Published on 2013/02/07

Learning Strategies for Literacy Volunteers

Learning Strategies for Literacy Volunteers
By making sure learning is directly relevant to a student’s immediate needs, setting goals and helping to ensure the learning environment is positive and supportive, educators can ensure that low-skilled adult students follow the path to academic success.

When you hear the term “lifelong learning,” you often think about adults going back to school to update their skills, pursue a second or third career and/or build on their credentials.

You don’t often think about adults with low-level literacy skills that are unable to perform simple reading tasks. According to ABC Life Literacy Canada (2013), “four out of 10 adult Canadians, aged 16 to 65 — representing 9 million Canadians — struggle with low literacy. They fall below Level 3 on the prose literacy scale, which is equivalent to high school completion. In 2003, nearly 3.1 million Canadians aged 16 to 65 were at proficiency Level 1 (below middle school skills); while another 5.8 million were at Level 2 (below high school skills)”.

This is a vulnerable group of people that participate in lifelong learning in order to enhance their quality of life. Therefore, it is important for educators that work with low-level literacy learners to design a program that will help them reach their learning goals. A majority of these educators are literacy volunteers, so having an understanding of how to apply learning strategies to the program will help them be to be more effective with their students. There are many things to consider, but here are four areas the learning strategies should focus on:

  1. The volunteer-learner relationship
  2. Factors that affect learning
  3. Goal setting
  4. Motivation

The Volunteer-Learner Relationship

The first thing volunteers should do is get to know their learner and develop empathy. This will help to establish trust in the relationship and allow the volunteer to connect with the learner. Once the volunteer gets to know the learner, he or she can use the information to personalize learning strategies. Personalized strategies allow the learner to make meaning of the learning, which will help to improve his or her information retention. This strategy is aligned with the constructivist learning theory that speaks to helping people make meaning of the learning process. This is a method widely used in education to help students maximize their learning potential.

In addition to getting to know the learner, it’s important to create a safe and comfortable environment that is conducive to learning. This adult learning theory suggests that if the environment isn’t conducive to learning, it will inhibit the learning process.

Factors That Affect Learning

There are many factors that affect the learning process for low-level literacy learners but I want focus on one area: learning disabilities. Understanding how people learn is essential in every learning environment because it guides the teaching and learning process. How one learns informs how one should teach. One of the reasons why some people struggle with literacy is due to a learning disability. It is not necessary for a volunteer to be an expert on learning disabilities; however, it is important to have a general idea of what a learning disability is and how it impacts learning. Learners with learning disabilities require customized learning plans; therefore, if the volunteer is aware that the learner has a learning disability, he or she can seek specialized support in order to assist with the design of the learning plan.

Goal Setting

One of the key strategies used in most learning environments is goal setting. Setting goals is the key to success because, if you don’t know where you want to go, you won’t have any idea of how to get there. Within adult literacy programs, goals are established for learners in order to track their progress. For low-level literacy learners, goal setting should be broken down into SMARTR goals: S-Specific, M-Measurable, A-Action-oriented, R-Realistic, T-Timed and R-Rewarded. Creating a goal with these characteristics will help volunteers break down goals into smaller steps to make them more achievable and manageable. It also motivates the volunteer to set realistic expectations for the learner.


How do volunteers motivate themselves?

When tutoring a low-level literacy learner, the pace is slower and it’s necessary to redefine your understanding of success. Success might mean the learner has attended the tutoring sessions consistently for one month, as opposed to reading a book in six months. Therefore, it’s necessary for volunteers to motivate themselves. Here are some strategies:

  • Bring energy. If you are motivated, the learner will be motivated to learn.
  • Create a sense of community with other volunteers and share your successes and struggles.
  • Manage your expectations.
  • Develop your craft.

How do you motivate the learners?

Likewise, it’s equally, if not more, important to motivate learners. Here are some strategies:

  • Make the learning meaningful and relevant; personalize the learning experience.
  • Set SMARTR goals and celebrate each success.
  • Create a positive, safe and fun learning environment.
  • Show that you care about your student’s learning.

As indicated earlier, there are many other things to consider when working with low-level literacy learners, but incorporating these key strategies into any literacy program will help literacy volunteers be more effective.

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ABC Life Literacy Canada. (n.d.) Retrieved Jan 19, 2013 from the ABC Life Literacy Canada Website:

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Readers Comments

Heather 2013/02/07 at 12:45 pm

I really like the four tiered approach you’ve taken. So often it’s the relationship building that people forget and that’s the most important part for open communication.


Rebecca Cruser 2013/02/07 at 2:01 pm

The writer makes a good point that many of the people who work with adults to improve their literacy skills are volunteers. This could mean that staffing and training is irregular or varied from program to program. What we need is dedicated training — something that goes beyond basic orientation — for volunteers to ensure that all are aware of the strategies discussed in this article. For example, the article mentions the SMARTR technique, which seems like a useful way to set goals and measure achievement. However, there is little detail on how to craft SMARTR statements or what the implementation process looks like. This is something that could be covered in a training session, and would help volunteers to deliver a more effective program.

Yvonne Laperriere 2013/02/08 at 7:35 am

I’ve worked with adults with low levels of literacy for three years now, and I can relate to everything in this article. I especially appreciated the section on how volunteers can keep themselves motivated. When I first started, I had difficulty managing my expectations, and this led to frustration on my part and, overall, a poor relationship with the adult learner I was working with.

I’ve learned that managing expectations is incredibly important. SMARTR is a useful way of ensuring the volunteer and adult learner are on the same page. When I measure my “student’s” progress against the SMARTR goals that we’ve set together, I find myself getting frustrated less often. This has also improved the trust in our relationship. Overall, these are useful reminders for the literacy volunteer — thanks!

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