional Adult Learners

After graduating from university, one of my first positions was at the Canadian Mental Health Association as a “social action coordinator.” A large part of this work involved advocating for people with psychiatric disabilities around issues such as housing, employment, and income support, which included applying for AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) and helping prepare appeals. My job was to help people advocate on their own behalf, and when that was not possible, I advocated for them.

Another part of my work was supporting a newsletter committee for people with psychiatric disabilities to share their stories about topics that mattered to them. In both instances, I worked with individuals who had literacy issues. Some also had learning disabilities; others had physical disabilities. For many, their mental health issues caused disruptions in numerous areas of their lives including employment and education. I remembered this work recently when I began thinking about and researching programs that serve nontraditional adult learners.

What Do We Mean by Nontraditional Adult Learners?

In a study of Humanities education programs for low-income people, researchers Groen and Hyland-Russell settled on the following definition for nontraditional adult learners by Scheutz and Slowey. They are

socially or educationally disadvantaged sections of the population … those from working class backgrounds, particular ethnic minority groups, immigrants, and in the past, frequently women … It tends to relate to older or adult students with a vocational adult training and work experience background, or other students with unconventional educational biographies. (Scheutz and Slowey qtd. in Groen and Hyland-Russell 2010, 33)

However, Groen and Hyland-Russell go one step further in their definition. They felt it was important to understand the scope and multiplicity of barriers faced by nontraditional adult learners. Here are some of the material barriers they identified:

  • lack of resources: childcare, tuition, books, computer, bus tickets
  • inadequate housing: unstable housing (shelter, homelessness, transitional housing, threat of eviction)
  • poor health: inadequate food, medical care, medicine, chronic illness and/or disability, both physical and mental health-related
  • unemployment or underwaged jobs (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2009, 103-104).

Groen and Hyland-Russell say that while the material barriers often interfere with learning and education, the nonmaterial barriers are what seem more insurmountable. These include:

  • Fear, anxiety, and a belief that education was “not for them”; that they were “too stupid”; “here are all these strange people I don’t know”; “I just don’t have faith in myself … I had learned helplessness”; “all I wanted to do is run.”
  • Complicated processes of application and admission: “I had no idea where to start. I didn’t know who to ask.”
  • Educational gaps that created academic deficits: how to read, how to interpret, research, write essays, study.
  • Previous trauma can lead to students being easily triggered by content or context: “I’ve had so many unsafe places.”
  • Addiction or substance abuse issues interfere with students’ ability to cope and process information: “I counted every bar on my way here.”
  • Undiagnosed learning disabilities.
  • Inability or unwillingness to ask for help: “Sometimes I don’t ask for help until the situation is critical and I’m ready to quit school.”
  • Tendency to isolate when feeling threatened or frightened: “I was super-sensitive to everything. I rarely talked to anybody.”
  • Boundary issues: “I trusted nobody but I did everything anybody told me to.”
  • Previous trauma: war, violence, bullying, residential school, separation from family. (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2009, 104)

Groen and Hyland-Russell conclude that “education could not be disentangled from the rest of students’ lives; over and over again students connected past life experiences with their past and current capacities to learn” (2009, 104).

Working with marginalized nontraditional adult learners is a complex and challenging process. Educators require skill, knowledge, and compassion. Equally important, they also need an understanding of how social differences (including race, class, gender, sexual orientation, culture, ethnicity) and power affect literacy practice and learning (Stewart et al. 2009, 1).

I talked to three organizations to find out how they are developing programs to meet the learning needs of the unique populations they serve.

The Birth of Literacy Programming at CUPS

New CUPS building at 1001-10 Ave. S.W., Calgary, Alberta

New CUPS building at 1001-10 Ave. S.W., Calgary, Alberta

CUPS  is a “non-profit society dedicated to helping low income individuals and families in Calgary overcome poverty” ( The organization began operating in 1989 and currently offers programming focused on health, education, and housing.

In the past decade, the agency identified literacy as an important issue that required more attention within the organization. They began slowly introducing and integrating the concept of literacy into various program initiatives, including staff professional development with Jenny Horsman on the impact of violence on learning[1] and hosting a Books for Babies program[2] for at-risk parents. More significantly, the entire agency engaged in a literacy and plain-language audit[3] with Literacy Alberta to develop literacy-friendly services. After the audit, staff received training in literacy and essential skills and plain language. They then created clear oral, print, and on-line resources and information (including agency forms and signage.) Currently, the communications person at CUPS filters new forms and documents for literacy friendliness. However, maintaining consistency remains a challenge because accumulated knowledge leaves the agency when staff inevitably changes.

In the past two years CUPS also partnered with Momentum[4] to deliver financial literacy training to staff and clients about money management, including reducing debt, paying bills on time, saving for the future, and increasing assets. Over eighty people have received the training so far.

Recently, Deanna Holt, volunteer manager at CUPS, began developing an adult literacy program to help CUPS clients increase their reading and writing literacy skills. She spoke to me about how the idea for the program came about.

Almost a year ago, one of my colleagues who is a mental health counsellor here approached me and said she had a couple of individuals who were coming to her and she wondered if I could find them a volunteer to help them work on their literacy skills. I said that I didn’t think it would be a problem to find a volunteer to help them, but we needed some kind of program in place to support both the literacy volunteers and the learners … I realized I needed to have a better understanding of what a literacy program at CUPS would look like. I contacted both Bow Valley College and the Calgary Public Library to begin getting more information.

Deanna initially recruited volunteers with an adult education background who had an interest in helping set up the program. As a group, they discussed goals, program directions, and purpose, and slowly the program began to take shape. An important component of the CUPS philosophy is to not duplicate services so Deanna examined other programs closely to see what they offered for the individuals at CUPS.

I knew there were other literacy programs out there, but I realized that the learners at CUPS had different needs. They were coming with mental health issues and frequently were not comfortable in learning settings outside of CUPS. That made this program different … Also in this case, a lot of the folks have experienced emotional trauma in school settings and so our goal is to try to provide a comfortable space where they feel safe and more confident about working on their literacy skills.

In volunteer-tutor adult literacy programs, a positive relationship between the tutor and the learner is one of the key factors in determining ongoing learner engagement and success. Volunteer education is crucial. Deanna constantly improves and refines her volunteer training.[5] As the program continues to gain momentum, Deanna is hopeful that volunteer tutors will be able to access the same professional development that is offered to staff at CUPS. “One of my objectives is to be able to engage the literacy program volunteers in some of the in-house training that we do here at CUPS, for example, the mental health first aid program,” Deanna explained.

The CUPS Adult Literacy Program still has challenges ahead that will determine its potential growth and future success. As Deanna sees it,

Right now referrals are still coming mostly from the one individual who works in the mental health program. That’s one of my challenges — I want to ensure that everyone I work with (there are almost 200 employees at CUPS now) is aware of this program. It’s difficult because we do so much here: health, education, and housing, and under each of those pillars there are many programs. Staff are already looking for appropriate referrals for their participants. I need to brand the literacy program here so staff know that we exist and start to make referrals [as a part of their intake process]. And it’s coming … I’m slowly starting to get referrals from other sources.

Deanna has come a long way from finding a volunteer to help a CUPS client improve their reading skills. Providing a safe space for learning, nurturing positive tutor-student relationships, creating effective tutor training and supervision, and exploring innovations in volunteer recruitment: CUPS, under Deanna’s leadership, is well on its way to developing an effective adult literacy program to serve nontraditional learners.

Lifeline to Literacy: An Inclusive Adult Literacy Program at Bow Valley College

Learners and Instructor Debra King displaying clothesline of art.

Learners and Instructor Debra King displaying clothesline of art.

The classroom fills slowly with men and women of different ages and nationalities. Several have visible disabilities. Many of the adult learners have come directly from their day jobs, the tiredness visible on their faces. People greet one another enthusiastically as they enter and set up their desks in a semi-circle. The walls of the room are covered in student art and writing. This is the Lifeline to Literacy program, an evening adult literacy class with a difference.

Debra King, the class instructor, explains how the program works:

The Lifeline to Literacy is a program for adults who want to improve their reading, writing, communication, and math skills. It runs three evenings a week and students have the opportunity to take the class one or two evenings a week … It’s multilevel instruction so the learners in this program may have learning disabilities, or physical and mental disabilities— some are new immigrants who want to improve their reading and writing in English. Sometimes we have adults who are waiting to take other literacy programs at Bow Valley College. We also have a volunteer tutor working with the class to help individual students as needed.

The program was originally designed by Enerys Jones who created and built on an innovative teaching model that blended working together in groups with individual work, used art as a gateway to personal expression, and invited adult learners into the cultural community. Audrey Gardner, former coordinator inthe Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning at BVC, describes the philosophy behind Jones’s approach:

Enerys had a commitment to a strong community-of-learning presence in the classroom — people could work individually and then also be learning as part of a group. She invited students to attend cultural events because she felt that the arts help us engage with something in a different way than sitting with a pen and piece of paper in front of us. She was able to show how these things connected from an engaging and learning kind of approach… She also on her own time (hundreds of hours of volunteer time) created books of students’ writing and art selections.

The program incorporates a learner-centred philosophy. Debra talked to me about what that looks like in the classroom.

The students will determine the goals they want to work on: they’ll set their goals when they come into the class and we will assist them in working towards those goals. For example, they may be very specific goals like passing an apprenticeship exam or passing their driver’s license. Others want to read to their children or help them with their homework and others may have higher job opportunities but they need to improve their literacy levels.

The program continues to be innovative in its approach. In the past year, in a collaboration with the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD), the program began hosting art students doing their practicums. Each semester, an ACAD student comes into the class and works with the learners to develop a project incorporating both an art piece and a creative writing piece. Debra described a recent project.

Last fall, Randee, our student, did some research into local theatre outings and when we learned of Aesop’s Fables at the University of Calgary, the students hit upon the idea of working with fables and creating sculptures around that. Randee took the initiative to create a mapping outline and led the students in a workshop around mapping a fable. After the students attended the play, students created their own maps, retelling a fable of their choice. As well, Randee gave a sculpture workshop showing slides of her own work and work of her favourite artists to motivate students. She led two clay-making workshops to meet the needs of students attending on different nights. She wasn’t too concerned if the clay figures matched the characters in their chosen fable(s); she was more interested in having them work with the clay and create. One student also made a set of puppets. These students are unfettered in their creativity.

Another innovation within the program is the Nations Learning Together Blog[6] currently funded by Calgary Learns.[7] Lisa Fajardo, a recent education program graduate and blog developer from the University of Calgary, worked with the Lifeline to Literacy students to develop the blog. Debra explained the development process.

Lisa came in and worked with the students to build the blog from the ground up. She explained what a blog was. A lot of the students didn’t have very much computer experience or understand what a blog was but they understood what a journal was. They learned that a blog was an on-line journal for sharing. Using a democratic process of voting, they started building the blog brick by brick. The students suggested names for the blog and voted on the names until they whittled it down to Nations Learning Together.

The blog was officially launched this past spring and now includes student submissions from other adult literacy and upgrading programs at Bow Valley College. Designed to help students learn more about using technology and the Internet, the blog also encourages them to make connections between creativity and learning.

Research shows that many nontraditional adult learners have previous negative experiences in education systems and need flexibility and diversity in literacy programming. Creating warm, welcoming, inclusive learning environments helps these students re-engage in learning (Crowther et al. 2010, 658). The Lifeline to Literacy program provides an innovative model of flexible, diverse, inclusive literacy programming that engages adult students in a community of learning.

Pebbles in the Sand: A Unique Literacy Program for Immigrant and Refugee Women

Learning to fill out forms in the Pebbles in the Sand program.

Learning to fill out forms in the Pebbles in the Sand program.

Liette Wilson carries her classroom in a suitcase and travels by C-train and bus to rented or donated classroom space in churches around the city, teaching ESL-Literacy. She is one of four educators working in the Pebbles in the Sand Program[8] in several community locations in Calgary.

Pebbles in the Sand is an English Language Literacy (ELL) program provided by the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association for immigrant and refugee women who have low literacy skills (0 to 7 years of education in their home countries).[9] Many of the women come from war-torn or unstable countries (Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Bhutan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia) and have histories that include violence and poverty. They range from twenty to seventy years of age. Many of the younger women have small children who are bundled into strollers and brought to class. The program provides free pre-school childcare, an absolute necessity for the young mothers.

Given many of the students’ histories of war and violence, Liette stresses that creating a safe environment for learning is vital.

I think it’s key right from the beginning that I establish a place of safety. Sometimes we laugh in class because we do something ridiculous or someone says something ridiculous and they realize it and they laugh too. They call a banana a watermelon and everyone thinks it’s very funny and not in a mocking kind of way. It’s a safe place — you can make a mistake and it’s okay. When I make a mistake I say “wow, I really made a mistake… oh well, let’s move on” or “let’s do it again.” The students know that it’s safe to mess up and to continue learning and I think that’s really key. If they don’t feel safe, they won’t engage and all bets are off from that point on.

Learners in the program have a wide range of literacy skills. Some of the students come from oral cultures and have no concept of written language. Liette talked about the diversity of learners in the program and how that affects the teaching and the learning.

One of the biggest challenges is the diversity of abilities. Even though everybody who qualifies for Pebbles has less than seven years of education [in their country of origin] there is a huge difference between having five years of education and having zero years of education. It shows in their awareness of learning, what they know about a basic alphabet… And when you have twelve students and they are all very high needs and hands-on, that is challenging. I want to individualize learning as much as possible, but I can’t… It’s a matter of creating an activity that can be done at three or four levels… and having back-up ideas because some students will just whiz through. But some of the other students haven’t finished the first step of the process, and you don’t want to rush them. I’ve learned that it’s really important to be particularly encouraging to those students who struggle because in a literacy class, everybody struggles, but there are some students who appear to have extra difficulty.

There are no permanent classrooms for teaching the program. Pebbles in the Sand is delivered at seven different locations around the city, primarily in church classrooms. While CIWA is grateful for the donated space, it means that the educator brings the classroom in a bag.

Liette talked about some of the logistical challenges she faces daily.

Facilities can be a challenge in this particular program. Sometimes the room is small and cramped and we have to be careful of putting things on the walls. For literacy students, the visual component is huge. I’m constantly trying to find creative ways without making holes in the walls and taking them down and putting them back up… The other challenge is needing to carry around manipulatives.[10] I carry around a giant bag, sometimes two bags with all my supplies including everything I need to teach: felt pens, flip chart paper, masking tape, pictures, plastic fruit, games, pretend money, etc.

As the women learn English, they also learn about life in Canada. Liette gave me some examples.

One of the things students are most interested in is using money, and learning about money. I use pretend money, something they can touch. Numbers don’t always mean a lot. Sometimes people can’t count to 100 until you give them money. Then all of the students can count to 100! The students are highly motivated to learn it and it gives them something tangible to work with rather than just a symbol. They know what it’s for, they know they need to learn it, they want to know they are getting the correct change back…

I think we did about ten weeks on food. You’d think we would get bored talking about food but we didn’t. It ties into so many different areas. You can use it to learn vocabulary, you can talk about directions, prices, shopping etiquette, serving each other. I thought it was going to be a short moment, but their interest was so high we kept going with it.

The women in the program can also access other CIWA programming including settlement and integration services, individual and family counselling, and employment services. Studies have shown that providing these sorts of “wrap around” services in addition to literacy instruction boosts learner engagement and success (Crowther et al. 2010, 660).

Unique and innovative, the Pebbles in the Sand program provides a safe landing place for immigrant and refugee women to learn English and basic literacy and continue their learning journeys.

CUPS Adult Literacy program, the Lifeline to Literacy program, and The Pebbles in the Sand program have three important things in common: they create a safe learning environment, provide “wrap around” supports and services, and work from a strength-based approach that is based on learner needs, desires, and interests. For  nontraditional learners, the recipe seems to be working as they move on to the next stages of their lives.


Crowther, Jim, Kathy Maclachlan, and Lyn Tett. 2010. “Adult Literacy, Learning Identities and Pedagogic Practice.” International Journal of Lifelong Education 29 (6): 651-664.

Groen, Janet, and Tara Hyland-Russell. 2009. “Success: The Views of Marginalized Adult Learners in a Radical Humanities Program.” In Conference Proceeding: The Canadian Association of the Study of Adult Education (CASE). 25-27 May, Ottawa: Carleton University. Retrieved from

Groen, Janet, and Tara Hyland-Russell. 2010. “Riches from the Poor: Teaching Humanities in the Margins.” In Learning for Economic Self-Sufficiency: Constructing Pedagogies of Hope Among Low-Income, Low-Literate Adults, edited by Mary V. Alfred, 29-47.Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Stewart, Sheila, with Tannis Atkinson, Mary Brehaut, Guy Ewing, Sally Gailkezheyongai, Michele Kuhlmann, Maria Moriarity, Andy Noel, and Nadine Sookermany. 2009. Powerful Listening: A Practitioner Research Project on Story and Difference in Adult Literacy. Toronto: Festival of Literacies.

Still, Rebecca, Linda Wier, and Ann Goldblatt. 2007. Creating Learning Partners: A Facilitator’s Guide to Training Effective Adult Literacy Tutors. Units 1 to 12. Literacy Alberta.


[1] Jenny Horsman, world-renowned educator and researcher, presents custom workshops to organizations on the impact of violence on learning. See for resources and information.

[2] Books for Babies is a family literacy program presented by the Further Education Society. See for more information.

[3] The Literacy Audit Tool Kit is available for purchase from Literacy Alberta at

[4] Momentum is a nonprofit agency that partners with people in building their own assets through programming in three areas: business development, financial literacy, and skills training. See for more information.

[5] Resources such as Creating Learning Partners: A Facilitator’s Manual for Training Effective Adult Literacy Tutors published by Literacy Alberta provide inspiration and ideas for new literacy coordinators involved in volunteer training (Still, Wier, and Goldblatt 2007).

[6] See

[7] Calgary Learns is a granting agency that supports foundational learning for adult Calgarians.

[8] Pebbles in the Sand is part of the programming offered by the Calgary Women’s Immigrant Association.

[9] Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association provides settlement and integrations services, language training, childcare, employment services and family services.

[10] Manipulatives are three-dimensional teaching aids and visuals that educators use to support hands-on learning. For example, Liette uses real and plastic fruit to talk about food, shopping, nutrition, etc.

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