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Literacy teaching

I completed a NALA-based adult literacy volunteer tutor training course in Blessington VEC this month. This means I join a panel of local volunteer tutors that the Blessington Adult Learning Centre choose from to work with people who come to them for help with reading, writing, spelling, numeracy and other communication problems.

According to the 1995 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), one in four Irish adults have literacy difficulties, compared to 3% in Sweden and 5% in Germany. According to the survey, early school leavers, older adults, non-English speakers and unemployed people are most at risk of having literacy difficulties. In addition, the people with the lowest skills are least likely to take part in adult education.

I had to write something afterwards >>>

What have I taken from the course?

What stands out most is the fact that the world of literacy difficulties has been opened up for me by this course: I am now more aware of how many people are affected by them, and how they impact on people’s lives. The course brought that out into the foreground for me, when it had only been something I was vaguely aware of. At the same time, my admiration for people experiencing these limitations has increased, as I see now that they employ strategies to hide the evidence of their being a problem, and the very fact that they get by is enough to make you realise they must have incredible skills in other aspects of their lives. We all tend to play to our strengths, and so I now admire even more the people who have what it takes to do something about their limitations. I think I have something to learn from them.

Doing the course also showed me that excellent people (the organisers, lecturers, guest tutors and the trainees) are actively trying to right these wrongs of society: the neglect that our system has inflicted on so many people, depriving them, through inequalities, of basic tools that so many of us take for granted. It was also pointed out, in the course, that the State was continuing to neglect the already neglected by not properly funding professional educational activities, which the students need, and instead expecting volunteerism to take up the slack.

However, the course was not about solving the broader social and political problems, but about equipping tutors with a skill set that might be used to help learners.

The course covered issues such as the theory of teaching, adult learning, the nature of the student-teacher relationship, confidentiality, the idea of student-led and student-appropriate learning, the learner’s own language experience, the resources and approaches for helping out with different literacy problems, the individualisation of lesson plans, the need for flexibility and adaptability, and the options for further training, education and guidance that the VEC offers, as thoroughly as possible within the time constraints; and as a result I think that combined with my previous experience of teaching (communications, English as a foreign language, History, study skills, computers and literature) and the preparation work that I will do each time I’m required, I am ready to begin helping adult learners.

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My first aim will be to put the student at ease: in my tone, my body language and in what I say and do, making sure the student sees me simply as someone helping them out in a neighbourly way, and feels fully respected.

From a bit of a chat, I would hope to get to know a little about what interests and activities the learner has in their life. I will be happy to share some of my own thoughts on these, but it is more functional than anything else: helping to establish a rapport and to generate material for later use. (As was made clear in the course, the service is not based on a friendship model, but on a friendly assistance model.)

I think the student’s journal will be of great help to me in getting the ball rolling. It should give me a first-hand sense of the level they are at to supplement the information provided by the facilitators, and it should be very helpful in establishing whether or not progress is being made as we go along – again, emphasised as important in the course was the idea of making progress at a good pace and the satisfaction that the student will derive from seeing evidence of that.

Once I have a good sense of the aims of the learner I will go through the handouts and my notes from the course as well as any other material recommended from the VEC library and make sure I am prepared sufficiently for each session and aware of all the issues that might arise.

From there I think I will be inclined to offer the learner resources that I generate from real-life material of immediate interest and relevance to their situation and their everyday life. Although I will look to the books that are available for inspiration and style and format and methods, I was convinced by the point made often during the course that the less school-ish the work feels and the more authentic the material, the better for the student.

I think I will want to talk through progress with the facilitators and seek advice from them and I hope that won’t be too much of an imposition. I hope there will also be chances to share experiences and resources with fellow tutors, while maintaining student confidentiality.

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Finally, another very impressive and reassuring thing the course showed me was how properly holistic the approach being taken is: seeing each student as possessing potential to go further and not just dealing with the problem they have “presented with”. It is refreshing to see actual proper planning being done so that the student’s future is considered and the possibility that they might want to go on to learn computer skills, to further training, get careers advice and even re-enter the educational system that may itself have done them such a terrible injustice in the past.

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