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Defining our terms

Calgary Learns supports foundational learning opportunities 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 council within the Community Adult Learning Program (CALP), we use the Community Adult Learning Program Guidelines (2020) to guide our work in allocating grants to adult foundational programming locally.

Literacy and Foundational Learning

The Community Adult Learning Program Guidelines (2020) defines literacy and foundational learning 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

Foundational learning is the overarching term that describes the level of programming. Foundational learning opportunities supported within the CALP guidelines include the development of skills in adult literacy, numeracy, basic digital skills, skills for learning, , 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 and up to Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) 4 for English Language Learning.

Who are the Learners?

Adults who participate in foundational level programming have a goal to strengthen their skills in literacy, numeracy, skills for learning, basic digital skills, or English language learning. These adults often experience economic and/or social challenges, or barriers, that may interfere with their learning. Those 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 these adult 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.

These adults often feel challenged advocating for themselves and/or their families or finding the information and services they need to support their own learning. They 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. Adults in foundational programming 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.

Calgary Learns grants specifically support foundational learning programs for adults with financial barriers.

Programming Categories: 


While Foundational Learning encompasses literacy and goes up to a Grade 9 equivalent or Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) level 2, Adult Literacy is defined as having reading and writing skills gaps at below Grade 4 equivalent or Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) level 1. Literacy programming that supports native English speakers to develop their reading and writing skills is not the same as programming designed to meet the needs of ESL Literacy learners.


CALP defines numeracy as the ability to use, apply, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas.  The learning objective of programming in this category is using numbers and thinking in quantitative terms in order to complete tasks, up to and including a pre-GED level.

Basic digital skills

The pandemic emphasized the crucial need for digital skills to access programs and services. We support programs that build skills beyond a basic understanding of applications, such as Word, and enable individuals to understand and use basic digital systems, tools, applications and networks in order to access and manage information and thrive in learning, the workplace and daily life.

English Language Learning (ELL)

English language programming is designed for learners whose first language is not English and who may or may not have been born in Canada. The ELL programming we support is focused on serving learners who do not qualify for LINC classes and for whom the cost of other local programs presents a financial barrier to participation.

Our grants support programs that work with learners at the foundational level, up to Canadian Language Benchmark 4. We also support programming for the complex needs of English language literacy learners, sometimes referred to as ESL literacy Learners. These individuals often have little or 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 programming that is tailored to their specific learning needs.

Skills for Learning

Many adults learning at the foundational level have not had positive educational experiences. In order to re-start their learning journey, adults may need to strengthen their learning skills and habits to build confidence, develop an identity as a learner, advocate for themselves, and engage in foundational and other learning. While this may involve practicing a range of foundational skills, the primary intended learning objective of programs  in this category is to help learners build the 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
  • Taking risks in learning
  • Actively engaging in the act of learning
  • Developing learning strategies 

Community Capacity Building

Community capacity building programming may build on the literacy and foundational skills a learner is trying to achieve, or has achieved, and is an opportunity to attract learners who may not yet recognize the need to improve their literacy and foundational skills.


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