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The Intersection of Adult Foundational Literacy and Poverty – BLOG #2


This past November I facilitated a workshop at the Decoda Literacy Conference in Vancouver. The overall theme of the conference was Fostering Literacy and the conference strands were:

  • Fostering literacy at home, at school, at work and in the community
  • Welcoming immigrant and refugee adults, children and families
  • Embedding literacy in community-based activities
  • Emerging literacies – financial and digital literacy, literacy and the law, workplace safety and so much more …

Decoda Literacy Solutions is the only province-wide literacy organization in British Columbia. Providing resources, training and funds, Decoda supports community-based literacy programs and initiatives in over 400 communities across BC. I referenced the Decoda Literacy and Poverty Fact Sheet in the first blog post.

The Alberta counterpart would be the Community Learning Network.

Full disclosure, making presentations has long been part of the work I do and I have significant anxiety about doing them. Presentations about a topic I am deeply invested in only adds to my state. This project is one of those.

Two other conference presentations confirmed for me that this project was on the right track.

The opening keynote was by Ralph St. Clair, Dean of the Faculty of Education for University of Victoria. His key message was that adult literacy should be Humane, Hopeful and Radical. He wondered how adults with complex educational pathways are supported in our organizations and institutions. How current policy and guidelines support or hinder those pathways. How success could be redefined to respect the learners complex pathways, noticing early successes and building on them. He also spoke about our responsibility to pay attention to the agencies and organizations that provide the formal and informal support to these learners as we work to better understand what supports need to be in place in order for learners to be successful. Ralph St. Clair questioned the value of the educentric lens that is so often applied in adult literacy and which can limit our ability to recognize and foster a learner’s resilience and persistence. Adult literacy in practice, he said, conveys the message to the learner that ‘you matter, your words matter, your lives matter’.

Audrey Gardner’s presentation ‘Learners, Practitioners, Policymakers: Who knows what ‘learner-centred’ education really means?’  Audrey explained how learner-centered approaches in adult literacy were influenced by Paolo Friere’s critical pedagogy of hope and social justice values, how necessary it is to honour a learners’ life experience and knowledge. Friere was working with adults who were oppressed, poor, vulnerable and marginalized. For him, education is political. She described the tension between a historical value of life-wide and lifelong learning and current learning often focussed on the labour market. She invited us to consider what the term ‘learner-centred’ means to us, and why and how we might use learner-centred approaches in our work. She suggested that it is our work, as practitioners, to be listening for hope with humility, to bring our knowledge and find very practical ways for our knowledge to be useful.

My presentation, Critical Literacy: Shifting the Conversation, grew out of a literacy course that Bow Valley College began to pilot in the fall of 2016 in poverty reduction agencies that provide shelter along with many other services. Supported by Calgary Learns, we now offer three courses in three different agencies. We are joined in these learning settings by agency staff and together we create a safe, supported and accessible opportunity for these adults to engage in learning, to practice literacy skills, to identify where in their lives literacy skills gaps can be critical barriers for them. This is not learning with a curriculum focus, this is learning that responds every week to the collection of adults who walk through the door. We are also working with these agencies, offering literacy awareness training for staff.

These courses, and the Frontier College national forum on Literacy and Poverty, led to the gathering of resources and in-depth conversations that prompted Nada Jerkovic and I to propose this Intersection project. All of this brought me to the Decoda conference.

If we reach back onto the adult literacy history, and if we begin with Paulo Friere, literacy work and poverty work were inextricably linked. Over time the link between them became less explicit as literacy (reading and writing) was moved closer to linking with education and then essential skills and the workforce. There is much more to this story of course.

I was interested in finding out how what we know about adults with literacy skills gaps informs the programs we develop and the ways we work in adult literacy. What I was listening for was where in a program did awareness about barriers such as poverty/food insecurity shape the way  we work with individuals, design and deliver programming and recognize and measure success:

  • Several programs mentioned that providing food and child-minding took a large part of their budget but was necessary in order for them to bridge adults into programs. That those funds did not get reflected in outcomes and evaluations but were essential.
  • Other programs talked about employment and poverty, how in some regions adults who have been sufficiently employed for several years find themselves unemployed when an industry shuts down – now unemployed and significantly under skilled (often digital literacy gaps), facing poverty, moving out of their community and trying to find literacy or other skills courses that can quickly meet their needs.
  • It was acknowledged that better literacy skills do not necessarily lead to a better job, particularly in today’s economy.
  • Many practitioners talked about the barriers that adults in their communities face as more and more of the interface with services goes online. That digital skills are directly connected to access to technology and regular use of technology, something that not everyone in a community can be assumed to have.
  • A couple of practitioners said clearly ‘we do what we can but we are not social workers’, they refer adults to other services in the community. Often those services also referred their clients to them to address learning needs.

All of the practitioners in the room talked about how important it was for them to work with the other agencies in their communities. That finding time to do more than referrals was a challenge. Some practitioners sit at community tables but as one participant said ‘often we only have time to share information about what we are currently offering and invite referrals’. Rarely is there the opportunity to explore the ‘intersection’ space where many adults in their communities reside.

The beauty of this project is the opportunity to explore and reflect on the intersection. To be intentional about our conversations about literacy and poverty. There is much common ground and at the very core of it is the concept of ‘hope’.

Lorene Anderson has been conducting interviews with practitioners and leaders in the adult literacy and the poverty reduction community. We are hosting our first Focus Group this month. There is much interest in this project and we look forward to sharing our findings with you.

Literacy is, itself, a defining characteristic of social class. Literacy is an instrument of social power. People become part of a culture by learning to interpret and use its particular signs and symbols. They use language in social relations that increase their knowledge and develop their potential. Poor literacy skills can exclude people from the dominant social groups and opportunities in a society.(Literacy Skills of Canadian Youth, 1997, Statistics Canada,


Through our monthly blogs, we will keep you informed about the project, offer commentary and share practical tips we have learned through the project.


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