Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

The development of literacy awareness among tertiary students in adult literacy courses

Marion Milton
Language Arts Education
Edith Cowan University

This paper documents the change in workplace trainers' awareness of literacy and literacy issues in the workplace. It is based on my experiences in running a course titled Communication and Adult Literacy, which is one unit in a Bachelor of Arts (Training and Development) and in a Graduate Diploma in Training and Development offered by Edith Cowan University.

The students were full fee paying workplace trainers and managers. Their range of workplaces varies from; the building industry, the state electricity commission, the mining industry, banks, management consulting companies, TAFE, a scientific organisation, and semi-government operations. Two trainers had teaching qualifications. Some students were at the managerial level and not directly involved in training themselves, but supervised and or appointed workplace trainers.

Workplace trainers are important instruments for effecting the changes currently occurring in the Australian workplace. Industry restructuring, enterprise bargaining, multiskilling and the introduction of Total Quality Management, has meant the need for massive retraining of workers. However, the training required is more complex than simply teaching workers new operations. Literacy skills are often needed eg. to read safety instructions and operating procedures.

Further, changes to management structures are such that workers often become self directed through working in teams. Workplace teams hold meetings to report on productivity issues, write reports, record minutes and submit budgets, activities which are often outside the literacy skills of some employees. Also, enterprise bargaining demands not only negotiating skills, but also the ability to understand written agreements.

In the past many workers have either not needed literacy skills to perform their jobs, have developed compensatory strategies, or have been able to hide inadequate skills. Many companies felt that it was not their responsibility to provide basic literacy education, and that it was up to the workers to avail themselves of community classes outside of work hours when the need arose. This is now changing, with government funding of literacy programs to fulfill the first goal of the Australian Language and Literacy Policy:

All Australian residents should develop and maintain a level of spoken and written English which is appropriate for a range of contexts with the support of education and training programs addressing their diverse learning needs (Ad. Lit. Info. Office, 1993).
Wickert's (1989) study No Single Measure, identified different types of literacies which are use in different contexts. Current understanding of literacy has changed from a functional definition to include the notions of "multiple literacies" and literacy as "social practice". These ideas are encompassed in the Australian Language and Literacy Policy (1991) definition.

Literacy skills are now not only an integral part of the job, but specific literacy skills are necessary for specific jobs. The trend, therefore is towards integrated literacy and practical skills training. For instance a worker may need to be able to read and comprehend a manual for a new piece of machinery, so comprehension and use of the manual is taught along with practical training on the machine. This is of benefit to the company in terms of productivity, and they are fulfilling their responsibilities and training a competent workforce. It also has benefits to the workers, who are no longer faced with the stigma of attending literacy classes, and who can improve job related literacy and may have increased chances of promotion.

The problem is that workplace trainers who are competent in delivery of practical training to workers, may not have sufficient knowledge about literacy to undertake this training. Most do not have formal teacher qualifications. In fields where there is a large workforce with other language backgrounds, the trainers may be familiar with programs such as the Workplace English Language and Literacy program (WELL). These programs are taught by qualified teachers who often have further qualifications and/or experience in teaching English as a second or other language. However, not all trainers understand literacy issues or the need to have qualified people teach it. If they are not aware of the literacy requirements of workers, or of the issues, they will not be able to alert employers to the need to increase workers' literacy skills.

In the course I taught (Milton, 1995) I began by asking the students to write down everything they had done that day that required literacy. While sharing the lists with others, they discovered that there were different ideas about what counted as literacy. Following a discussion, they were asked to develop a model and a definition of literacy.

Group One developed a very basic model. Their definition of literacy was:

"To interpret information with understanding"
Although the definition is broad and non specific the model indicated that the group meant the production and interpretation of visual information through reading and writing. This model of visual information through reading and writing. This model only considers the basic skills of reading and writing and does not consider the functional aspect literacy, nor does it consider prior knowledge, context or social factors.

Group Two developed a more sophisticated model. Their definition of literacy was:

"Literacy is the ability to read and write, to effectively comprehend the communications within the context intended and to successfully transfer/disseminate information"
Group Two began with a traditional definition, then added context and a notion of social interaction. In the group's verbal explanation of their definition they said literacy was more than just being able to read and write, that it was important to be able to interact and pass on the information and use the information in different situations, hence the concept of "transfer".

Group Three developed a model which was somewhere between the other two. It also included speaking and listening but did not include writing. The group members were unable to agree on a definition, so submitted four brief ones.

After analysing this exercise I felt most of the students had begun the course with a traditional understanding of literacy. I was aware that the models and definitions given could have been partly influenced by my initial discussion of course content and the first exercise describe above. I feel, however, that the models represented a fairly good depiction of their understanding at the commencement of the course.

I also inquired about the students' perceptions of literacy needs in their own workplaces. At the beginning of the semester, many of the students claimed that there was no need for literacy improvement in their workplace and that everyone they had contact with had sufficient literacy skills to meet workplace demands.

During another session I ascertained the trainers' understanding of what happens when we read and how we learn to read. I found that their understanding was mainly based on how they were taught at school, or insights gained from watching their own children to read. Apart from the two trainers with teaching qualifications, they did not have any knowledge of theoretical models of reading or literacy and knew little about issues related to literacy teaching or learning.

The course introduced trainers to the work of prominent theorists and researchers in the field of adult literacy, particularly as it relates to workplace education. The course also covered adult learning theory, learning styles, literacy contexts, curriculum and program planning, negotiation, and assessment. The course also introduced the notions of genre and critical literacy. The course aimed to make them aware of literacy, to be able to identify problems which were literacy related and to recognise the need for qualified literacy teachers to be part of communication and literacy training programs.

To increase the trainers' understanding of the literacy demands of their workplaces we examined a number of texts from their workplaces, and they were required to design an action research plan in which they addressed some aspect of literacy.

At the end of the course, students were assigned to their original groups, given their models and asked to review them. Groups two and three added to their models the influence of prior knowledge and experience, motivation, learning and numeracy. Group one developed a new model which was influenced by the notion of multiple literacies in different contexts.

I have found that trainers first have to learn about literacy, and about texts, and then be able to relate it to their own workplaces, before it can become part of their repertoire of understanding.


Adult Literacy Information Office. (1993). National Collaborative Adult English Language and Literacy Strategy. Canberra, AGPS.

Adult Literacy Information Office. (1991). Australia's Language: Australian Language and Literacy Policy. Canberra, AGPS.

Milton, M. J. (1995). What do workplace trainers know and need to know about literacy? Open letter (in press).

Wickert, R. (1989). No Single Measure. Canberra, DEET.

Please cite as: Milton, M. (1995). The development of literacy awareness among tertiary students in adult literacy courses. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p177-179. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/milton.html

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