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Defining our terms

Calgary Learns supports foundational learning for adults – that is our core work.  We are often asked to define our terms. Questions like ‘what’s the difference between literacy and foundational learning?’.

The definition of terms we use were drawn from research and resources that inform adult learning principles and pedagogy.  As a granting Community Adult Learning Program (CALP) we use the Community Adult Learning Program Guidelines (2020) that were developed within this field, working alongside Advanced Education CALP managers.


The Alberta government report, Living Literacy: A framework for Alberta’s next generation economy, used a definition of literacy in its broadest scope:

“Literacy is not just about reading and writing. While reading and writing provide the necessary foundation for learning, literacy is fundamentally about an individual’s capacity to put his/her skills to work in shaping the course of his or her own life. Literacy involves ‘reading the word and the world’ in a variety of contexts. Individuals need literacy skills to obtain and use information effectively, to act as informed players and to manage interactions in a variety of contexts (ex. Making decisions about health care, parenting, managing household finances, engaging in the political process or working).”

The Community Adult Learning Program Guidelines (2020) define Literacy as follows:

“The ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated within varying contexts.  Literacy, numeracy, the skills and habits needed to engage in learning, the ability to use basic digital technology, and proficiency in the English language are core skills Albertans need to be able to participate actively in society, pursue further learning, and be successful in their work. For this reason, the Community Adult Learning Program is focused on ensuring adult foundational learners in all funded communities are able to access learning opportunities and supports in these areas.  “

It can be helpful to know how to talk about literacy with people outside the field. ABC Life Literacy has an excellent blog post.

Foundational learning

Learning opportunities that support the development of adult literacy, numeracy, skills for learning, basic digital skills, and/or proficiency in the English language. Foundational learning opportunities help individuals to pursue further learning, have satisfying and meaningful employment, and fully participate in society. While the Community Adult Learning Program Guidelines do not identify or mandate a specific “cut-off level” for foundational learning, in general terms, it can be thought of as up to and including approximately Grade 9 levels in the formal kindergarten to grade 12 system, or, in the case of adult literacy and numeracy, up to and including Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) level 2.

Foundational learner

A foundational learner is an adult who chooses to engage in foundational learning opportunities such as literacy, numeracy, skills for learning, basic digital skills, and/or English language learning to address knowledge and skills gaps. Foundational learners often experience economic and/or social challenges, or barriers, that may interfere with their learning – challenges that cannot be separated from the learning journey itself. Grant recipients must familiarize themselves with the nature of these challenges, discussed below.

Adult foundational learners often do not see themselves as learners. They often experience a chronically disrupted learning journey, and as a result, these individuals may not have a strong learning identity and/or the belief and confidence needed to engage and remain in learning.

A number of factors may underline the self-perception of adult foundational learners, including undiagnosed or unaddressed learning difficulties, diagnosed learning abilities, developmental disabilities, cognitive delays, trauma or violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, health/mental health issues, addictions, and/or previous negative experiences in formal education.

Adult foundational learners may feel challenged advocating for themselves and/or their families or finding the information and services they need to support their own learning. These individuals often experience systemic marginalization and stigmatization and may be fearful of further stigmatization. They may also experience a sense of failure associated with education and learning.

Foundational skill levels often have a close connection with low income and poverty. Foundational learners may experience food insecurity, lack of transportation, lack of childcare, and lack of access to stable housing. National and international research has shown that there is a strong correlation between low literacy and the experience of poverty, and that improvement in literacy and other foundational skills closely correlate to increased economic and social opportunities

English language learner

English language learners are a diverse group who may or may not be born in Canada, and whose first language is not English. They could be a Canadian citizen or permanent resident; an Indigenous person; a refugee or immigrant at any stage of adjustment into Canadian society; or a temporary resident, whether a visitor to Canada, an international student, or a temporary foreign worker. They may also be of any economic or social background; for example, they could be a foreign-trained professional or a low-skilled labourer. An English language learner could have any level of formal education (or no formal education) and be at any foundational level of English language learning.

English language literacy learner

English language literacy learners, sometimes referred to as ESL literacy learners, are individuals who have varying abilities to speak or understand spoken English, and who are acquiring basic literacy skills, often for the first time, in any language due to limited or interrupted formal education. These individuals often have little to no education or literacy skills in their first language(s), and need to learn literacy skills in English. English language literacy learning is a continuum, and English language literacy learners require learning that is tailored to their specific learning needs.

Basic digital skills

The ability of individuals to understand and use digital systems, tools, applications and networks in order to access and manage information and thrive in learning, the workplace and daily life.

Skills for Learning

The skills for learning category is defined in the Community Adult Learning Program Guidelines as learning opportunities that support the development of the fundamental skills and habits of learning that support foundational learners to build confidence, develop an identity as a learner, advocate for themselves, and engage in foundational and other learning. While it may involve practicing a range of foundational skills, the primary intended learning objective of learning opportunities in the skills for learning category is to help learners build the following skills and habits needed to set and achieve their learning goals, be successful in further learning, and increase confidence in their ability to be a more self-directed, independent learner. These skills and habits include:

Recognizing oneself as a learner, by supporting the learner to:

  • Trust that they contribute valuable knowledge and skills, which are essential to their learning.
  • Link new learning to prior knowledge, skills, and/or real-world context to make learning relevant.

Taking risks in learning, by supporting the learner to:

  • Take learning risks and practice bravery without fear of shame or judgment.
  • Build new knowledge and skill development in support of their goals.
  • Recognize that all adults have different learning styles and needs, and that, with greater understanding of these, learning is increasingly possible.

Actively engaging in the act of learning, by supporting the learner to:

  • Trust that the more actively they participate in their own learning journey, the more likely they are to achieve their learning goals.
  • Set clear learning goals and have the confidence to take increasing responsibility for, and control over, those goals.
  • Strengthen their ability to make informed decisions in learning.

Developing learning strategies, by supporting the learner to:

  • Adopt practical strategies to achieve their goals, including increased organization at home or work, time management, and enhanced memory skills.
  • Become more confident in their ability to assess their own learning progress, including having the knowledge, skills and tools to support self-checking for accuracy when completing a task.
  • Transfer problem-solving strategies between learning and daily life.
  • Embrace challenges and persevere through setbacks in learning.

Building collaboration skills in learning, by supporting the learner to:

  • Engage effectively and work with others in a learning setting, and apply those skills elsewhere.
  • Develop and nurture positive relationships and a sense of belonging in a learning community.
  • Strengthening communication skills in learning, by supporting the learner to:
  • Enhance their non-verbal and oral communication skills in a learning setting to support the application of those skills in meeting the demands of their day-to-day tasks and responsibilities.

Learning opportunities in the skills for learning category may support the development of several skills for success from the forthcoming Canada’s Skills for Success Framework: collaboration, communication, problem-solving, creativity, and adaptability.

Canada’s Skills for Success Framework (formerly Essential Skills Framework)

Skills for success are the foundational and social-emotional skills needed to succeed in today’s workplace. Foundational skills are those on which all other skills are built, such as reading, writing, numeracy, digital and problem-solving. Social-emotional skills are those that are needed to adapt and succeed in a diverse and technology-driven workforce and society, such as adaptability, collaboration, creativity and communication. Although these skills can overlap and interact, together, they influence a wide range of personal, professional and societal outcomes. To learn more

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