Some Realities of Working in Adult Literacy: Snapshots from Focused on Practice

Newfoundland and Labrador:            “The bulk of literacy programs are provided by community –based organizations that may or may not receive funding for the literacy work they do. These programs are of ten run by volunteers and some have a minimal core staff person who is paid far less than their professionally recognized counterparts at colleges and school boards.”

PEI:     “The practitioners who facilitate these programs are hired by Holland College and require a PEI Teacher's Licence as well as experience or formal training in adult education. They are hired on short-term contracts and receive health and retirement benefits. The instructors in this setting have generally been par t of the system for several years and are comfortable with that arrangement. Their issues are not so much around the terms of their employment as they are around the methods and supports needed to help those with low literacy skills to move forward.”

In New Brunswick, most teachers in the more than 100 Community Adult Learning Programs “have Education degrees or other relevant post-secondary education. They are paid $14.14 per hour for 35 hours a week” for 34 weeks between mid-September and June.

In Nova Scotia literacy practitioners perceive that there is “a ‘two-tier ’ system of literacy delivery…in the province, with institution-based adult educators having more status and being much better paid than community-based practitioners, even when delivering the same Level 3 curriculum…. In spite of these concerns, one of the common themes that emerged at focus group meetings that brought people together from community and institutional groups was the surprising similarity of their issues and the need for continued connection and sharing of information.”

Nunavut:             “Most literacy programs offered at the Community Learning Centres must rely on short term third-party project-based funding…. Adult Educators must compete in a formal process that includes the submission of proposals…. With an increased awareness of literacy needs, competition for these funds has increased over the last few years. However, the amount available in each fund has remained unchanged.”

In the NWT, “[m]ost adult educators work alone. They have to address a broad range of needs, from low-level literacy, to GED, to preparation for apprenticeship examinations. They often feel ver y isolated, and are able to come together only once or twice a year on their respective campuses. Some campuses have instituted buddy systems or regular teleconferences to bridge the isolation. Given the distances and the costs of travel, face-to-face meetings are prohibitively expensive.”

At a National Aboriginal Literacy Gathering in 2002, practitioners reported that “funding criteria often precluded literacy programming in Aboriginal languages except in the territories, where Aboriginal languages are official. A handful of programs in other provinces were creative in how they incorporated Aboriginal language literacy. Most certainly, practitioners were doing their level best to ensure that methodologies and resources were at least culturally relevant, if not culture-based. However, such resources were minimal, and often required that practitioners ‘burn the midnight oil’ to produce them.”

Manitoba:             “In recent years community programs have felt increasingly beleaguered by accountability requests. They do not feel their training and learning needs are met and are concerned about how to provide quality instruction and quality programming that meets learners’ needs (including appropriate supports such as travel and child care).”

Saskatchewan:             “Many CBOs [community-based organizations] and regional colleges rely heavily on volunteer tutors. This allows them to serve the diverse learners in their programs, including ESL learners, in a more cost-effective manner. Although there are advantages to this approach, there are also concerns. Over the last few years many organizations have noticed a shortage of volunteers. Some programs do not have the staff needed to effectively support the numbers of tutors and learners in their programs. Additionally, it is often the highest need learners who end up in volunteer programs and these learners may need more support than can be expected of an average volunteer tutor.”

British Columbia:             “In contrast to the optimistic picture of the BC economy, there are many still-growing and unmet needs in the BC literacy field. Funding for program development and expansion for the secondary and post- secondary institutional programs is limited or lacking for the community literacy programs. This fiscal insecurity for literacy programs has a serious impact on literacy workers and their programs throughout BC.”

Ontario:             “The literacy practitioners contacted in this project talked about the heavy demands of this accountability framework . They described a sense of exhaustion at meeting all the administrative and reporting tasks expected by funders while trying to meet the needs of learners who often face personal crises, all on very limited resources. In particular, practitioners talked about the lack of resources and poor working conditions. They described a sense that there is always more work for less money and that they constantly have to justify their existence.”


Snapshots of Our Reality. In Jenny Horsman and Helen Woodrow (eds.), Focused on Practice: A Framework for Adult Literacy Research in Canada (2006). Vancouver: Literacy BC.

Canada lacks an adult literacy system

As the provincial snapshots reveal, adult literacy is a patchwork, often charity-based, remedial “system.” The patchwork includes programs run by community-based organizations, school boards, community colleges and workplace programs run by business and unions. Some programs focus on family literacy, youth or specific language groups. There is very little “system” to support students moving from one program to another, from basic literacy to adult basic education or upgrading, or to job or career training. Very few programs across the country have adequate or stable funding.

Over the last ten years, changing measures of literacy have created a bigger “literacy” problem. In 1989, the National Literacy Secretariat asked Statistics Canada to profile Literacy Skills Used in Daily Activities (LSUDA). The survey was based on the idea of literacy as a continuum rather than something people did or did not have. LSUDA concluded that 7% of Canadians couldn't read at all, that 9% were barely literate, and that 22% of adults were not literate enough for success. The first IALS study (Statistics Canada, 1996) ranked adults at various levels of proficiency: 22% of Canadians were at the lowest level, 26% were at level 2, and proposed that both levels would benefit from instruction. At the same time resources for literacy programs largely stayed the same. Programs were given no increases to enable them to meet this growing need. Awareness of the complexity of adult literacy issues and of the importance of alternative approaches continues to be limited. Access to programs is inadequate: less than 1% of Canadians ranked in levels 1 and 2 (Statistics Canada, 1996) attend adult literacy programs.

The provincial and territorial snapshots reveal that:

• Most practitioners work in positions that expect them to assume a great range of responsibilities with few supports.

• Practitioners in many parts of the country work part-time for relatively low pay.

• Programs in many parts of the country rely on year-to-year grant funding.

• Many practitioner networks rely on project funding and must recast their work each year as a special project rather than as ongoing work.

This excerpt is from:

Horsman, Jenny (2006). A National Snapshot. In Jenny Horsman and Helen Woodrow (eds.), Focused on Practice: A Framework for Adult Literacy Research in Canada. Vancouver: Literacy BC, 85.


Statistics Canada and National Literacy Secretariat. (1996). Reading the future: A portrait of literacy in Canada. Ottawa: Statistics Canada


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