Connecting Literacy, Learning & Work

This book is an accessible and comprehensive resource that offers theoretical background, rationale, insight into, and considerations for developing an educational program that links literacy and work in a meaningful way for students.

C. Pinsent-Johnson
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Employment Preparation and Upgrading Program, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s Continuing Education
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This book is an accessible and comprehensive resource that offers theoretical background, rationale, insight into, and considerations for developing an educational program that links literacy and work in a meaningful way for students. The author describes the process of re-thinking an existing adult education program in order to meet a changing population and to help students transition successfully to the workplace, highlighting literacy as a social practice. The author explains what impact this view has on a workforce literacy program (as well as tables and chart to organize important information). She addresses the need to add concrete workplace skills and knowledge while not becoming a work training program; their program funding has a required focus on training readiness, transferable skills, and literacy skills (i.e., not job placement). Comparisons of previous and current practices, learning goals, learning activities based in specific occupational areas, different teaching approaches (skill-, task-, and practice-based approaches) are provided. The author also provides student work as examples of products that can be achieved using the proposed methodology. While this program is based in Canada most of the information is relevant for programs based in the United States, particularly as much of her work draws on programs in the United States.

Required Training


What the experts say

Most significant and useful features:

  • Explicit guides to developing a practice-based literacy program;
  • Provides solid explanation and examples of literacy as a social act ideology;
  • Models of reflection are included;
  • Authentic stories written by participants illustrating the rationale for the switch from traditional approaches to literacy to the practice-based approach.  

Summary of Workforce Education Review Comments:

The resource draws on research and theory to support the social practice instructional approach.  Tables summarize the differences in skill and task-based activities versus practice-based activities.  The social practice analysis tool provided in Table 5.1 sets forth the guiding questions that must be answered regarding setting, activities, participants, and resources.  The author states that because these factors vary from program to program, a generic curriculum is not appropriate.

One issue that emerges is the desire and need for a high school equivalency degree for some students.  The author acknowledges that the social practice approach can incorporate that need, but she is less descriptive of how that would happen.  (An example would be useful.)

The resource incorporates students’ photographs and stories that illustrate the points being made in each chapter.  Teachers’ comments are also included to show the issues and dilemmas that are faced in this approach.  Although the research and theory are not new, the author pulls them together to show the practical implications of implementing them in a literacy program.

The author addresses directly the contrasts between school-based literacy approaches (in which student achievement is easily assessed) and social practice/contextual approaches that use authentic materials.  She describes the evolution of her own teaching moving from the former to the latter over a period of years.  She asks an important question at the beginning of the resource:  do reporting requirements shape literacy instruction?  (It appears that they do since the majority of Canadian and American literacy programs do adhere to a school-based literacy approach.)  The author acknowledges the tension that is created between the expectations of the funding agency (which are based on the school-based literacy model) and the different assessment practices in the resource.  Although she states that the best learning and retention of literacy skills occur when literacy and vocational programs are merged, she recognizes the difficulties that funding agencies have with this approach.

Therefore, the author’s program has devised several work opportunities (such as in a coffee shop) that provide students with experience first in a classroom practice environment, later moving to the real work placement.  According to the author, these work placements then drive the classroom learning focus (i.e., determine the literacy skills that are taught).  In this approach the role of the teacher also changes from a dispenser/assessor of knowledge and skills to a mentor and guide.

Summary of English Language Acquisition Review Comments: 

 At a time when adult ESOL as a field is moving increasingly towards vocationally oriented programming, this book comes as a tremendous support.  Though it is not aimed at or about adult ESOL per se, non-native English speaking adults are a central part of the population of learners that are the focus of the book and the kind of adult literacy instruction advocated in it.

This well-referenced book’s purpose is not only to illustrate how much better served adults in adult literacy programs are when the instruction is rigorously tailored to their individual needs, but also to provide a guide to other teachers and programs who would like to make a similar shift in focus.  Thus one of the many assets of the book are the charts contrasting a traditional approach to literacy with the practice-based approach advocated in the book so that readers can see the fundamental and critical differences in the two approaches.  Also included are rubrics with guiding questions to analyze a literacy task and others to guide the development of “learning and assessment tools” using authentic materials obtained from the intended worksites of participants.  One appendix includes a complete guide to Work Placement, a critical element in the approach described in the book where participants are placed in a real work situation one day per week and the teacher visits him or her there so as to know the real learning and thinking demands made on the participant.

One of the central messages of this book: That traditional skills-based literacy instruction (i.e., phonics, grammar, spelling, basic writing skills, vocabulary development) is of little use to adults who are trying to get a foot-hold in the workplace. Interviews with teachers indicated that they held the view of most adult literacy teachers that it is good for learners to learn basic skills as a foundation of literacy so that they can generalize them to the workplace.  However, they discovered that such a transfer did not happen. The author, evidences that little in the way of skills is transferred by learners from traditional learning (which she supports with literature). In fact, through this project she concludes that for generic literacy instruction to be effective it needs to be relevant, specific, and easily transferable by lower-literate workers to their work situations. 

She uses examples, drawn from real life learners in the highlighted program to demonstrate her finding.  She also uses excerpts from interviews with teachers reflecting on practice and changes needed to assist learners with literacy skills acquisition and learner stories to highlight their needs. One serious shortcoming of the purely practical, workplace approach to literacy, barely acknowledged by the author and the teachers interviewed, is that the wider literacy needs of the participants are frequently NOT met. 

The book unfortunately makes little mention of language challenges faced by the non-native English speakers and the difference between a non-native speaker and native speaker of English.  Nor does the author differentiate between adult native and non-native speakers of English in that ESL students may not be literate as they did not have access to schooling (as opposed to poor schooling experiences).  Furthermore, barriers faced due to cultural differences, such as those of the Eritrean woman, who, unlike most of her North American counterparts of the same age, had never used letter stickers nor seen a combination lock, are also not explicitly accounted for as just that—cultural barriers—but rather seem to be lumped together with barriers such as having limited problem solving skills due to developmental delays.

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