Stories from the Field


Stories from the Field reports on current issues, challenges and innovative work happening in the adult literacy and Essential Skills field throughout Alberta. The focus is on teaching and learning ReadingWriting, Numeracy and Technology

Investigator:  Sandi Loschnig


Stories from the Field Professional Development for Literacy Practitioners Volume 3 (2015)

Stories from the Field Volume 3 is a new series of stories that explores innovations in ESL literacy programming that have been spearheaded by the School of Global Access. Over the past fifteen years, we have become a recognized leader in the field of ESL literacy, producing a wealth of resources that have been developed and vetted by ESL literacy experts.

This unique applied research project is a collaboration between the School of Foundational Learning and the School of Global Access. Stories from the Field Volume 3 reports on current issues, challenges and innovative work happening in the adult literacy and essential skills field throughout Alberta. Stories from the Field Volume 1 and Volume 2 were both published in 2014.

Shaping and Reshaping Teaching Practice in ESL Literacy

Published Jan 28, 2016

This two-part article examines how experienced ESL literacy practitioners in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College work to create transformative learning environments for their diverse learners.

Part One

The Computer Enhanced ESL Literacy Program: Embedding computer literacy in low-level classes

Norma Tersigni, Lois Heckel, and Joanne Pritchard work together in the Computer Enhanced ESL Literacy program[1], which serves learners with interrupted formal education. They talked to me about how the program works, and the advantages of working together as part of a team.

Joanne began by talking about who is in the program. “Our target audience is adult English language learners with interrupted formal education. In many cases, these learners did not have the opportunity to go to school in their home countries and now, many years later, they’re trying to acquire literacy in English. Many of the people that join our program are older adults who have been in Canada for quite a number of years. Some have worked at entry-level jobs for 20 or more years. Most are Canadian citizens, who don’t qualify for other funded programs. We also welcome many learners who are referred to us from Bow Valley College’s full-time English Language Learning (ELL) program who haven’t been able to move to the next level of the program. Our learners have very little or no literacy in their first language, little or no literacy in English, and some may even have special learning needs, such as vision and hearing disabilities. To ensure foundational learning is accessible, this Calgary Learns’ funded program has a nominal registration fee that can be waived for learners who have little to no income.”

IMG_2651 “Many of these learners live with relatives that have already come to Canada, so they do have access to a bit of a support system. However, we also have taught learners who were homeless,” Norma added.

The goal of the program is to help immigrant learners with interrupted formal education develop their reading, writing, and digital literacy (computer use) skills within an educational setting that that respects their learning needs and individual learning rates. The emphasis is on creating a safe environment that provides the support and time these particular learners need to develop their literacy and language skills. This class also introduces computer use in a gentle way to learners who have little or no experience using computers.[2]

The program is divided into three levels with equivalencies to the Canadian Language Benchmarks for ESL Literacy Learners. Norma teaches level one, Lois teaches level two, and Joanne teaches level three; however, the three instructors work together as a united team sharing resources and effective teaching strategies. As well, they collaborated to develop internal in-take assessment materials for the program.

Offering three levels and having small class sizes is crucial to the program’s success. Joanne explained, “Because we have three instructors in our program, offering three levels – very basic, basic, and low intermediate – allows us to meet a diverse range of learning needs. Although these groups are by no means homogeneous, we’re able to work with learners at the three different levels, in groups of only 8 to 12 learners, so we’re better able to meet their needs than if we had larger, more heterogeneous groups. Small class sizes and the three distinct levels are vital to our program’s success.”

The program runs for three 12-week terms over the year. Classes run for 3 hours on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and include 45 minutes of computer lab time. A unique feature of the program is that there are no set time limits. Learners move through the levels at their own pace and can remain in the program as long as they are progressing.

Lois explained, “During our program, learners make significant gains in their literacy and language development, but these gains occur in small increment steps. With time, learners develop an increased awareness of the significance of their learning achievements. I have one learner that has been in the program for quite some time. When he came into the program he was extremely quiet and didn’t ask any questions. Now, he actively engages, asking me questions, talking about his weekend, and writing in his journal.”

All three instructors emphasized the need to be flexible and responsive to the needs of learners, especially within a multi-level environment.

Norma gave an example of a lesson plan from her level one class that came from her observation of learner behaviour in the college campus. “I noticed when the learners were buying coffee that they would use a toonie or a five dollar bill, and when they got their change, they threw it in the garbage, because they didn’t know what to do with it and they didn’t know the value of it. Identifying this need created an instructional opportunity and I began to work with them on Canadian money and counting and making change. It is critical to build the financial literacy skills of ESL literacy learners – but it can be a real challenge for them. However, as a result of these lessons, I noticed that learners stopped throwing their change away.” Financial literacy, while not part of the formal curriculum in this program, is an important component of life in Canada, and ESL literacy instructors like Norma seize these real life opportunities to teach their learners the concepts of Canadian money and the value of money.

Lois spoke of the impact on practice. “I would say this program has changed my approach to teaching tremendously because I’m always thinking of new ways of doing things. I am constantly adapting my techniques to best meet needs. Working within a collaborative team allows us to share our materials and teaching approaches. I get many ideas from Norma. We try to create seamless transitions for learners from one level to the next. At point of assessment, learners move into the level best suited to their needs, but once placed, the achievement of outcomes determines movement to the next level.”

When I asked them to describe a typical day in their classrooms, the three instructors provided a good picture of the scope of the program.

Norma began. “At my level [level one], instruction needs to be very explicit. Learners benefit from routine and repetition. Because they’re non-readers, I include activities that foster metacognitive skills. For example, they have a binder with dividers, and I colour code the dividers so that, initially, they don’t have to be able to read anything – if we start out with vocabulary, I ask them to flip over the green coloured tab. So there isn’t the stress and they’re relaxed. If they’re anxious or worried about performance, they won’t learn. I have them do quite a bit of work ahead of actually working on the computers. I use a template of the keyboard they have at their desks and we practice putting website addresses in, finding letters. We practice in the classroom that way. And then I call them up one at a time to the computer at my desk and we rehearse what they’re going to do in the computer lab.”

“When we go in the computer lab, we blend our classes, so Lois [level two] and I are in the computer lab together. My learners have a role model – they see Lois’ learners are generally more proficient on the computer. It’s an opportunity for some peer tutoring because some of Lois’ learners will stop what they’re doing and help my learners,” Norma added.

Lois described some of the level two learning activities. “We always try to incorporate authentic learning opportunities. For example, some of the learners will bring in letters that they get about their income tax or a phone bill. They require help in understanding what information is being forwarded to them. One of the goals at my level is to help learners independently complete short forms where they have to give their name, their address, their status, etc. We practice the skill of form filling. We also focus on oral/aural skill development, for example how to respond to questions about where they live, etc. We do lots of role playing. I have introduced this activity called ‘in the hot seat.’ In this activity one learner is in the hot seat and the other learners ask questions such as ‘Where do you live?’, ‘What is your address?’ This activity becomes a springboard for learners to pose new questions of their own.”

Learners in Joanne’s level [level three] are able to demonstrate higher literacy skills and are beginning to share their stories through print. “I spend considerable time at the beginning of each term with oral activities for learners to get to know each other. As we move into the term, classes often begin with several of the students reading their completed (and jointly edited) work from a previous computer class, usually just 3 to 5 sentences on a topic. As the other learners in the class listen to their classmates’ stories, they are asked to identify what their classmate had to say about the given topic. To introduce new material, I use the SMART projector in my classroom to project web-based resources such as the ESL Literacy Readers. Learners are provided with booklets that contain the same reading passages as well as activities that relate to our thematic unit to complete during CELP storyclass and for homework. I try to focus on topics that are relevant to their lives in selecting our themes, and I encourage each student to express their own personal ideas in their writing. When they share their written sentences with the rest of the class, it’s their individual ideas, not something I’ve given them to type or the ideas of someone else in the class. Because of the wide-range of literacy levels, I structure each activity so that each student can work at his/her level.”

The joint learnings of the three instructors working in the program have been gathered together to inform the development of an internal program handbook. The handbook includes the learning outcomes for each level as well as suggestions for thematic units and related online and print resources. The handbook continues to be updated as these instructors shape and re-shape their teaching practice to meet evolving learner needs.

Part Two

Experienced practitioners working to create transformative learning environments

Shelley McConnell and Julia Poon have 40 years combined experience teaching in the CEIIA. I spoke to each of them about their evolving teaching practices and philosophies.

In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Shelley McConnell shares her experience and learning through professional development workshops and webinars designed for ESL literacy practitioners. She started our conversation.

“The target audience that I work with is people who didn’t go to school before in their country and have primarily lived in an oral culture. Print literacy wasn’t a part of their lives to any great extent.”

Shelley also spoke about an additional and often overlooked challenge faced by these learners. “In addition to being from oral cultures, my learners may have another challenge when adapting to life in Canada and developing literacy skills here. I would say a good number of the people I work with have not fully acquired their traditional culture to the extent that their grandmothers and great grandmothers might have. A lot of them have gone through many sudden interruptions and been displaced from elders and other chances to take part in their traditional culture. They might not have had traditional knowledge, life skills, and strategies passed down to them.”

Like all ESL literacy practitioners, Shelley believes in building on learner strengths.

“That’s why I like Decapua and Marshall’s model of a ‘Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm (MALP)’.The idea is to start with the channels through which people have learned in the past and then build on those strengths. You show them that those learning channels are valuable rather than liabilities. And then starting from there, you build on those learning styles and then help them adapt and develop new strategies while not necessarily giving up their old strategies either. So instructors adapt to facilitating learning in a learning style that is not necessarily their own, and learners adapt to learning through new channels.”

Shelley spoke about the need for using different approaches to teaching ESL literacy learners. “A common characteristic our learners share is the need for a very kinesthetic and hands-on approach to learning. A lot of the literature talks about developing oral language and oral language awareness first, and I think this is the case, but I think it is in conjunction with hands-on kinesthetic modelling, since this is the mode in which those from more oral cultures have been learning their whole lives. It’s very different from how I learn. I’m a very visual kind of learner, and I’ve had to adapt to teaching in a very kinesthetic, tactile, and auditory mode of learning.”

Shelley added, “We work a lot with developing concepts and strategies as well as language. When I taught mainstream ESL learners, they transferred concepts behind pieces of vocabulary directly from their language into English, so it’s relatively easy. But with these learners, you’re often teaching or deepening the concepts behind vocabulary as well as the vocabulary itself. For example, if I’m teaching the word ‘address’. For somebody who is educated and has lived in places with addresses that word has a deep concept behind it. They might know or assume that the system of how we derive ‘addresses’ in Canada might be slightly different from their country, but they would know that there is a system by which we assign or describe a location through text to another person. Whereas, ESL literacy learners might not have been exposed to this concept before, or have only a very superficial concept of the word ‘address’. They might know they have an address and may even have memorized it orally, but they don’t know what an address is used for. We help them develop the concept of what that word means in addition to teaching the language around it. I think that’s a big piece of learning for people coming into teaching ESL literacy – that we’re facilitating learners to develop or deepen concepts as well as learning the language itself.”

Shelley also emphasized the importance of teaching concepts in context as opposed to the artificially created context of a classroom.

“We’re teaching in probably the most foreign context for them – the classroom, and add to that mix trying to teach concepts completely decontextualized from the place where those concepts are lived. The approach that I always start with is having them experience concepts in real life outside the classroom, or simulate those contexts in the classroom. The learning that they have done in the past has been much contextualized. They would have learned, experienced, and used concepts in the location in which they would have been immediately relevant, practical, and useful. My approach is almost always to start with some kind of hands-on real experience and documenting that experience somehow, for example through photography, videotaping, or re-enactment, and that documentation becoming part of the content that we explore in the classroom.”

IMG_8947_2 (002)“Another thing that these learners don’t have is full print awareness. The best way that I’ve heard it described is, that when you’re reading, what you’re really doing is listening on paper or listening with your eyes, and when you’re writing, what you’re really doing is speaking with your pencil or speaking on paper. And learners don’t have that concept – that they can get information, they can listen through their eyes, or they can speak through their hands with text or pictures they create. I’m trying to help them discover that in this society we listen and speak in this different way a lot – that it is often the most common way we deliver, receive, and recall information.”

Shelley gave me an example that aptly illustrates how an ESL literacy learner can miss the use of text in his environment. “I’ve had learners who are beginning to read independently and could potentially read new words decontextualized from the support of the classroom. But they don’t know to look for text in their environment – they don’t fully know they’re constantly being communicated to in that way. I had one learner, for example, who was working as a cleaner in an office building. He came to school one day with this hand-written note, in large lettering written with a black Jiffy marker: Please clean this table. He said, ‘I just about got fired today.’ He explained it was because an executive had left this large note for him, but he hadn’t noticed it on the table in the room he was cleaning. He didn’t understand that anybody would be giving him instructions that way, so he didn’t keep his eye out for a note like that. He could read that sentence well, but didn’t know to look for it. He came to class that day with the note and asked to say something to the class. He held up the page, and said, ‘Hey everybody, did you know that Canadians talk to you like this?’ It was a ‘light bulb’ moment for him and for the other students, who assumed that bosses would always give instructions to employees orally.”

Shelley’s professional development workshops and webinars are available on the ESL Literacy Network. She also gives in-person workshops sharing her philosophies and ways of working.

Julia Poon has spent the last 30 years teaching in the CEIIA. She shared her personal experience of the shift from teaching mainstream ESL to teaching ESL literacy and how it has shaped her teaching practice.

Part of Julia’s role in the department is doing a combination of summative and formative assessment as well as an informal interview to determine where to place ESL literacy learners.

“While I do give them a reading/writing test, I’m also assessing whether or not they can follow a certain format that I’m sharing. For example, we look at a calendar to see if they can follow it. I notice whether they track from left to right. I use photos and ask them to match them with words. If they have difficulties with spatial awareness, it can be an indicator that they are ESL literacy learners. And of course we talk about their life history, school background, rural or urban – those types of things tell me a lot.”

Network_20121109_ (208) (002)I asked Julia how her teaching practice has changed over the years to meet the needs of these unique learners. She explained, “From my experience working with these learners, I understand that they really need to start with the concrete and not from the abstract. Everything has to be concrete, or what I call experiential learning. They need to do tasks that situate the learning in their real lives. When we focus on storytelling or developing stories, for example, the stories are told by the learners about a shared experience we have had, such as going to the zoo. Another understanding is that these learners need a lot more repetition, hearing or exposure to the same thing over and over in different ways. So I might do things like a song, chant, or story that uses the same words. I also use different media (art and music) to repeat the same vocabulary. And I use manipulatives as much as possible. Moving things around, doing things with their hands and bodies situates the learning in the physical. Kinesthetic learning is really important for these learners. Most importantly, I learned that they need time to absorb things. I learned patience.”

Julia shared one of her more unique learning activities as an example of kinesthetic and experiential learning. “One thing I have done a few times is hold a numeracy sale, which is similar to a garage sale. I asked teachers, everyone, to donate things that they didn’t need. I got the learners in my different classes to decide the prices – that way everyone has an opportunity to price items. They also take turns being the cashier and the supervisor during the sale. The whole activity gives the learners an authentic place to practice the numeracy skills they are learning in class. The money made goes to the student emergency fund. It’s a learning activity that everyone enjoys.” Julia created a video about this activity that is shared on the ESL Literacy Network:

Julia also emphasized the need to be spontaneous and flexible in the classroom. “We can take whatever happens in the class, and create a learning moment. I think those are actually the best lessons. It’s not the ones that are planned perfectly and stick to the agenda. I don’t know if the learners will remember them in the same way. But, for instance, a learner getting stuck in the elevator, as happened one time, can become a big lesson in itself. I’ve become more spontaneous and less attached to lesson plans – although learning outcomes are still a focal point.”

Shelley_and_Julia (002)For Julia, success is measured in small steps and subtle changes. She explained, “It’s those subtleties that make me feel I have made a difference. It’s the little things that I see. Like someone who might be very quiet and shy and in class they don’t want to say anything, but by the end of the term, has come out of their shell and is interacting more and has more confidence. Those are the things that I think really make the big difference to me. But those things sometimes are hard to quantify. When I see them from the beginning of term to the end of term, I notice the little differences in their personality, in the way that they approach things, in how they interact with other learners, how they adjust themselves to fit into the class routine. I think what supports them and helps make them successful in life is these other little things, like knowing how to adapt to a situation and demonstrating effective social skills.”

Some final words

These ESL practitioners are creative, adaptive, and intentional, and they work hard to provide a seamless and supportive learning experience for the more vulnerable ESL literacy learners. Their responsive curriculum can change to meet learners’ requirements. Perhaps most important of all, the ESL literacy learners in these programs are supported to move forward at their own pace, measure and celebrate their progress, and support each other as they learn and practice new skills.

In this series, ESL literacy practitioners working in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College shared their successes and challenges, best practices and approaches, innovations, and professional development needs. Read the other articles posted on the Bow Valley College Adult Literacy Research Institute website at Stories from the Field.

Suggested Resources and Websites

Bigelow, Martha, and Robin Lovrien Schwarz. 2010. Adult English Language Learners with Limited Literacy. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Canadian Language Benchmarks: ESL for Adult Literacy Learners has as its purpose to describe the needs and abilities of adult ESL Literacy learners, and to support instructors in meeting their learning needs.

ESL Literacy Network website is an online community of practice that provides resources and information to support the professional development of ESL literacy practitioners.

Fanta-Vargenstein, Yarden, and David Chen. n.d. “Time Lapse: Cross-Cultural Transition in Cognitive and Technological Aspects – The Case of Ethiopian Adult Immigrants in Israel.” International Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Change Management 10(3): 59-76.

Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm® is the website of Dr. DeCapua and Dr. Marshall, who have published articles and books on MALP® which provide both theory and practice, and contain many examples of lessons and projects for all types of programs and students, including those with limited formal education.

Multi-lingual Minnesota has as its goal to increase access to language learning by providing an online resource center that collects and shares the many language learning activities taking place across the state of Minnesota.

[1] This program is funded by Calgary Learns with funding support provided by Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education.

[2] Computer use is one of the nine essential life skills every individual needs to successfully participate in learning, work, and life as identified by the Government of Canada. The nine skills are: Reading Text, Document Use, Writing, Numeracy, Oral Communication, Thinking, Working with Others, Computer Use, and Continuous Learning. (


ESL Literacy Readers: Igniting a passion for reading in ESL literacy learners

“We do learn to read by reading”
Frank West (cited in Smith and Elley 1997)

I still remember my excitement when I learned to read. The bookmobile came to our school every two weeks and I would take out the full limit of books allowed. By the time the bookmobile returned I had read everything and was eagerly waiting to restock my stash. This early and extensive reading ignited my passion for reading and writing, a passion that still exists today.

Teacher and scholar Alan Maley researched and wrote at length about extensive reading and its benefits for English language learners. He compiled a list of characteristics of extensive reading, which includes the following:

  1. Students read a lot and often.
  2. There is a wide variety of text types and topics to choose from.
  3. The texts are not just interesting: they are engaging/compelling.
  4. Students choose what to read.
  5. Reading purposes focus on: pleasure, information, and general understanding.
  6. Reading is its own reward.
  7. Materials are within the language competence of the students.
  8. Reading is individual, and silent.
  9. The teacher is a role model…a reader who participates along with the students. (Maley 2009)

Simply put, extensive reading is reading a lot and reading for pleasure. The goal is “to create fluency and enjoyment in the reading process” (Clarity 2007).

Ample research evidence supports the benefits of extensive reading. It helps develop learner autonomy; provides massive and repeated exposure to language in context; increases general language competence (writing, speaking skills); develops general, world knowledge; extends, consolidates, and sustains vocabulary growth; improves writing (the more we read the better we write); and creates motivation to read more (Maley 2009).

It is clear that extensive reading would benefit adult ESL literacy learners for all these reasons. For them to begin, the first task would be finding books written at the appropriate levels for this diverse group. And that is where this story opens.

The ESL Literacy Readers Project: Developing resources for ESL literacy learners

Theresa and Joan (2)In early 2010, Theresa Wall and Joan Bruce, ESL literacy practitioners in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College, embarked on an ambitious project: to substantially increase the available reading resources for adult ESL literacy learners. As practitioners they experienced frustration with the lack of suitable reading materials for their learners. And like many practitioners working in the field, they created their own materials from scratch or modified existing materials intended for mainstream ESL learners. Out of this need, an idea emerged: to develop a series of books designed specifically for adult ESL literacy learners that would be openly accessible to practitioners everywhere.

The result was the ESL Literacy Readers project funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. By its end, the project created 40 readers intended to be used in conjunction with theme-based lessons for adult ESL literacy learners.

Theresa described the project’s early days. “When we started this project, there were very few materials available developed for adults who were new to reading. Our goal was to develop books for ESL literacy learners that were appropriate for adult readers. We wanted the characters to reflect the learners in our ESL literacy programs. The books would complement the settlement themes used in LINC[1] classes. We wanted to create something that instructors could use as part of a larger unit in their classroom instruction and that learners would read with support at the beginning, and independently by the end of the unit. We wanted reading to be a successful experience for ESL literacy learners. In the end, the project team wrote eleven to sixteen readers at each of the different levels from introductory to intermediate.”

Readers_ (4) (2)“The entire team of writers and editors were ESL literacy practitioners in Bow Valley College’s ESL Literacy and Practical programs in the CEIIA. In all, there were six writers and the two of us as editors directly involved. Other CEIIA instructors supported the process by piloting the readers in their classes and offering feedback on the stories.” Theresa explained, “Instructors worked in pairs, with two teachers writing for one phase. Some instructors worked together and would meet throughout the process. After writers finished a story, they would send it for editing, where Joan and I would run the stories through all of the criteria we had developed as a team earlier in the process.”

Joan added, “Our purpose was not only developing material for our learners, but also to create exemplars to demonstrate to instructors what they needed to take into consideration when they were developing [their own] materials.”

Readers_ (12) (2)As part of the project, they reviewed other initiatives and related research to gather information about best practices in developing reading materials for new readers. They discovered ongoing work being done in this area at Newcastle University in England. Researchers Young-Scholten and Maguire (2010) found that there was a shortage of non-fiction and fiction books written for the lowest level second language learners. They set up a pilot project to train undergraduate English language and linguistics students to write stories for low level ESL literacy learners. The purpose of their project was two-fold: to educate the student writers about the needs of low literacy English language learners and to increase the availability of books for this population. The pilot eventually led to the Cracking Good Stories project, an ongoing initiative that trains people on how to write books for low literacy ESL learners and contributes to the development of appropriate level books for this learner group.

Incorporating this and other research with the experience of practitioners working in the CEIIA, Theresa and Joan compiled a list of best practices for practitioners to consider in the creation of their own ESL literacy stories, which is included in the ESL Literacy Readers Guide that was written as an accompaniment to the readers:

  1. Choose relevant themes. Learners will understand and better relate to stories that speak to their everyday lives.

It’s so important that the reading material we’re giving our learners to work with is something that is completely relevant, that they can connect to, that has to do with their day-to-day lives, or something that they already have experience with so that the text doesn’t become cumbersome. They are learning to read, learning the reading strategies, learning the vocabulary, learning the syntax, and so adding an unfamiliar topic that potentially has little relevance to the learners’ lives does not support the reading process,” Theresa explained.

  1. Keep vocabulary simple. Stories should consist of vocabulary familiar to learners; only a few new words should be introduced in a reading. Repetition of key words is critical, particularly with lower Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) levels.

“Learners have to be able to read 98% of the surrounding text before they’re able to use context clues so that’s a very high percentage of words that they have to be familiar with in order to use that strategy. I think that’s something that often we don’t realize. It’s just too much of an overload with new words and new concepts, and unfamiliar situations or unfamiliar content. That whole scaffolding piece before they actually get to reading the text is so critical. Whether that’s oral language or work with the new vocabulary and different kind of games and that sort of thing. We need to set them up for success,” Joan emphasized.

  1. Choose fonts carefully. Font type and size are both important. Fonts should be clear, easy-to-read, and larger than in non-literacy materials. At the lower CLB levels, the font used should not contain the script version of ‘a’; however, it should be introduced in the higher levels as it is found in most authentic print.
  2. Include plenty of whitespace. An uncluttered page is critical in stories written for LIFE (learners with interrupted formal education). The amount of whitespace can decrease with higher CLB levels.
  3. Use authentic pictures. Good pictures facilitate comprehension a great deal. The more realistic the pictures are, the more easily learners will interpret them – a photograph is better than a drawing, for example.

(Bow Valley College 2011, 10)

After doing this project, I have a new awareness of how complex the process of reading text is, and what you need to take into account to come up with texts that are meaningful, relevant, level appropriate, and address the learner’s reality. (Joan Bruce, ESL literacy practitioner, personal interview)

The ESL Literacy Readers Guide is intended to assist practitioners in developing lessons for both the pre-reading and post-reading stages. It explains how the 40 stories are organized in levels from introductory to intermediate, and encompass the range of reading skills within each level.[2]

It also explains the importance of themes, and how they were carefully selected in the writing of the stories and recur throughout the different levels. “Theme-teaching allows for a natural progression into practical, real-life extension activities – activities that go beyond the classroom and have a basis in authentic printed material and application in the community” (ESL Literacy Readers Guide 2011). The guide gives suggestions for extension activities corresponding to the themes and using authentic printed materials. Theme topics include food/shopping/money, housing, transportation, employment, leisure, health, school and clothing.

Both the Readers’ Guide and the Readers themselves are freely available and easily downloaded from the ESL Literacy Network.

I asked both Theresa and Joan about the success of the ESL Literacy Readers. Were learners using them and had they improved their skills?

Theresa replied, “I remember one of the things I was excited about was that one of the learners in our class told me she was actually reading her book at home. She had it in her bedroom so when she put her child down to sleep, she’d make some time to read. To me, there were two important pieces to this – first, there was a book she could (and wanted to) read independently, and second, this book was hers to keep and read whenever she wanted to. Now she had the tools to practice reading at home on her own.”

Joan added, “We sometimes also don’t realize the importance of a child seeing their parent read. That it is sending a message to the child that reading is important and that it’s something we enjoy doing. And so having this woman able to read to her child or having books in the home, the effects of that are far reaching because it affects the child and their attitude, and how they feel about reading.”

Some final words

The ESL Literacy Readers project is successful and innovative on many fronts. The Canadian-produced materials are specifically designed and written with the needs of adult ESL literacy learners in mind. The chosen themes are of high interest and pertinent to learners’ lives. The events and issues portrayed are those that a typical learner may experience in their new country. Deng goes to school, Lien buys food, Amir gets sick, and A Problem at Work are only a handful of titles in the 40 stories. An added bonus is that the photos accompanying the stories are of learners at Bow Valley College. Research and experience has shown that the more realistic a photo is, the more easily learners will interpret them and relate to them. The ESL Literacy Readers fill an important need for relevant, interesting adult-oriented reading materials targeted at beginning ESL literacy learners.

This project made it possible for instructor-created materials, developed specifically for ESL literacy learners, to be available to instructors across the country. And for learners to be able to take home and keep these books is a big deal for someone who has not had access to books that are both level appropriate and age-appropriate. (Theresa Wall, ESL literacy practitioner, personal interview)


Bow Valley College. 2011. ESL Literacy Readers’ Guide. Calgary: Bow Valley College, ESL Literacy Network.

Bow Valley College. 2011. ESL Literacy Readers. Bow Valley College, ESL Literacy Network.

Clarity, Mary. 2007. “An Extensive Reading Program for Your ESL Classroom.” The Internet TESL Journal 13(8).

Maley, Alan. 2009. “Extensive reading: why it is good for our students…and for us.” Teaching English Blog (British Council, BBC World Service).

Smith, John W. A. and Warwick B. Elley. 1997. How Children Learn to Read: Insights from the New Zealand Experience. Auckland, New Zealand: Longman.

Young-Scholten, Martha and Margaret Wilkinson. 2010. “The Cracking Good Stories project: Creating fiction for LESLLA adults.” Presented at the EU-Speak Inaugural Workshop, Newcastle, England, November 5-7.

[1] LINC refers to Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada, a program funded by the Government of Canada (

[2] The Canadian Language Benchmarks 2000: ESL for Literacy Learners document informed the development of the ESL Literacy Readers ( This document organized the different ESL literacy levels into phases. It has since been revised, and the organization changed from phases to levels (Canadian Language Benchmarks: ESL for Adult Literacy Learners (ALL), In the near future, the ESL Literacy Readers will be re-organized to reflect the levels outlined in the 2015 document.


One Size Does Not Fit All: Designing Curriculum and Assessment for Adult ESL Literacy Learners

Published Dec 4, 2015

Developing “pathways, programming, services, and curricula design that promote a highly flexible, interactive and supportive environment” for learners is one of Bow Valley College’s Vision 2020 priorities (Bow Valley College 2011b, 15). Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework embodies this principle, and extends it beyond the walls of the College by supporting organizations to create their own customized curriculum tailored to their communities’ and their learners’ needs.Capture_Framework“Curriculum is both planned and lived (Aoki, 2005). The planned curriculum is the formalized curriculum which is developed in response to an understanding of the needs of learners as a group, the needs of your community and the wider environment of which your program is a part. The lived curriculum is the way in which the planned curriculum is addressed in the classroom, as instructors respond to the needs, interests and learning styles of individuals. Understanding curriculum as lived is one way of acknowledging ‘the uniqueness of every teaching situation’ (Aoki, 2005, 165).” (Bow Valley College 2011a [Framework], Introduction, 7).

ESL literacy learners bring diverse strengths and challenges into the classroom. Their life experiences may include war, poverty, and other forms of violence and trauma. Their formal education has been limited or interrupted for many reasons.

As a result of this history, many ESL literacy learners have not developed “the knowledge, skills and strategies that are commonly assumed of adults in Alberta” (Framework, Stage 1, 6). However, they possess remarkable resilience, survival skills, and perseverance. They are genuinely motivated to learn English language and literacy skills so they can participate as full citizens in their new lives in Canada.

This struck me from the very first day I walked into an ESL literacy classroom. As much as possible, leave your assumptions at the door. You don’t really know what people’s backgrounds are, what their skills are, what might be scary for them, or what might be comforting for them. (Katrina Derix-Langstraat, ESL literacy practitioner, personal interview)

Early in 2009, the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College, with funding from the Alberta Government, began developing a curriculum framework intended to provide information, guidance, and a structure that would help adult ESL literacy program administrators, curriculum developers, and practitioners develop responsive programs designed to meet the specific needs of their distinct IMGP2617learners. It was not a “one size fits all” approach, which would be inappropriate and ineffective given that ESL literacy programs are diverse – in location (urban/rural), setting (colleges, community organizations), and learners. Instead, it aimed to provide a thoughtful and considered framework that encouraged practitioners to engage in their own curriculum planning process. Katrina Derix-Langstraat (project lead) and Jennifer Acevedo (project consultant) talked with me about how the Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework took shape.

Katrina began. “The curriculum framework was one stage of a larger project. The other parts were the Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Handbook and the ESL Literacy Network website. The intention was to create a resource that would help programs across the province to develop an ESL literacy curriculum of their own. The resource is intended to support both classroom instructors and program developers. It was meant to give them a place to start.”

The Framework project began with an extensive review of the research and theory in adult ESL literacy and adult first language acquisition. This process also included a review of curricula and curriculum framework models from a variety of resources and countries.[1]

Katrina and Jennifer took a collaborative approach in developing the resource. The Framework project included the formation of an Alberta Advisory Committee comprised of ESL literacy experts and practitioners. This committee provided ongoing feedback throughout the project. Interviews and site visits were conducted at community and educational organizations throughout rural and urban Alberta. As well, experienced ESL literacy practitioners at Bow Valley College contributed their collective expertise and insight.

“There were consultations with different programs and providers across the province. We discussed learner demographics, the learning needs of the learners, as well as practitioners’ perceptions about those needs. These conversations helped to identify emerging themes and trends,” Katrina explained.

Through their research and consultations, Katrina and Jennifer outlined four program contexts of ESL literacy programming for the Framework:

Community orientation and participation in ESL Literacy programs: These programs focus on addressing needs related to the acclimatization stage of the settlement continuum.

Employment ESL literacy programs: These programs provide ESL literacy for the workplace or ESL literacy in the workplace.

Family ESL literacy programs: These programs focus on providing ESL literacy development for parents and children, and also often address parenting skills.

Educational preparation ESL literacy programs: These programs aim to transition learners from ESL literacy to adult basic education programs or other training opportunities.
(Framework, Stage 1, 15)

Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework provides background information and guiding principles for all four of these program contexts and can be easily adapted according to a program’s needs and resources.

Katrina elaborated on the stages of curriculum development. “We came up with a five-part process. Stage1 is understanding needs, both the community’s needs and the learners’ needs. Stage 2 is determining the focus of your program. Stage 3 is about setting learning outcomes. Stage 4 is about integrating assessment for learners. Stage 5 is demonstrating accountability to all stakeholders. It’s not intended to be a linear process. The parts influence each other and there is interplay back and forth. However, if you’re going to design a program, or even as an instructor, these are things you need to think about, and then make decisions based on your learners, your demographics, and what’s possible in your context. It’s not ‘here we did it for you.’ People still need to do a lot of work on their own.”

The Framework also looks at Habits of Mind. Katrina explained, “Habits of Mind are the soft skills, the non-literacy skills that learners need to be successful in school. They are things like setting goals, managing your learning, being prepared for different situations, managing information, and managing your time.” Jennifer added, “Based on conversations with other practitioners, we heard that learners don’t often realize how their behaviour is perceived. We do them a disservice if we don’t try to illuminate aspects of Canadian culture such as expectations at school or at work. We tried to develop a process, a series of questions teachers could draw upon in their classrooms.”

“In the Framework, Habits of Mind is the term used to describe the non-literacy skills that demonstrate the characteristics of successful learners in North American contexts” (Framework, Stage 3, 94). The term draws on the research of Costa and Kallick that identified 16 Habits of Mind[2] that contribute to success in learning and in life. They defined a habit as a behaviour that requires “a discipline of the mind that is practiced so it becomes a habitual way of working toward more thoughtful…action” (Costa and Kallick 2008, xvii).

The Framework focuses on four specific Habits of Mind: resourcefulness, motivation, responsibility, and engagement (Framework, Stage 3, 96). For each of the four, the Framework provides a description of the Habit, a description of the skills that support learners in demonstrating the Habit, considerations for understanding learners’ challenges, considerations for building on learners’ strengths, and a process of skill development that demonstrates each Habit of Mind (Framework, Stage 3, 99). In addition, practitioners are given considerations for assessing these Habits of Mind (Framework, Stage 4, 51-52).

The Importance of Integrating Alternative Learner Assessment

Katrina talked about the importance of assessment. “It’s particularly challenging in this field to make assessment meaningful, purposeful, and transparent. We want to demonstrate accountability to learners and instructors, and to the other stakeholders [funders, administrators]…. One of the reasons we included Habits of Mind is that progress is gradual depending on the learner’s background knowledge and life experiences. We see great growth and progress in learners over the course of a term or a program in these other [soft skill] areas which actually have a huge positive impact on learning…. So including Habits of Mind gave instructors some language and some awareness to capture the progress being made in [these soft skills], because everything, like bringing your glasses to school and knowing when it is appropriate to speak out…makes students more aware of themselves as learners.” Jennifer added, “The learners have an opportunity to practice these skills and make connections with their previous experience…and these skills help them succeed in their daily lives…how to be a student, how to be an employee….”

“Assessment is a transparent, ongoing process of purposefully gathering useful information that directs instruction and enables communication about learning. Effective assessment provides detailed, useful information for instructors, learners and other stakeholders” (Framework, Stage 4, 4). The Framework recommends getting learners involved in the assessment process by:

  • using assessments for different purposes,
  • integrating informal assessment as part of the classroom routine,
  • using a portfolio based language assessment approach, and
  • integrating regular learning conferences [with learners] as an opportunity for communicating about learning expectations, challenges and achievements. (Framework, Stage 4, 6)

The Framework’s philosophy surrounding assessment is congruent with a formative assessment model that requires learners’ engagement and involvement. Practitioners do not just give feedback but engage in a dialogue with students about learning.[3]

Progress for ESL literacy learners is not always straight-forward or linear. The more complex and flexible measurements of success such as personal growth, self-confidence, independence, social connections, and changed attitudes toward life and learning are all ways to measure progress, but are not easily quantified or standardized. Building accountability into each stage of curriculum development helps demonstrate and value the incremental progress made by ESL literacy learners.

Developing skills and personal growth are inextricably linked and equally necessary for foundational learners to make progress. Learners develop skills when they have the self-confidence to take risks and when the experience themselves as learners. They build self-confidence and experience themselves as learners when they develop skills that make a difference in their daily lives at work, at home, and in the community. Including both these components of progress offers the possibility of honouring the whole learner and giving a true indication of progress. (Jackson and Schaetti 2014, 54)

A Success Story

Jennifer shared a successful application of the Framework within her own work. “I took the Curriculum Framework that we designed and used it to successfully create and pilot a curriculum for what we call our ‘Practical Program’ at Bow Valley College. We define ‘practical’ learners as learners with 4 to 9 years of education who already have the very basics of literacy but still need support to develop more learning strategies and literacy skills. These learners benefit from a program designed for their specific needs.”

“The development of the Practical Program curriculum was a huge undertaking as the program consists of nine levels. The curriculum provides instructors with a progression of connected outcomes over these nine levels. The outcomes help instructors measure learners’ progress in small incremental steps across the levels, allowing for spiralling and recycling. Without the Curriculum Framework to support the development of this curriculum, it would have been much more of a challenge to create it. The Curriculum Framework provided a structure and tangible outcomes, not only in reading, writing, listening, and speaking, but in learning strategies and life skills as well. The result is a program curriculum that is able to effectively address the literacy and language needs of learners. Instructors use the Practical Program curriculum for planning, teaching, and assessment, providing learners with a cohesive learning experience across all levels of the program.”

Final Words

Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework is the culmination of well-considered research and the collective expertise of experienced ESL literacy practitioners. It provides an invaluable resource to ESL literacy program administrators, curriculum developers, and practitioners as they engage in the dynamic and ongoing process of developing responsive ESL literacy programming tailored to their learners’ needs.

An effective curriculum is responsive to learner needs and reflects the context in which it operates. Adult ESL literacy programs in Alberta are diverse, serving different learner populations in both urban and rural contexts, in part-time and full-time settings. The ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework addresses this diversity by provided a general process for curriculum development, as well as information for specific program contexts. (


Aoki, Ted T. 2005. “Teaching as In-dwelling Between Two Curriculum Worlds (1986/1991).” In Curriculum in a New Key: The Collected Works of Ted T. Aoki, edited by William F. Pinar and Rita L. Irwin, 159-165. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bow Valley College. 2011a. Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Bow Valley College. 2011b. Vision 2020: Learning Into the Future. A Report to the Community. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Costa, Arthur L., and Bena Kallick (Eds.). 2008. “Describing the Habits of Mind.” In Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Derrick, Jay, Kathryn Ecclestone, and Juliet Merrifield. 2007. “A balancing act? The English and Welsh model of assessment in adult basic education.” In Measures of success: Assessment and accountability in adult basic education, edited by Pat Campbell, 287-323. Edmonton: Grass Roots Press.

Jackson, Candace, and Marnie Schaetti. (2014). Research Findings: Literacy and Essential Skills: Learner Progression Measures Project. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

[1] The Manitoba Adult EAL Curriculum Framework Foundations: 2009 and the Massachusetts Adult Basic Education Curriculum Framework for English Speakers of Other Languages (2005) were influential in developing the resource.

[2] “The Habits of Mind are an identified set of 16 problem solving, life related skills, necessary to effectively operate in society and promote strategic reasoning, insightfulness, perseverance, creativity and craftsmanship.” (

[3] Researchers Derrick, Ecclestone, and Merrifield (2007) list ten best practices in formative assessment:

  1. Make it part of effective planning for teaching and learning, which should include processes for feedback and engaging learners.
  2. Focus on how students learn.
  3. Help students become aware of how they are learning, not just what they are learning.
  4. Recognize it as central to classroom practice.
  5. Regard it as a key professional skill for teachers.
  6. Take account of the importance of learner motivation by emphasizing progress and achievement rather than failure.
  7. Promote commitment to learning goals and a shared understanding of the criteria being assessed.
  8. Enable learners to receive constructive feedback about how to improve.
  9. Develop learners’ capacity for self-assessment so that they become reflective and self-managing.
  10. Recognize the full range of achievement for all learners.


Financial Literacy Month

November is Financial Literacy Month (FLM)[1] and this year’s theme is “Count me in, Canada”, emphasizing the fact that building financial literacy in Canada depends on the involvement and collaborative efforts of the public, private, and non-profit sectors. The first Financial Literacy Month was launched in 2011 with the Financial Literacy Action Group to raise awareness among Canadians about the importance of financial literacy in strengthening an individual’s financial well-being. The purpose of FLM 2015 is to bring organizations and individuals across Canada together to support the National Strategy for Financial Literacy – Count Me In, Canada, which was introduced in June 2015. The strategy’s three goals are to help Canadians:

  • manage money and debt wisely,
  • plan and save for the future; and
  • prevent and protect against fraud and financial abuse.

(Financial Consumer Agency of Canada 2015)

This article in the Stories from the Field series celebrates innovative and responsive financial literacy programming developed by the faculty in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College. Read on to learn more.

Innovative Financial Literacy Programming Helps Newcomers Navigate Canada’s Financial Landscape

I enter an English language learning classroom at Bow Valley College that has been rearranged to look like a classic science fair. The energy and excitement is palpable. Groups of three or four learners are gathered around half a dozen tables. On each table is a tri-fold display, and I catch glimpses of some of the headings: Banking, Saving and Investment, Entrepreneurship, Shopping Wisely. In the classroom across the hall, clusters of two and three learners are gathered around laptop computers participating in PowerPoint presentations on topics related to money and finances. As I walk from table to table, listening to the different presentations, I learn about debt, savings, starting a new business, bank accounts, automated banking machines, budgeting, and the least expensive grocery store (as identified by Bow Valley College ESL learners).

Financial_Literacy_Fair-2015Aug06-1It’s the third annual Financial Literacy Fair hosted by ESL learners in the Bridge and the Youth in Transition (LINC) programs. Both programs serve young adult immigrant learners ages 18 to 24. The students have worked for weeks to prepare for this day.

Research shows that for newcomers, financial literacy is an essential skill for creating a successful life in Canadian society. Research also indicates that financial literacy may be a challenge for many newcomers along with the other settlement concerns they face.

What do we mean by financial literacy?

“Financial literacy means having the skills and knowledge to use money wisely. Being financially literate means having the knowledge to make prudent financial decisions, now and for the future” (Bow Valley College 2010b, 1).

Studies have shown that “upon arrival, and during the first year of settlement, the probability of entering poverty is high among newcomer populations (34% – 46%) and this tendency seems to be increasing. Statistics show that approximately 65% of immigrants experience bouts of low income within the first 10 years in Canada” (Picot, Hou, and Coulombe 2007, cited in SEDI 2008, 3).

While low income is not always connected to low financial literacy, newcomers without access to financial literacy supports are “at greater risk of slipping into further poverty” (SEDI 2008, 3).

Despite the government’s renewed focus on increasing financial literacy for all Canadians, newcomers continue to face unique challenges that require not only innovative and responsive programming, but policy changes within government and financial institutions.

Prosper Canada Centre for Financial Literacy[2] is on the steering committee of the Asset Building Learning Exchange (ABLE), a “national coalition of community practitioners, financial institutions, researchers, policymakers, and funders committed to advancing financial empowerment approaches to improve the financial capability and wellbeing of Canadians living in, or at high risk, of poverty” (ABLE 2014, 1). In a research brief prepared as part of a response to the government’s National Strategy, ABLE identifies some of the systemic and other financial literacy barriers newcomers may experience:

  • public policies/programs that impede positive financial behaviours by people living in low-income (e.g., savings and asset restrictions for social assistance and disability benefit recipients) or fail … to incentivize them to the same extent as other citizens;
  • reliance on unstable, low-wage jobs and other forms of precarious employment;
  • reluctance to access mainstream financial institutions by those who have had negative experiences with financial institutions, either in Canada or in their country of origin;
  • complicated application procedures or lack of clear messaging about eligibility requirements for tax credits and other public benefits to which they are entitled;
  • low levels of literacy and/or numeracy; and
  • limited knowledge of English and/or French.
    (ABLE 2014, 2-3)

In addition, newcomers face unique financial pressures including “financial responsibility for family members in Canada and/or their country of origin; failure to recognize foreign credentials, leading to difficulties securing adequate employment; and the financial burden of repaying refugee transportation loans, relative to typically low levels of income” (ABLE 2014, 5-6).

Financial institutions, community-based organizations and other agencies and individuals who assist newcomers during their initial adjustment period must rise to the challenge and work together to improve the availability of programs and materials that respond to immigrants’ specific needs. (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service 2012, 22)

The Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox: An Innovative response to increasing financial literacy among newcomers

This brings us full circle to the Financial Literacy Fair at Bow Valley College. Ruby Hamm and Heidi Beyer are part of the faculty in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA). They work with young adult ESL learners helping them to develop their reading, speaking, listening, communication skills, and essential skills – including numeracy. Their programs include a focus on the development of financial literacy skills. The Financial Literacy Fair showcases learners’ understanding and comprehension of financial literacy concepts taught throughout the trimester. I spoke with Ruby and Heidi to learn more about this important topic.

Ruby began our conversation by explaining that “in the Youth in Transition program, the end of trimester project this past spring was to host a financial literacy fair for the rest of the young adult immigrant population at the College.”

Heidi described how it comes together. “We have a number of different stations [depending on class size] so some learners are presenting on how to manage a budget and showcasing Microsoft Excel while others are presenting on the use of credit cards, and some learners are presenting on saving money. The students have to build up their own expertise, not only during class time, but out of class as well. They have to go out into community to get information, bring it back, synthesize it, figure out how to explain it to their peers, come up with takeaway information that people can take home, and be prepared to answer any questions. They know learners visiting the fair will have a lot of questions because financial literacy is an area where they have gaps in knowledge.”

For instructors and learners alike, the annual Financial Literacy Fair is a highlight of the school year. The financial literacy learning doesn’t stop there. Heidi and Ruby are also co-collaborators and developers of the Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox, a compilation of innovative resources that practitioners can use to teach financial literacy.

Funded by the Alberta Government, the Toolbox was developed to meet the needs of ESL literacy learners. Specifically, the resource is intended “to support learners with interrupted formal education (LIFE) who are at risk of not completing high school education and transitioning into post-secondary studies or career programs” (Bow Valley College 2010a, 1).

Heidi described the project this way: “Before we started creating the resource, we did a landscape analysis. We realized that not many of the tools we could find were for ESL literacy learners. None of the tools would have worked without being adapted in some way for the classroom so I think that was very much kind of a driving force behind this project. At the end of this project, the Toolbox reflects the collective knowledge of ESL literacy practitioners at Bow Valley College, and provides other practitioners across the country with peer-reviewed lesson plans developed for various literacy levels.”

Ruby shared how they started out in the process to develop the Toolbox. “We got together in early 2009 and started talking about what is it that learners need in order to be successful financially, in order to be able to deal with money in a way that’s really going to move them forward. And we didn’t just talk about it ourselves, we were able to talk with several focus groups. We brought in ESL literacy instructors that taught from beginner to more advanced levels, and asked them, ‘What is it that your learners really need?’ … And we were able to take that information and then decide, okay this is the direction that we need to go with our Toolbox.”

Heidi added, “Not all numeracy gaps can be addressed in classrooms that focus on language development. However, there are some core skills and knowledge that you need to know about money and how to navigate financial systems here in Canada. Fundamentally, we’re ESL literacy practitioners – we’re not math instructors. So our challenge was how do we build a Toolbox that enables a non-math teacher to introduce a numerical concept? We wanted to use what we know is best practice for this audience [practitioners].”

Heidi and Ruby worked together with instructors and learners in the CEIIA to identify gaps in numeracy skills and to develop financial knowledge relevant to the Canadian context. They were grateful that as practising instructors, they could try the new resources out in the classroom and use feedback from the learners to inform the shape and design of the Toolbox.

Ruby highlighted a strength of the Toolbox. “One of the things we did was look at the Alberta curriculum to see what numeracy skills could be taught in the context of financial literacy. Literacy learners don’t necessarily understand numeracy. They may not have a math background so financial literacy concepts may be used to teach the math. For example, decimals can be better understood in the context of money. That way the teaching enhances the understanding of money and of decimals. We worked to ensure that there were connections. In the Toolbox, the financial literacy outcomes and the numeracy outcomes are both present and connected.”

As well as learning a new language and navigating educational pathways, our learners are keen to learn how to make money work for themselves, their families and learn how to make wise financial decisions today and in the future. (Bow Valley College 2010a, 1)

The Toolbox has been highly successful in helping learners understand the meaning of money and move forward financially. Heidi and Ruby shared some success stories.

Ruby recalled, “We were working with a calculator online and I showed a student how to use it. He was a smoker and he started figuring out how much his cigarettes cost and he started plugging in the numbers. He said, ‘Ohhhh, if I quit smoking I could have a car.’ I said, ‘That’s right.’ You know, it’s as simple as that. You need to use your money differently.”

Heidi gave other examples. “The class was learning about budgeting skills. We had built our vocabulary about incoming and outgoing funds and we actually connected it to using Microsoft Excel. And I had one learner who just, wide-eyed, kind of shot up out of her seat and said, ‘I don’t make that much money.’ They had been collecting their receipts in an envelope. And she literally was plugging them into this spread sheet, and she had no idea. That was the first time she made that connection that she was spending more than she actually made. Another learner who worked in a restaurant was walking past her manager’s office, and her manager was struggling with how to make a pie chart in Microsoft Excel. She said, ‘Oh I think I can help you with that,’ and she went in and did it. She stopped working in the restaurant and was promoted to working in the office. Another higher level learner went into the bank with her parents and helped them get a mortgage because she knew where to get her information, she knew the questions to ask, and she understood how the interest would be calculated.”

The Toolbox has been well received locally, provincially, and nationally. To encourage use, the resources are easily accessible on the Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox website, which is part of the ESL Literacy Network, and can be downloaded and adapted to suit diverse learner needs.

Heidi described the reach of the project. “I’ve done numerous presentations on the Toolbox and financial literacy including for Alberta Teachers of English as a Second Language (ATESL) and hosted webinars on the ESL Literacy Network. I was invited to speak with the Further Education Society of Alberta as part of their practitioner training to do a really hands-on workshop to get them started and ready to jump in to teaching financial literacy. ESL organizations from across the country are recognizing the need for financial literacy instruction and have turned to the CEIIA to access support with material and curriculum development.”

The Case for Financial Literacy – Some final words

The financial literacy field has begun to articulate some guiding principles for effective financial literacy interventions aimed at vulnerable groups. In a research report for the Canadian Centre for Financial Literacy, Robson found that financial literacy interventions are most effective when they:

  • offer appropriate, accurate content, tailored to the audience;
  • are delivered by trusted persons;
  • are consistent with principles of adult learning for adult clients; and
  • are embedded in programs with sustainable capacity.
    (Robson 2012, 33)

ESL literacy practitioners are well-placed to successfully deliver financial literacy instruction. The Toolbox materials are designed specifically for ESL literacy learners and offer practitioners a choice of three skill levels for each of 13 themes. They incorporate adult learning principles.[3] Most importantly, the components are intended to be delivered by ESL practitioners and other trusted teaching professionals already working with ESL learners.

Heidi and RubyHeidi ended our conversation with a passionate plea. “There is a real case to build here for having financial and numeracy curriculum as part of early settlement services. Prosper Canada and the Canadian Centre for Financial Literacy have said that 40% of all Canadians lack the basic skills and knowledge to function in the Canadian economy and that’s almost half the country. It’s a very sobering statistic. I think when you’re working with populations that already have additional barriers on top of that, financial literacy is essential. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to have worked on this project because it’s an absolute need for people who are arriving in Canada with literacy and numeracy needs.”

Ruby agreed that financial literacy is an essential skill for all newcomers. “I think that what it really comes down to is that financial literacy is integral to the settlement process. It’s being able to make good financial decisions, being able to be wise in your purchases, and being wise in how you use your money.”

The Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox is an important resource for building financial literacy in new immigrants. However, government agencies, financial institutions, community-based organizations, and educational institutions all have a part to play and need to work together to continue to develop effective initiatives designed to meet the financial literacy education needs of newcomers.



Asset Building Learning Exchange (ABLE). 2014. ABLE 2015 Toward a National Strategy For Financial Literacy. Phase 2: Priority Groups. Consultation Response. Toronto: Prosper Canada.

Bow Valley College. 2010a. “Background.” Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox. Calgary: Bow Valley College, ESL Literacy Network.

Bow Valley College. 2010b.. “What is financial literacy?” Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox. Calgary: Bow Valley College, ESL Literacy Network.

Financial Consumer Agency of Canada. 2015. National Strategy for Financial Literacy – Count Me In, Canada. Ottawa: Government of Canada.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). 2012. Financial Literacy for Newcomers: Weaving Immigrant Needs into Financial Education. Baltimore, Maryland: LIRS.

Robson, Jennifer. 2012. The Case for Financial Literacy: Assessing the Effects of Financial Literacy Interventions for Low Income and Vulnerable Groups in Canada. Toronto: Social and Enterprise Development Innovations (SEDI), Canadian Centre for Financial Literacy.

Social and Enterprise Development Innovations (SEDI). 2008. Financial Literacy: Resources for Newcomers to Canada. Toronto: SEDI.


[2] Prosper Canada Centre for Financial Literacy is a national charity dedicated to expanding economic opportunities for Canadians living in poverty through program and policy innovation. They work with governments, businesses, and community groups to develop and promote financial policies, programs, and resources that transform lives and foster the posterity of all Canadians. (

[3] Adult learning principles include:

Adults must want to learn. They learn effectively only when they have a strong inner motivation to develop a new skill.
Adults will learn only what they feel they need to learn. Adults are practical in their approach to learning; they want to know, “How is this going to help me right now?”
Adults learn by doing. Children learn by doing, but active participation is more important among adults.
Adult learning focuses on problems and the problems must be realistic. Adults start with a problem and work to find a solution.
Experience affects adult learning. Adults have more experience than children. This can be an asset and a liability.
Adults learn best in an informal situation. Often, adults learn only what they feel they need to know.
Adults want guidance. Adults want information that will help them improve their situation or that of their children.



Stories from the Field available now!

Our third volume of Stories from the Field is now available! This volume represents the first 4 articles of this series that explores successes, challenges, best practices and innovation of ESL literacy practitioners. The new volume has already been well received by our followers. This series is a collaboration between the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning (CEFL) and the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA).



ESL Literacy Comes of Age: Developing promising practices in programming and instruction

Published Oct 13, 2015

The field of ESL literacy has come into its own thanks to the dedication and efforts of practitioners and researchers working locally, nationally, and internationally to understand how to best serve this distinct group of learners. The development of best practices in programming and instruction was a natural step in creating a context for working with ESL literacy learners. The Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College played a leading role in researching and developing innovative promising practices.

Early in 2009, the CEIIA embarked on an ambitious project: the research and creation of a practical resource for instructors, program coordinators, and other stakeholders in the field that would give them promising practices in program considerations and strategies for the classroom.

ESL literacy practitioners Valerie Baggaley and Emily Albertsen headed up the research team under the guidance of Diane Hardy. They spoke to me about the project and their process and purpose.

“The ESL Literacy Handbook project, funded by the Alberta Government, was an attempt to gather together the collective knowledge, understanding, and experience of the CEIIA faculty working with ESL literacy learners. Val and I were editors of the book. Val did a huge amount of research and the literature review. I did the bulk of the writing, taking what our many contributors said and writing from there, as well as writing from scratch. The idea for the book was to pull together our accumulated knowledge in one place. I think one of the strengths of the book is its breadth – it is broken into sections such as program considerations and creating programming, and other sections designed for teachers as a resource in the classroom. But I think the most important part of the book was capturing what we have tried and feel are best practices in ESL literacy,” Emily explained.

Orientation May 2010 035Val added, “Even now there isn’t a lot written about ESL learners with low education, but 6 or 7 years ago there was even less…. If you really dig, there is research, but a lot of it is more academic writing than a classroom-based, how-to manual. I feel very privileged I got to work on this because it allowed me to read what other people who work in the field say about ESL literacy, to talk to people working in the field at that time, and then have the time to process and reflect on my own teaching and to go ‘aha’. A lot of what we were doing already was validated. In those early days of teaching ESL literacy, we figured it out as we went. It was trial and error, but it worked. Seeing the research validate what we were doing in the classroom was really reassuring. And it was really exciting to be involved in developing the best practices.”

The project was truly a collaborative one, drawing on the shared knowledge and expertise within the CEIIA, as well as extensive research including a literature review, focus groups held in Alberta and at two national conferences, and a survey of 100 ESL literacy practitioners worldwide. However, the first source of information was the learners themselves and “what they have told us about their lives, needs, and goals, and how they responded to different approaches, theories, practices, and activities…. Our primary intentions are to be true to the needs and goals of our learners and to be useful to instructors.” (Albertsen and Millar 2009, 6)

The project culminated in Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Handbook, a resource intended to be a detailed introduction to program design and instruction in ESL literacy. The first section looks at program considerations; the second section focuses on strategies for the classroom; and the third section looks at the four levels of ESL literacy  (based on the Canadian Language ESL Literacy Benchmarks). The Handbook is meant to be a real world resource: well-used and well-thumbed.

The Handbook has certainly been successful in reaching the wider community of ESL literacy practitioners. Emily elaborated, “We sent out as many complimentary copies as we could all across the country, trying to reach as many programs as we could, and we’ve gotten excellent feedback. It’s even used as a course text.”

Val shared a story about the national reach of the Handbook. “My daughter went to university in Queens and I was out there visiting her…. I was working on another [ESL literacy] project and…I knew there was one program in Kingston where I was so I phoned and asked if I could meet with the person in charge. We met and I was asking her some things about her program. And she said, ‘Well there’s this great book that’s out there, it’s just my bible’, and she pulled it out. And I laughed because it was the ESL Literacy Handbook!”

Val and Emily both spoke passionately about how working on the project validated the teaching practices and work being done in the CEIIA. Val explained, “I was doing the literature review and I loved it. I like research so it was great to go on the internet and pull everything I could find and have the time to examine it. Researchers were describing some of the best practices and I got excited because we were already doing some of this at BVC, and this research echoed what I too felt a program should be to best serve the ESL literacy population. I remember thinking, we got it right!”

Emily agreed. “I think one of the things that I learned was that we were making good decisions with what we were doing in our classrooms, what kind of programs we were trying to create. This project gave me confidence in articulating why it is that we do what we’re doing. And I think in seeing what other people are doing and in seeing research that supports us, it gave us the confidence to say we are making some good decisions about what we do. I began to understand our place within an international community of ESL literacy…. That was a big piece of learning for me. It took me out of my classroom to see a much, much bigger picture.”

Bow Valley College’s work is recognized within LESLLA (Low Education Second Language and Literacy Acquisition) for Adults, an international community of researchers and practitioners working to increase the knowledge about low literacy second language learners and inform practice.[1]

What are promising practices in ESL literacy programming?

Based on the results of the project’s extensive research both in the literature and with experienced practitioners, the Handbook outlines eight promising practices prevalent in programs of excellence.

  1. ESL literacy is recognized as a distinct stream of classes, separate from mainstream ESL and from mainstream literacy.

As discussed in the first story in this series, learners with interrupted formal education have unique learning needs and challenges. Experience and research suggest that these learners do not thrive in mainstream ESL classes. Having a separate stream of classes helps ESL literacy learners “progress through classes where their specific learning needs are addressed” (Handbook, 354).

  1. The ESL literacy stream is comprised of a series of classes progressing in small increments along the literacy continuum.

Theorists and practitioners support a series of ESL literacy classes which progress in small increments. In its ESL literacy programs, Bow Valley College uses the standards set out in the Canadian Language Benchmarks 2000; classes are organized around stages within in each of four phases (Foundation, I, II, III). This means that there is a Foundation Phase class, a Phase 1 Initial class, a Phase 1 Developing class and so on. Learners progress through each distinct phase, acquiring the skills and strategies, before moving on to the next. Progress can be slow. Having small increments allows this progress to be observed and measured, and enables the learner, practitioner and funder to honour the progress being made (Handbook, 355).

  1. The ESL literacy program offers higher-level ESL literacy classes.

ESL literacy learners in Phase III may have higher literacy skills and higher oral skills and are sometimes overlooked and misplaced in either mainstream ESL classes or mainstream Adult Basic Education. They lack the literacy skills needed to cope with the textual demands of an academic class and get left behind.

These advanced learners still require the “scaffolding and explicit strategy instruction found in ESL literacy classes”[2] to help to develop their strategies for higher level concepts such as” inference, identifying main ideas, summarizing, and writing” (Handbook, 357).

  1. The program provides professional development opportunities for instructors.

A program of excellence provides training specific to ESL literacy to all practitioners in the ESL literacy stream, ongoing professional development, and opportunities for practitioners to engage with one another on relevant topics. “Instead of placing the inexperienced or those lacking seniority into the ESL literacy classroom, a program of excellence places instructors highly trained in ESL literacy into these demanding classrooms” (Handbook, 358).Research shows that ”the most successful teachers were trained and experienced in both language and literacy education, adapted their curriculum as needed, and were culturally aware” (Millar 2008, cited in Centre for Literacy of Quebec 2008, 5).

  1. Instructors are allotted time to make materials.

There is a general lack of suitable materials available to teach adult ESL literacy. This means practitioners must modify existing materials or create their own. In addition, materials “must be related to the learners’ skills, interests and personal surroundings” (Ontario Literacy Coalition 2007, 28). Consequently, practitioners are constantly creating teaching materials tailored to learners’ changing requirements.. A program of excellence recognizes that instructors require additional prep time to create their own materials and builds this time into the program (Handbook, 358).

  1. There is a program into which the learners can transition.

ESL literacy learners need viable and clear pathways to transition into once they have completed the ESL literacy stream programming. At Bow Valley College, these options can include mainstream ESL, mainstream adult basic education, upgrading, further learning, workplace skills training programs and employment.

  1. There is a numeracy component in the instruction.

Numeracy is an essential skill every bit as important as reading and writing. In an ESL literacy numeracy program, “it is important to teach both the language of math as well as the concepts” (Handbook, 359). A future article in this series will focus on the importance of teaching financial literacy to ESL literacy learners. The Financial Literacy Toolbox, available on the ESL Literacy Network, is a great resource of lesson plans and ideas for teaching this.

  1. There is support for the program and for the learners.

An ESL literacy program of excellence requires stable funding and full administrative support in order to be successful. This includes dedicated funding for professional development, resources, and materials.

Broader life supports for learners may include mental health and career counselling, information about affordable housing options, subsidized childcare, assistance in accessing financial aid, scholarships and awards, and referrals to appropriate community resources.

A specific type of classroom support for ESL learners is ‘access to first language’. The What Works Study found that “in classes where teachers used the native language as part of instruction to clarify and explain, students exhibited faster growth in both reading comprehension and oral communication skills” (Condelli and Wrigley 2008, 17). The Handbook suggests two ways of addressing first language support: having a person come in once or twice a week to translate important concepts; and using a student mentorship model, where learners from higher level ESL classes are paired up with learners in the lower level classes who speak the same language. This model has proven successful on two levels: providing bilingual support for the learners, and offering volunteer opportunities for the student mentors (Handbook, 361).

“ESL literacy teaching could be defined as supporting adults with little English and little formal education in their efforts to understand and use English in its many forms (oral and written, including prose, document, and quantitative literacy), in a variety of contexts (family, community, school, work), so that they can reach their fullest potential and achieve their own goals, whether these be personal, professional or academic.”(Wrigley and Guth 2000, 14)

What are promising practices in the classroom?

The Handbook project also compiled information on promising practices in the classroom and this resulted in the identification of the following six elements:

  1. Learning must be learner-centred, meaning-based, and linked to the community.

“Literacy instruction for those who are non-print literate should be part of a larger vision in which learners’ lives, oral culture, and other skills and knowledge are all part of the curriculum and classroom. There is a high degree of consensus in the literature that classroom learning for the non-print literate should have a highly functional, personal focus – more so for them than for other adult language learners” (Bigelow and Schwarz 2010, 14).

The Handbook project found similar practices to be effective. Using authentic materials found in the learners’ lives is one way of making literacy meaningful. They also recommend using realia (actual objects, such as coins, fruit, cooking utensils) instead of images (line drawings, pictures), as they help make the connections more real (Handbook, 361). Going into the community for walks and on field trips are other ways that help connect learning to real life.

  1. Learning is repeated and recycled.

“A classroom of excellence recycles the material and concepts each day and over time, thus enabling learners to fully incorporate this new knowledge and make it their own” (Handbook, 362). Many of the practitioners I spoke to for this series of stories talked about the ongoing need, and challenge, to come up with different ways to present the same concepts.

“Having a central theme for classroom activities provides many opportunities to repeat, reinforce and recycle the previous sessions’ learning. Learners’ familiarity, understanding and confidence increases when new information is recycled or repeated” (ESL Literacy Network n.d., recycling).

Recycling can extend beyond one class. BVC practitioners explained that concepts are recycled through the different phases in the curriculum so learners will encounter the same concepts in their next level class.

  1. There is a large dedicated classroom for each ESL literacy class.

Researchers recommend large spaces dedicated solely to teaching ESL literacy (Cummings et al. 2007). This way, practitioners can create a stimulating learning environment with walls covered in print rich material, and store realia and authentic materials for use when required. Unfortunately, this is not always possible as many classrooms are shared spaces. For example, the Pebbles in the Sand program, run by the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, takes place in mostly donated spaces (church halls and rooms) and the practitioners bring the classroom in a rolling suitcase (Loschnig 2014, 40). Practitioners at Bow Valley College also bring their own authentic materials and learning aids moving them from classroom to classroom as needed.

  1. Class size is limited.

The Handbook project found agreement among the literature, survey respondents, and practitioners that ESL literacy learners require an individualized approach, which creates greater demands on teacher time. “A classroom of excellence needs to be small enough to address the demands of these learners who have limited ability to work independently” (Handbook, 363). In one study, expert teachers recommended 10 to 15 students for an optimum class size. The numbers should not exceed 15, and numbers above 10 should be supported with a second teacher or trained volunteer (McPherson 2007, 4).

  1. There is specific oral and vocabulary development.

In a classroom of excellence, learning is done first in the oral before it moves to the written. “Because LIFE[3] are oral learners, it is important that they have oral control over the material before it is introduced in writing” (Handbook, 363). Practitioners can help learners develop oral skills by recycling vocabulary through chanting, singing, and using rhymes and drama (Handbook, 363). The literature supports this approach.

“Adult learners from high-oracy cultures not only bring with them adult cognitive and social capacities, but also a particular set of well-developed strategies for learning. Consequently, such learners may benefit from classroom learning that includes opportunities for: repetition and memorisation; rhythmic activities such as clapping, chanting, poetry, and singing; and ‘imaginative’ texts such as stories and poetry” (Achren and Williams 2006, p.1).

Val shared a story about the value of chanting and repetition. “We had practiced a greeting chant and we were out on a field trip. A stranger said hello to my learner and the learner responded just perfectly from the chant, the woman must have said ‘how are you’ and the learner said ‘I’m fine thank you and you?’ And the way she said it was exactly from the chant. I knew because she didn’t just monosyllable a word or anything. That’s a learner success.”

  1. There is a focus on strategies for reading, writing, and learning.

“In a classroom of excellence, the instructor explicitly teaches strategies for reading, writing, and learning, and spirals them throughout the learning” (Handbook, 364). Strategies can include asking the instructor for help, word-attack strategies, and brainstorming ideas before writing. “Learning strategies help learners become more successful in reading, writing, language learning, and test-taking. They also help learners to become more effective language users and learners both inside and outside the classroom, and help them prepare for the demands of post-literacy study” (Leong and Collins, 2007, p.125).

The ESL Literacy Network section on Strategy Instruction gives practitioners practical ideas for incorporating explicit strategy instruction into teaching. As well, Bridging the Gap, a framework for teaching and transitioning low literacy immigrant youth, has a section and toolbox to help practitioners integrate strategy instruction into their curriculum.

“Teaching at its heart is about communication because it’s saying something in a way that somebody can understand you, and listening to what it is that they are saying, and bringing those two together as best you can.” (Emily Albertsen, interview)

Some Final Words

2015Sep2-Emily-Val-1“This project was about helping practitioners gain the knowledge, the skills, and the resources to create a [positive] learning environment for ESL literacy students…. I think everybody who teaches in our programs uses the things we’ve talked about in here. It’s a book for teachers on how to be better teachers,” Emily summed up.

Val felt it was important to add, “All of our students have an amazing amount of skills. They’re adults and they come as a full package, but often our society just sees their deficits. We recognize their strengths.”

The ESL Literacy Handbook provided a first step in attempting to pull together the knowledge from both experienced practitioners and the ongoing research in the ESL literacy field, nationally and internationally. For Emily and Val, and the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement, it serves as a jumping off place for further exploration in and out of the classroom in their mission to better serve ESL literacy learners.

“ESL literacy remains a challenging field, but there are clear directions in which we can develop in order to best serve our learners and help them thrive in school, in employment, and in the community…. We hope to build on this learning and to support the continued development of communities of practice in ESL literacy” (Albertsen and Millar 2009, 364).


Achren, Lynda, and Alan Williams. 2006. Fact Sheet – Learners with low literacy in the AMEP. Australia: Adult Migrant English Program Research Centre, La Trobe University.

Albertsen, Emily, and Valerie Millar, editors. 2009. Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Handbook. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Archer, Anita, and Charles Hughes. 2011. Explicit Instruction: Effective and Efficient Teaching. New York: The Guilford Press.

Bigelow, Martha, and Robin Lovrien Schwarz. 2010. Adult English Language Learners with Limited Literacy. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. 2015. Canadian Language Benchmarks 2000: ESL for Literacy Learners. Ottawa: Author.

Centre for Literacy of Quebec. 2008. ESL and Literacy: Finding Common Ground, Serving Learners’ Needs. A survey of the literature. Montreal: Author.

Condelli, Larry, and Heide Spruck Wrigley. 2008. “The What Works Study: Instruction, Literacy and Language Learning for Adult ESL Literacy Students.” In Tracking Adult Literacy and Numeracy Skills: Findings from Longitudinal Research, edited by S. Reder and J. Bynner. London & New York: Routledge.

Cummings, Jill, Mark Jacot, and Adriana Parau. 2006. An Investigation of Best Practices in the Instruction and Assessment of LINC Literacy Learners in Ontario. Toronto: Jangles Productions, Ontario LINC Literacy Project.

ESL Literacy Network. (n.d.) “Theme Teaching Strategies.”

Folinsbee, Sue. 2007. LINKAGES: Connecting Literacy and English as a Second Language. Discussion Paper: What do we know about the Connections between Literacy and English as a Second Language in Canada? Ottawa: Movement for Canadian Literacy.

Geronimo, Jojo, Sue Folinsbee, and Jacinta Goveas. 2001. A Research Project into the Settlement Needs of Adult Immigrants with Limited Literacy in their First Language who have Settled in the Greater Toronto Area. Toronto: Canadian Multilingual Literacy Centre.

Leong, M and Collin, L. 2007. Bridging the gap: A framework for teaching and transitioning low literacy immigrant youth. Calgary, AB: Bow Valley College.

Loschnig, Sandra. 2014. Stories from the Field: Professional Development for Adult Literacy Practitioners (Vol. 2). Calgary: Bow Valley College.

McPherson, Pamela. 2007. Fact Sheet 10: Course planning for preliterate and low-literacy learners. Australia: AMEP Research Centre. Macquarie University.

Ontario Literacy Coalition. 2007. Creating a bridge: A snapshot of ESL Literacy in Ontario. Toronto: Author.

Wrigley, Heide Spruck, and Gloria J. A. Guth. 2000. Bringing Literacy to Life: Issues and Options in Adult ESL Literacy. Prepared for the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.

[1] “LESLLA (Low Education Second Language and Literacy Acquisition) for Adults brings together researchers and practitioners from many countries to establish an international and multi-target-language research agenda. During annual symposia and information sharing throughout the year, LESLLA participants will increase the body of knowledge and outline areas of research that require investigation for low-educated second language learners.” (

[2] “Explicit strategy instruction is characterized by a series of supports or scaffolds, whereby students are guided through the learning process with clear statements about the purpose and rationale for learning the new skill, clear explanations and demonstrations of the instructional target, and supported practice with feedback until independent mastery has been achieved.” (Archer and Hughes 2011, 1)

[3] Learners with Interrupted Formal Education.


Celebrating Essential Skills Day: Digital literacy is an essential skill for ESL literacy learners

Published Oct 13, 2015

Friday, September 25, 2015 is the sixth annual Essential Skills Day, initiated by ABC Life Literacy Canada[1] to raise awareness about the importance of workplace literacy and essential skills training. The nine essential skills[2] are the foundation for all other skills and learning, helping people to evolve and adapt as their communities and workplaces change. In this article in the Stories from the Field series, we celebrate an innovative program at Bow Valley College that is increasing the digital literacy skills of ESL literacy learners one laptop computer at a time.

What exactly does digital literacy mean?

“Established and internationally accepted definitions of digital literacy are generally built on three principles:

  • the skills and knowledge to access and use a variety of digital media software applications and hardware devices, such as a computer, a mobile phone, and Internet technology
  • the ability to critically understand digital media content and applications
  • the knowledge and capacity to create with digital technology.”

(Media Awareness Network 2010, p. i)

In other words, digital literacy is much more than being able to use a cell phone or watch a video on the internet. It is having the technical skills to use computers and the internet, being able to understand, contextualize, and evaluate media, and finally, being able to create or produce content to effectively communicate to different audiences (e.g., resumes or homework assignments). Digital literacy is the key to being able to participate fully in Canadian society and access opportunities for ongoing learning, employment, and community life.

“By promoting the digital literacy development of learners through the curriculum, teachers are able to contribute to enhancing their potential for participation in digital media. This means enhancing young people’s ability to use digital media in ways that strengthen their skills, knowledge and understanding as learners, and that heighten their capacities for social, cultural, civic and economic participation in everyday life.” (Hague and Williamson 2009, 28)

Using Technology to Learn and Learning to Use Technology: Transforming Teaching and Learning Practices at Bow Valley College

It is the first week of classes in the Bridge program at Bow Valley College. Mohammed, an ESL literacy student, is just starting his first term. He is happy to learn that he will be receiving a laptop computer of his own to use while in the Bridge program. He eagerly signs it out and carefully carries it home excited about exploring this (new to him) tool. Mohammed is one of over 60 learners in Bridge who will be receiving laptops this trimester as part of the program.[3]

The Bridge program serves immigrant youth between the ages of 18 and 24 with interrupted formal education. They are ESL learners and literacy learners, working on improving their skills in reading, writing, learning strategies, and essential skills. The goal of the program is to help learners identify and transition into the next step in their educational or occupational pathways. These may include adult basic education, high school upgrading, secondary education, or workplace training. Bow Valley College’s Vision 2020[4] document articulates and supports the development of these kinds of seamless learning pathways for lifelong learners.

Network_201404_ (5)While the Bridge program is highly original itself as a state-of-the-art transitioning program,[5] a key innovation within the program is the distribution of laptops to each learner and their incorporation into the curriculum.

Daniel Merryfield and Donald Morris, ESL literacy practitioners who teach in the Bridge program, have been instrumental in implementing the laptop program. I recently spoke to them to find out more about how the program works and how it has affected teaching and learning.

Don started the conversation. “With the introduction of laptops in 2013, our approach to teaching has changed. The expectations, the way we present things, the way we work, the way learners manage work, all that has changed. And it continues to change. As the laptop program develops so does our understanding of how to best use laptops in the program.”

Dan described how the laptop program works. “We give the students a laptop the first or second week of the term and they keep it. While the learners have the laptops, they are their responsibility. The main goal of this program is to get our learners comfortable using computers and prepared for academic upgrading or other pathways. Many of our learners come with very little exposure to technology…when I say technology what I mean is using a computer, say a laptop or a tablet. The exposure they’ve had is basically through cell phones and social media so they’re quite comfortable using things like Facebook… And as literacy learners, they are still learning to read and write. If they were given an assignment in the first week of classes that involved writing something, typing it and emailing it, many learners would struggle because they don’t have the literacy or the technology skills to complete this task.”

Bow Valley College utilizes D2L (Desire to Learn), an online teaching and learning platform,[6] as part of its commitment to ‘learning anytime anywhere’. This becomes especially relevant within the laptop program.

Don explained how the two work together. “With D2L, learners are able to access the work that we have in the classroom and everything is very organized for them. It’s easy for them to find the work that they need to do, to submit their homework, to communicate with their classmates, or to communicate with the instructor. It’s a very good platform. In my classroom, the way I use D2L has changed a lot of things. For example, in paragraph writing, the first draft would be done in writing and then I’ll correct it, and give it back to them. Learners use Microsoft Word to do their second draft and send me their file through D2L. I look at their second draft and either give them a printed copy or send it back to them through D2L. Everything we do in the classroom, whether it’s a paper copy or electronic copy, I put up onto D2L so they have easy access to it.”

Dan added, “Teaching and learning responses to D2L have been very positive. It serves as a repository of all our work. We have midterms approaching next week and my learners can access every reading that we’ve done, they can access all the vocabulary words, they can access all the writing assignments as well. They have that copy, that’s always there. And as for teaching, I’ve saved all of the learning materials each trimester, so I can go back three trimesters and see what I did, the readings are all right there. So it’s a great tool for organizing…. It’s an extension of our classroom.”

Bridge has four levels: Intermediate, High Intermediate, Advanced, and Advanced Transition. They correspond roughly to Canadian Language Benchmarks 2-6. Learners work through the different levels, moving on to the next when they have achieved competency in a given level. They may repeat levels if necessary. Upon completion of the Advanced Transition level they will have met the requirements to transition to Adult Basic Education or Upgrading. The expectations of what the students can do with technology (laptops and D2L) increase in difficulty as the learners work their way up through the levels of the Bridge program.

Success Stories

Don described some of the successes he has seen coming out of the laptop program. “We see a lot of success stories of our learners who have moved on to Upgrading or into Career programs, or who are actually working now…. We have alumni coming back to the program and saying how much it meant to them in preparation for their education or in their jobs. …Because when they go into a career program, they’re expected to know how to use Microsoft Office, they should know how to use Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Publisher, applications like that. So with the laptop program, we use technology to learn but we also learn to use technology in the classroom.  You can see a lot of transferable skills. The fact that they are now able to use applications such Microsoft Word or PowerPoint gives them confidence and gives them more opportunities.  I believe, for the younger generation like our learners, technology is a necessary tool. Without it, it’s a definite hindrance to whatever career or educational path they want to take.”

Dan added, “I’ve had students come back to me quite happy, quite pleased because they were able to apply online for a job. If I walk into a store with a resume they’re going to tell me go to the website. For our learners this was an access issue. They were being shut out of certain jobs, and the opportunity to even get into some industries. But now they’re more comfortable being online and they’re more comfortable using a computer. The task of filling out a resume is one skill but the task of filling out a resume online is another skill and it was too much for them. They feel empowered that they can go online, they can put it in their application and for them it’s quite rewarding. We’re talking about literacy and digital literacy for our students.”

“Literacy in the year 2015 includes digital literacy. Quite often people make the assumption, they’re young so they know how to use computers. And when learners don’t have those skills, they feel they’re being shut out from a lot of opportunities. Being able to read and write also means being able to read and write online, there’s a lot more involved in it than just simply pen and paper.” – Dan Merryfield

Access to Technology and the Digital Divide

When we talk about digital literacy and participation in our digital society, it’s important to acknowledge the effects social and economic class have on accessing opportunities. According to a 2010 Statistics Canada report, socioeconomic factors are the most significant barriers to increasing digital literacy among adults, and the digital divide is significant in Canada. It reports that 94% of individuals in the top income bracket (above $85,000 per year) used the internet while only 56% of those in the lowest income bracket (less than $30,000 per year) report internet use (Statistics Canada 2010, cited in Greig and Hughes 2012, 20). Greig and Hughes go on to suggest “one way forward would be to increase and expand publicly funded digital literacy classrooms and spaces that afford those adults in most need open access to the Internet and rich, ongoing opportunities to develop digital literacy skills” (20).

Dan concurs. “One thing we learned as a program is a lot of our learners had difficulty accessing the internet at home due to the cost. It’s just too much money. At one point half my class didn’t have internet service at home due to the cost. When we put things online I always tell my learners that they can access it at BVC or in the Calgary Public Library. A take away from that is that having public WiFi and having free Wifi in institutions like Bow Valley College becomes very critical.”

One final aspect of access needs to be emphasized. Traditionally, learners attend a computer class once or twice a week and have access to computer labs in between classes. It can be difficult for ESL literacy learners to access technology independently. There is a world of difference between learning how to use technology in a lab once or twice a week, and actually putting a laptop computer into learners’ hands for them to have and to work on for the duration of the program. The laptop program not only provides the hardware, but also provides the instructional support needed to increase learners’ digital literacy skills within the context of learning language and numeracy skills.

Something to Consider in Implementing a Laptop Program

Don shared an important learning from the program. “I think we realized that in order to introduce a program like this, you need a larger community behind you. And what that means is you’re going to need the financial support to pay for these laptops and as the program is growing, to buy additional laptops. You also need IT support, because you can’t expect the instructors to be IT specialists. We also have people who help distribute the laptops at the beginning of the term and collect them [at the end]. We learned that you need a big team and a lot of support behind you in order to make this program a successful one.”

Dan agreed. “We’re very fortunate that Bow Valley College is the size that it is and that we have the IT infrastructure like D2L. We also have an IT team to support us…. I think a smaller school or smaller provider would have to invest a sizeable amount to have the hardware, enough WIFI, and the IT support.”

Some Final Words

Don concluded by saying, “I think where we are in the Bridge program, having this laptop program, we are in some respects on the forefront of what’s happening in technology for young adult learners…. I also think our main purpose is to share what we’re doing…and how successful it is and how useful it is and we hope by doing things like webinars and communicating with a larger audience, that it will spread.”[7] 

It is clear that digital literacy is an essential skill in the 21st century. ESL literacy practitioners Donald Morris and Daniel Merryfield, and their colleagues in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement, successfully demonstrate the many benefits of introducing laptop computers into the curriculum. The laptop program used in conjunction with the D2L learning platform provides an effective and innovative way to help young adult immigrant learners prepare for life in a digital world.


Daniel Merryfield and Donald Morris, ESL literacy practitioners who teach in the Bridge program at Bow Valley College.

“…the computer is not a toy; it is the site of wealth, power and influence, now and in the future. Women and indigenous people and those with few resources cannot afford to be marginalised or excluded from this new medium. To do so will risk becoming information poor. It will not be to count; to be locked out of full participation in society in the same way that illiterate people have been disenfranchised in a print world.” (Spender 1995, quoted by Moriarty 2011, 15)


Greig, Christopher, and Janette Hughes. 2012. Adult Learners and Digital Media: Exploring the Use of Digital Media with Adult Literacy Learners. Toronto: AlphaPlus. Retrieved from

Hague, Cassie, and Ben Williamson. 2009. Digital Participation, Digital Literacy, aAnd School Subjects: A Review of the Policies, Literature and Evidence. Bristol, UK: Futurelab. Retrieved from

Media Awareness Network. 2010. Digital Literacy in Canada: From Inclusion to Transformation. A Submission to the Digital Economy Strategy Consultation. Ottawa, ON: MediaSmarts. Retrieved from

Moriarty, Maria. 2011. Finding Our Way: Digital Technologies and E-Learning for Adult Literacy Students, Educators and Programs Literature Scan: 2005-2011. Toronto: AlphaPlus. Retrieved from


[2] The Government of Canada has identified nine essential skills needed for the learning, life, and work: reading, writing, document use, numeracy, computer use, thinking, oral communication, working with others, and continuous learning. ABC Life Literacy Canada provides a good summary description of these on their website (

[3] The College distributes 150 laptops each trimester to learners in Bridge and the Youth in Transition program.

[4] Vision 2020: Learning into the Future: A Report to the Community is Bow Valley College’s blueprint for programming directions (

[5] Bridging the Gap: A Framework for Teaching and Transitioning Low Literacy Immigrant Youth reports on the development of the program and describes the “key elements of a successful transition program for young adult literacy learners who have exited high school but are still in need of focused literacy training in order to transition to further educational studies or workplace training” (

[6] “D2L allows you access to course materials, assignments, quizzes, grades, calendar, email and class discussions using the internet.”

[7] In Spring 2014, Don Morris, Dan Merryfield, and Emily Albertsen, another faculty member in the laptop program, presented a webinar titled Learning with Technology on how they integrate technology into the curriculum. This and other professional development webinars are posted on the ESL Literacy Network website.


September 8th is International Literacy Day!

Today we celebrate UNESCO International Literacy Day (ILD) with our latest Stories From the Field article ‘ESL Literacy Learners Engaging with their Communities’.

This new series of articles is a collaboration between the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning (CEFL) and the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA).

UNESCO has been at the forefront of global literacy efforts since its foundation in 1946.

The UNESCO declaration states:

Literacy is a human right and the basis for lifelong learning. It empowers individuals, families and communities and improves their quality of life. Because of its “multiplier effect”, literacy helps eradicate poverty, reduce child mortality, curb population growth, achieve gender equality and ensure sustainable development, peace and democracy.

In today’s rapidly-changing, knowledge based societies where social and political participation takes place both physically and virtually, acquisition of basic literacy skills and the advancement and application of such skills throughout life is crucial.

UNESCO’s policy today is to support the promotion of literacy and literate environments as an integral part of lifelong learning and to keep literacy high on national and international agenda. Through its worldwide literacy programmes, advocacy work and knowledge base, the Organisation works with countries and partners to realize the vision of a literate world for all. 

UNESCO’s overall approach to literacy for all encompasses the following: building strong foundations through early childhood care and education; providing quality basic education for all children; scaling-up literacy programmes for youth and adults who lack basic literacy skills; and developing literate environments. (


ESL Literacy Learners Engaging with their Communities 

Celebrating International Literacy Day, Sept. 8, 2015


Since 1966, UNESCO has celebrated International Literacy Day to remind the international community that “literacy is a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning. It is fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives. For individuals, families, and societies alike, it is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s heath, one’s income, and one’s relationship to the world” (UNESCO 2015a).

This year’s theme is Literacy and Sustainable Societies. “Literacy is a key driver for sustainable development. Literacy skills are the prerequisite for the learning of a broader set of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values, required for creating sustainable societies”(UNESCO 2015b).

The ESL literacy programming at Bow Valley College aims to provide learners with interrupted formal education (LIFE) with both the literacy and the life skills they need to be successful in their lives within a variety of contexts: home, further education, employment and the community at large.

One innovative program in particular is focused on developing these important ‘soft skills’ – helping ESL literacy learners build their self-confidence and increase their engagement with their community. The Bridge Leadership Program is targeted at youth between 18 and 25 years of age. The learners work on building their skills in areas such as checking in and checking out, active listening, managing anxiety and nervousness, giving and receiving feedback, clarifying information and messages, initiating social contact and conversation, and refusing requests (Westwood and Pearson 2005, 3).

I spoke to Kelty Christensen, Learner Engagement Officer at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement at Bow Valley College, to learn more.

She explained how the program evolved. “Prior to coming into the position there was a Leadership program in existence whereby students would engage in different school and class activities to enhance leadership skills. I realized that there was a definite desire for students to be involved and to learn more practical hands-on skills that would support them not only in their schooling but within their community and work life. The leadership program grew out of that need. The Bridge Leadership program has evolved over time. The intent is to increase learners’ communication skills and their levels of self-confidence in public speaking, and by building these skills have more success within their school setting, their life and their community. I found that they had the most success and the most impact when those skills could be applied to real life situations. As I worked with this group of immigrant youth, I realized that they were intimidated by their lack of English, and yet still really wanted to get involved in their communities. They didn’t know how to get started, and they didn’t know how to gain skills to promote their success. There are many barriers that prevent learners from doing that, prevent them from understanding how to get involved, and how to learn those skills. They wanted to engage in leadership activities and improve their communication skills, which is why they gravitated towards this leadership program. It runs each semester for approximately 12 weeks. The program varies each semester and allows different learners from the Bridge program to have the opportunity to become involved.”

The demand for the leadership program has steadily increased as the numbers of learners in the Bridge Program has increased. Currently, 24 learners enter the program each trimester. Participants meet once a week to go over different topics and learn interpersonal and communication skills using a sociocultural competency training model.

The course culminates in a community engagement piece that varies each semester. Kelty explained: “During the course, we focus on presentation skills, communication skills, confidence building, and intercultural competency. These are the kinds of skills that the learners can use in multiple facets of their lives. At the end of the 12-week period they participate in a community engagement opportunity – engaging not only within our College community, but within the greater Calgary community. The program helps the learners gain self-confidence so that they can turn around and access community volunteering opportunities on their own. They reflect on their experience and how it has changed them, and how they can take the skills they’ve learned forward.”

Learners choose organizations based on their passion and interest. One past community engagement project  included working with Operation Christmas Child[1]; the learners volunteered in the warehouse, filling and checking the shoeboxes before shipment. In another project, the learners organized and participated in a learner-led orientation for all of the English Language Learning students when they moved from the classrooms at Rocky Mountain Plaza to the newly expanded Bow Valley College. Working in groups of three, the leadership program participants provided tours of the North and South campuses for over 600 students to orient them to their new location.

Over the past six years, leadership program participants have worked with the Mustard Seed, the Calgary Drop-In Centre, the Calgary Food Bank, the Calgary Children’s Festival, Brown Bagging for Children and the Royal Bank Pennies for Water campaign. “Often, after learners leave the program, they get involved in volunteering in other capacities, either through Propellus[2] or other volunteer organizations,” Kelty added.

2015Jul9-1Kelty shared a success story from the leadership program. “I had one learner who had a very strong stutter. It was so strong that his ability to articulate himself was a word by word effort. He did not let this stand in his way. He pushed himself to take on challenging speaking roles and constantly put himself outside of his comfort zone. The class was very supportive of him and gave great feedback. I think that the leadership program gave him the tools to help him in increasing his self-confidence, and he began to understand that something that might prevent people from taking on new challenges was not going to hold him back. He was very involved and inspired other learners within the program to take on roles, which was very impressive and spoke to his natural leadership. He has moved into High School upgrading, but he remains connected to College community through the Intercultural Centre’s ICan Volunteer Program. His ability to navigate the challenge of moving from the Bridge program level of leadership to the College-wide level of leadership and engagement tells me that we’re doing something right.”

A final word

Literacy-level learners “may be beginning learners but they are not beginning thinkers” (Brod 1999, 5). They are thoughtful about their connections to the world, and, like all of us, want to make a valuable contribution to their communities. Innovative courses like the Bridge Leadership program, using techniques such as cultural mapping and experiential learning, help learners improve their communication skills, which results in an increase in self-confidence and self-advocacy skills. Importantly, these newly learned attitudes, skills, and values are transferrable into other settings: family, further education, work and the larger community, and contribute to the creation of a sustainable society.

Leadership was very interesting to me. I learned from leadership. I didn’t have any confidence to stand in front of an audience. But when I was in leadership…first time [I spoke] I was feeling very kind of scared. Second time I was kind of a little bit scared. Third time I was feeling I can talk, doesn’t matter how many people are there…. After leadership, I was feeling that I can ask anything I want, and volunteering, oh my goodness, it was very, very good for me. (personal interview with Venantie Nyibabashumba, a learner in the Leadership program)


Brod, Shirley. 1999. What Non-Readers or Beginning Readers Need to Know: Performance-Based ESL Adult Literacy. Denver: Spring Institute for International Studies.

UNESCO. 2015a. “Literacy.” Retrieved from

UNESCO. 2015b. “Literacy and Sustainable Societies.” Retrieved from UNESCO website

Westwood, Diane, and Hilary Pearson. 2005. “Grace Under Fire” Sociocultural Competencies: Key Communication Skills for Career and Employment Success. Instructor Manual and Student Manual. Vancouver: Vancouver Community College.

[1] Operation Christmas Child is a program of Samaritan’s Purse®. Volunteers fill shoeboxes with hygiene items, school supplies and toys. The shoeboxes are then shipped around the world to children in need.

[2] Propellus is a non-profit organization that helps strengthen other community organizations through networking, collaboration, mentorship and shared experience. They also help connect volunteers to organizations.


Stories from the Field 3: An exploration of programming through innovation in ESL Literacy

Published July 23, 2015 

We’re happy to announce that the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning is collaborating with the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) to bring you a new series of Stories from the Field.

This series of stories explores innovations in ESL literacy programming in the CEIIA at Bow Valley College. In the next six months I will be writing about my discussions with ESL literacy practitioners working in this field: their successes and challenges, best practices and approaches, innovations, and professional development needs.

Who are ESL literacy learners and what is ESL literacy?

The term ESL literacy describes a distinctive group of learners who are facing two significant challenges: they are learning English and simultaneously developing literacy skills.[1]

Bow Valley College practitioners coined the term LIFE (Learners with Interrupted Formal Education) to describe this group. LIFE “have had between zero and ten years of formal education, often interrupted by war, political unrest, famine, displacement, or poverty” (Bow Valley College 2009, 3). Given this span of years in formal education, ESL literacy learners present with a wide range of literacy levels.

The Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks uses the following categories to capture this diversity:

Pre- literate Learners come from oral cultures where the spoken languages do not have written forms or where print is not regularly encountered in daily life. They may not understand that print conveys meaning or realize how important reading and writing are in Canadian society.
Non-literate Learners that do not read or write, even though they live in literate societies.
Semi-literate Learners who have some basic reading and writing skills, but are not yet functionally literate.

(Canadian Language Benchmarks 2015, 5)

While they bring many strengths into the classroom, ESL learners with limited to no literacy generally do not thrive in mainstream ESL classes. ESL literacy practitioners at Bow Valley College advocate “for a separate stream of ESL literacy classes with the recognition that LIFE have different needs, different advantages, different ways of learning, and often different goals than mainstream ESL learners” (Bow Valley College 2009, ix).

‘Necessity is the mother of invention’[2] aptly describes how the ESL literacy field grew out of the need to provide training and develop resources for practitioners working with the unique needs and challenges of ESL learners with low literacy skills.

Building Capacity – Professional Development for ESL Literacy Practitioners

Many of the practitioners I interviewed during my research for these stories talked about entering the mainstream ESL teaching field ten to twenty years ago and gradually moving into ESL literacy as more learners with interrupted formal education (LIFE) began showing up in their classes. At the time, research, resources, and professional development for practitioners working with this group of learners were limited or non-existent. Practitioners essentially taught themselves and created their own teaching resources. Several described it as “baptism by fire”. However, over the past decade, this has changed largely due to the collaborative work of the ESL literacy faculty at Bow Valley College under the leadership of Diane Hardy.

The Beginnings of the ESL Literacy Network

“Over the past ten years, the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement has become a recognized leader in the field of ESL literacy. We’ve produced a wealth of resources that have been developed and vetted by ESL literacy experts. With funding from the Alberta Government, the Network was launched in 2011 with the purpose of sharing Bow Valley College publications, resources, and expertise,” Shelagh told me. Their initial target audience was ESL literacy practitioners in Alberta; however, the reach of the Network extends far beyond, including practitioners at a national level, in the US, and around the globe.

Shelagh Lenon manages the ESL Literacy Network, a respected and recognized professional development website that provides resources and ongoing training in the field of ESL literacy. In her role, she oversees the development and maintenance of the site; her responsibilities include creating blogs, hosting and producing all the professional development webinars, managing social media, and collaborating with practitioners to create professional development in their areas of expertise.

I asked her how it all started. She explained:

“At the start of this project in 2009, we conducted a survey across the province to determine the needs of ESL literacy practitioners. The survey explored this question: What do ESL literacy practitioners need to effectively address the unique learning needs of learners with interrupted formal education? We discovered several things. Practitioners have limited time and resources. People couldn’t find information, they couldn’t access resources or even classroom materials. They wanted relevant materials and information they could use in their class to teach adult learners. We also discovered that many practitioners lacked specialized training in this area. 87% of respondents said that there are not many professional development opportunities that are specifically designed for the ESL literacy practitioner. …And lastly, we discovered that practitioners feel isolated. Almost 80% of respondents said that they weren’t connected to or unable to connect easily with other ESL literacy practitioners across Alberta…. We realized that there were three different areas – there was a need for resources, there was a need for training, and there was a need for community. We wanted to create a website that could support practitioners in these three areas.”

The Network began with concentrating on offering information and resources.


Sharing Resources and Expertise on the ESL Literacy Network

The ESL Literacy Handbook, ESL Literacy Readers, ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework, and the Financial Literacy Toolbox are only a few examples of the Bow Valley College resources available on the Network. In addition, practitioners provincially, nationally, and internationally share their resources including curriculums, lesson plans, learning activities, digital books, and more. All are available online to download for free at User Resource Guide.

In my reading, I came across research that supports this concept of sharing skills, resources, and information as a way of building capacity and strengthening ESL literacy practice. Perry and Hart encourage practitioners to:

Share what you know: Once you gain experience, be sure to pay it forward – remember that you have knowledge and expertise to contribute, too!

  • Offer to mentor a new instructor.
  • Blog about resources and successful lesson plans you’ve used.
  • Post videos of your own effective teaching.

(Perry and Hart 2012, 121)

The Network excels in all of these areas: mentoring, blogging about successful resources and programs, and hosting webinars on teaching practice and techniques.

Quotes from ESL literacy practitioners about professional development on the Network: 

“I honestly feel that the network is setting a global standard in ESL Literacy – the best and most comprehensive “go to” for professional development and direction, and I must say that I also feel proud that it is all happening right here in Calgary.”

 “I’m so excited about this class, you have no idea. Last night some issues I’ve been fretting about were cleared up. In a big city like New York, you’re on your own with low literacy ESL adults. Many, many thanks.”

 “I ran a 6-week study circle in Minnesota for low literacy ESL teachers this spring, and my participants LOVED the short, informative, clear nature of your videos. I told them to set a timer before opening your site, or they might lose a few hours with all those great things to see and read.”

The Development of Training on the ESL Literacy Network

Next, the Network focused its eye on training. “We started to think about how to address the ongoing need for training. That’s when we started to offer workshops,” Shelagh explained. Initially, Val Baggaley and Katrina Derix-Langstraat, Bow Valley College practitioners who were part of the ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework project, went around the province providing face-to-face workshops. The training workshops introduced practitioners to the newly developed framework, and additionally to the ESL Literacy Network. Although the workshops were successful, Shelagh soon realized that the Network wanted to reach a wider audience. “We needed to offer training with a bigger return on investment. When you do a face-to-face training in a small location you might reach 10 people and once it’s over, it’s over. Although we blogged about the workshop, people who missed the training couldn’t access the actual content.” That’s when the idea grew to offer online professional development through webinars. In 2012, Val offered the first webinar, a two-part series on using the ESL Literacy Readers. “We had about 24 different people from across North America participating which was really exciting,” Shelagh told me. She and her team realized that practitioners embraced the online delivery method, which had the added bonus of connecting and reconnecting practitioners regardless of location. Now, in addition to its face-to-face workshops, the Network hosts online professional development webinars every fall and spring. Recorded sessions are archived on the website for others to watch and learn from. To date, they have produced over 30 webinars and instructional videos for the Network. Many of the videos are also posted on YouTube. And people are definitely watching. For example, Val Baggely’s video on Portfolios has over 1200 views to date and there are over 8000 views on the Language Experience Approach video by Julia Poon, another Bow Valley instructor.

“I am really inspired by Centre faculty who have stepped out of their comfort zone to share their expertise in an online format. They are generous with their time and the resources they have developed, and demonstrate an ongoing commitment to lifelong learning.” Shelagh continued on to say, “We’ve also been delivering targeted professional development to ESL literacy organizations, tailoring the workshops to their specific needs. For example, Centre faculty have delivered training for organizations in Edmonton and Vancouver. Through the Network, our Centre has also consulted on curriculum and assessment practices.”

As the Network continued to develop, attention shifted to the third goal of addressing the need for community for ESL literacy practitioners.

Connecting and Collaborating with Community on the ESL Literacy Network

IMG_4663Shelagh described some of the community connections made through the Network. “From the instructors who operate the ESL literacy bus in Tennessee to a practitioner that connected with us from Portland who was writing a manual for volunteer tutors to an ESL literacy practitioner from the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association…the Network has provided many opportunities for connection and collaboration.”

Along with offering the webinars and workshops, the community section includes a Blog, Discussion Forum, and Showcase.

  1. Blog

The Blog promotes exchanges of information and inspiration. ESL literacy practitioners post articles sharing their experiences and information about classroom practices, new programming, and curriculum development. Some recent posts have included the Low Literacy Employment Program by Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, a Pre Beginning ESL Curriculum created by the Minnesota Literacy Council, and Creating a Peer Teaching Community posted by the ESL Literacy Bridge program staff at Bow Valley College.

Shelagh shared a story about an experienced Bow Valley College practitioner who was new at blogging and initially shy about the process. “Beena is passionate about using music in the ESL literacy classroom and I thought that would be a great entry point. She agreed and did two different posts which generated lots of discussion, over 30 different comments. She realized that blogging and sharing what she was doing in her class allowed her to reflect and be reflective. She said that there were conversations happening on the blog that she thought wouldn’t have happened face to face, even with colleagues in the same building because of people’s work schedules or people not having enough time. The Blog allowed this exchange of information.”

  1. Discussion Forum

The Discussion Forum encourages practitioners to enter into reflective discussions about their participation in the online training and study circles and how that affects their teaching practice. Past topics have included Integrating Technology, Creating Digital Books, and Teaching Immigrant Youth among many more. Participants include new practitioners interested in expanding their knowledge and teaching repertoires as well as experienced practitioners sharing their expertise.

Research strongly supports the value of reflective discussion around teaching practice. In a pilot study by Vinogradov (2012), practitioners working with adult ESL emergent readers described some of the benefits:

  • First the teachers developed a sense of loyalty and commitment to the group. This led to dedication to the tasks and thoughtful reading and preparation for meetings.
  • Secondly, teachers were able to share resources, ideas, teaching tips, and other professional wisdom with each other. The facilitator provided readings and tasks, but the most useful sharing appears to be from the collegial conversations themselves, from having a place to finally meet others who do similar work and to bounce ideas off them.
  • Thirdly, participants found that the study circle helped them to break their sense of isolation in their teaching, to realize that their frustrations and challenges are in fact widely held.

The study concluded: “In an instructional setting as complex as teaching ESL to low literate adult immigrants and refugees, this sense of shared work and collaborative learning was reassuring and hopeful to participants” (Vinogradov 2012, 41-42).

  1. Practitioners’ Showcase

The Showcase invites practitioners to share instructional materials, approaches to teaching, learning activities, lesson plans, and worksheets, and collaborate with peers. This repository features over 50 resources created by both Bow Valley College faculty and ESL literacy practitioners elsewhere.

Shelagh cited another example of the Network’s success in promoting professional growth and sharing expertise. “Kelly Morrissey was a new ESL literacy practitioner from Windsor, Ontario, who attended one of the very first webinars on using the ESL Literacy Readers in 2012. Through our discussions in the webinar, I realized that she had created a blog for her ESL literacy class. We featured her in a two-part ESL Literacy Network blog series, focussing on how she uses a blog with ESL literacy learners. She also uses Bow Valley College resources in her classroom. For example, she uses the ESL Literacy Readers and has developed numerous companion activities that support the use of the readers in the classroom – all of which she has shared on the Network’s Practitioners’ Showcase.  Just this past month, she facilitated a webinar on creating an ESL literacy blog. She’s moved from being a new ESL literacy practitioner to mentoring other practitioners in her area of expertise.”

Some Final Words on the ESL Literacy Network

A “community of practice is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. This definition reflects the fundamentally social nature of human learning” (Team BE 2011). The evolution of the ESL Literacy Network from providing resources and online training to building community connections has succeeded in creating an online community of practice which supports the professional development of ESL literacy practitioners.

0G9A9020“The Network is an inclusive learning environment for practitioners to connect, share ideas, and grow professionally. You can be a novice practitioner looking for mentorship or instructional resources. You can also be an experienced instructor, like many of the instructors at Bow Valley College, and share your expertise,” Shelagh explained. “The biggest success [of the Network] is that this high quality professional learning and sharing has a ripple effect. It impacts ESL literacy instruction which in turn impacts the lives of ESL literacy learners.”


 This is the first in a series of stories from the field featuring innovations in programming in ESL literacy at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement at Bow Valley College. Watch for more coming soon!


Bow Valley College. 2009. Learning for Life: An ESL Literacy Handbook. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Brod, Shirley. 1999. What Non-Readers Or Beginning Readers Need To Know: Performance-Based ESL Adult Literacy. Denver: Spring Institute for International Studies.

Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. 2015. Canadian Language Benchmarks: ESL for Adult Literacy Learners (ALL).

Perry, Kristen H., and Susan J. Hart. 2012. “‘I’m just kind of winging it’: Preparing and Supporting Educators of Adult Refugee Learners.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 56(2):110-122.

Vinogradov, Patsy. 2012. “‘You just get a deeper understanding of things by talking’: Study Circles for Teachers of ESL Emergent Readers.” Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education 1(1): 30-43.

Team BE, “What is a community of practice?”, Wenger-Trayner (blog), December 28, 2011,

Wikipedia. 2015. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

[1] Currently, the term ESL (English as a second language) is still in use. However, there is a movement toward using the term ELL (English Language Learners) which recognizes English may be a learner’s third, fourth, or even seventh language.

[2] ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ is an English proverb meaning that difficult or impossible scenarios prompt inventions aimed at reducing the difficulty (Wikipedia. 2015).


Increasing Student Engagement at Bow Valley College One Photo at a Time

Published Mar 3, 2015

A unique collaboration between the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) and the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning (CEFL) has just wrapped up the first in a series of Digital Diversity workshops intended to increase student engagement and participation within the Bow Valley College (BVC).

Last fall, Candace Witkowskyj (Lead Instructor, Literacy and Disabilities) from CEFL started to think about doing a photojournalism project modelled on NorQuest College’s PhotoVoice project[1]. “I believed that BVC could really benefit from having some of the foundational learners take up more ‘space’ in the College. The CEFL students I have met with, in my Literacy and Disabilities role, have typically expressed a sense of distance from College events. Students have often asked me if they were ‘allowed’ to participate in College events or receive free student benefits (such as the agendas/daytimers handed out to students) as they did not feel entitled to the same things at the College as other post-secondary students.” She found out that the Intercultural Center (IC) within the CEIIA has really prioritized student engagement and was doing a similar photography project. When Candace approached the IC, they invited CEFL to partner with them. The Digital Diversity Project was born.

Canada Geese by Wei Liu

Canada Geese by Wei Liu

The overall intent of the project is to have a greater representation of student voice throughout the College through the medium of visual photography. Furthermore, the intent is to increase the understanding of the dimensions of diversity. The project offers all students a meaningful way to engage and showcase interesting aspects of their unique cultures and diverse identities. Students build their confidence and feel a greater sense of belonging within the College community.

Moving forward, CEFL and CEIIA are continuing their partnership and exploring different ways to better engage learners, build awareness, and promote future events. Faculty are encouraged to watch for the next installment in the Digital Diversity Project and support learners to participate.

First in the series: Exploring the meaning of diversity, exclusion, and inclusion

In this first workshop, consisting of four sessions, a group of students spent time learning about the meaning of diversity, exclusion, and inclusion using photography. The first two sessions focused on cultural diversity and the last two on disability diversity. As part of their learning, students were also introduced to some simple, but effective, digital photography techniques.

In the first session, Tahira Ebrahim (Centre Liaison Officer at the IC) began by talking about the meaning of inclusion and exclusion as they are related to cultural diversity. “Inclusion is the practice of helping people feel like they belong, and are included. It means creating a setting where no one feels left out, and feels safe to be who they are. Exclusion is when you, or others, are not included, either in obvious ways, for example, from membership in a club, or not so obvious ways, for example, feeling left out from an informal study group.” She asked the students to think about the diverse cultures in the college community. How was the college welcoming? What were some of the barriers? She went on to describe and show the group examples of photos depicting cultural diversity and inclusion. “Photos of cultural diversity can range from people and practices, to art and architecture, and even the environment. Examples of places in Calgary can include the Chinese Cultural Centre, places of worship throughout the city, or even places at the College, such as the Aboriginal Centre and Multi-Faith Room. Cultural diversity can also be shown through a culture’s history such as the Stampede or other historic buildings.” Tahira emphasized always being respectful when taking photos of people, places, and cultural settings.

During the second part of this session, Heidi Beyer, ESL instructor and keen amateur photographer, introduced students to the photography ‘rule of thirds’. “When you prepare to take a photo, imagine that the viewfinder of your phone or camera is split into three columns and three rows. To make your photo interesting, think about putting objects along the lines of the inside points [shown in red below]. Research shows that people’s eyes look at one of these points naturally, not the middle of the photo.”

rule of thirds








As part of their learning process, students were assigned to take photos showing cultural diversity and using the rule of thirds before the next session.

Village in China by Alice Yuhing Wu

Village in China by Alice Yuhing Wu

In the second session, students returned and shared their photos, and the stories behind them. One student showed a photo of a Chinese temple with colorful prayer flags flying in the wind. She explained that in China the wind blowing through the flags signified luck blowing through the village. Another student showed a photo she had taken of Canada geese flying in a ‘v’ formation above the Calgary skyline. She spoke about this sight being very Canadian. However, she was puzzled. Her caption for the photo was “Why are the geese still here in winter?” Another student showed a photo she had taken of a striking Alberta prairie sunset. All three photos demonstrated an understanding of portraying a culture through place and used the rule of thirds to great effect.

In the third session, Candace Witkowskyj (Lead Instructor, Literacy and Disabilities) introduced the topic of diversity as it relates to abilities, disabilities, exclusion, and inclusion. She explained that if we want to genuinely include people with disabilities in community and college life, we need to recognize and respect that there is diversity among persons with disabilities. “Persons with disabilities are a complex group of people with different identities, rights, and beliefs. We need to respect the fact that not all disabilities are the same and support people to express themselves and their uniqueness in the world without viewing them just for their disability.” She explained that the term ‘disability’ can include physical disabilities, mental health conditions, for example, depression or anxiety, and cognitive or intellectual disabilities, for example, developmental disabilities or learning disabilities such as dyslexia). Introducing some examples of photographs, Candace showed different ways to portray the issues and diverse lives of persons with disabilities in meaningful ways. Persons with physical disabilities were shown participating in non-traditional activities such as modelling, ballet dancing, and oil painting. Other photos recalled Alberta’s sad history of institutionalizing persons with developmental disabilities. One particularly powerful photo showed several volumes of the periodical titled “Eugenics Quarterly”, which existed in Alberta until 1968.

Prairie sunset by Kristine Suhan Hu

Prairie sunset by Kristine Suhan Hu

In the second part of this session, students considered ‘viewpoint’. Heidi explained that usually we take photos at our own eye level. “But if we change our viewpoint, we can create more visually interesting photos.” She suggested thinking about viewpoint before taking a photo. “Where can you stand or sit to make the photo more interesting? Should you get really close to your subject, or very far away?” She showed several examples of how viewpoint can be visually dramatic. One striking photo, taken from the top of an escalator looking down on the person in a wheelchair below, combined viewpoint and disability diversity. This was a perfect example for the students as they were assigned to take photos of disability diversity using different viewpoints for the next session.

In the final session, students learned a third photography technique called ‘leading lines’. Heidi explained that a photographer can use lines that occur naturally to draw your attention to a particular subject. She showed examples of the use of lines in photos of a road winding around to a house, train tracks emphasizing the horizon, and shadows and window frames creating visually arresting scenes.

At the conclusion of the workshop, students were encouraged to continue taking photos using the three photography techniques they had learned and to send them in to be included in the upcoming Gallery Walk. “An important piece of this first series of workshops is that your student photos and personal reflections will be included as part of the Intercultural Centre’s Gallery Walk taking place March 9, 2015. They are intended to be a part of celebrating Intercultural Week here at the College, especially in light of our theme, The Art of Diversity,” Kelty Christensen (Learner Engagement Officer at the IC) explained. “Please keep sending me your photos. And remember, I am here to help you if you have questions about your photos or about writing your personal reflections.”

Faculty and students are invited to join the Intercultural Centre in celebrating diversity and inclusion during Intercultural Week, March 9 to 13, through the Gallery Walk (March 9th, from 12 pm – 1 pm) and many other planned activities.

(See for the full lineup of Intercultural Week activities.)


Kelty Christensen, Learner Engagement Officer at the Intercultural Centre:

Tahira Ebrahim, Centre Liaison Officer at the Intercultural Centre:

Heidi Beyer, ESL Instructor:

Candace Witkowskyj, Lead Instructor, Literacy and Disabilities, Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning:

Samra Admasu, Communications Officer, Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning:



Bow Valley College Celebrates International Day for Persons with Disabilities with Discussion, Learning and Future Action

Published Dec 22, 2014

IDPDOn December 3, 2014, Bow Valley College celebrated its first United Nations International Day for Persons with Disabilities. Over 45 students, staff and community members gathered to talk about barriers to education, accessibility and community inclusion for persons with disabilities. Following the animated discussion, participants checked out some of the new assistive technologies provided by Handi Enterprises Inc., co-sponsor of the event.

In his welcoming remarks, Keith Seel, Dean of the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning (CEFL), emphasized Bow Valley College’s commitment to providing accessible, inclusive education to persons with disabilities: “The United Nations proclaimed December 3 International Day for Persons with Disabilities in 1992.[1] Their purpose was to promote understanding and the inclusion of persons with disabilities, increase awareness of the gains of including persons with disabilities in community life, and engage in an ongoing discussion around increasing access and accommodations. Bow Valley College shares these goals and is committed to exploring new ideas and technologies in our ongoing efforts to create a seamless learning environment for all of our diverse learners, including and especially those with disabilities.”

The afternoon activities were co- hosted by Candace Witkowskyj, Lead Instructor, Disability and Literacy, CEFL and Mark Flores, President and CEO, Handi Enterprises Inc. (an organization which specializes in assistive technologies).

Flores began the discussion by explaining that his personal goal “is to increase and build the capacity of persons with disabilities through raising awareness about the issues as well as using assistive technology.” He invited participants to engage in a discussion around four key questions:

  1. What benefits do you think students with disabilities experience at BVC?
  2. What barriers do you think students with disabilities experience when accessing education at BVC?
  3. How do you think BVC could address these barriers/make improvements?
  4. If you could change one thing to support students with disabilities at BVC, what would it be?

What are the benefits for students with disabilities at BVC?

“Bow Valley College is still small compared to other institutions (for example University of Calgary) so people can still feel like individuals, and have one-on-one time with instructors.” (Participant)

Participants felt that there were many benefits for students with disabilities at Bow Valley College. As noted above, the classes are smaller compared to larger institutions, which allows for more individual attention from instructors. There is support across departments for learners with disabilities. Most instructors are proactive and educated about the issues and the accommodations available. The College offers a Disability Studies program which helps to create a culture of awareness around disability and access issues. Many of the students attending the celebration were from this program.

Staff from Accessibility Services and Learner Success Services spoke about the assistance available for learners with disabilities at Bow Valley College. “Over 500 students used our Accessibility Services in the past year,” Emily Gidden, Coordinator of Accessibility Services explained. These services include:

Bow Valley College also offers additional services and support for students. The Counselling Services department provides personal, academic and career counselling, and community referrals to all students experiencing difficulties in the college setting. These may include personal issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, addictions, academic and career goals, couple and family problems, and financial issues. (See

First Nations, Metis and Inuit students can also access services at the Iniikokaan Aboriginal Centre. The Centre provides cultural, physical, emotional, and spiritual support; advocacy; financial information; and community referrals. (See

What are the barriers for students with disabilities at BVC?

“Students may not know all the resources available if they don’t identify that they have a disability.” (Participant)

During the discussion, participants identified environmental and physical barriers, resource barriers, complicated processes and bureaucracy, and stigma and social exclusion as obstacles for learners accessing education at Bow Valley College.

Environmental and physical barriers

Although the College is a new facility, there are still numerous physical barriers. The sinks in the washrooms are too high for persons in wheelchairs. The stalls are not large enough to allow an aid to assist. Directional signage around the College is limited and confusing, relying heavily on print and few pictures. The doors to the elevators close too quickly. People have difficulty finding the wheelchair ramp. Participants suggested that automated sliding doors are more empowering than push button doors. Some spaces are very tight for wider wheelchairs. Emergency exits are not clearly marked.

Getting to the College itself poses transportation problems for some students. Handi Bus and Access Calgary are not always on time or reliable.

Resource barriers

The Bow Valley College website is not designed for easy access or written using plain language principles. New students may not be aware of the services available for persons with disabilities via Accessibility Services and Learner Success Services. Although the majority of instructors are knowledgeable about accommodations, there are those that may need more training to understand barriers experienced by students with disabilities and the resources available to address them. Relying on computers and the D2L system is a barrier for learners with visual disabilities. Writing tests can be difficult in spite of accommodations provided through the BVC Testing Centre.

Complicated processes and bureaucracy

Typically, the admission process includes testing and assessment, before actual registration takes place at the registrar’s office. Students with disabilities and/or low literacy may be intimidated by the process itself. They are required to make multiple visits to the College along each stage of the way. For many, this means organizing transportation and navigating an unfamiliar environment. While many accommodations are available, getting them in place also takes time and more appointments. The College website advises students to contact Accessibility Services as soon as they are accepted or at least four months prior to starting classes.

Stigma and social exclusion

Learners with disabilities often feel isolated and socially excluded from study groups or social gatherings. Many feel a stigma when asking for special accommodations and support.

How could BVC address barriers and make improvements?

“It would be good to have more training and professional development for instructors, and not just instructors, but also for deans, directors and the human resources department.” (Participant)

Many participants felt that the College could address barriers by creating a culture of awareness, and emphasizing and valuing diversity. This involves expanding the current, limited view of ethnic and cultural diversity to broadened dimensions, and seeing individuals for the whole of who they are as persons. It was suggested that students can also spearhead change by forming activist groups. Participants also spoke about the necessity for challenging assumptions about persons with disabilities. People suggested more training and professional development for staff at all levels and in all departments.

Several people felt that a focus on accessibility for all persons using the principles of both Universal Design and Universal Design in Learning would be a huge step toward creating a barrier-free, accessible environment. Not coincidentally, there are a number of conversations happening at the College regarding these design principles and their implementation.

Universal Design (UD) can be defined as creating and designing products and spaces that can be used for all people. The principles of UD take into account “the full range of human diversity including physical, perceptual, and cognitive abilities, as well as different body sizes and shapes. For instance, curb cuts at sidewalks were initially designed for people who use wheelchairs but they are now also used by pedestrians with strollers and rolling luggage.” ( For a detailed explanation and more examples of UD see

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a “set of principles for curriculum development that gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.” ( The UDL framework takes into account three principles:

  • multiple means of representation—using a variety of ways to present ideas and concepts
  • multiple means of action and expression—providing learners with alternative ways to act skillfully and demonstrate what they know
  • multiple means of engagement—tapping into learners’ interests by offering choices of content and tools; motivating learners by offering adjustable levels of challenge (

The principles of UDL fit well with adult education principles, and are already part of the practice of many of the College’s instructors. Interested practitioners are invited to check out for more examples and resources in applying UDL principles to practice.

What would be one thing you would change to support students with disabilities at BVC?

“I would like to see the focus on accessibility for everyone through a proactive emphasis on universal design.” (Participant)

Participants had an extensive wish list of changes they shared with the group:

Proactive Education and Advocacy

  • Increase individual capacity and empowerment by teaching self-advocacy skills as part of a curriculum
  • Create robust instructor and administrative education/training around disability issues
  • Include empathy exercises as part of an education/training program for staff and students. (For example, encourage people to navigate the College in wheelchairs, and with reduced vision or hearing.)
  • Develop an educational outreach program similar to the one run by the City of Calgary. (Students with disabilities go to schools and talk to kids, explain their disability, and answer questions. This decreased stigma and helped challenge assumptions about disabilities.)
  • Take the lead in educating young people and the community about disabilities and inclusion as part of the Disability Studies program
  • Address isolation by creating meaningful opportunities for able-bodied persons and persons with disabilities to interact socially (suggestions included inviting learners into social and study groups)

Physical Environment

  • Apply pro-active universal design principles to everything from the physical environment to teaching principles
  • Ensure security and maintenance staff are aware of policies and procedures relating to fire drills and other safety concerns especially as they relate to persons with disabilities
  • Install accessible bathrooms on every floor, including assistive lifts
  • Improve directional signage using symbols and plain language
  • Reserve one elevator for use by persons with limited mobility

As the afternoon came to a close, Witkowskyj invited interested participants to sign up to continue the discussion: “This event is only part of a larger, ongoing conversation about the meaningful inclusion of learners with disabilities in the Bow Valley College community. Please sign up to join us as we move forward.” And indeed, as people left, many did sign up. If you are interested in being part of this discussion, contact Candace Witkowskyj at

The last word

Organizers Witkowskyj and Flores ended the dynamic afternoon by asking people to think of one thing they personally could do to support students with disabilities. I pass their question on to you:

What can you personally do to support students with disabilities?


Candace Witkowskyj works in the Adult Literacy Research Institute in the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning at Bow Valley College. She is the Lead Instructor, Disability and Literacy.

Mark Flores is President and CEO of Handi Enterprises Inc., an organization committed to providing individuals the best in assistive technologies. He was also formerly a student activist working for disability rights at Mount Royal University where he completed his Diploma in Disability Studies.

Contact Information

Assistive technologies from Handi Enterprises: See the website or contact Mark Flores

Bow Valley College Accessibility Services:

Bow Valley College Counselling Services:

Bow Valley College’s Disability Studies program:

Candace Witkowskyj in the Adult Literacy Research Institute:

Iniikokaan Aboriginal Centre:

[1]“Since 1992, the annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.” See


Stories from the Field Volume 2 now available!

Click image to get your copy. Let us know what you would like to see covered in future Stories from the Field.



What skills does one need to be an applied researcher?

Published Oct 28, 2014

Image provided by image id. 209103715.

Image provided by image id. 209103715.

Bow Valley College’s Community of Practice for Applied Research hosted an inaugural forum on September 30, 2014 to explore the characteristics, skills and motivations of the applied researcher. This is what we learned.

“Pay attention to what unsettles you, what doesn’t feel right” Dr. Phyllis Steeves[1] told the forum. “The work I do impacts the Indigenous communities I work with. Research needs to be meaningful. It engages us in thinking about real world problems. When we do research we develop and articulate knowledge.”

Karen Mercer[2] agrees. “I never thought of myself as an applied researcher but I’m inquisitive. I ask questions. I’m curious.  My research started from a discussion, and I realized if things struck a chord with me, they may strike a chord with others. Applied research is about being interested in learning and sharing that learning.”

Curious, flexible, persuasive, people-minded, open, collaborative, engaged in learning, persistent, passionate. These words came up again and again in describing the qualities that make an applied researcher. And they certainly describe the researchers on the panel.

All six distinguished participants* on the panel spoke enthusiastically and passionately about the different research projects they had initiated. They also shared their thoughts on the importance of applied research and what it contributes to learners, Bow Valley College and communities in general.

Collaboration, cross-disciplinary teamwork, and partnerships are key in developing applied research projects.

For Corinne Finnie, applied research is about community development – helping the community identify opportunities and partnerships. “In the process of interviewing and engaging people, they become part of the research. You identify people and organizations that have a common interest.” Corinne was instrumental in Bow Valley College’s involvement in an extensive study led by Mount Royal University investigating the impacts of the 2013 floods on families in High River. Her applied research projects also include Rural Workforce Development: Assessing Employer Needs and Improving Access to Training. This included a survey of 184 business leaders and employers to identify workforce training needs in High River and Okotoks.[3]

“I want to get involved when I see or suspect that things could be done better. At TOWES (Test of Workplace and Essential Skills), I have an interesting opportunity to engage with government, educational institutions and businesses to talk about literacy. We do develop products, but we also participate in bigger discussions about literacy” Krista Medhurst explained. Krista is the business lead responsible for managing the TOWES unit at BVC. She has conducted and managed several innovative applied research projects, most recently the development of TOWES Prime, an intuitive online complement to the pen and paper TOWES.[4]

Hana Taleb Imai is the current chair of BVC’s Research Ethics Board and Coordinator, Innovation and Research for the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement. “I am always looking for a better way to do things. There used to be only one pathway for learners who had entry-level English. I was part of a team of researchers who collaborated to develop another assessment tool/pathway for learners based on entry level language benchmarks.”[5] At present, she is involved with a team looking at distributed learning and other modalities as opposed to the traditional ELL classroom.

It’s important to be aware of our own assumptions and prejudices.

Dr. Phyllis Steeves emphasized that what we value impacts our teaching practice and underpins our research. Currently, she is working on an Adult Literacy Research Institute project as lead researcher with a team developing an oral assessment framework for Aboriginal Peoples funded by Innovation and Advanced Education.[6] “We realized how embedded the prioritization of written language is in most forms of assessments. The Assessment Framework project is being developed to focus on strengths of Aboriginal peoples and to find ways for adult learners to be empowered when assessing their skills.”

Be committed to translating your research into practice.

Dr. Rena Shimoni was BVC’s Dean of Applied Research and Innovation and was responsible for securing research funding and seeing several province-wide studies from idea to completion.[7] She spoke about the importance of planning for change that results from your research. “It’s not enough to do a study and share the results. If you believe your research influences change, plan for it. How am I going to make sure the research is impactful? Be committed to translating it into practice.”

Some final words of advice to the future applied researcher

“When you have that initial idea, talk about it with colleagues. The richness of their feedback can really guide you.”(Krista Medhurst)

“Know your funders, know the environment, and partner if you can.” (Corinne Finnie)

“At the college, there are a number of people who have done applied research, and the Applied Research and Evaluation department. Utilize this internal expertise.” (Hana Taleb Imai)

“There is a lot of organization that goes into a research project.  Be aware of your own strengths, as well as the areas where you could benefit from input and assistance from others.” (Dr. Rena Shimoni)

“Research doesn’t stand alone. Your own philosophical perspectives, theories, all aspects of your life will inform your research.” (Dr. Phyllis Steeves)

“What you find might also surprise you. You have to be open-minded and flexible, be open enough to see something different than what you expected.” (Karen Mercer)

*The panelists

  • Rena Shimoni, Research Advisor to the Vice President, Learning, and to the Director of Learning Resource Services and Applied Research (BVC)
  • Karen Mercer, Program Coordinator overseeing High School Programs and Curriculum Development (BVC)
  • Corinne Finnie, Director, Regional Stewardship, (BVC)
  • Krista Medhurst, Business Lead, TOWES Unit, (BVC)
  • Hana Taleb Imai, current chair of BVC’s Research Ethics Board and Program Coordinator, Innovation and Research, Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (BVC)
  • Phyllis Steeves, Assistant Professor at Werklund School of Education and Applied Researcher (University of Calgary)

An invitation to get involved

“In the spirit of bringing together people with a thirst for knowledge,”[8] the BVC Community of Practice for Applied Research was formed in late 2013. The group is open to all members of the College community interested in connecting, sharing, engaging and talking about research on topics that matter to them. This is the first of what is hoped to be many special events featuring researchers and projects from BVC and beyond.

Contact for more information and to get involved.


This event was organized and planned by:

Patricia Pryce, Instructor Lead, Essential Skills, Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning

Scott Henwood, Researcher, Applied Research and Evaluation

Tim Loblaw, Coordinator Teaching & Learning Enhancement, Learning Resource Services

Aggie Legaspi, Evaluation and Applied Research Lead, Applied Research and Evaluation

Candace Witkowskyj, Instructor Lead, Disability and Literacy, Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning

Afifah Oishi, Research and Evaluation Assistant, Applied Research & Evaluation

Samra Admasu, Communications Officer, Adult Literacy Research Institute


[1] Dr. Phyllis Steeves is currently an assistant professor at the Werklund School of Education and has done extensive research into the concept of Aboriginal literacy and its impact on Indigenous peoples. Her Phd dissertation Literacy: Genocide’s Silken Instrument explores the “actions/events/discourses that facilitated creation of a concept which reframes Aboriginal peoples’ ways of knowing and being under a Eurocentric construct: the concept of Aboriginal literacy.” (Steeves, 2010).

[2] Karen Mercer is a Program Coordinator in the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning. Her research project A Selected Literature Review for Adult Learner Success Aboriginal Upgrading Program done in collaboration with April Bellegarde and Alice Charland can be found at

[3] See

[4] See

[5] See

[6] See under projects.

[7] See

[8] Community of Practice Planning Committee announcement


Audrey Gardner – Community Developer, Researcher, and Radical Adult Literacy Practitioner

Published Aug 7, 2014

AudreyG_Photo2“I was a junior high teacher for about five minutes,” Audrey Gardner laughed as our interview began. “I always struggled with working in mainstream education systems. I felt more at home working in grassroots, nonprofit education where you didn’t have as many restrictions to creating meaningful learning experiences.”

Twenty years ago, Audrey started her wide-ranging career working as an educator for Calgary Sexual Health Centre and AIDS Calgary. In 2001 she joined Bow Valley College (BVC), working on a project called Connecting Literacy to Community: Building Community Capacity (CLC).[1]  CLC was a two-year project (2001-2003), located in three rural and three urban communities in central and southern Alberta. It worked with communities to develop literacy awareness, promotion, and support, and to improve access to and the quality of existing services and programs (Gardner 2003, 10). This led to a provincial training project for literacy practitioners called Building Community Capacity: Focus on Literacy, which Audrey developed and led.[2] It was modelled on the CLC project.

“Both these projects were a good fit for me, and they were the start of an extended learning curve that I am still on. Even though I had been doing education for a long time, I hadn’t really considered the social stigmatization of adult literacy. In all my years of social justice activism I missed seeing the invisibility of adult literacy. I came to understand that it’s a serious issue of social discrimination, social exclusion, and access to power. When I began to notice how it is assumed that people ‘should’ be capable of reading it became very apparent that literacy— education really—is deeply embedded in the politics of social class, racism, ableism, and gender inequality,” Audrey explained.  She also spoke about the impact of reading Phyllis Steeves’s “Literacy: Genocide’s Silken Instrument” (2010).  Audrey said, “One of the most significant things I’ve read is Phyllis’s PhD Dissertation. It completely challenges our ideas about literacy as something good and something that everybody needs. Phyllis says Aboriginal peoples’ ways of knowing and well-being have been and are being erased by the idea of ‘Aboriginal literacy.’  I agree with her that literacy/education has been used as an ethnocentric instrument of colonial oppression, and strongly believe that we all need to read her thesis. We need to always question what we are doing as literacy workers.”

Over time, Audrey’s philosophy of adult education developed into two strands: her belief that education systems are classist and racist institutions, and at the same time, that education is also a pathway for self-determination and for resistance to perpetuating oppressive institutional thinking. Her beliefs about learning and equality underlie all her work.  “I’ve been ridiculously fortunate. In these last thirteen years at BVC, I’ve had great opportunities to work in projects and programs that were bold enough to address the politics of education. I learned that many students in adult literacy programs have horrible memories of their experience in mainstream schooling. I certainly struggled in school when I was young, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to believe I was smart. I think that is why I keep going back to school over and over again. While working at the college, I’ve been a student and an instructor, an administrator and an advocate, and a participant in a variety of things,” Audrey told me.

She shared some of the projects that stood out for her. “A project I loved being part of was called Focused on Practice, a national research project. I had a very small part on the steering committee. The project looked at how practitioners are using research in the field. It just opened up all kinds of issues of being underfunded and under-resourced—all the things we know too well.”  The researchers interviewed over 500 literacy practitioners across the country, conducting an inventory of research in practice at four levels: national, provincial/territorial, community, and individual. They spoke of practice research’s value to the literacy field:

Literacy work is about hope. It’s about what we imagine is possible for learners. When we meet a new learner at intake, hear about the challenges in their lives and see their tentativeness, we know they may not be back, but we hold hope for them and speak with them in a way that makes hope audible. There is a cycle of burn-out that can happen in literacy work. We need to hold hope for ourselves too, for the programs, and for the literacy field as a whole. I think research can help with this. It can give practitioners the reflection time they need and deserve. (Woodrow and Horsman 2007, 1)

Audrey was drawn to projects that took risks and asked  hard questions. The Connecting the Dots: Improving Accountability in the Adult Literacy Field in Canada project was one of these.[3] The two-year project examined the impact of accountability on the adult literacy field across the country and explored new ways of approaching it (Crooks et al. 2008, 4).  Focusing on the accountability relationship between funders and organizations delivering literacy programming, it examined the tensions literacy practitioners experience between being accountable to learners and to funders, and the different measures that different stakeholders use to determine whether or not a literacy program is successful.

Audrey described the impact this project had on her. “I was a field researcher and this gave me insight, helped develop my critical eye about what we are doing in our work—particularly how the field was taking up the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) without questioning what this survey had to do with learning. I realized that we [as a field] were losing a community development approach, we were losing a Freirian Critical Education approach to literacy. [4] We were becoming machine like. That was a profound project for me and indirectly led to my PhD thesis work.”

Audrey’s doctorate thesis (in progress) examines the politics of measurement in adult literacy, how forms of large-scale assessment such as IALS are used in government policy, and what impact this has on literacy programming. She questions the disconnections between such policy and learners’ own knowledge about how they learn and improve.

Measurement of literacy in many countries, including Canada, has adopted the use of high-cost, highly technical international surveys such as IALS and PIACC over other assessment frameworks.[5] Comparing survey results between countries, regions, and groups of people may be valuable information, but when numbers become the dominant story of literacy, the knowledge of learning and teaching embedded in program practices becomes submerged. Learners as knowing actors become objects of the so-called literacy problem… Submerged under the statistical language of these measures is the misfit of policy objectives with actual assessment practices in literacy programs. (Gardner 2014, 14-15)

At the heart of Audrey’s work are a profound respect for learners, active resistance to social oppression, and a belief in self-determination.  These were very apparent as she talked about another project that was extremely important to her. The Literacy and Disabilities Study (LaDS)[6] conducted a survey of literacy and other community programs in Canada that use the Speech-Assisted Reading and Writing (SARAW)[7] computer program with adults who have disabilities. As principal researcher, Audrey interviewed adult learners, tutors, instructors, and coordinators in eleven programs currently using SARAW across the country. The survey explored the contexts in which SARAW was being used and looked for effective practices that contribute to literacy skill development.

Not enough people with disabilities know about literacy programs, and not enough literacy programs know about SARAW and how to support learners with disabilities. While there have been some strides made in making literacy programs more accessible, and increasingly best practices in literacy programs for adults with disabilities are being identified, adults with disabilities with low literacy continue to struggle to find accessible programs. (Gardner 2005, 41)

The LaDS project resulted in four publications: a fact sheet on literacy and disabilities, a book of  learner stories and experiences, the SARAW survey report, and an effective practices guide for using SARAW with people with disabilities.[8]

As we neared the end of our interview, I asked Audrey what she thinks has to change in how we view literacy and essential skills. She was passionate in her reply.

I think we need to bring back a community development framework for adult literacy. We need to be clear that melding the Employment and Social Development Canada’s Essential Skills framework with the term adult literacy, which has been taken up in most adult literacy organizations and certainly by governments, is squeezing out adult literacy education. We have to challenge our flawed assumption that workplace skills as defined by ESDC Essential Skills (ES) are the same as literacy in diverse social contexts (including work, but not solely work). The argument can be made that the ES framework does not necessarily incorporate social injustice issues of adult literacy. We have unquestionably brought these two concepts together, thinking that they are equal and the same, but they are most definitely not. Literacy has to be understood in relation to human rights and institutional oppression.

Drawing on community development models of learning, Freirian Critical Education principles, and Steeves’s work is what is needed now, especially with the ever-increasing move toward a reductionist idea that literacy is only skills for the economic labour market. For example, the government of Alberta has a social policy framework that names literacy as a social equality issue. [9] There is more than enough research on the social practices of literacy that support the stance that literacy is a social equality issue. It should be a straightforward decision to invest in adult literacy within this framework, but there is obvious tension to restrain literacy as simply workforce skills.

This is of particular importance right now, in light of recent actions and policy shifts by the federal government.

On 16 May 2014, the office of the Minister of Employment, Social Development, and Multiculturalism headed by Jason Kenney, issued this statement: “Our government is committed to ensuring federal funding for literacy is no longer spent on administration and countless research papers, but instead is invested in projects that result in Canadians receiving the literacy skills they need to obtain jobs … Canadian taxpayers will no longer fund administration of organizations but will instead fund useful literacy projects” (Centre for Literacy 2014).

Federal funding for organizations in the adult literacy sector across Canada ended effective 30 June 2014.  These decisions were made with no community consultation. The funding cuts coupled with the shift of funding away from provincial Labor Market Agreements to the new Canada Job Grant will have a significant impact on literacy programming across the country.

Audrey ended our conversation with a call to action. She urges adult literacy practitioners to fight back.

We are in a destructive time right now. The federal funding in the Office for Literacy and Essential Skills has been drastically cut. There is no place for community development in literacy – it doesn’t seem to hold any value anymore. Organizations have to fight tooth and nail to find funding. We have to compromise our values to get funding for programs that may serve only a small number of people rather than a broader and more diverse group of people. I think that if community-based, grassroots services were being cut in any other field there would be protests. You would have a union fighting for you. But it’s a silent kind of destruction that’s happening. The federal government’s statement from ESDC Minister Kenney’s office about how literacy organizations have been wasting money on research projects and what’s really needed is direct services to learners was absolutely wrong. Reading it, I thought,  “What do you think we have been doing all these years if it’s not direct service? And this field desperately needs research!”

The federal-provincial Labour Market Agreements shift toward the Canada Job Grant Strategy has also been a form of cut at the provincial and territorial level. I don’t know what kind of commitments—what kind of policies —are being considered under this flawed strategy but it seems like the knowledge and expertise of hundreds of people over the past three decades are being extinguished. The national adult literacy database, Copian, the largest repository of research and work, envied by other countries, has come to a startling end because of withdrawn federal funds. Fighting back will take a lot of effort but practitioners and allies need to act now. There are a handful of strong-willed resisters already speaking out. Tracey Mollins runs a blog called the Literacy Enquirer.[10] We need to read and write on this blog. Another blog is Beyond Literacy as Numbers.[11] And also look at Brigid Hayes’s blog.[12]

This is not only happening in Canada. David Rosen, a literacy advocate in the US, shared an e-mail with some highlights from a speech by Portuguese professor Licínio Lima at the General Assembly of the European Association for the Education of Adults in Brussels on 18 June 2014.[13] Professor Lima critiqued the European approach to adult literacy, and argued that “adult education needs to go back to its roots and focus on the issue of social inclusion instead of just skills for economic competitiveness… When adult education was created it was much more connected to the social movements such as the trade union movements or suffragist movement. We should try to get closer to the social movements of today…  I believe that adult education should become more ‘dangerous’ and regain its potential for transformation. This means being powerful, critical and active — adult education politically and democratically engaged, not only economically engaged.”

I love the idea of being “dangerous.” I see it as a way to act up against the quiet destruction of adult literacy education. I am disturbingly reminded about my first exposure to the invisibility of adult literacy when I started in the CLC project. I now understand the vulnerability of not being able to pass as literate, and also understand literacy as an instrument of oppression. Not only are individuals disavowed, but it is abundantly clear now that adult literacy education can be easily done away with as well. Paulo Freire said education is a political act, so be political and act up for a robust investment in adult literacy education that works for people.

And with those impassioned words Audrey ended our interview and walked out the door to begin her new life in Toronto. Her penetrating intelligence, astute political analysis, and subversive sense of humour will be sorely missed by her colleagues both at Bow Valley College and in the larger adult literacy world. We can only hope we haven’t heard the last word from Audrey Gardner.

For more information on the exact details of the cuts and the effects on the adult literacy sector, check out these websites:

As educators and adult literacy practitioners, we urge you to get informed, get involved, organize protests, ask questions, and demand answers.



Canadian Literacy and Learning Network. 2014. “Federal Government Quietly Collapses Literacy and Essential Skills Network.” Blog, 29 May.

Centre for Literacy. 2014. “Defunding of Adult Literacy Organizations Means Hard Times for Sector.” Blog, updated 26 June.

Crooks, Stacy, Paula Davies, Audrey Gardner, Katrina Grieve, Tracey Mollins, Marina Niks, Joanie Tannenbaum, and Brenda Wright. 2008. Connecting the Dots: Accountability in Adult Literacy. Voices from the Field. Quebec: The Centre for Literacy of Quebec.

Gardner, Audrey. 2003. Connecting Community to Literacy Building Community Capacity: Focus on Literacy Handbook. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

———. 2005. Literacy and Disabilities Study (LaDS) Survey Report. Calgary: Bow Valley College and Neil Squire Society.

———. 2014. “Flooded with Thoughts on Literacy While Bailing Out in Calgary.” In Stories from the Field, edited by Sandra Loschnig, 11-15. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Holbrow, Bill, and Audrey Gardner. 2005. Building Community Capacity: Focus on Literacy. Calgary: Bow Valley College and Literacy Alberta.

Horsman, Jenny, and Helen Woodrow, eds. 2007. Focused on Practice: A Framework for Adult Literacy Research in Canada. Vancouver: Harrish Press.

Steeves, Phyllis. 2010. “Literacy: Genocide’s Silken Instrument.” PhD Dissertation. University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.


[1] The Connecting Literacy to Community: Building Community Capacity project resulted in three publications available for free download on the Adult Literacy Research Institute Resources webpage under Research and Resources, then Community Development.


[3] See

[4] “Paulo Freire (1921–1997) wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which describes how education can help people change social injustice. Freire believed that education allows people to become aware of their oppression, then to transform it. For more information go to Freire Institute” Tracy Mollins, “Where’s Freire?” Literacies (2003) 1.

[5] The OECD commissioned three international adult literacy surveys of mostly western/industrial countries. The two mentioned here are IALS – International Adult Literacy Survey, conducted in the early 1990s and PIAAC –Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies. PIAAC results were released in October 2013. The other survey is called ALLSS-Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, which was completed in 2005.

[6] See

[7] SARAW is a computer program developed by the Neil Squire Society in partnership with Capilano College in Vancouver, BC. Initially developed for people with physical disabilities (who are non-verbal) to learn basic reading and writing skills, SARAW can also help people with intellectual and physical disabilities strengthen their literacy skills.

[8] These are all available on the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning website on the resources page under the heading Disability.

[9] Alberta’s Social Policy Framework, February 2013 is available at

[10] “Counting Research,” Literacy Enquirer, 29 April 2014,

[11]  “After Twenty-five Years, COPIAN (NALD) Announces It Can No Longer Receive Resources,” Beyond Literacy As Number in Canada, 9 June 2014,

[12] “Transparency? Just What Is the federal Government Funding?” 24 June 2014,

[13] Licínio Lima, “Adult Education and Democracy, ” 18 June 2014,


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

Published July 2, 2014

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.


Adults with Disabilities Using Technology to Learn with the Speech-Assisted Reading and Writing (SARAW) Software

Published June 2, 2014

Since 1993, students with disabilities at Bow Valley College have been improving their reading, writing, and math skills using a unique and innovative computer technology called SARAW.[1] These are some of the things learners say about how SARAW has made a difference in their lives:

“At work, I can find things better because I can find the word on the package or box. My boss has noticed I can read better. When I am grocery shopping I can see the words easier.”

“Reading to my children at night, glad to be in this program and hope to be here for a long time.”

“Read stories to audience, read stories that I wrote about my brother.” (Gardner 2005a, 25-26)

At Bow Valley College, adult literacy practitioner Belle Auld has coordinated the SARAW program for the past fifteen years. Belle told me about the program’s history and development.

The SARAW software was created in the early 1990s. The Neil Squire Society in Burnaby, world renowned for designing technology for people with disabilities, collaborated with Capilano College in Vancouver, who are known for innovative literacy programming. The software is adult based and teaches reading, writing, and math skills to adults with disabilities at below grade 7 level.


The SARAW software was originally designed for people with physical disabilities who are non-verbal. “However, people with intellectual as well as physical disabilities have used the program to help them strengthen their literacy skills” (Gardner 2005b, 1).  SARAW was recognized nationally by the Governor General’s Flight to Freedom Award sponsored by Canada Post in 1996. The award “honours a project showing long-term achievement, innovation, leadership and organizational excellence in literacy” (Neil Squire Society 1999, 1).

Belle explains how the technology works.

The SARAW computer has reading and writing sections and within those are reading and writing activities. The reading activities include reading authentic writing done by other people with disabilities and an accompanying workbook that builds on comprehension as well as other activities. The software also has a sounding board that I call the phonetics part of the program. It has literacy games — reading and writing activities in game format. The math portion of the program has skills starting with counting and going up to dividing. It focuses on everyday activities such as going to a restaurant, sharing the bill, figuring out taxes, going shopping and figuring out if you have enough money, writing cheques, and math games. All of this is customizable to each student. The student can choose how much the computer speaks, they can choose the voice, and they can choose the word-predict feature.

SARAW software can also be used with assistive technology.  Adults unable to operate a standard keyboard can use special adaptive equipment to operate the computer. For these learners, SARAW is the only way for them to participate in a literacy classroom.[2]

Evolution of the SARAW Program

Belle told me how the SARAW program at Bow Valley College has evolved over the years.

We’ve built a whole program around the SARAW specialty software. In addition to SARAW software [and the Companion to SARAW exercise book] , we have daily life activities and fun worksheets, crossword puzzles, menu math, an iPad with a user-friendly manual and appropriate apps, Luminosity brain training and brain games, Mavis Beacon teaching-typing software, and box cars and one-eyed Jacks (math games using cards and dice).[3] Students work one-on-one with a tutor. Tutors are either volunteers or support workers (working with community agencies). I set up a training program to train the tutors. They attend up to two hours a week in the classroom with the students. We’re open daytimes, evenings, and Saturdays.

Belle is always looking for ways to improve both the SARAW program, and services for people with disabilities. In 2003, she initiated a national research project called LaDs or the Literacy and Disabilities Study. The project had dual purposes. She wanted to explore issues in adult literacy for people with disabilities and she wanted to investigate how the SARAW software is used in different settings and delivery models. In exploring the connections between adult literacy and disabilities, the LaDs study (researched and written by Audrey Gardner) discovered some disturbing facts. For example, people with disabilities make up a disproportionate amount of the 42 percent of Canadian adults who function at the two lowest literacy levels (Movement for Canadian Literacy qtd. in Gardner 2005a, 4). Numerous studies on literacy and disabilities indicate that people with disabilities are disadvantaged when accessing programs to strengthen their literacy skills (Gardner 2005a, 4).

The study revealed more troubling information:  all national surveys on either literacy or disabilities have identified that people with disabilities are disadvantaged when accessing education, employment, housing, and other community services.

  • Fifty percent of adults with disabilities have an annual income of less than $15,000.
  • Nearly 50 percent of adults with limited literacy live in low-income households.
  • Only 56 percent of people with disabilities are employed, and most are working at low-paying jobs.

There is a serious lack of public awareness about adult literacy and disabilities. Stereotyping and assumptions about the capacity of people with disabilities to learn and to work are harsh social barriers (Bow Valley College and Neil Squire Society 2004). The LaDs study led to the development of several useful resources for adult literacy practitioners working with learners with disabilities:

  • a fact sheet on literacy and disabilities
  • a book of learner stories
  • the SARAW Survey Report documenting how SARAW and other activities and factors contribute to effective literacy learning
  • An effective practices guide (see references for more information)

This research was a catalyst for Belle’s next project: The Literacy Survey of Disability Serving Agencies. Belle began thinking about inclusion and what an ideal inclusive adult literacy program would look like.[4] She has this to say about her development process.

I knew about the focus on inclusion in the disability world and I didn’t think SARAW was exactly inclusive… Although clients are coming to the college setting, it’s one student working with one volunteer or support worker [in the SARAW classroom]. I interviewed twenty-nine agencies in Calgary about what they wanted to see in inclusive adult literacy programming for learners with disabilities… We got their input and then created it. Thanks to an anonymous donor coming forward at just the right time, we were able to create the Adult Basic Literacy Education (ABLE) inclusive classroom where people with diagnosed physical and/or developmental disabilities work alongside people without disabilities.  All the learners are working at about the grade 2 to 4 level.

An offshoot of the SARAW program, the ABLE program started in 2008 and includes the ABLE Reading and Writing class, ABLE Financial Literacy, and ABLE Computer Literacy ( to be introduced this summer). While these are positive developments, the SARAW program also has its challenges. The program has been steadily growing over the years, and currently is full to capacity with thirty-eight learner and tutor pairs. The wait-list for learners wanting to attend the program is currently fifty-eight people, the most it’s ever been. That means students are waiting an average of one-and-a-half to two years to get into the program. According to Belle,  “the challenge is trying to achieve the balance between the needs of those in the program for long slow progress — learners with low literacy and disabilities need the long slow progress — with the needs of the people waiting to get into the program.”

Belle finds that another challenge in the program is staff turnover among the community support workers who support the learners as tutors. Few tutors work with more than one learner — most work one to one (one learner with one tutor). “One student started with me and in eight weeks, he had five different support workers. So there is no continuity for the student. And it’s a huge amount of work for me to train all of them as tutors” Belle explains.

Belle has a wish list for expanding the SARAW program. “I would love to see the program doubled. If we could get the funding we could have two classrooms.” She would also like to see the program use more iPad apps complete with instructions in the current iPad user manual, which would require time for research and development.

Her biggest wish is to create what she is calling SARAW Plus. “We would use what works really well in the current SARAW software, add activities incorporating essential skills and pre-employment skills, and create it as an app that can be used on a smart device, either an android or an iPad. I see this as a joint project between Bow Valley College and the Neil Squire Society.”

In the meantime, Belle continues to grow and improve the SARAW program. She recently   finished a research project called Answers May Vary, designed to identify strategies, resources, and effective practices for adult literacy tutors working with learners with disabilities. She plans to use this information to produce a guide book and videos to be used by tutors both in the SARAW classroom, and in community agencies working with people with disabilities.

Belle photo

Belle Auld, coordinator of the SARAW program at Bow Valley College















Auld, Belle. 2007. Literacy Survey of Disability Serving Agencies. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

———. 2014. Answers May Vary: Literacy Strategies, Resources, and Effective Practices for Adult Learners with Developmental Disabilities. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Bow Valley College and Neil Squire Society. 2004. Literacy and Disabilities (LaDs) Fact Sheet. Calgary: Authors.

———. 2005. Literacy and Disabilities Study (LaDs) Learner Stories.

Gardner, Audrey, 2005a. “‘It Gets in Your Brain…’ Effective Practices in Adult Literacy Using Speech Assisted Reading and Writing (SARAW) with People with Disabilities.” Calgary: Bow Valley College and Neil Squire Society.

———. 2005b. Literacy and Disabilities Study (LaDs) Survey Report. Calgary: Bow Valley College and Neil Squire Society.

Neil Squire Society. 1999. The Companion to SARAW: An Exercise Workbook


[1] For our purposes, the term disabilities includes physical, intellectual, visual, psychiatric, and hearing-related disabilities.  It does not include learning disabilities, although people with disabilities may also have learning disabilities.


[3] Box cars and one-eyed jacks are math games using cards and dice. (It’s also the name of a company that develops educational games.) They are part of a selection of different books and kits available from “Shuffling into Math” for K-3, including money kits, books, and more advanced math materials. See

[4] “Inclusion goes beyond mere physical presence to encompass meaningful participation” (Bailey and Wagar qtd. in Auld 2007, 1).


Integrating Foundational Learning: A Training and Mentoring Project for Community Organizations Working with Adult Learners

Published May 20, 2014

Mature students learning computer skills

Image from IFL Phase II: Stories of change. Project results and case studies.

The Integrating Foundational Learning (IFL) project is an innovative training initiative designed to educate and mentor staff in community agencies on how to better integrate essential skills and literacy practices into their program activities.

In 2010, Calgary Learns identified a “specific need for training and mentoring of funded agency staff in two categories of funded programs: Community issues and Employability Enhancement. These programs offer meaningful learning opportunities to adult learners and intuitively meet foundational learners at their skill levels” (Peters and Messaros 2011, 2). The result was the IFL project.

In our conversation, Calgary Learns Executive Director Nancy Purdy shared how the IFL project grew from an idea to a project entering its fourth year:

Many adults with literacy challenges don’t enroll in literacy programs. However, many are attracted to other community programs such as a parenting class, or an employment program at the drop-in centre because these programs will help them move forward. There are a number of programs in our community that are working with foundational learners. [1] We realized that we really have to integrate literacy and essential skills into those programs when they naturally fit and help organizations realize they can enhance the learning of their program participants. This was the original start of the IFL project: to extend literacy beyond a [traditional] literacy program and help learners in a variety of programs. (interview with author)

Literacy Alberta delivered the first round of the project (funded by Calgary Learns) which ran from September 2010 to October 2011 and worked with seven agencies in the Calgary area.[2] The second round (with funding from an anonymous donor) ran from July 2012 to December 2013. Terri Peters has been a project manager and facilitator for the project for the past three and a half years. She describes the focus of the project like this:

The IFL project is focused on working with adult learning organizations (not adult literacy programs) who are working with foundational learners. Its intent is to provide skills for staff (facilitators, coordinators, front-line workers) to understand their work differently in terms of literacy and essential skills. For most of them, their program delivery is content based. The learners are coming to learn information about a particular topic, for example the Multiple Sclerosis Society or the Canadian Mental Health Association Art of Friendship class or participating in a community kitchen program…[3] We help the facilitators and coordinators to think beyond the content they’re delivering to what skills are embedded within the content. We move them from thinking about their programs as content and knowledge to thinking of them as content, knowledge, and skills.

Terri also spoke about the necessity of the project being learner centred, which in this case means organization centred. She says this about the learning process:

I see learning as transactional and transformational. Transactional in that the learner [in this case the organization] transacts with others to do the learning. The transaction is side by side, not top down. Organizations learned from each other during the training. The transformational part comes from Paulo Freire’s work.[4] The whole point of adult learning is for the learner/organization to use the information in ways that will transform their own lives.

The project activities include:

  • Teaching organizations’ program facilitators what literacy and essential skills are;
  • Observing the programs to see which literacy and essential skills they already include;
  • In discussion with facilitators, deciding which literacy and essential skills would be best to teach to their learners;
  • Teaching facilitators literacy and essential skills strategies they can embed into their current training/education;
  • Mentors helping the facilitators embed the literacy and essential skills and reflect on their facilitation and the content they teach. (Peters and Messaros 2011, 3)

Community participants engage in four workshops: Introduction to Literacy and Essential Skills, Introduction to Learning Styles and Plain language, Assessment and Evaluation, and Facilitation Techniques. In addition to offering extensive training for staff, the workshops also ensure that participants are carefully matched with mentors (adult learning and literacy specialists). This proved to be instrumental in helping organizations look at their practices. “An outside person can look at your program, ask you questions, and help you think about your program differently… The mentors for the IFL project were chosen not only because they had a literacy and adult learning background, but they also understood the program content and topics well,” Terri explained.

Successes and Innovations in the IFL Project

Image from IFL Phase II: Stories of change. Project results and case studies.

Programs and organizations incorporated the new learning into their programs in many different ways depending upon organizational capacity, staff experience, and programming needs. Terri said that “Up front, the one thing most of the programs took from the training was the education on learning styles and plain language. They began thinking carefully about how they speak and write so that it’s useful for the learners and isn’t full of jargon or words we assume learners will know.”

Other organizations used what they’d learned about plain language to help them analyze and improve their intake process.

We no longer rely completely on our written referral form. Our mentor has guided us with a literacy-conscious approach to ensure that our learners are able to complete the process successfully. We have a shorter, simpler form and combine that with a second stage conversational interview. Our mentor suggested we ask the more difficult questions orally rather than list them on the form. Because of this format, more people are invited to come in for a face-to-face intake, which allows assessment in a relaxed, informal environment. Writing sensitive material can be intimidating to some clients with limited literacy (reading and writing) skills. A small percentage of our learners speak and write English only as a second language. We want to be sensitive to our learners’ comfort in communicating. Receiving information through both mediums enables us to assess learners’ fit in our program. We can assess their skill level tactfully, eliminating much anxiety. (Canadian Mental Health Association Peer Options program, qtd. in Peters and Messaros 2011, 6)

Some organizations redesigned their entire programs following their experience with the IFL project. For example, Momentum reshaped some of their start-up financial literacy and small business training.[5] “They recognized a gap between one entry level program and the next program to which learners were being promoted. They also recognized that not enough time was spent developing the essential skills required to be successful in the programs and in the students’ small business. As a result, Momentum created three classes to replace the original two to better address the needs of the students and enhance their success in their businesses” (Peters and Messaros 2011, 5).

We knew we had an increase in participation from foundational learners in our programs. We knew our programs were struggling to meet their needs. The IFL project helped us identify the gaps in training and gave us the courage and the tools to redesign the programs. (Momentum staff qtd. in Peters and Messaros 2011, 5)

Whether they were experienced facilitators or new in their positions, working with local or national organizations, participants were able to incorporate new learning from the facilitation workshops. Terri says that

For some programs, the content they deliver can’t be changed — it’s part of a national standard. However, they could change how they deliver the content. The IFL project gave them tools to deliver it differently, to be more aware of pausing, to ask learners questions, to talk to learners not only to deliver content, but to engage with learners.

Participants spoke about having “an increased understanding of the importance of formally or informally assessing learners in terms of Literacy and Essential Skills competencies before moving forward (to be able to gear their presentation)” (Gardner and Witkowskyj 2014, 8).

Non-profit staff also identified many benefits and positive outcomes for their learners after completing the IFL project, and attributed these to participation in the project. Namely:

  • Observed better and more stable employment and social connections
  • Increased learner success (more learners passing!)
  • More variety of resources to better suit different learning styles (i.e., PowerPoint for visual learners, activities for tactile learners)
  • More interactive exercises so learners can practise interpersonal skills and benefit from group learning
  • Even adding just a few additional strategies for enhancing foundational learning increased adults’ competency in navigating day to day activities (i.e., better time management, budgeting, etc.) (Gardner and Witkowskyj 2014, 11-13)

The IFL project has been offered twice and proven effective for a wide range of non-profit organizations and programs including:

First Phase: the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, Calgary Workers’ Resource Centre, Canadian Mental Health Association (Peer Options Program), Deaf and Hard of Hearing Society (Family-Focused American Sign Language Program), Families Matter, Momentum, SCOPE (Integrated Community Kitchen Program)

Second Phase: CanLearn Society (Magic Carpet Ride and Learning Starts at Home programs), Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada (Support Services), Calgary Public Library (Digital Literacy and Community Learning Advocation: Careers), Momentum (Business Basics, StartSmart, and Train-the-Trainer), SCOPE (Integrated Community Kitchen), the Drop-In Centre (Employment Services Training), and Youville Recovery Residence for Women (New Beginnings Group Residential Program)

Mentorship Was Key to Success in the IFL Project

Mentors were a critical component of the project. Terri recruited mentors who had a background in adult learning, adult literacy, and/or working with individuals with developmental disabilities. Each organization was assigned a mentor who was responsible for observing a workshop to learn about the organization, as well as helping the staff think about how to incorporate the learning from the workshops into their daily work and organizational practices (Peters 2014, 6). “Many organizations felt that without a mentor, they would not have been able to see the changes they wanted to make or received support to make them” (Peters 2014, 5).

Our mentor’s flexibility was critical to our success. Her background knowledge was invaluable in creating training that met the needs of the Library… Our mentor was also very receptive to hearing and incorporating our ideas for making the content relevant to Calgary Public Library program subjects and situations. This allowed staff to see immediate tie-in and connections… The training was critical to raising awareness of the integration of foundational learning system-wide, and our learners will benefit far into the future as the discussion continues. (Calgary Public Library staff qtd. in Peters 2014, 6)

Challenges That Came Up During Implementation

As happens with all new programming, the IFL project was not without its challenges. Staff turnover in mid project, resistance to change from learners and co-workers during implementation, and simply getting everyone—staff and mentors—in the same room for training and meetings tested the IFL facilitator’s capacity to deliver the project effectively. Identifying and addressing the challenges resulted in creativity and improvements in the way the project activities are offered. For example, instead of holding large workshop meetings with all the participants, Terri shifted to delivering some of the workshops to staff right in their own organizations. This proved very popular because she could provide specific suggestions about how to integrate the training into their programming during the workshop (Peters and Messaros 2011, 9).

Staff turnover and organizational restructuring is part of any workplace, but it sometimes resulted in the newly trained staff leaving the organization, and new staff not being able to follow through with implementing changes. Terri realized that in future IFL training projects, it is crucial to include supervisors, decision makers, and others in the organization so that the learning has greater impact and longevity (Peters 2014, 18).

Future Directions

Both Terri Peters (Project Facilitator) and Nancy Purdy (Executive Director of Calgary Learns) want to use the learning gained from these first two phases of the Integrating Foundational Learning project to create a sustainable collaborative model that can be recreated in other communities. Nancy envisions IFL as a more fluid type of professional development offered to community organizations.

In future, it’s possible that we will have two streams of the program: one with training only (organizations pick and choose which sessions to attend) and one with the training plus mentoring (organizations would commit to attending all the training sessions and be assigned a mentor).

This type of model would provide greater flexibility for organizations to commit as much time and energy as their capacity allows and still receive the training. “Sometimes instructors have only one session with their learners. These one-time workshops are a different kind of program so you can’t make the same type of [in-depth] change. But the facilitation training, for example, might be a really good piece for these educators to pick up some strategies,” Nancy explains.

Image from IFL Phase II: Stories of change. Project results and case studies.

Both Terri and Nancy emphasize that one of the really important side benefits of the IFL project is the opportunity for creating partnerships and collaborations. Organizations work alongside each other during the workshops. “This in turn helps foster relationships, breaking down some of the barriers. People start seeing the fit where they might be able to work together,” Nancy says.

Alberta’s Social Policy Framework includes community collaboration as part of the roles and responsibilities for the non-profit and voluntary sector. Specifically, the policy encourages community organizations to collaborate with one another, sharing knowledge and raising awareness, assist one another to develop their own place-based response,  and work with other non-profit and voluntary sector organizations, and foundations around shared interests and building system capacity (Government of Alberta 2013, 16).

The Integrating Foundational Learning project fulfills all three roles within the community literacy landscape — providing opportunities for sharing knowledge, assisting communities to develop their own response to the needs of foundational learners, and building system capacity within non-profit organizations. Terri and Nancy are hopeful about securing funding to carry the project forward.


Gardner, Audrey, and Candace Witkowskyj. 2014. Evaluation of the Integrating Foundational Learning Project. Calgary: Adult Literacy Research Institute, Bow Valley College.

Government of Alberta. 2013. Alberta’s Social Policy Framework. Retrieved from

Peters, Terri. 2014. Integrating Foundational Learning Phase II: Stories of Change. Calgary Learns. Retrieved from

Peters, Terri, and Cindy Messaros. 2011. Integrating Foundational Learning: Training and Mentoring Project. Project Results and Helpful Practices. Literacy Alberta and Calgary Learns. Retrieved from


[1] “Foundational learning refers to the basic skills or competencies adults require to fully participate in life: the ability to participate as neighbours and citizens, have satisfying employment and prepare to pursue further learning” (Calgary Learns qtd. in Peters and Messaros 2011, 2).

[2] Literacy Alberta is a provincial literacy organization providing support, resources, tools, and professional development for literacy practitioners, learners, tutors, and employers across Alberta.

[3] The Canadian Mental Health Association’s Calgary Peer Options program provides group support where adults with a mental illness can increase their health and well-being by reducing isolation and building social skills. See more information.

[4] Paulo Freire, renowned Brazilian educator, theorist, and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

[5] Momentum works with low-income learners in the areas of financial literacy, small business development, micro loans, and money management. See for their full range of services.


Radical Humanities 101: Engaging Marginalized Adults in Learning and Life

Published May 6, 2014

Digital Quilt created by Humanities 101 Students


“For me education is all about the possibility of transformation and capacity building, and is bound up in the meanings we have about ourselves. And for me, that’s found in the humanities through poetry, prose, drama, art, music, and classical studies.” Dr. Tara Hyland-Russell began our conversation with this statement about her work in the Humanities 101 program at St. Mary’s University College, an independent Catholic liberal arts university located on a historic site in Calgary, Alberta.[1] Humanities 101 is a unique university education program for marginalized adult learners adapted from the Clemente model pioneered by Earl Shorris, a journalist and social critic.

Shorris believed that “access to the humanities addresses the power differential within society that regulates relative poverty and affluence and provides the reflective space and tools necessary to become fully engaged citizens, to join the viva active (the active life), a life based on action and choice, and to escape from lives of impoverishment” (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2010a, 19). In 1997, Shorris launched his first humanities course designed to reach socially and educationally disadvantaged non-traditional adult learners: the poor and disenfranchised in New York City (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2010a, 10). The course was named after the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in lower Manhattan, a place that provided counselling to poor people in their own language and in their own community (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2010a, 10).

Many different versions of the Clemente course developed since then, throughout Canada, Mexico, Australia, Korea, the United States, and Sudan (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2010a, 10). And although each was based on Shorris’s principles, many chose to build their models in unique ways.

The Evolution of Calgary’s Humanities 101 Program

The Humanities 101 program in Calgary started out as Storefront 101. In 2003, Claire Dorian Chapman, a community social worker with the City of Calgary, was inspired by the success of a Humanities 101 program initiated at the University of British Columbia in 1998. She organized a pilot program in Calgary with the help of several collaborators: the Mustard Seed, a non-profit Christian humanitarian agency that provided services to the homeless and street people of Calgary; City of Calgary Community and Neighbourhood Services; Athabasca University (AU); University of Calgary (UC); and Alberta Human Resources. Pilot funding was provided by Calgary Community Adult Learning Association (CCALA) (now Calgary Learns) (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2008, 153).

By 2004, the other universities were less involved, and St. Mary’s University College came on board as the accrediting institution. St. Mary’s program is the only program that gives students the choice to either get university credit or to audit the courses. This decision can be made part way through the courses.

Initially classes were held at a local church but they later moved to Alliance University College/Nazarene University (now Ambrose University) and weekly tutorials were at the Mustard Seed. Storefront 101 became Humanities 101 in 2009 and moved permanently to St. Mary’s University College campus. This decision was made after consulting with the students about their needs and preferences. As Tara explained, “We host it on St. Mary’s Campus and we do that quite deliberately. The research that Janet [Groen] and I did with students across three Canadian humanities programs said it was really important for them to physically step foot on the university campus—that symbolically it means a tremendous amount to be able to call themselves university students.” She added that when students come to the program, they are fully St. Mary’s students: they receive a student ID card and have access to the library, the fitness centre, and counselling services.

Defining Elements of Humanities 101

One of the principal goals of the program is to create social change. Tara explained:

We look at ourselves as an institution. What kind of barriers, visible and invisible, do we have in place that keep learners away from learning or that impede their progress? We’re always looking at ourselves and what we can do, as well as the wider community. We’re trying to teach our students that they have more agency and they can make choices in their lives.

The program teaches literature, history, cultural studies, art history, music, and the classics. Tara talked about the curriculum and how it is presented:

Through a variety of texts and teachers, we look at different issues, different ideas. Two courses we are now repeating every year are Story and Meaning, and Different Stories, Different Meanings … So everything from creation stories to stories from around the world. Last term we did a whole unit on Aboriginal history in Canada. We looked at First Nations poetry and prose … I try to tailor the content to reach the students who are in the class. Last term we had a very ethnically diverse group of students from all over the world—students from Sudan, Dubai, and Nigeria. We try to bring in immigrant stories as well as First Nations stories. We try to honour all of those perspectives but also talk about some of the difficult questions. For example, in Canada what is the difference between a settler, a First Nations person, an immigrant? We talked about the colonial history of Canada and most students had no idea … they found that very moving and upsetting and we had some heated conversations. That’s when we did the smudging and the talking circles to bring everybody back into the community.

Another component of the program is taking the students to cultural events and public spaces, including live plays, art galleries, and museums. “We want the students to access culture because that’s what helps make us citizens and engages us in society. Again, most of the students have not gone to live theatre, or to the art gallery or to the museum. They are absolutely thrilled and very thoughtful about what they see. It is also about deliberately transgressing those spaces that have often been kept for the elite,” Tara explained.

An additional, vital element of the program is countering any physical barriers that might obstruct student participation. Tuition is free; textbooks, binders, pens, and paper are paid for; transit tickets are supplied. Childcare is covered if needed. Tara added, “We have a hot, nutritious meal before class twice a week. That’s important not just because people are hungry but also to form a community. So it’s really important that we all sit down around a table together and get to know each other as people.”

Students are required to read a lot, reflect on their reading, and do written assignments weekly. “For us that’s a really important part of the learning … that’s really where the transformation takes place,” Tara told me.

Authenticity as Teachers and People

Tara has been involved with the program since its beginning in 2003, initially teaching English literature. She recalls the first time she taught the Humanities 101 class:

That first night I stood in front of the class and I thought, oh dear, they’re terrified. And I thought I have to do something entirely different here than I’ve ever done before and so I started doing some oral story telling. I’ve thought a tremendous amount about pedagogy since that moment and what I’ve learned in Storefront 101 and Humanities 101, I bring back to my degree courses here.

In that moment, Tara realized that the students needed to overcome their initial fears and feelings of isolation. They didn’t need the expert persona of a “professor” with its connotations of power and authority. They needed her to help them “find a way to inhabit the learning space comfortably and begin to participate in the active dialogic process that marks both learning and civic engagement” (Hyland-Russell and Groen 2013, 42-43.)

In her past work Tara had practised storytelling, but hadn’t used it in her work at the university. Intuitively, she told the students about “a practice from Haiti that offers a model of belonging and dialogue as listeners are invited into a shared community space. In Haiti, when people are gathered and someone wants to tell a story, they stand up and say ‘cric’. If the listeners want that particular storyteller to tell a story at the time they respond with ‘crac’. If the community doesn’t respond or the response is weak, the teller does not have permission to bring a story into that space” (Hyland-Russell and Groen 2013, 42). Tara explained to her class that without a “crac,” she did not have permission to tell them a story. “Would they like a tale? Cric,” she said. “Crac” the class replied enthusiastically and she began telling them the Haitian story called “The Magic Orange Tree.”[2]

In doing this exercise with the students, Tara shifted the power dynamic within the class and began the slow process of gaining trust and building relationships with the students. “I see a lot of people who are afraid to learn or they have had negative experiences in learning. I think it’s possible to ignite that flame, that passion. But it takes a willingness to risk and to be vulnerable on the teacher’s part,” she said.

Characteristics of the Students

When students come in for an interview they fill out a questionnaire developed specifically for the program. The main criterion for entrance into the Humanities 101 program is low income. While the income levels are tied to the Low Income Cut Offs (LICO) established by Statistics Canada,[3] there is some subjectivity involved in determining what’s considered low income. During the interview, people are asked how they think their experience fits into the program. Tara elaborated on the characteristics of most of the students in the program.

In general, the students who come to the program are all low income. They’ve experienced prior interrupted education, or negative experiences with education. Many of them have experiences with violence. Some have experiences with substance abuse or addictions. A number of them have experienced homelessness or unstable housing. They may also have a physical or mental illness or disability. An increasing number have experience with war, immigration, being refugees. They are referred from over 130 agencies and services in Calgary.

The students’ ages range between 18 and 63. People are also assessed on an individual basis for how they will fit into the dynamic of the class. The program requires that people not come to class under the influence. Tara stresses that “a main feature of the program is that it is a profoundly safe place.”

Innovations in Calgary’s Humanities 101 Program: “Making the Learning Come Alive”

The curriculum in Humanities 101 is always undergoing change to keep it fresh and current and instructors use innovative techniques to engage learners and make the learning come alive. Here are two innovations that stood out.

Keeping Cahiers

During the last ten years of her life, artist Frida Kahlo kept a journal of writings, observations, reflections, watercolour drawings, and sketches (Hyland-Russell 2013, 1). Tara read about this technique and wondered if “combining text and image in a reflective journaling assignment would contribute to students’ transformational learning processes” (ibid., 1). She developed a reflective journaling practice she calls keeping cahiers that she uses in her undergraduate classes, including Humanities 101:

Essentially every week or every other week, students need to give me a couple of pages of text and image. And I give them prompts now [questions to open up their thinking]…The students say that it absolutely helps them ruminate — it takes them places that they don’t go otherwise, and helps them really bring together strands of what they are learning. It also gives them a place to put their emotions and to record their emotional responses [to the learning].

In her study of the students’ perspectives on keeping cahiers, Hyland-Russell found that:

1) cahiers invited students to engage holistically with course material;

2) cahiers facilitated divergent and creative thinking;

3) cahiers aided deep learning through ownership of the process and content;

4) essential to student engagement with the cahiers was the instructor-student dialogue and situating the cahier as a safe, reflective place; and

5) central to the way cahiers function is their inclusion of images. (Hyland-Russell 2013, 6)

 Artivism: Art as Activism

Last semester, Tara attended a conference in Regina on arts-based research for Aboriginal communities. At the conference she met Leslie Robinson, a scholar from Edmonton who has been working in Uganda with Ugandan youth for eight years doing art as activism – artivism. After Tara described this work to the class, they decided they wanted to do an artivism project. They skyped with Leslie Robinson. With the students gathered around in a horseshoe, Leslie led the conversation.

Tara explained the process like this:

Everybody has to come to a consensus about the topic or theme. It took two and a half hours to come to consensus about the project and how we were going to go about it. We had just read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. One of the threads of the course was what is the meaning of our life? how do we make meaning? and how is that connected with our transformative learning journeys? So they came up with the prompt “Our Journeys of Transformation – What Ultimately Matters?” Everybody, even the most shy, had their chance to speak and they all agreed on the topic.

Following this process, Leslie Robinson travelled to Calgary to work with the class. They gathered art supplies and people made art pieces. Some did a “before and after” piece to show how they felt before they came into the program and how they feel after. They took digital images of the final art and called it a digital quilt. This project was shared with the community at the end of the semester’s learning celebration. Tara explained that “one of the aims of artivism is to impact the community and try to create social change. Students were able to talk about their pieces in front of the audience, which included the board of governors and potential donors.”

Student Success Stories

Graduates from the program have moved on to postsecondary education, taking courses for audit, credit, and as part of university degree programs. Twelve students entered St. Mary’s, with two students graduating by October 2012 and two more close to completion. Some students have completed degrees at other postsecondary institutions. Other student successes include obtaining employment, working as a research assistant, volunteering, and having an increased capacity for decision making and civic engagement (Press Release, St. Mary’s University College).

In a previous Story from the Field, I spoke about the different ways of measuring success and student progress. “While learner success and growth can be measured in statistics, grades, or numbers, learners and the practitioners who work with them often measure success through the personal stories that describe changes in their lives”(Loschnig 2013). Such life changes are certainly evident at the end of the Humanities 101 course.

Recently, at the learning celebration held on 15 April 2014, I sat in the audience and watched as student after student came forward and spoke eloquently about how the course had changed their lives. Several spoke about Humanities 101 saving their lives. They described previously feeling worthless and suicidal, and how, through the course work and with the support of fellow students and instructors, they found themselves thinking about their worlds differently. One woman said quietly “I learned I can take part in the world — not just react to it.”

She was not alone. At the end of our conversation, Tara shared this story with me:

At the learning celebration at the end of the last semester, a student came up on the stage to receive her certificate of completion. She walked up to the microphone and said “You know, when I first started this course the question for me was: to be or not to be. I was suicidal and this course saved my life.” She’s still struggling — she hasn’t got it all figured out, but she’s back for another course and she’s starting to figure out that she is strong and resilient and she can make choices.

By any measurement, formal or informal, the Humanities 101 program is an unqualified success.

Program Sustainability

Finding long-term funding to support the Humanities 101 program has been an ongoing challenge. Calgary’s program was on hiatus from 2011 to 2013 due to a lack of funding.

With the passionate support of St. Mary’s president, Dr. Gerry Turcotte, the university has made a commitment to keep the program running. In the fall of 2012, they embarked on a fundraising campaign, Friends of Humanities 101, to raise funds to relaunch the program in 2013. The university provides help on the development front with support in writing grants and expanding fundraising initiatives. To make the program sustainable in the long term, they have also given Tara teaching release, in recognition of the time she spends in the program, though she still volunteers a large part of her time.

Volunteers are an integral part of Humanities 101. Tutors who work with the students are all volunteers, mostly from within the student body and from the community, and faculty teaching the program all volunteer their time and expertise. “We actually have a lineup of faculty who want to teach and volunteer their time,” Tara told me during our conversation. “One of the other reasons the program thrives here is that our larger student body really values the program. They care about the students. We only have 700 or so students and they have committed to raising over $5000 a year to support Humanities 101.” In the past year alone, students raised over $13,000 and donated it all to Humanities 101.

With the university’s support and ongoing fundraising, Tara is optimistic that the program is at St. Mary’s to stay.

If you are interested in helping St. Mary’s continue to provide this essential programming, visit for more information and learn how to donate.

There is no doubt that the humanities courses offered for people living in poverty are radical. They seek to uncover and disrupt relations of power that surround and immobilize the poor while they enact a pedagogy that transforms not only the students but all participants in the learning community. To mark and name this radical education that is rooted in social justice, we have coined the term radical humanities. (Groen and Hyland-Russell 2010b, 33)


Fraser, Wilma, and Tara Hyland-Russell. 2011. “The Wisdom of Sophia: Adult Educators and Adult Learners as Wisdom Seekers.” In New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, edited by Elizabeth Tisdell and A. Swartz, 25-34. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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

———. 2010a. “Radical Humanities: A Pathway Toward Transformational Learning for Marginalized Non-Traditional Adult Learners.” Ottawa: Canadian Council on Learning. Retrieved from

———. 2010b. “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 Alfred, 29-47. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

———. 2011. “Humanities Professors on the Margins: Creating the Possibility of Transformative Learning.” Journal of Transformative Education 8 (4): 223-45.

Hyland-Russell, Tara. 2013. “’I Will Write to You with My Eyes’: Reflective Text and Image Journals in the Undergraduate Classroom.” Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2013.777403

Hyland-Russell, Tara, and Janet Groen. 2008. “Authenticity: Honouring Self and Others in Practice.” In Thinking Beyond Borders: Global Ideas, Global Values: Proceedings of National Conference of the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education (CASAE)/ L’Association Canadienne Pour L’Etude de L’education des adultes (ACEEA) 27th Conference, edited by Janet Groen and Shibao Guo, 152-58. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, 1-3 June.

———. 2013. “Crossing a Cultural Divide: Transgressing the Margins into Public Spaces to Foster Adult Learning.” In Lifelong Learning, the Arts and Creative Cultural Engagement in the Contemporary University, edited by Darlene Clover and K. Sanford, 42-53. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Loschnig, Sandra. 2013. “How Are Practitioners Collecting Evidence of Student Growth? What Role Does Assessment Play in Teaching and Learning in Adult Literacy?”Stories from the Fieldblog, 12 November.Retrieved from

Press Release, St. Mary’s University College, 24 October 2012. Retrieved from

Robinson, Leslie. “Co-creating Artivist Pedagogy in Uganda/Canada.” 1 March 2013.

Shorris, Earl. 1997. “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As a Weapon in the Hands of the Poor.” Harper’s Magazine. September. Retrieved from

———. 2000. Riches for the Poor: the Clemente Course in the Humanities. New York: W.W. Norton.

Wolkstein, Diane. 1978. The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales. New York: Random House.


[1] According to its website, St. Mary’s students “are inspired to combine academics with a passionate commitment to ethics, social justice, and respect for diversity of opinion and belief.” Retrieved from

[2] The tale and knowledge of the cric-crac practice were taken from Diane Wolkstein’s book The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folk Tales, which contains transcribed and translated tales gathered from oral Haitian story tellers, a source credited in class when Tara told the story.

[3] The low income cut-offs (LICOs) are income thresholds below which a family will likely devote a larger share of its income on the necessities of food, shelter, and clothing than the average family. Retrieved from the Statistics Canada website



The Stories from the Field are now compiled in a book! Click image to get your copy.



Celebrating Alberta’s Deborah Morgan, Phyllis Steeves, and Lorene Anderson: Three Literacy Cartographers Mapping the Way

Published Feb 10, 2014

Stories from the Field has been a year-long, informal professional-development project that shares literacy practitioners’ stories of innovations, successes, and challenges working in the adult literacy field in Alberta. Because this is the last story in the initial phase of this project, it’s fitting that it celebrates three extraordinary women. In their own way, each is a literacy cartographer charting new and innovative landscapes in adult literacy in Alberta.

Grassroots to technology — Deborah Morgan has grown programs with hope, heart, and skill.

photo 3 (1)Literacy practitioner Deborah Morgan’s work spaces have included a tiny office, a kitchen table, and on-line learning over the past twenty-seven years but the work has rippled out to change the lives of a wide range of people. It all started in 1986, when Deborah accepted a position as the coordinator of the new Camrose Adult Read and Write Program. The program was among the first twenty-five adult literacy programs in Alberta. Contracted to work twenty hours a week for $9.00 an hour, with a total budget of $12,000 a year, her job was to set up an office, recruit and train volunteers to tutor adult literacy students, assess and match students with tutors, keep records, and raise awareness in the community about literacy issues (Morgan 1992, i). This was no small task! New to the literacy field, she hit the ground running.

What I didn’t know academically, I tried to make up for in enthusiasm and hope. And I had a lot of help … The strongest and most valuable support I received for the work I was trying to do was from other literacy workers in the province who were dealing with similar joys and frustrations as they faced the challenges of their own literacy work. (Morgan 1992, ii)

Eventually, Deborah became a member of the Literacy Coordinators of Alberta (LCA) and the Alberta Association for Adult Literacy. Part of this work included managing the LCA’s Regional Resource People Project. As her work expanded she met more and more literacy coordinators from all over the province, hearing and sharing stories about literacy work. She felt that the development of grassroots community-based volunteer-tutor literacy programs needed to be recognized and documented as a piece of our literacy history. From this seed, the Opening Doors book took root.

Beginning in the fall of 1990 and over the next year, Deborah travelled over 7,000 kilometres by car, plane, and bus to visit forty-two communities in Alberta. She completed eighty-eight interviews with volunteer and paid tutors, literacy coordinators, literacy classroom instructors, and some administrators (Morgan 1992, iv).

I wrote Opening Doors because I was so intrigued by all the stories and experiences that literacy workers talked about and felt they needed to be honoured, given a voice. I wanted people to hear about and recognize the amazing work that was going on in little communities throughout Alberta. (Personal interview, 2013)

Her work was just beginning. In 1993, Deborah was introduced to a group of women on government assistance who had been referred by their social worker. The worker considered them to be “severely employment disadvantaged.” As Deborah recalls from that introduction, “years of poverty, abuse and getting bumped around in the system had left the women feeling bruised and afraid. The social worker didn’t hold out much hope for my being able to make a difference in the lives of these women, but when I met the women, I liked them immediately” (Morgan and Twiss 2010, 8).

Deborah and the women met once a week in her kitchen, getting to know one another and developing trust. With Deborah’s support, they came up with a proposal for a program that “would honour the personal and learning needs of women who had been scarred by the debilitating effects of physical, emotional, and/or substance abuse. The women wanted to call the program ‘Chapters’, because they were looking forward to a new chapter in their lives” (Morgan and Twiss 2010, 8). After almost another year of meetings and presentations, they secured funding and the Chapters program began.

In the winter of 1994, twelve women began meeting in an upstairs classroom of an old building in downtown Camrose. This is how Deborah described her approach to facilitating such a diverse group of women:

Learning has to feel safe so creating a safe environment is really important. And part of that safe environment is acceptance. People have to feel they belong in this group — that they are worthy of being in this group. They need to feel they are equal contributors — that they have skills that they can share with one another and with the instructor. (Personal interview, 2013)

Writing was a key activity in the Chapters program. Deborah used a “writing from the heart” approach (which initially puts aside concerns about spelling and grammar). Even though their literacy skills ranged from very basic to a grade 8 level, the women wrote stories about their thoughts and experiences. They explored ideas, feelings, personal conflicts, and challenges. Eventually they produced seven publications that were enthusiastically received locally, provincially, and nationally (Morgan and Twiss 2010, 18).

Three years later when funding ran out and the Chapters program came to an end, Deborah and the women decided to put together a handbook documenting their writing experiences/exercises as part of the project’s final report.

One of the Chapters students surprised herself one day when she finished doing some writing about the loss of her marriage. She looked up suddenly and said “I don’t like talking about this stuff, but it sure feels good to write about it. I feel like I’m writing out loud instead of talking out loud! (Morgan and Twiss 2010, 21)

This work led to the development of the Write to Learn project in 1998. This project was designed to find out how literacy workers were teaching writing in their programs. It became clear that people wanted “more professional development opportunities and better resources to help them improve their practice and approach to teaching writing” (Morgan and Twiss 2010, 28).And as they say, the rest is history. The Chapters handbook was printed and called Writing Out Loud. The women helped to assemble one hundred binders which were distributed to volunteer tutor programs throughout Alberta. This turned into a second, third, and fourth printing as literacy workers across Canada wanted a copy of the resource. After the women sold over a thousand copies in binder form, Grassroots Press in Edmonton agreed to publish and promote a book version of Writing Out Loud as a professional educational resource in their catalogue. Soon practitioners in the United States wanted to purchase the book. It was evident that practitioners across Canada and internationally wanted and needed resources to help them teach writing.

In 1999, Deborah and three students from the Chapters program — Sharron Szott, Barb McTavish, and Alice Kneeland — travelled across Canada teaching what they called “Fearless Writing” workshops. By December, 2000, they had delivered forty-seven workshops/presentations in eighteen cities in eight provinces/territories to approximately 980 men and women (582 instructors and 398 students) (Morgan and Twiss 2010, 29).

The project was gaining momentum. Programs around the country were requesting workshops and training. The group needed to find a way to train literacy workers from regions across Canada as Writing Out Loud instructors. Creating a distance education course seemed to be the answer (Morgan and Twiss 2010, 36).

In November 2000, twenty-eight literacy workers from across Canada piloted the first Writing Out Loud On-line Instructor Training. The work included personal reading and on-line participation using conferencing software (Morgan and Twiss 2010, 41). Literacy practitioners had discovered on-line training and there was no turning back.

In the ensuing years, Deborah continued her work developing numerous on-line learning and professional development initiatives for literacy practitioners. This work culminated in her involvement in a nationwide project called Getting Online: Distance Education Promising Practices for Canadian Literacy Practitioners (the GO Project). The two-year project (2007-2009) was designed to research trends, technologies, and promising practices in on-line and distance learning in the literacy field in Canada. The project included A Research Report on Online Learning for Canadian Literacy Practitioners, A Promising Practices Manual, an on-line course, and self-directed training modules on the GO website.

In addition to Deborah’s project work, she served as president of both the Literacy Coordinators of Alberta and the Alberta Association of Adult Literacy (precursors to the provincial literacy association, Literacy Alberta).This past year, Deborah came out of retirement to serve as a mentor in the Integrating Foundational Learning Project. This work involved helping program staff at the Calgary chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society understand what literacy and essential skills their clients needed to make better use of the society’s programs and educational materials.

Teacher, mentor, networker, researcher, writer, and collaborator—with hope, heart, and skill, Deborah Morgan continues to be involved in literacy work from her home in Camrose, Alberta.

Maverick literacy practitioner and scholar Phyllis Steeves is challenging the current way of defining Aboriginal literacy.

PhyllisS_PhotoWhen Phyllis Steeves talks about her learning journey, she speaks about “the merging of personal, professional, and academic experiences” that brought her to her current work. Phyllis describes herself as “a Cree-Metis woman with strong roots in the community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta.” Lac Ste. Anne is an annual destination for thousands of Aboriginal peoples who make a pilgrimage to the lake for healing and spiritual rejuvenation. Phyllis also calls herself a mother, grandmother, sister, friend, and a daughter, although her parents have both passed away.

Phyllis’s introduction to the formal literacy world came through her work with the Metis Nation of Alberta Association (MNA) in the early 1990s. There, she created an annotated bibliography of Metis-specific literacy materials, and later coordinated a literacy program. Like many practitioners I spoke to, Phyllis didn’t plan on being a literacy coordinator — she fell into it. The work simply resonated with who she was. During this time she began reflecting on what literacy meant for her, as a Cree Metis, and what it might mean for other Aboriginal peoples.

Following her work at the MNA, Phyllis went back to school, earning certificates (with distinction) in non-profit agency management, volunteer management, and fundraising management at MacEwan University. Her heart was in working for a non-profit organization and she started working for a progressive, inner-city adult literacy association, The Learning Centre Literacy Association in Edmonton. This was the beginning of over ten years’ work in mainstream literacy.

While working for this association, Phyllis was granted a ten-month sabbatical, a rare opportunity in the non-profit field. She chose to pursue a master’s degree in International Peace Studies at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Wanting a change, Phyllis planned to study topics other than literacy or issues related to Aboriginal peoples. Despite her plans to try something new, she discovered that “you can take the woman out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the woman.” Her master’s thesis explored  “Cultural Genocide Practices: A Case Study of Canada’s Metis” (Steeves 2003). This work laid part of the foundation for her future thinking and research.

Phyllis returned to Canada and resumed working at The Learning Centre Literacy Association. She continued to seriously think about the various definitions of literacy and what their impact was on Aboriginal peoples. Literacy as a concept was expanding and becoming ever more inclusive. For example, the terms computer literacy, financial literacy, and health literacy (along with their corresponding skill sets) were now commonly used. This concept included Aboriginal literacy as a construct (Steeves 2010, 3).

In 2005, she sought a doctorate program where she would have an opportunity to work with Indigenous scholars. She found one in her own backyard: the Indigenous Peoples’ Education program in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta. She proceeded to explore the ideas and concepts that she had been musing on for so many years in her doctorate.

“The concept of Aboriginal literacy now encompassed principles of instruction and the ways of being and knowing of Aboriginal peoples” (Steeves 2010, 3). Phyllis wondered whether this was a positive or negative development. “I began to wonder how my grandchildren might be impacted by this inclusion of Aboriginal peoples’ ways of being and knowing under the powerful construct of ‘literacy’ as defined by the dominant society” (Steeves 2010, 4).

The resulting dissertation was called “Literacy: Genocide’s Silken Instrument. The title is powerful, shocking, and amazingly apt. It is a potent treatise on the concept of literacy. Using the metaphor of an orb spider spinning its intricate web, it illustrates how “Aboriginal peoples’ ways of knowing and being have made contact with and become entwined within the concept of literacy” (Steeves 2010, 116). Steeves explores “the actions/events/discourses that facilitated creation of a concept which reframes Aboriginal peoples’ ways of knowing and being under a Eurocentric construct: the concept of Aboriginal literacy” (Steeves 2010, abstract). She suggests that Aboriginal peoples’ distinct ways of being and knowing are at risk of being erased and lost within these expanding definitions of literacy.

Currently, Phyllis is an assistant professor teaching education students (future teachers) at the University of Calgary. She admits that she has been stunned by many students’ lack of knowledge and awareness of Aboriginal peoples’ history and ways of being, and she is working to change that. “Recently teaching student teachers, I was saddened by the lack of knowledge of the history, hardships, and successes of Aboriginal peoples. Ignorance is still the norm. The good news is this is slowly changing.” (personal interview, 2014)

She is also project lead on the Alberta Adult Assessment Framework for Aboriginal Peoples project at Bow Valley College. Team members are working to create an English-language, user-friendly self-assessment model that will be developed through engagement with Aboriginal adults in urban and rural locations.

Like the spider weaving a web, there is a constant thread weaving through Phyllis Steeves’s work. She strives to bring a contextual framework that values Aboriginal peoples’ history, culture, and ways of knowing and being to the table. Within that framework, she is simultaneously defining herself and challenging us to join her in critically reflecting on the meaning and impact — real and potential — of the concept of Aboriginal literacy. “Construction of a new web is imminent, its location and architecture is, however, yet to be determined” (Steeves 2010, 117).

Lorene Anderson —Bringing breadth and depth to adult literacy in Alberta

My approach to adult learning is that it encompasses everything from working with people with low levels of literacy to working with people who are in the workplace who may not have quite as low levels of literacy but want to improve their skills. I think that if you don’t have the skills to change your world, you don’t look at your world to see where it can be changed. (personal interview, 2013)

LoreneAWhen someone calls Lorene Anderson an adult literacy specialist, she seems genuinely surprised. She is a modest woman who feels uncomfortable blowing her own horn. As she said in a recent conversation, “I’m not sure that I’ve contributed to the adult literacy field as much as it has contributed to me.” But her education and literacy career, which started thirty years ago in a grade 1 classroom, tells a bigger story.

Although Lorene enjoyed teaching children and honed many of her skills in the school system, she discovered early on that she was passionate about teaching adults. “When you’re teaching adults they’re not in your classroom unless they’re ready to learn. They are there because they need to be.”

In 1990 she received a degree in linguistics (a second undergraduate degree) and began teaching English as a second language (ESL) at Bow Valley College. A few years later she completed a master’s in education with a focus on adult education. After teaching ESL for almost a decade, Lorene decided to hang out her shingle as an independent consultant specializing in English as an additional language, workplace essential skills, and adult literacy.

One of her first projects was developing the ESL Rural Routes initiative with Dawn Seabrook de Vargas in 2000. ESL Rural Routes provides support and capacity-building services to adult ESL providers in rural and small urban communities throughout Alberta. The program especially benefits Community Adult Learning Councils (CALCS) and Volunteer Tutor Adult Learning Services (VTALS)  because they provide front-line services supporting newcomers. Rural Routes services include training, workshops, and mentorships by ESL consultants and intercultural specialists. Although Lorene’s involvement ended in 2012, the initiative is still going strong under the auspices of NorQuest College.

During the first year of developing Rural Routes, Lorene again teamed up with Seabrook de Vargas to develop and write an ESL Resource Package for Alberta Communities (ERPAC). The resource package helps new and experienced instructors to plan and deliver effective English-as-a-second-language programming. It is comprehensive, providing information on curriculum development, good practice, adult learning principles, learning styles, cultural diversity, Canadian Language Benchmarks, assessment, instructional practices, and resources.

During these busy years, Lorene completed the Essential Skills Profiler Training and began consulting for Alberta Workforce Essential Skills (AWES). Her education and experience were a natural fit for the organization. Conducting learning needs assessments, developing a corresponding curriculum using workplace materials, and facilitating workers’ upgrading and training within the essential skills framework were an integral part of her work. One of her many projects for AWES was Forging Links, a social sector case study. This project involved partnering with many different agencies and organizations to raise awareness and usage of Workplace Essential Skills (WES) in Alberta and across Canada.

In 2007, Lorene joined the Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB) registry of experts. As part of her role there she conducted workshops on both their CLB resources and their essential skills resources. She also worked with a team to develop, edit, and pilot various resources.

More recently, in 2011-2012, Lorene worked as the workplace essential skills consultant on the Brighter Futures Project: Building on Family Literacy Programs by Incorporating Essential Skills, an initiative for the Taber and District Community Adult Learning Association. The project involved research, assessment, evaluation, and curriculum development.

Lorene shows no signs of slowing down. Her current consulting projects include Alberta Reading Benchmarks , Learner Progression Measures and Supporting Practice Engagement, WriteForward, and Promising Practices for Literacy and Essential Skills Programs and Services in Alberta. She also sits on the board of directors for Calgary Learns, a granting agency that supports foundational learning for adults.

I think that what I bring to most projects is a broad background with many types of learners (ESL, ESL literacy, literacy, and workplace), different providers (rural, urban, college, volunteer, small, large) and different types of instructors (professionally trained to volunteers with very little training). (Personal conversation, 2014)

Although Lorene sums up her skills and experience in her usual modest way, the depth and breadth of her work speaks for her. She is indeed a literacy cartographer mapping the way for practitioners working in the English as an additional language, adult literacy, and workplace essential skills fields in Alberta.


References and Resources

Alberta Adult Literacy Assessment Framework for Aboriginal Peoples. Bow Valley College.

Alberta Reading Benchmarks Project. Bow Valley College.

Alberta Workforce Essential Skills. 2007. Social Sector Study: Forging Links

Alberta Workforce Essential Skills Society (AWES).

Anderson, Lorene, and Dawn Seabrook de Vargas. 2003. ESL Resource Package for Alberta Communities (ERPAC). Calgary, Alberta: Bow Valley College.

Anderson, Lorene, Christine Bates, Jane Brenner, Colleen Carey, Jonna Grad, Donna Hamilton, et al. 2012. Brighter Futures Project: Building on Family Literacy Program by Incorporating Essential Skills. Taber and District Community Adult Learning Association.

Best, Lynn, Joanne Kaattari, Deborah Morgan, Vicki Trottier, and Diana Twiss. 2008. Getting Online The GO Project: A Research Report on Online Learning for Canadian Literacy Practitioners. Retrieved from

Best, Lynn, Joanne Kaattari, Deborah Morgan, Vicki Trottier, and Diana Twiss. 2009. Bridging Distance: Promising Practices in Online Learning in the Canadian Literacy Community. Retrieved from

Calgary Learns.

Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks.

Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. 2005. Relating Canadian Language Benchmarks to Essential Skills: A Comparative Framework.

ESL Rural Routes. ESL resources, workshops, mentorships.

Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage.

Learner Progression Measures Project. Bow Valley College.

Literacy Alberta. Promising Practices for Literacy and Essential Skills Programs and Services in Alberta.

Metis Culture and Heritage Resource Centre

Metis Nation of Alberta website for information and resources.

Morgan, Deborah. 1992. Opening Doors: Thoughts and Experiences of Community Literacy Workers in Alberta. College Heights, Alberta: Parkland Colour Press.

Morgan, Deborah. 1997. Writing Out Loud. Edmonton, Alberta: Grassroots Press.

Morgan, Deborah, 2002. More Writing Loud. Edmonton, Alberta: Grassroots Press.

Morgan, Deborah, and Diana Twiss. 2010. The Little Project That Could: The Writing Out Loud Case Study. Camrose, Alberta: The Camrose Booster.

Steeves, Phyllis. 2003. “Cultural Genocide Practices: A Case Study of Canada’s Metis.” Master’s thesis. International Peace Studies, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.

Steeves, Phyllis. 2010. “Literacy: Genocide’s Silken Instrument. PhD Dissertation. University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.

Virtual Museum of Metis History and Culture

WriteForward Project. Bow Valley College.


Supporting Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Adult Immigrants as Learners

Published Dec 20, 2013

© Jean-luc Cochonneau, Hemera,, 2013

Years ago, I worked as a facilitator for a literacy program called Pebbles in the Sand, under the umbrella of the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA). The program was for immigrant and refugee women who had low literacy skills in their own language.  They recognized that learning English was the key to making a life in their new country. For many, the learning was difficult but these women were full of laughter and optimism. I was constantly inspired by their courage, strength, and resilience.

Recently I learned about a literacy program at Bow Valley College that works with Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing immigrant adults. On top of the usual settlement challenges that all immigrants face, these learners deal with another layer of complexity in learning to communicate. First, they need to learn American Sign Language, and then they transfer those skills into learning English. Within one literacy program, they are learning two new languages. As a hearing person and adult literacy practitioner, I found this to be a new and extraordinary set of skills to acquire in a new country — an impressive task!

Here is some of what I learned about bicultural learning (Deaf culture, hearing culture, cultures from around the world, and Canadian culture), and bilingual learning (learning a visual language such as American Sign Language and learning English — a phonetic, print language).

What Literacy Practitioners Said

Wanda Becker, a Deaf educator, teaches in the American Sign Language for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (DHH) Adults program at Bow Valley College. (At BVC all the instructors in this program have been deaf — such educators serve as strong cultural role models within DHH classrooms.) The focus of this innovative education program is to help adults build their American Sign Language (ASL) skills, and their English reading and writing skills. As part of the program, learners also increase their knowledge of Deaf and non-Deaf culture and learn about local Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing resources and services. Wanda shared her teaching philosophy and passion for the work. She said:

I became really passionate about this work after meeting people who did not know any sign language — or they knew sign language but no written language. Many of these people came from other cultures. I also work with Deaf individuals who were born in Canada or the United States who may have struggled in school with American Sign Language. I work to ensure that all of our cultures are respected equally.  I start with where the person is in their language skills and work from there.

Wanda’s job is complex. The learners come from diverse backgrounds (including other countries). Many know sign language from their countries of origin. Others might have some knowledge of American Sign Language. She is working simultaneously with international cultures and Canadian culture, and Deaf culture and hearing society (bicultural). Her first task is to teach ASL, and second, to help students transfer those skills to learn English reading and writing (bilingual).

She finds that one of her biggest challenges is that there is no set curriculum for these kinds of bicultural, bilingual programs.

The Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf is attempting to develop curriculum for kindergarden through grade 12. They are also working on developing curriculum for adults. This includes both immigrants and individuals born in Canada with low literacy. I work with a community of individuals who are working on these issues.

Like Wanda, Brent Novodvorski, a researcher and former instructor in the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Program at Bow Valley College believes that “language teachers need to recognize and appreciate what knowledge and skills are valued, celebrated, and carried in communities — workplace, ethnic cultures, and linguistic. Although it is varied, the curriculum has the unique position to be evolutionary and reflective of the changing world. The curriculum is the site, or a workbench, for language teachers to wield the values of membership in communities” (in Eaton 2010).

For both Wanda and Brent, the curriculum lives in the educators themselves and is not written down in any text. This means that the curriculum is being constantly adapted within a changing classroom environment. The process relies heavily on the skills and knowledge of the instructors themselves. In addition to learning the two languages, the educators purposely and consciously include learning about the values and importance of Deaf culture and community.

Supported by his research, Novodvorski makes the following recommendations for improving the learning environment for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing adult immigrant learners:

  • American Sign Language should be incorporated as the language of instruction.
  • DHH learners should not be enrolled in mediated learning environments (hearing classrooms with ASL interpreters).
  • Recognize the equal status of American Sign Language and English.
  • Ensure that ASL and English are visible as much as possible.
  • Teachers should always continue to develop their translation skills. (Novodvorski 2009, 6)

These recommendations resonate with other people working in this evolving area.

What the Research Says

Researcher and educator Charlotte Enns shares her model of the underlying principles and goals in Bilingual Deaf Education Programs. She believes that the primary educational goal is for people to live as bilingual (in American Sign Language and English) in society. Within this model, the Deaf are seen and respected as a distinct culture and the program focuses on developing pride, linguistic confidence, and a Deaf identity. Language and culture are intertwined. Therefore, instructors are Deaf and serve as role models, along with Deaf peers.  Evidence suggests that clustering Deaf learners in one class or school results in more successful educational experiences. All Bilingual Deaf Education programs are built on the premise that it is important to establish a first-language base (American Sign Language — ASL).  Learners acquire language, cognition, and social structures through ASL. Academic learning and English literacy skills are then built upon this foundation. Learners transfer skills from one language to the other (through metalinguistic awareness). Instructors teach translation steps and skills through a comparative analysis of ASL and English. ASL is the language of instruction in the classroom (dual curriculum). The goal is to become literate in both languages (Enns 2006, 29-32).

The relationship between signed and spoken languages is complex. It is important for teachers to understand these complexities as well as the key differences between spoken language bilingual programs and Bilingual Deaf Education programs. When these principles are understood and implemented the benefits of first language signing skills can be linked with second language literacy development. (Enns 2006, 27)

Enns’s model shares many of the same principles as those underlying Bow Valley College’s DHH program.

Lastly, I want to share some personal insights I had while working on this article.

Reframing Deaf Education from Hearing Loss to Deaf Gain

The word normal appeared in the English language in the middle of the nineteenth century, coming out of the field of statistics (Davis 1995). It became an organizing principle that provided a means of measuring standards of human biology and behaviour (Bauman 2013, 6). “When the frame of normalcy is the predominant lens through which we see people, we can only conceive of disability as a problem” (Bauman 2013, 5). Bauman urges us to reframe hearing loss as “deaf-gain,” a perspective that sees deafness not as a loss but as “an expression of human variation that results in bringing to the fore specific cognitive, creative, and cultural gains” (10). She goes on to ask us to “consider a more wholistic understanding of the human potential for adaptation, neuroplasticity, and overall diversity in ways of knowing and being in the community” (24).

I realized that I was using the normalcy frame. I had viewed Deafness as a disability and did not understand the concept of Deaf culture. After speaking with Wanda Becker and doing some research, I opened to a new way of looking at Deaf culture — a way that respects and honours difference and alternative ways of knowing and being. In any educational setting, working with and acknowledging our differences is an important awareness for literacy practitioners to cultivate.

So much is happening at once in a literacy program, including the many dynamics between students, tutors, ourselves, and colleagues. We work in a context of multiple social differences, including race, class, gender, sexual orientation, educational level, ability, and culture. Some of the difficult moments occur in the context of these differences; yet our discomfort with thinking or talking about these differences can limit the possibilities of learning from what is taking place. (Stewart 2009, 4)

There are many issues involved in being a Deaf educator working with Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing learners. Race, difference, abilities, exclusion, Deaf culture, and immigrant cultures are just a few of the topics that may come up in the classroom. When Deaf educators work with DHH learners exclusively in their own classes, teaching American Sign Language, and using ASL as the language of instruction to teach English, they are engaging in an overtly political act that honours Deaf culture and American Sign Language as equal to hearing culture and English.

References and Resources

ABLE for the Deaf Adult Learner. This website has curriculum resources as well as numerous other resources.

Baker, Charlotte, and Robbin Battison. 1980. Sign Language and the Deaf Community: Essays in Honor of William C. Stokoe. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of the Deaf.

Bauman, H-Dirksen L. 2013. “Reframing the Future of Deaf Education: From Hearing Loss to Deaf Gain.”

Canadian Hearing Society. Retrieved from

Cummins, Jim. 1984. Bilingualism and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy. San Diego, CA: College Hill Press.

———. 2006. “The Relationship Between American Sign Language Proficiency and English Academic Development: A Review of the Research.” University of Toronto. Retrieved from

Davis, Lennard. 1995. Enforcing Normalcy: Deafness, Disability and the Body. London: Verso Press.

Deaf Education. Curricular resources and instructional strategies for classrooms and other settings.

Enns, Charlotte J. 2006. A Language and Literacy Framework for Bilingual Deaf Education. University of Manitoba. Winnipeg, Manitoba. Retrieved from

Eaton, Sarah E. 2010. Interview with Brent Novodvorski. Literacy, Languages and Leadership Blog. 28 June. Leading by Example Series. Retrieved from

Johnson, Robert, Scott Liddell, and Carol J. Erting. 1989. Unlocking the Curriculum: Principles for Achieving Access in Deaf Education. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

National Deaf Education Laurent Clerc Centre at Gallaudet University has many curricular resources and instructional strategies.

Novodvorski, Brent David. 2008. Effective Teaching Techniques and Tools for Immigrant Deaf and Hard of Hearing Adults in Bilingual and Bicultural Literacy Programs: A Practitioner Research Project for Practical Results. Phase One. Calgary, AB: Bow Valley College. Retrieved from

———. 2009. Effective Teaching Techniques and Tools for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Adult Immigrants in ASL and English Bilingual and Bicultural College Programs. Phase Two. Calgary, AB: Bow Valley College. Retrieved from

———. 2010. Small Gestures Project. Calgary, AB: Bow Valley College. Retrieved from

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.


Changing Perceptions: Teaching Literacy in Correctional Facilities

Published Nov 27, 2013

146910156 © mipan, iStock,, 2013

146910156 © mipan, iStock,, 2013

Eighteen years ago, in what feels like another lifetime, I coordinated a program on Vancouver Island for women who had been assaulted by their partners, sexually assaulted, or sexually abused. Many of the women had challenges with reading and writing. My job was to explain how the legal system worked, help them prepare to testify, and accompany them through the trial process. In the context of this work, I provided emotional support and referrals to counselling and other community services. Every day, I saw the impact violence and trauma had on these women’s lives. While some were able to pick up the pieces and move on, many felt stuck. Alcohol and drug abuse, depression, eating disorders, suicide attempts, low self-esteem, unresolved grief, anger and rage, and fear of failure were common. For these women, the prospect of finding a job or going back to school seemed an insurmountable task.

More recently as I’ve been interviewing literacy practitioners, and doing research, I’ve learned more about the impact of violence and trauma on learning. I heard stories about men and women in the remand centre, people who had committed violent crimes, but were trying to turn their lives around. I heard stories about their vulnerability and their own histories of abuse. I learned that even an hour a week of literacy education can make a difference, and people can and do make huge changes in their lives.

What the Research Says

  • People in correctional facilities are three times as likely as the rest of the population to have literacy problems.
  • 65 percent of people entering Canadian correctional facilities have less than a grade 8 education.
  • 79 percent don’t have their high school diploma. (Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, 2008)

We know that education and literacy are significant issues for people in correctional facilities who also struggle with the impact of violence and trauma on learning — both the violence they have committed, and their personal life histories of violence. Another factor that adds one more layer of complexity for learners and adult literacy practitioners is the “high prevalence of learning disabilities, emotional and behavioural disorders, and mental illness among persons in prison” (Brazzell et al. 2009, 8).

Numerous studies have shown a link between prison-based education and literacy programs, and higher rates of successful rehabilitation. A Canadian study found that prison literacy can reduce recidivism by up to 30 percent depending on the level of literacy a person achieves (Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, 2008).

For officials and governments, reducing recidivism and the costs of incarceration are of prime concern. “Every dollar allocated to vocational and basic education programs for offenders yields a 200-300% return on investment” (Canadian Literacy and Learning Network, 2012).

For individuals in jails, and the adult literacy practitioners who work with them, educational programming is an act of hope and offers a second chance at life. This is how Stefan LoBuglio, Chief of Pre-release and Reentry Services in Maryland’s Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, puts it:

The whole enterprise of correctional education— the teachers, the volunteers, the classrooms, the books, the computers — helps humanize correctional facilities and plays a key role in relieving inmate stress and frustration by focusing individuals on positive and constructive activities and relationships. Students benefit directly from these programs by improving their skills and knowledge, and staff — particularly correctional officers — benefit from working with individuals who are more cooperative and better adjusted to their circumstances. More than that, educational programs help elevate the mission and professionalism of corrections from one of warehousing individuals to one of preparing individuals for their futures (qtd. in Brazzell et al. 2009, 3).

What Literacy Practitioners Said

Sheri Lockwood, a Bow Valley College literacy practitioner, works at the Calgary Remand Centre with men ranging from eighteen years old to the oldest in his seventies. She teaches a cooking program in the morning and a life management program in the afternoon. The students’ skills vary widely. Some are not able to read or write. Others have more education, but still have lower literacy levels. She sees the classroom serving as a sanctuary within the corrections setting.

One of the earliest things that struck me was that one of the fellows said my classroom is a sanctuary for him… Soon after, I attended a Jenny Horsman workshop and watched a video about a group of women that had experienced abuse and family violence. In the video, a woman was talking about the classroom being a sanctuary for them. And all of a sudden I could feel this tear coming down. I got what my learner was telling me. He was an older fellow and hadn’t been in jail before. It was a totally foreign environment for him… I realized there is a transition as people come into the classroom, a transition from being a jail person to being a student. A place where you can be yourself and think… I knew I had to trust them, but I didn’t realize the degree to which they have to trust me.

She went on to speak about the impact of violence on learning she sees among her students.

Many of these men have experienced historical violence as children. And they will have done violent things to others. I think one of the things we don’t always recognize is the impact of having done something violent to somebody else. Especially if the person is looking at their lives and not wanting to be involved in violence any longer… How do you put yourself back together again?

Toni Brown, a literacy practitioner from the John Howard Society, works one-on-one with men and women, also at the Calgary Remand Centre. She said this about her teaching experiences:

Until you really know someone, you don’t know how vulnerable they are sometimes. I’ve probably lost some people because they’ve been scared. I’ve learned a lot about the human piece. I’ve learned never to assume anything about people. When people can’t do their work, you really have to do some exploring around why they’re not doing their work. And sometimes people don’t understand it themselves. You have to find out what’s going on and usually there is a lot… The biggest thing is that learning is about the whole person. A lot of these people I work with are afraid to learn. So sometimes I feel like I can’t get to the reading and writing part because I’m working on communication and letting go of that kind of fear.

Sarah MacKenzie and Alyssa Nicholson, with the Calgary Elizabeth Fry Society, work both in the community and in the Calgary Remand Centre running the UNLOCK program for women. UNLOCK (unlocking new levels of capability and knowledge) was created in response to an Inside Out study that identified a need for women’s programming targeted at developing skills and making changes in preparation for returning to the community. The program has six key sessions on: communication skills, emotional coping, relationships, boundaries and co-dependency, developing your potential, and goal setting. Nicholson talks about the flexibility and success of the program.

Remand is a different environment in the sense that the clients aren’t mandated to attend but often choose to attend every session of the program that they can. Some clients incarcerated in the remand centre may be there for a shorter period of time and only attend one session. We even have clients who take the six sessions over and over again, and they are able to pull new information from every session.

It’s clear from the information gathered through my interviews that providing educational programming within a corrections’ setting requires practitioners who are conscious, flexible, compassionate, and who have knowledge of adult learning and literacy principles. Whether their clients are victims of violence and/or have committed violent crimes themselves, as learners in these settings they experience unique challenges requiring innovative teaching approaches.

Canadian researcher Dr. Jenny Horsman has done ground-breaking work in exploring the impact of violence on learning. Her uniquely interactive website talks about some of the things that come up when working with learners who have experienced violence:

  • Spacing out or dissociating: The learner daydreams or goes somewhere else in their mind when violent memories surface.
  • Acting out: The learner may cause trouble in class, hurt themselves, or use drugs or alcohol to numb the pain and the fear.
  • Escaping into the mind: The learner stays in her head, doing well in the studies, but feeling disconnected from her body which can result in health issues.
  • Silence: The learner has difficulty answering questions and is afraid to participate.
  • Lost hope and dreams: The learner may give up any hopes and dreams, or a belief in a better future.
  • Feeling bad, stupid, and wrong: The learner may lack self-esteem and avoid learning new things because of a fear of failure. (phrases in bold retrieved from

When learners walk through the classroom doors they bring their entire life history with them. It’s important for practitioners to develop an awareness of the impact that violence and trauma may have had on their lives. Horsman offers these questions to consider:

  • Do you know how many students in your program have experienced and/or perpetuated violence?
  • What is the fallout in your school or class from different forms of home and societal violence? What have you noticed about the impact of the violence of war and displacement? Poverty? Hurtful early schooling? Several forms of violence combined?
  • Do you see ways in which violence diminishes the spirit and increases the likelihood of continuing student setbacks? (retrieved from

During our interview, Horsman emphasized that adult literacy practitioners are allies to others’ learning journey and asked: “How do we create learning environments that have spaciousness and room for exploration, and work really hard at not creating a sense of shame or judgement? How do we help create a sense of curiosity and openness — a place where learning can flourish?”

As Horsman has illustrated, violence takes many forms: domestic abuse, sexual assault, racism, sexism, homophobia, war, displacement, and historical abuse in residential schools. The list is long. Whether the setting is community, college, or corrections, we will meet individuals whose lives have been touched by violence and trauma. As practitioners we “need to examine our own stories and our relationship with violence if we are going to be open to the programming needed for students who have experienced trauma” (Stewart 2009, 10). Stewart speaks about “moving beyond the ‘us-them’ way of thinking about students’ lives as often traumatized and ours as not.” Acknowledging our own humanity and our experiences of violence opens the door, and the heart, to greater understanding, benefitting learners and practitioners alike.

References and Resources

Brazzell, Diana, Anna Crayton, Debbie A. Mukamal, Amy L. Solomon, and Nicole Lindahl. 2009. From the Classroom to the Community: Exploring the Role of Education During Incarceration and Reentry. The Urban Institute Justice Policy Center. Retrieved from

Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP). 2008. “Literacy Fact Sheet: The Link Between Low Literacy and Crime.” Retrieved from

Canadian Literacy and Learning Network. 2012. “Fact sheet: Justice.” Retrieved from

Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada is an association of self-governing, community-based Elizabeth Fry Societies that work with and for women and girls in the justice system, particularly those who are, or may be, criminalized. They work to ensure equality in the delivery and development of services and programs through public education, research, legislative and administrative reform—regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Government of Canada. 2013. Office of the Correctional Investigator. Backgrounder: Aboriginal Offenders – A Critical Situation. Retrieved from

Horsman, Jenny. 2000. Too Scared To Learn. Matwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2006-2011. Learning and Violence

John Howard Society of Canada is an organization of provincial and territorial societies whose goal is to understand and respond to problems of crime and criminal justice. Their work includes advocacy, research, community education, coalition-building, and resource development.

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.

Twiss, Diana, and Pat Hodgson. 2008. Orientation Guide for Corrections Educators. Retrieved from

US Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. 2012. A Reentry Education Model: Supporting Education and Career Advancement for Low-Skill Individuals in Corrections, Washington, DC. Retrieved from


How are practitioners collecting evidence of student growth? What role does assessment play in teaching and learning in adult literacy? 

Published Nov 13, 2013

I recently attended my first Literacy and Learning Symposium. This annual event is jointly hosted by the three lead literacy and learning organizations in Alberta: Community Learning Network, Literacy Alberta, and the Centre for Family Literacy. There were many workshops on literacy and lifelong learning. Stories from the Field was one of them.

The project coordinator, Audrey Gardner, and I provided a workshop on how we create articles or stories from interviews with practitioners and information from research studies.  At the conclusion of the workshop, people expressed an interest in knowing more about how we (practitioners) are collecting evidence of student/learner growth (for example, through assessment).

In interviews with 23 practitioners so far, it is clear that learners’ growth and success is a significant part of their work. Many use various forms of assessment including initial/diagnostic, formative, and summative. The method of assessment that practitioners use is typically guided by the individual learner’s needs and goals, the program’s goals, and the instructional setting.

Not only learners but practitioners also want to know whether we are making a difference. How do we know? How do we measure learner progress?

What the research says

Community-based adult literacy practitioners often say that informal assessment begins with the first phone call or when the person walks in the door to make an enquiry about learning. From there, practitioners commonly use three forms of assessment: initial/diagnostic, formative, and summative.

Initial/diagnostic assessment takes place when a learner enters a program. This assessment can be either formal or informal depending on the program setting. The initial assessment gives the practitioner information about what motivates the individual to return to learning, what their goals are, and what their strengths are. It can be used to explore prior learning experiences and potential challenges or barriers to success.

Formative assessment takes place throughout the teaching and learning process. It provides feedback on progress to both the learner and the practitioner. The Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), part of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), conducted an international research project on formative assessment. They identified six key elements of formative assessment:

  1. Establishment of a classroom culture that encourages interaction and the use of assessment tools. Among other things, this involves creating an environment where learners feel safe to take risks and make mistakes.
  2. Establishment of learning goals, and tracking of individual student progress toward those goals. When goals are established with the learner, the learning process becomes more transparent.
  3. Use of varied instruction methods to meet diverse student needs. Adjusting teaching methods to meet the needs and learning styles of individual learners is important for any student success.
  4. Use of varied approaches to assessing student understanding.  Realistic settings and a variety of contexts are also important.
  5. Feedback on student performance and adaptation of instruction to meet identified needs. Giving timely, specific feedback with suggestions for ways to improve performance helps practitioners pay attention to what does and doesn’t work so they can adjust teaching strategies when necessary.
  6. Active involvement of students in the learning process. Teaching self-assessment skills and helping learners analyze how different learning strategies have worked for them in the past amounts to “learning to learn.” (phrases in bold are from the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation 2008, 6-10)

The elements of formative assessment fit well with the principles of learner-centered teaching and explicit teaching, subjects I wrote about in a previous Story from the Field. They each begin with the learner and the learner’s needs and goals; they focus on learner strengths; and they develop abilities, strategies, and skills within the context of the learner’s life.

Summative assessment evaluates student learning at the end of a learning cycle or instructional unit, comparing what has been achieved against some form of standard or benchmark. It can be informal or low stakes (for example, in a community literacy program), but it is most often associated with a formal or high-stakes situation (for example for a GED certificate or course credit).

While learner success and growth are sometimes measured in statistics, grades, or numbers, learners and the practitioners who work with them often measure success through the personal stories that describe changes in their lives. As Scottish researchers Sliwka and Tett powerfully state “learning is assessed through the distance that learners have travelled in reaching their own goals” (2008, Presentation, Slide 10).

What practitioners say about learner success and growth

This is what Toni Brown, with the Calgary John Howard Society, told me about a student she worked with at the Calgary Remand Centre:

He had been bullied a lot at school and eventually dropped out. After that, his mom home-schooled him, but it didn’t really work out. He got stuck at Grade 6 and as he put it “I kind of froze…I just couldn’t learn. I was afraid to learn.” When I saw him, he was in his early twenties. He felt he couldn’t get around this block in his head. But he really wanted to do some writing. So we slowly started working on the writing and he kind of took off with it. He wrote pages and pages. And eventually he started to work with the pre-GED book, doing essay writing. He was a really good writer. By the time he left, he had plans to get his high-school diploma and do postsecondary education. He wanted to take psychology and do all of these things. It was amazing.

Toni added that “the thing about the big changes is that it’s not just about the reading and writing— it’s about the whole life piece. Because it means a job or a career for somebody.”

Sarah Mackenzie and Alyssa Nicholson work with the Elizabeth Fry Society. They facilitate an innovative six-week program called UNLOCK for women at the remand centre and in the community. Sarah talked about how the program is structured. “We try to make the learning interactive. We pull as many real-life experiences from both ourselves and from the group. At the end of every session we do what we call a personal challenge. Clients are encouraged to take the material that they’ve just learned and answer questions about how they will apply it to their everyday lives.” Alyssa said that by the final session of the group, women are more open and able to talk about and share their experiences. These practitioners purposely create a safe, interactive classroom culture and use varied approaches to assess student understanding.

Corrie Rhyasen Erdman has two roles, one as an adult literacy coordinator in Spruce Grove, Alberta, and the other as pilot coordinator for the Alberta Reading Benchmarks. She told me this story about a learner in her Spruce Grove program:

I don’t think she had a clear goal in mind when she began. At first, she needed a tremendous amount of support and encouragement telling her that she could actually learn. Every time her tutor introduced something new, they would spend the first lesson in dialogue with her saying “I can’t do this” and her tutor saying “Okay you said that last time and you got through.” And she would slowly ease into the learning. Her inner dialogue was preventing her from really believing she was capable. That was four years ago… The next tutor wasn’t aware of the dynamic so it was a very different relationship. The tutor came in with the expectation that she could learn so that changed what her learning looked like—it became more focused on learning and less on fear. Her third tutor is very technical. She is now enrolled at NorQuest College with a goal of entering a social work program. Her tutors all brought her different things and moved her along in different ways. It is a testament to the fact that we need different things at different times.

These different tutors used the principles of formative assessment to move the learner along toward success: they established a safe learning environment, gave constructive feedback, adapted the instruction to meet the learner’s identified needs, and actively involved the student in the learning process to help her learn how different learning strategies worked for her in the past. In this case, her goals were not initially clear, but eventually they became clear as she became more confident in her abilities. This learner was learning how to learn.

What does this mean for adult literacy practitioners?

From the research, and practitioners’ stories, it’s clear that assessment is connected to effective teaching practice and includes formal and informal outcome measures as well as intentional, transparent tracking of learner progress. As Sliwka and Tett put it, “learner progress is measured by the changes that occur in relation to their lives as family members, workers, citizens and lifelong learners” (2008, 11).

References and Resources

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI). 2008. Assessment for Learning: Formative Assessment. Presentation at annual Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development/Centre for Educational Research and Innovation Conference, Paris, 13-15 February. OECD Publishing. Retrieved from

Derrick, Jay, and Kathryn Ecclestone. 2006. Formative Assessment in Adult Literacy, Language and Numeracy Programmes: A Literature Review for the OECD. August Draft. Retrieved from

Derrick, Jay, Judith Gawn, and Kathryn Ecclestone. 2008. Evaluating the “Spirit” and “Letter” of Formative Assessment in the Learning Cultures of Part-time Adult Literacy and Numeracy Classes. Research in Post-Compulsory Education 13 (2): 173-184.

Park, Amy. 2011. Explicit Instruction: What Is It And Why Is It Effective For My Students? Paper presented at the annual CCAE/COABE (California Council for Adult Education and the Commission on Adult Basic Education) Conference, 20 April. Retrieved from

Sliwka, Anne, and Lyn Tett. 2008. “Case Study: Scotland.” In Teaching, Learning and Assessment for Adults: Improving Foundation Skills, OECD Publishing. Retrieved from

Tett, Lyn, John Leavey, and Anne Sliwka. 2008. Scotland Case Study: Empowering Learners and Communities. Presentation at annual OECD/CERI International Conference, Paris, 13-15 February. Retrieved from

New Zealand Council for Educational Research, Ministry of Education. 2005. Assessment for Foundation Learning: The Importance of Purposeful Assessment in Adult Literacy, Numeracy and Language Courses. Summary Report. Retrieved from

Note: See full report at


Libraries Connecting Communities

 Published October 23, 2013

This is the second of two Stories from the Field articles exploring how libraries connect with people and with literacy—both in Canada and abroad.

Social inclusion leading to social change: The role of community libraries in rural Nepal

Two libraries in Nepal have transformed the traditional social exclusion of women in rural communities into social inclusion, creating spaces and opportunities for women to participate in learning. A study by ethnographic researchers in Nepal found that the creation of community libraries in two rural communities was the first step in helping women and girls gain access to literacy education, technology, and opportunities to learn financial skills.[1]

Men and women have culturally separate and specific roles in Nepalese communities.

In our community a girl cannot spend time in a public place, she cannot attend a social gathering, take part in or watch a sporting activity or engage in any activities outside the home. These social rules have placed real pressures and limitations on females in our community which in turn has had a negative impact on female mobility, especially in terms of their access to education. These social behaviours directly affect a girl’s development notably in terms of her personality and she continues to lose her independence as she gets older.

(field notes from September 2007, Adhikari 2008, 241)

How did these two community libraries manage to change the rules governing women’s participation in their societies?

The Jhuwani Community Library

The Jhuwani Community Library (JCL) was established in 2001 by people in the community with support from an international nongovernmental organization called READ (Rural Education and Development) Nepal (Martin and Adhikari 2008). From the moment the library first opened, there was a plan to provide community activities and encourage the involvement of local indigenous groups and lower-caste people, both men and women. Initially, more men participated than women.

In 2002, in an effort to encourage and increase women’s involvement in the library, staff created a women’s section and began to run women-specific programs. The programs were successful, attracting over fifty participants per program from mostly upper-caste groups and women who were literate. However, socially disadvantaged and lower-caste women felt intimidated and did not join the programs (Martin and Adhikari 2008).

In an effort to reach out to them, the JCL created a “mobile library” with the hope of increasing access to the library’s materials to help the women develop their literacy skills. The mobile library was a success and also provided local women with information about family planning and contraception.

The JCL currently has eight computers, Internet access, a DVD player, a telephone connection, a fax, a laminator, and a scanner. In 2002, it ran the first community computer-training program. Of 102 participants, 36 were women (Martin and Ahikari 2008). Having communication facilities (Internet, phone, and fax) in the library means that women can access new media resources in ways that weren’t possible before.

The researchers believe that “the social acceptability of the community library and its programs is in part derived from the fact that the library is a community space open to men and women” (Martin and Adhikari 2008, 248).

The Agyauli Community Library

The community library in Agyauli (ACL), also established with the support of READ Nepal and various partners, has achieved similar success. Most of the people in this area are lower caste or Dalit and there are many poor and landless families (Martin and Adhikari 2008). Like JCL, ACL runs innovative programming designed to encourage women’s participation.  This includes literacy classes, savings and credit groups, and income-generating courses.

Since 2002, the ACL has run forty-one literacy classes within the district. Over 800 women have benefitted from participating in the literacy program, 70 percent of them from lower-caste groups.

Both libraries have incorporated new technologies into their services and provide skills training in digital story telling. Since December 2006, participants at JCL and ACL have made seventeen digital stories on issues such as children’s welfare, gender and participation, social roles, property rights, domestic violence, women’s health, and caste discrimination (Martin and Adhikari 2008).

It’s clear that the two libraries facilitate “an unprecedented sense of social interaction and engagement amongst the local women” (Martin and Adhikari 2008). They have become community-approved spaces where women and men take part in lifelong learning.


Martin, Kirsty and Sita Adhikari. 2008. “More than Books: A Study of Women’s Participation in Community Libraries in Rural Nepal. Journal of International Women’s Studies 9 (3): 241-255. Retrieved from

[1] Kirsty Martin is an anthropologist employed as a researcher by Queensland University of Technology on the international research project called “Finding a Voice.” She works in both libraries. Sita Adhikari has been a researcher on the Finding a Voice project since 2006. She has been the president of the Jhuwani Community Savings and Credit Cooperative and the women’s section coordinator of the Jhuwani Community Library.


Libraries, Literacy, and Social Inclusion

Published October 15, 2013

October is Canadian Library Month. This year’s theme is “libraries connect” and across the country, people are celebrating the roles that libraries play in connecting people and communities. This is the first of two Stories from the Field articles exploring how libraries connect with people and with literacy—in Canada and abroad.
1633258 © Wojciech Jaskowski,, 2013

1633258 © Wojciech Jaskowski,, 2013

It was a dark and stormy night. I took refuge in the Calgary Central Library, one of my favourite places. And I was not alone.

Libraries are sanctuaries for many of us. As I browsed through the new books section on the main floor, I noticed other people had the same idea. People of all ages were using the library —sitting in the big comfy chairs reading magazines, having a cup of coffee at the in-house café, or surfing the net at a computer station.

At the turn of the last century, people saw libraries as crucial for “that self-education which all citizens should add to the education obtained in schools” (F.H. Hutchins qtd. in Hadley 1910, 26). Libraries were a moral imperative for citizenship. But they have evolved from those early beginnings into a place that is about much more than books.  Today,  most libraries offer computer courses, career programs for job searchers, services for newcomers, literacy support for adult learners, and much, much more.

Many libraries have become neighbourhood hubs helping people feel included in their communities. Young mothers and their infants attending “Books for Babies” sessions, children working on school projects, seniors learning to use computers — on the surface, it seems that everyone feels welcome at their community library. But scratch a little deeper, and we may find that the story reads differently.

As literacy practitioners, we all know learners who are intimidated by libraries for different reasons.

For every person who finds the library safe and pleasant, there is another person who feels uncomfortable and unwelcome. This is a hard truth to accept, especially for people who see their library as one of society’s truly accessible and equitable institutions. Identifying the barriers that keep socially excluded groups from using the library, understanding why the barriers exist, and finding ways to overcome the barriers is an iterative [ongoing] process. (DeFaveri, Community-Led Libraries Toolkit 2008, 20)

Why don’t people feel welcome? What are the barriers? A unique community-development project involving four libraries in four cities (Vancouver, Halifax, Toronto, and Regina) set out to answer these questions. The “Working Together: Libraries and Communities Project” worked in urban neighbourhoods with communities that are traditionally socially excluded (Williment 2009).

The Vancouver Public Library and Halifax Public Library worked in culturally diverse, low-income neighbourhoods populated by a mix of families, seniors, and adults on disability pensions. Toronto Public Libraries worked in neighbourhoods with many new immigrants, high poverty rates, and overcrowding. The Regina Public Library worked in a community with a high Aboriginal population. Poverty, unemployment, and isolation of youth and seniors were issues in this area.

The project started with conversations about the meaning of social exclusion.

Social exclusion should be understood in broad terms. It can affect any stratum of our society, including people who are poor or live in poverty, people who are unemployed or underemployed, and people who are members of ethnic or cultural minorities. Being excluded can mean being alienated from the political, social, economic, and cultural life of the community because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or class. Excluded communities can include new immigrants, refugees, the working poor, and groups that have been historically isolated such as African Nova Scotians and First Nations people. For some people, being excluded can stem from, or bring about, drug addiction, mental illness, and homelessness. The conditions that define social exclusion can often be multiple. (DeFaveri, Community-Led Libraries Toolkit 2008,10)

Next, they asked people in the communities in each city how exclusion affected their lives and their library use. Project workers were surprised to hear that people were critical of libraries and felt that library workers viewed them as problems. “They felt ‘their kind’ was not welcome. This response was verified by many discussions within libraries concerning smelly users, inappropriately dressed patrons and people sleeping in cubicles and with their heads on tables.” (Community-Led Libraries Toolkit 2008, 5).  Library fines and charges were also identified as a barrier for many people on low incomes.

The Working Together Project developed a new community-led service-planning model that brought together library staff and local citizens who experienced exclusion from the library to identify needs and barriers and to plan services accordingly. “For someone doing this work, it is important to be able to let go of one’s identification as an expert and embrace the role of the facilitator,” explains Randy Gatley, a community development librarian with the project. (Community-Led Libraries Toolkit 2008, 130)

The community-led service-planning model changes the role of library staff to learners and facilitators as opposed to experts and authorities. It uses a community-development approach to move “beyond receiving feedback or hearing from the community (consultation or ‘information in’) and extends to meaningful and active community engagement in service priorization and planning” (Community-Led Libraries Toolkit 2008, 15).

Over four years, the project identified six key lessons learned:

  • Library culture, along with rules and procedures, created significant barriers to inclusion.
  • Libraries must recognise that same or consistent customer service, which does not take into account socio-economic disparity, results in inequitable services that further disadvantage socially excluded people.
  • Planning relevant and effective library services for socially excluded community members requires a collaboration of equals between community members and the library.
  • Relationship building is at the core of effective service planning.
  • Staff “soft skills” such as empathy, interpersonal competence, and open-mindedness are essential.
  • People want to see themselves represented in the library and to have an opportunity to participate. (Community-Led Libraries Toolkit 2008, 8)

An additional outcome of the project was the development of a community-led service-planning toolkit designed to help libraries engage with their communities. The Community-Led Libraries Toolkit includes sections on community entry, community mapping, relationship building, partnerships, program planning, computer training, collection development, and customer service. The Working Together Project’s success and its Toolkit provide an exciting and useful blueprint for libraries interested in better serving their diverse communities.

In our own backyard

Some libraries in Alberta have taken a page from the Working Together Project to initiate programs designed to make their libraries more socially inclusive.

For example, Manisha Khetarpal, head of library services at Maskwachees Cultural College in Hobbema, Alberta was working as a librarian at the Wetaskiwin Public Library in 2009 when she noticed that many agencies were bringing clients with disabilities to the library. (Khetarpal 2013, COPIAN). She also noticed that there were many immigrants working with these individuals. She saw an opportunity for the library to build connections with community members and agencies and strengthen the library’s capacity to be socially inclusive.

The library created a plan to target community agencies, day programs, home care, community connections services, the Twilighters’ Group (a service provider for persons with vision problems), and the First Nations community living in the city and nearby reserve.

One particularly effective activity was a series of workshops entitled “Say Yes to Community Inclusion,” an initiative of the Active Living Alliance for Canadians with a Disability. The aim of the workshops was to promote greater inclusion of Canadians with a disability in community physical-activity programs. The library assisted in creating a network to connect recreation service providers with clients who have disabilities.

The library’s relationship-building initiatives included professional development for staff on diversity issues. As a result of the library’s efforts, more people with disabilities, immigrants, and the First Nations community came to the library and used the services (Khetarpal 2013).

On a larger scale, the Edmonton Public Library received a grant in 2011 from the provincial government to fund a four-year community safety and outreach project. The library partnered with Boyle Street Community Services (an inner-city agency that provides programs and support to people living in poverty) to launch the “Building a Safer Community through Inclusive Learning” project. The project was a response to the increasing number of low-income people who were homeless and seeking sanctuary in the library. The library saw an opportunity to connect with these individuals and offer help.

Collaborating with library staff, outreach workers work both inside and outside the library to assist at-risk Edmontonians through literacy, education, social support, and referrals. The “Building a Safer Community through Inclusive Learning” project builds upon the Working Together community-development model that believes “libraries act as community cornerstones that can help prevent and resolve societal challenges that marginalize segments of the population” (Edmonton Public Libraries 2011).

In early 2013, the Calgary Public Library conducted a number of community consultations as part of planning a new central library system and building. Ellen Humphrey, Interim CEO of the Calgary Public Library, described the new location as “an inspiring destination for Calgarians of every age and ability, providing rich resources for every interest, and spaces for community.” She went on to say “citizens told us they desire a place that is welcoming, inclusive and accessible, where they can experience the joys of reading, learn new skills, have fun with their families, and connect with each other and with a world of information and ideas. For Calgarians the new Central Library will also act as an agent for community building, social inclusion and engagement. As heart and hub of a growing network across the city, it will help shape service delivery in every library location”(CPL 2013).

The Calgary Public Library is already engaged in several initiatives aimed at reducing barriers and increasing accessibility for vulnerable people. Since June 2012, the library has been working with the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative (CPRI), participating as a stakeholder in the community consultation process.  As Heather Robertson, manager of community services, explains, the process “made us take a closer look at what we do and how we do it. What did we see happening? What are the gaps? How can we leverage our expertise?” (Heather Robertson, in discussion with the author, October 2013). The library responded in support of poverty reduction, identifying the ways it works to reduce barriers and improve access to life-long learning resources for Calgarians who are homeless, at risk of becoming homeless, or living in low-income situations.

Currently, library staff sit on two implementation teams (asset building and services) to help drive forward the recommendations made in the CPRI report Enough for All. A large focus of the asset-building team is to develop financial literacy services and provide financial literacy education, advice, and services.  The services-implementation team concentrates on developing a “client-based and integrated service access platform with common assessment, intake, referral, and case management components” (CPRI 2013, 15). This work dovetails with the library’s involvement in another exciting community partnership, the new Safe Communities Opportunity and Resource Centre (SORCe).[1]

Seven months ago, two representatives from Calgary Police Services (tasked with leading the implementation of SORCe) approached the library to share the idea and explore a potential partnership. “It’s exactly the sort of collaboration we are trying to build, a community hub concept” Robertson told me. The library is now one of fourteen agencies located in the new SORCe. The SORCe’s mission is “to work together as a community to ensure vulnerable people will be connected to services, supports, and solutions” (SORCe website).

As we’ve seen from these examples, a strong library system can position itself as a collaborative community partner, a welcoming accessible space, and a place for life-long learning.

What does all this mean for adult literacy practitioners?

“Low literacy, poverty and exclusion are all part of the same problem” (Canadian Literacy and Learning Network 2012). Literacy is about engagement, participation, expression, and connection. It’s about learning. Adult literacy practitioners can expand their awareness of the role social exclusion plays in literacy work. As well, many literacy programs have existing relationships with local libraries. We encourage you to start a conversation about the meaning of social exclusion in your communities. Who knows where it might lead?



Canadian Literacy and Learning Network. 2012. “Poverty Fact Sheet.” Retrieved from

Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative (CPRI). 2013. Enough for All: Unleashing Our Communities’ Resources to Drive Down Poverty in Calgary. Vol. 1. Calgary, AB: City of Calgary and United Way of Calgary. Retrieved from

Calgary Public Library. 2013. “New Central Library on Its Way to Being Realized.” News Release, 25 February. Retrieved from

Edmonton Public Libraries. 2011. “Edmonton Public Library Receives Over $600,000 for Downtown Community Safety Program.” News Release 11 May. Retrieved from

Hadley, Chalmers. 1910. Why Do We Need a Public Library? Material for a Library Campaign. Chicago: American Library Association Publishing Board. Retrieved from

Khetarpal, Manisha. 2013. “How Libraries Can Get Involved With and Help Serve Their Communities.” COPIAN: Connecting Canadians in Learning. Retrieved from

Williment, Kenneth. 2009. “It Takes a Community to Create a Library.” Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research 4 (1).

Working Together Team. 2008. Community-Led Libraries Toolkit. Vancouver, BC. Retrieved from

[1] The concept of SORCe was developed by a Community Leadership Group (CLG) made up of the United Way; Calgary Homeless Foundation; Alpha House; Drop-In Centre; The Alex; Neighbourlink; Office of the Chief Crown Prosecutor; Chief Probation Officer Calgary; The City of Calgary’s Community and  Neighbourhood Services and Animal and  Bylaw Services; Calgary Police Services, and Alberta Health Services.


Learning Curves, Twists, and Turns

                                                                         Published: September 24, 2013


Photo taken by B. Gowan

In 1999, I chose to leave my comfortable life on Protection Island, British Columbia, to travel to Cochabamba in Bolivia for a new job working as an educator for a women’s organization. It was a learning journey in every way.

Learning Spanish, finding an apartment, discovering the eccentric transportation systems in the city, shopping for food, being immersed in a new culture—in every moment I was preoccupied with absorbing information. I even dreamed about conjugating Spanish verbs. I was trying so hard to cram everything in that my head ached each evening from the effort.

It wasn’t until I came back to Canada nine months later that I could reflect on my experience. I realized what it meant to be learning a whole new culture, how difficult it was, and how it changes your very identity.

I arrived in Bolivia as an experienced educator in my own country. I had developed and managed programs, and trained and supervised staff. I felt competent and skilled. But being in a new country changed all that. I knew no Spanish, and until I learned the language, my role within my team involved giving support instead of actually teaching. I set up and prepared the room where the adult education workshops were held. Supper was always provided at these workshops and it was my job to serve and clean-up. We were using popular education methods (a teaching methodology from Paulo Freire that educates for social change and uses non-traditional methods such art, poetry and music)  and it was my responsibility to create poster boards illustrating the lessons with drawings, a skill I wasn’t aware I had until I had to use it.

My whole identity shifted. Initially, I felt small and unimportant. I felt the support work was beneath me. What was I doing here anyway? I had to examine my concepts of power, equality, and work. As I discovered my own biases I felt humbled.

This scenario played out again and again. Everything I took for granted was no longer valid or easy. I ordered food in a restaurant thinking I was getting one thing but then something else would show up on my plate. It took me four months to figure out the procedure to get a telephone line installed. Even going to the bank was an ordeal—deciphering and filling out the deposit slips and following the old-fashioned Bolivian banking procedures.

My identity as a competent, confident woman seemed to fade. There were times I just cried in frustration.

Then one day, after I had been in the country for about six months, I actually felt good. I was adjusting. My Spanish was improving. When I walked to one of my favourite outdoor markets to buy some fruit and vegetables, I noticed that the Indigenous market women were all smiling at me, more than usual. I thought it was a good sign. They were getting to know me—maybe they even liked me. After a few minutes, one of the women who spoke a little English came up and pointed to my long skirt and giggled. I had tucked it into my tights in the back. (Luckily, I was wearing tights!) And I had to laugh at myself, thinking I had it all together. The women joined me in more laughter, but there was kindness and acknowledgement in their laughter.   We were all women, all trying our best. I smoothed out my skirt and carried on, another piece of learning tucked under my belt.

Being a learner is exhausting, uncomfortable, and very hard work. It involves taking risks, making mistakes, and letting go of control. It also brought me incredible joy, opportunities for growth, and a new, richer sense of who I am.

What Practitioners in the Field Say

When I spoke with Celia Logan, an English-as-an-additional-language instructor, she had this to say about her recent experience as a student attending a night class to learn Spanish.

It’s very interesting to be in a classroom at night when you’re tired and you’re hungry and you’re cold — I never realized it before. When I’m standing at the front of the class when I’m teaching, I can’t figure out why everyone is wearing a jacket, it’s so comfortable! But now I realize that if you’re not moving around you get cold.  How do you deal with the tiredness and fatigue? A lot of our students are working at jobs or they have so many other responsibilities.

As a learner herself, Celia was able to stand in the learners’ shoes and empathize with her students’ experience.

Ramona Heikel tutors immigrant seniors at Calgary Catholic Immigration Services and talks about learning styles and the excitement of learning. “Using a newly learned skill or concept solidifies my learning. I learn by doing. I try to have students use a new skill as soon as possible—I find that if a student can teach another student [a skill], they take a leap in their self-confidence.” Learning by doing or kinesthetic learning is one of several adult learning styles.

For more information on learning styles, check out Creating Learning Partners: A Facilitator’s Guide for Training Effective Adult Literacy Tutors (Unit 3 Learning Styles) available for free download at

Another Bow Valley College adult basic education instructor, Glenna Healy, feels she’s learning all the time.

I am one of those people who reflect every day on what I’ve done, what I’ve learned, what I could have done better. My personal experience of learning is brought into my teaching by showing my students that I, too, learn each day, by showing them that I, too, am vulnerable and that I, too, make mistakes. I need them to know that no one is perfect. We allow people to make mistakes and support each other and carry on.

As learners, we may feel scared and vulnerable so creating an atmosphere of openness and safety is crucial to providing a space for learning to happen.

Still others speak about negative past experiences in learning and how that influences their current teaching practice. “I’ve had my fingers slapped and was told that I didn’t know how to write an essay—even though I teach essay writing now… Overly critical teachers have done nobody any good. I try to focus on people’s strengths and make learning fun and try to make it relevant to learners’ own lives… focusing on the positive instead of focusing on the negative” explains Belle Auld, Coordinator, Speech-Assisted Reading and Writing Program at Bow Valley College. Belle’s focus on the positive is echoed in a number of studies that support a strength-based approach to teaching adult learners. Building on strengths increases self-confidence and opens the door to further learning.

Theresa Wall is a learning support specialist for adult English language learners at Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association. She works with teachers to help them develop an individualized approach that focuses on strengths and needs with students. She talks about her learning happening in stages.

There are times when there’s new information presented to me, either through an experience or reading or conversation. The next piece of learning that comes after that is when something becomes more tangible that I can apply. So, I feel like I’m learning when I fit those pieces together for myself. For learners I make things explicit and help them to see how to take pieces of information and piece them together so that it applies for life.

Her approach is a form of “scaffolding” learning or building upon previous knowledge. It helps adult learners begin to make connections to their own lives.

For more information on explicit teaching see On the right-hand side under “categories” click on Instruction.

Identifying the inherent power differences present in any teacher-student relationship is an important step in setting up positive environments for learning. The practitioners I spoke to consciously listened to and reflected on their own experiences of learning and intentionally applied the lessons they’d learned through experience into their teaching practice.

What the practitioners in a research project said

A practitioner research project called Powerful Listening (Stewart et al. 2009) examined the issues of power and difference that learners and literacy practitioners experienced in their relationships with each other. They asked how practitioners hear and understand learners and each other across multiple social differences. How do these dynamics either support or stifle literacy learning?

Our own experience helps create the lens through which we hear and understand learners and colleagues. Bringing to awareness more aspects of our own literacy learning journeys in our families, communities and at school helps us to understand ways that we listen, filter and sometimes fail to listen to learners and colleagues. By further understanding aspects of our experience of difference, exclusion, privilege, and opportunity, we come to understand more about how difference affects listening and learning (Stewart 2009, 47).

We are always learning

Literacy practitioner and skilled trainer, Linda Weir, frequently used the magic of story-telling in her teaching about lifelong learning. The following is a story she told during her training workshops.

A student was attending a program at a learning institution. Every evening after his courses were done, he would walk by the residence of the instructors. No matter how late it was, there was always one light on. It belonged to his favourite teacher. This happened for many weeks. One day he stayed after class and asked his teacher “Why is your light always on late in the evenings?” His teacher replied that she was working and reading and continuing her learning. “I am filling my well so that you may continue to draw water from it, day after day.”

Practitioners are the well that students draw their fresh water from. How do you keep your well fresh? How do you keep engaged in your own learning? Watch for future Stories from the Field that explore these questions.


Literacy Alberta. 2007. Creating Learning Partners: A Facilitator’s Guide to Training Effective Adult Literacy Tutors. Retrieved from

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.

Why Explicit Writing Instruction? 2012. Writeforward Blog, 5 July. Retrieved from

Useful Resources

Chimamanda, Adichie. The Danger of a Single Story. This 2009 TED Talk explores the danger of thinking there is only a single story or a single way of looking at life.

LaDs Learner Stories — authentic writing by adult learners. This book is part of Bow Valley College’s 2005 Literacy and Disabilities Study (LaDS) project that researched literacy programming delivered to adults with disabilities, using the Speech-Assisted Reading and Writing (SARAW) talking computer program.

Check out the gallery of student art and poetry from the Nations Learning Together: An Art and Adult Literacy Project. (2013. Learners’ blog, Lifeline to Literacy, Bow Valley College

The Popular Education News. “What is popular education?” Definition of the month from back issues of The Popular Education News. Retrieved from

The Way In: Word on the Prairie —This publication from Literacy Alberta celebrates the diversity of adult learners with their own stories and photo essays. See

Inspiring learners’ stories can be found in Write On Magazine, by Literacy Partners of Manitoba, Fall/Winter 2012-2013.



Constructivist, learner-centered, holistic – What do these terms really mean and how are they related to adult literacy and learning?

                                                                                             Published: August 28, 2013

In my years as a facilitator, I never used the word constructivist to describe what I was doing. I might have used the word holistic to describe my approach to working with adult learners, and I would definitely have used the words learner or student-centered. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing practitioners working in adult literacy and essential skills in Alberta to learn more about how they see what they do. It’s made me curious about what these terms mean and how they relate to adult literacy and learning.

What the Research Says

In education, constructivism is a theory about how people learn. There are two important concepts in this theory. The first is that people construct or build new knowledge on what they already know. The second is that people actively construct meaning through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences (Thirteen Ed Online, 2004). Click here to find out more about how constructivist teaching compares to a more traditional model.

To me, constructivism looks a lot like learner-centered teaching. Instructors acknowledge that each student is an individual with unique learning needs. Instructors bring together a variety of techniques throughout the course and engage in dialogue with students, encouraging questions, reflection, and active participation. Learning is interactive, building on previous knowledge and experience. Students work in groups, learning from each other. Students’ past experiences, culture, and knowledge are valued.

Learner-centered teaching can mean different things to different people. In an effort to clarify the definition, Maryellen Weimer, a specialist in adult education and author of the second edition of Learner-Centered Teaching, identifies five characteristics:

1. Learner-centered teaching engages students in the hard, messy work of learning. Students need opportunities to practise learning skills and tasks. Teachers do less of the work for their students.

2. Learner-centered teaching includes explicit skill instruction. Teachers help students learn how to think and solve problems. Learning skills develop faster if they are taught with the content.

3. Learner-centered teaching encourages students to reflect on what they’re learning and how they’re learning it. Assignments give students an opportunity to reflect, and analyze what they are learning and how they are learning it. The goal is to make students conscious of themselves as learners and encourage the development of learning skills.

4. Learner-centered teaching motivates students by giving them some control over learning processes. Teachers search out ethically responsible ways to share power with students. For example, they might give students choices about assignments and deadlines.

5. Learner-centered teaching encourages collaboration. It sees classrooms as communities of learners. Learner-centered teachers believe that students learn from and with each other. (phrases in bold from Weimer, 2012)

Click on for the full article plus other interesting adult-education-related blogs.

Traditionally, teacher-centered approaches see teachers as the disseminators of knowledge and students as passive recipients. By contrast, the learner-centered approach seeks “to engage students actively in their learning in ways that are appropriate for and relevant to them in their lives outside the classroom” (Peyton, Moore, and Young 2010).

For more information on the roles and responsibilities of teachers and learners within this approach, click here

Holistic education looks at the learner as a whole person. This approach tries to engage all aspects of the learner: spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental — and their interconnectedness with others and the world. Learning is active and reflective, and creates meaning in the context of people’s lives. “Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning” (Miller 2000).

Indigenous peoples’ approaches to learning are holistic, balancing the four dimensions: body, mind, heart and spirit. In her literature review, Ningwakwe Priscilla George argues that literacy/education policies need to reflect:

  • that we are Spirit/Heart/Mind and Body; therefore each component needs to be recognized and nurtured in programming
  • that we are not apart from Creation; rather, we are a part of creation, in that everybody is/has Spirit/Energy
  • that we all have a reason for being here in this life. That is, we have a purpose, and gifts for realizing that purpose
  • that we have a great power at our fingertips in managing the energy of which we are a part. (George 2008, 46)

What Practitioners in the Field Say

Not surprisingly, adult literacy practitioners weave together threads from all three methodologies in their teaching. Practitioners I talked to spoke about the importance of looking at adult learners as whole, unique individuals with full lives outside of the classroom.

“Students taught me that they have a lot going on in their lives outside of math,” said Jim Neve, a recently retired math teacher. Before he taught full time, he was filling in for a math tutor at Alberta Vocational College. On his first day tutoring in an adult basic education program many years ago, a student came in and began to cry and talk about her life for the next ten minutes. She didn’t open a book and Jim simply listened. When she was done, she packed up her books and left. When Jim looked at the other tutor perplexed, the tutor told him, “You have to dry the tears before you can do the math.” It was an important lesson for Jim, one that he kept in mind throughout his thirty years of teaching.

Given people’s complicated histories and lives, creating a safe space for learning to actually happen is important for all practitioners. Whether learners had previous bad experiences in learning math or other subjects, personal histories of violence and trauma, or experiences of bullying, it’s essential to make the classroom a positive, safe environment. “We spend a lot of time at the beginning of the class trying to determine how safe they [students] want it and what the rules are and we have to keep going back to those rules regularly to remind people,” Carol McCullough, Adult Basic Literacy Education instructor at Bow Valley College explained.

Practitioners also talk about the importance of relating the learning to learners’ interests and lives. “Building or creating socially and personally meaningful learning contexts is key,” Trish Pryce told me as she spoke about her experience teaching an adult upgrading program on a reserve. Other practitioners echoed this sentiment.

“It’s not about me creating an agenda and hoisting it on them. It’s following what their perceived needs are and teaching to that perceived need.”— Liette Wilson, Pebbles in the Sand facilitator and English Language Literacy Instructor, Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association.

“I approach things from a broad point and start with what they see in their lives” said Lorene Anderson, a workplace essential skills practitioner. “If I were going to teach someone to read, I would not start with the alphabet or picture books. For example, if he wanted to travel, it might be looking at maps. I want him to understand that there is a print representation of something physical.”  She feels adult learners learn best through the real tasks they do in their lives.

Most of the practitioners use interactive group work and encourage collaboration. Penny Marcotte, a math/science teacher in a Bow Valley College Aboriginal upgrading program, finds that her students benefit enormously from being self-paced and working in smaller groups with people who share similar backgrounds.

Whether you call the work constructivist, learner-centered, or holistic, these stories from the field suggest that adult literacy practitioners approach their work from a number of perspectives in an effort to intentionally create meaningful learning experiences for their diverse learners.


George, Ningwakwe Priscilla. 2008. Aboriginal Adult Literacy: Nourishing Their Learning Spirits. University of Saskatchewan, Aboriginal Education Research Centre, Saskatoon, SK and First Nations and Adult Higher Education Consortium, Calgary, AB. Retrieved from

Miller, R. 2000. A Brief Introduction to Holistic Education. The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education. Retrieved from

Peyton, Joy Kreeft, Sarah Catherine Moore, and Sarah Young. 2010. Evidence-based, Student-Centered Instructional Practices, CAELA Network Brief. Washington, DC: Centre for Applied Linguistics. Retrieved from

Thirteen Ed Online. 2004. Workshop: Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning. Concept to Classroom. Retrieved from

Weimer, Maryellen. 2012. Five Characteristics of Learner-Centered Teaching. The Teaching Professor Blog. 8 August. Retrieved from

Useful Resources

Mercer, Karen, April Bellegarde, and Alice Charland. 2012.  A Selected Literature Review for Adult Learner Success: Aboriginal Upgrading Program, Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning, Bow Valley College. Available at

The Canadian Council on Learning Report Redefining Success in Aboriginal Learning, 2007, has holistic models for First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples. See

The Social and Holistic Approach to Numeracy website gives examples of how to use a social/holistic approach when teaching numeracy. See

 For more information on learner-centered teaching, check out the Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy website

This website from Michigan State University elaborates on the concept of learner-centered teaching in a postsecondary context. It has useful definitions, principles to guide practice, and resources.

This document from the University of Southern California serves as a resource for faculty. It includes an explanation of learner-centered teaching, ideas for implementing it, and tips for engaging students.


“My BVC is a community where people take care of each other”

                                                                                             Published: July 19 2013

Calgary’s downtown core is slowly returning to a new “normal.” Here and there, puddles of silty water still remain, sludge-filled reminders of the flood that surged through the city only weeks ago. The Central Library remains closed, the unmistakable smell of mud and wet books wafting from within.

Centre Street Bridge - Lower deck underwater (June 21, 2013) Photo taken by A.Gardner

Centre Street Bridge – Lower deck underwater (June 21, 2013) Photo taken by A.Gardner

One block away at Bow Valley College, campus life is resuming in a tentative, shell-shocked way. The downtown college was evacuated and all four buildings closed from June 21 to July 4. Our rural satellite locations were also hard hit. Outside of the city, the High River campus hopes to reopen soon.

On Thursday, July 4, Bow Valley College president Sharon Carry welcomed staff back to the downtown campus and announced that learners would return to classes on Monday, July 8. She began by thanking Bow Valley College staff who have been working 24/7 to get the college up and running again – the IT department, maintenance, security, management and faculty.

“This has been an unprecedented time for the College and our great City. The floods have certainly tested our limits, but have also revealed a resourcefulness, humanity, and commitment to service that really exemplify Bow Valley College. I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to our learners, faculty, and staff who have been incredibly supportive and patient while we have worked to get the College back on track.” (Press Release, Bow Valley College, July 5, 2013)

The College community came together in countless ways to help each other during the crisis. Not only did people work endlessly on fixing our campus, but we also extended our support in each other’s homes and communities by providing food and shelter, wading in on the clean-up, caring for pets and even washing much needed laundry.

It’s been almost a month since the most severe flood in over one hundred years swept through Calgary and large parts of southern Alberta. Whole towns and neighborhoods have been busy cleaning up, negotiating with insurance agents, and starting the hard work of rebuilding.

Sunnyhill Housing Co-op, Sunnyside (June 21, 2013) Photo taken by A.Gardner

Sunnyhill Housing Co-op, Sunnyside (June 21, 2013) Photo taken by A.Gardner

Sunnyhill Housing Co-op, Sunnyside - At least six BVC staff live in the Co-op (June 21, 2013) Photo taken by A.Gardner

Sunnyhill Housing Co-op, Sunnyside – At least six BVC staff live in the Co-op (June 21, 2013) Photo taken by A.Gardner

But it’s not over yet.

The long process of healing has just begun. A natural disaster such as a flood has a huge impact on the emotional and mental health of individuals that were directly and indirectly affected. During the first week that students were back in classes, Liz O’Shea, Coordinator, Counselling and Specialized Support, held several information sessions on the emotional and social impact of a natural disaster.

Faculty and learners alike may be experiencing stress. Right now, it might be normal to have heightened feelings of anxiety. When it rains, we might worry about flooding. Irritability, confusion, indecisiveness, shortened attention span and trouble concentrating – all are common following a disaster. These symptoms gradually decrease over time and most people recover.

However, O’Shea noted that some people may experience more severe reactions such as nightmares, flashbacks, emotional numbing, panic attacks, rage and intense agitation. These may be warning signs that a person needs professional help.

What can you do?

During the information session with learners, students suggested several ways of coping:

• Exercise regularly
• Eat nutritious meals
• Get enough sleep
• Do yoga and meditation
• Spend time in nature
• Talk to friends and loved ones
• Look out for one another

O’Shea also recommended avoiding alcohol and drugs (they increase depression), spending time with positive people and reaching out to others for support. It is this final sentiment that Liz O’Shea spoke about when she said “My BVC is a community where people take care of each other.”

During the past few weeks, we’ve experienced many things: the sheer power of nature; coping in the face of hardship; and the enormous generosity of strangers. The flood brought informal, unplanned learning into our lives requiring patience, care and working alongside one another. These will help us as we move carefully into the formal learning stream once again.

If you, or someone you know is experiencing severe stress reactions in the aftermath of the flood, there is help available:

Students – Bow Valley College Learner Success Services: Room N231, Phone 403-410-1440,

Staff – Employee Assistance Program, Forbes Psychological Services: (24/7) 1-800-420-2204

Distress Centre 24 hour Crisis Line: 403-266-4357

Online Resources

The Stories from the Field project is a research project that is collecting information and stories about teaching and learning practices in adult literacy and essential skills. Using interviews with practitioners and research, we will write articles highlighting current issues and innovative work taking place in adult literacy and learning throughout the province.  

Check out for more Stories from the Field.


Share your stories from the field – about successes, innovations and challenges teaching adult literacy and essential skills

                                                                                              Published: July 14 2013

Are you an adult literacy practitioner?

Are you interested in hearing about what others are doing in the adult literacy and essential skills field?
Do you have a story you want to share about your own work?

We’d like to hear from you. We’re gathering information and stories from in-person, telephone and Skype interviews with adult literacy practitioners around the province and beyond. Whether you work in small town, on a reserve or in a busy city, we want to hear your stories about your successes, innovations, and yes, even challenges in your corner of the literacy world. We are interested in stories about teaching and learning reading, writing, numeracy and technology.

The Stories from the Field is a research project that is collecting information and stories about teaching and learning practices in adult literacy and essential skills in Alberta. We will use the information you provide to write articles to be posted on the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning website. By the end of the project in February 2014, we also hope to identify information, communication and professional development needs as articulated by practitioners. These will be used in the final report to make recommendations for areas needing further research and development.

The Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning at Bow Valley College promotes critical inquiry, applied research, and innovation in the field of foundational learning (adult literacy, basic education, upgrading and essential skills). We are seeking practitioners from all areas in the diverse field of adult learning. If you contact us, and we have sufficient participants, we will advise you and let you know about other upcoming projects that may be of interest to you. We appreciate everyone’s inquiries!
If you have any questions, or would like to share your stories from the field, please contact Sandi Loschnig at or (403) 283-6343. We can set up an interview in person, by telephone or by Skype. I look forward to hearing from you!

Read the stories at


Is technology changing the meaning of literacy, and if so, then how is it changing teaching and learning in adult literacy programs?

Published: June 10 2013

The other day I was having supper with my family in a restaurant. Nearby, at other tables, were two young families with children under the age of ten. Each of the four children had their own I-Pad. They spent the time before and after dinner totally engrossed on their computers. I was struck by the fact that I-Pads, and computers in general, are an integral part of kids’ lives. And it made me think about how technology is changing the way we live and learn.

Some interesting statistics

Did you know…

• 27.4 million Canadians are online (80% of the population)
• 93% go online for product information
• 60-70% of Canadians have a mobile phone
• 80% of those use a smart phone

(September 2012 Google Engage Canada Conference)

The International Adult Literacy Skills Survey (IALSS, 2005) told us that 42% (over 9 million) of Canadian adults do not have the reading, writing and numeracy skills needed to function well in their lives. Ironically, according to the statistics from Google Engage, many of those 42% of Canadians are online and using their mobile or smart phones to search for information and communicate with one another.

Using FaceBook, texting, emailing and reading online – our ways of communicating are changing and, likewise, our ways of learning. Today, we are far beyond using paper and pencil as primary tools for building literacy. New technologies are transforming the way we interact with, and use text, for reading, writing and numeracy.

Using technology for education is not new. In 1925, the Canadian National Railroad radio network began providing educational programming as a public service to children and adults (Buck, 2006). In 1927, CKUA, Canada’s first public broadcaster operating out of the University of Alberta, started broadcasting concerts, poetry readings and university lectures, and the Department of Education of Nova Scotia’s broadcasts started in 1928 (Keast, 2005).

What is different today is the rapid and unprecedented growth in the use of technologies in all areas of our lives including learning and teaching. Technology is more than the invention of new machines, and much more complicated than just learning how to use a cell phone or personal computer. New technologies (the Internet in particular) are influencing how we understand and learn about the world, locally and globally.

When we think about using technology for learning, it helps to consider two different but connected approaches.

Using technology to learn

The first approach looks at technology as a set of tools (electronic machines) that can be used to help people improve what are considered traditional literacy skills (i.e. reading, writing and numeracy). For example, Speech-Assisted Reading and Writing (SARAW) at Bow Valley College is a talking computer program that teaches basic reading, writing and math skills to adults who are reading and writing at levels between beginners and Grade 6. Dragonally Speaking and Kurzweil are other examples of speech to text technologies that help adults with dyslexia and other learning disabilities as well as English Language Learners.

Learning to use technology

The second approach does not separate traditional literacy practices from digital literacy. A study by Australia’s National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) proposes that “literacy education is equally and simultaneously digital literacy education.” The study calls for “a fundamental shift in understandings of what constitutes adult literacy teaching and learning, and recognition that adult literacy programming should be re-envisioned to meet the learning needs of learners in a society that is changing based on the pervasive availability and use of technologies.” (Moriarty, M., 2011)

Digital literacy is more than simply being able to turn on a computer. The NWT Literacy Council ( has developed the following introduction to digital literacy within the framework of adult literacy:

“Digital literacy is the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and create information using digital technology. The term ‘digital literacy’ relates to the functional skills of knowing about and using digital technology. These include:

1. The ability to analyze and evaluate digital information
2. Knowing how to act sensibly, safely and appropriately online
3. Understanding how, when and why to use technology”

(Moriarty, M., Finding Our Way, p.17)

Digital literacy has become fundamental to communication (e.g. mobile phones) and for many people, using digital technologies enable fuller participation in life and learning. The challenge for adult literacy practitioners/educators is how do we integrate more traditional teaching approaches to building literacy skills with the emergence of what is called digital literacy skills? The technology jargon alone can be overwhelming for both practitioner and learner. “Digital Literacy” for example, is changing how literacy is defined and understood. A fundamental question is: How do we as instructors and tutors help learners to both use technology to learn, and learn how to use technology?

The AlphaPlus 2012 report Incorporating Digital Technologies into Adult Basic Education ( presents five vignettes of community organizations incorporating technology into their programming. They speak about these promising practices, among others:

1. Access to up-to-date computers with Internet, a printer and speakers.
2. Sustainability: People need to know that once they commit to learning that the resources will continue to be there.
3. Integrity in learning programs requires opportunities for practicing new skills.
4. Trained literacy educators who can recognize and provide support in the moments when people’s literacy needs and interests shift. (For example from being curious to surfing the net to creating web pages; from reading other people’s writing to creating their own texts.)

“The technologies used in programs should reflect the everyday lives of learners and support opportunities for practice, moving closer toward a closer match between formal curricula and learners’ everyday technology uses” (Smythe, 2012).

Other studies (Jimoyiannis & Gravani, 2011) emphasize that the principles of adult learning still apply to teaching technology, namely:

a) self-directed learning as a preferred model
b) adults’ prior experience and interests as a rich resource for the course
c) a task based, rather than a technology centered approach (e.g. learning to do online banking, researching health resources) and
d) the importance of the wider social context in technology cultivation and learning.

Digital technologies are constantly evolving. What are the implications for training and professional development for practitioners?  Adult literacy practitioners are particularly challenged to both develop their own technology skills and understanding of digital literacy, and to create a meaningful approach to the inclusion of digital literacy skills in their programming. Ongoing training and professional development for educators is essential if we are to provide coherent, integrated programs that encompass all literacies, traditional and digital (Snyder et al, 2005).

“We have confirmation that we are headed in the right direction with the inclusion of online technologies for the instruction and engagement of adult learners, even those with the most limited skills and language proficiencies. What the field needs now is a compass and a few strategic landmarks to chart a course forward with online technologies – our learners already inhabit the landscape.”

(National Institute for Literacy, 2008, p. 34)

Stories from the Field is a research project that hopes to uncover some navigational themes that best support literacy learning and teaching in the areas of reading, writing, numeracy and technology. We invite you to join the discussion with your points of view, teaching and learning practices, and references that guide you as instructors and tutors as you steer your own course through this digital landscape.
Please contact Sandi Loschnig at or 403-283-6343 for more information and to share your stories from the field.


AlphaPlus (2012). Learning Together with Digital Technologies: Illustrative Case Studies: Retrieved May 18, 2013, from

Breikss, Chris. (2012, Nov.21). Infographic: Canadian Internet Usage Statistics on Mobile, Search and Social. [Web blog]. Retrieved May 20, 2013 from

Buck, George H., (2006). The first wave: The beginnings of radio in Canadian distance education, Journal of Distance Education, 21 (1), 75-88.

JImoyiannis, A. & Gravani, M. (2011). Exploring Adult Literacy Using Learners’ and Educators’ Perceptions and Experiences: The Case of the Second Chance Schools in Greece. Educational Technology & Society,14 (1), 217-227.

Keast, R. (2005). A brief history of educational broadcasting in Canada. Canadian Communications Foundation website. Retrieved May 23, 2013 from

Moriarty, Maria (2011). Finding Our Way: Digital Technologies and E-Learning for Adult Literacy Students, Educators and Programs Literature Scan: 2005-2011, AlphaPlus, Toronto, Ontario. Retrieved May 18, 2013 from

Silver-Pacuilla, H. & Reder, S. (2008). Investigating the Language and Literacy Skills Required for Independent Online Learning, National Institute for Literacy, Washington, DC. Retrieved May 20, 2013 from

Smythe, Suzanne (2012). Incorporating Digital Technologies in Adult Basic Education: Concepts, Practices and Recommendations. Retrieved February 9, 2013, from

Snyder, I., Jones, A., & Lo Bianco, J.  (2005). Using information and communication technologies in adult literacy education: New practices, new challenges. NCVER.

Snyder, I. et al. (2005). Using ICT in adult literacy education: Guidelines for reform. Literacy and Numeracy Studies, (14) 1, 17-32.


Things are cooking in my kitchen

Published: March 27 2013

I’ve been at Bow Valley College just over a month now gathering and soaking up information on teaching and learning practices in adult literacy and Essential Skills. I’ve talked to people, researched and read. I feel like a cook, gathering my ingredients and putting them together on a slow simmer. I thought it was time to share some highlights and learning about my process and progress to date.

I started my learning by getting familiar with some of the programs and projects happening at Bow Valley College’s Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning.

One of the first people I interviewed was Karen Mercer. I learned about the Aboriginal program, the FlexClassArtstream and the evening GED course.  The Aboriginal program provides both academic preparation and  high school upgrading. It was exciting to hear about their plans to introduce Life Management and Aboriginal Leadership courses in partnership with the BVC Aboriginal Centre. Another unique program, Artstream, is run in partnership with Alberta College of Art and Design. Students who have completed a portfolio for ACAD, but who don’t have the academic qualifications can enroll to complete this piece through art history and humanities courses taught at BVC.  I learned more about the FlexClass, a self-directed program of learning that allows students to work at their own pace to complete high school courses.  The class is expanding in May to include even more hours (Monday to Thursday 9 am – 9 pm, Friday 9 am – 4 pm and Saturday 9 am – 2 pm). This innovative way of delivering services makes it possible for students to work or take care of their families, and continue their learning. The evening GED curriculum teaches courses to help students take the grade 12 exams needed for work or for challenging exam results. I look forward to talking with other practitioners in the Centre and learning more about their programs and projects.

I’ve sat in on meetings for both WriteForward and the Learner Progression Measures projects.  WriteForward, the adult writing assessment project, is facing the challenging task of creating a new informal writing assessment resource. The Learner Progression Measures project is looking at how learner progress is measured by funders, literacy practitioners, and most importantly, by learners themselves. Both project teams are pioneering new ways of looking at assessment and learning.

I’ve also started to reach out to the larger literacy community to initiate talks about how we can work together sharing information and resources. I met with Laura Godfrey, manager at LearningLinks Resource Centre and Library to discuss linking their website to ours, giving practitioners throughout the province another avenue to learn about each other’s work, and the resources available to help them. LearningLinks has one of Canada’s largest collections of resources that focus on literacy, English as an Additional Language and learning disabilities. Practitioners looking for resources in these areas are encouraged to contact Laura at 403-249-4606 or

In preparation for my own project, Stories from the Field, I’ve been researching the teaching and learning practices in adult literacy and Essential Skills in the areas of Reading, Writing, Numeracy and Technology. To date, we’ve collected over 100 articles.  Once we’ve identified the most relevant and useful, they will be featured on the Centre’s website:

A major part of Stories from the Field involves talking to practitioners to learn about your experiences, innovations and challenges in teaching and learning Reading, Writing, Numeracy and Technology (both learning to use technology and using technology to learn).  In early April, I will send out an invitation asking you to participate in a short phone interview.

Throughout the project, we will post your stories on current issues and innovative work in the adult literacy and Essential Skills field on the Centre’s website. By the end of August, we hope to identify areas for future development and research.

If you would like to share your stories: your recipes for success, your discoveries and your challenges in your corner of the literacy world, please contact me.

Phone: Sandra Loschnig (403)-283-6343 email:

4 thoughts on “Stories from the Field

  1. Pingback: Adult Literacy Research Institute

  2. Pingback: Shaping and Reshaping Teaching Practice in ESL Literacy | Adult Literacy Research Institute

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s