Engaging Learners with Authentic Materials

Posted: 6 February 2018

Author: Emily Robinson Leclair, Community Learning Network

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Comments: 3

Recommendations: 1


When I would meet with foundational learners to discuss our volunteer tutor program I usually gave them an assignment. While they waited for a volunteer tutor, I asked them to gather examples of things they would like to read write or understand better. They would then bring this pile of materials to their first meeting and share them with their volunteer tutor. 

The materials were varied: safety manual from work, school information, play, community newsletter, flyer, rental agreement, board books, maps, citizenship materials, government forms, driver’s guide, newspaper articles, a novel, crossword puzzles, recipes, jokes, math problems, hymnal, school textbook, cell phone bill, movie listings, job application form, poetry and grammar workbook. One thing they all had in common - these were authentic literacy materials. 

Now what do we mean when we use the term ‘authentic literacy materials’? The Introduction to Adult Foundational Learning training references Victoria Purcell-Gates’ definition of authentic. "We mean print materials used in ways that they would be used in the lives of learners outside of their adult education classes…”
Source: Jacobson, E., Degener, S., Purcell-Gates, V. (2003). Creating authentic materials and activities for the adult literacy classroom: A handbook for practitioners.  Retrieved from http://www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/resources/teach/jacobson.pdf

The Answers May Vary Guidebook simplifies the jargon and calls these materials Everyday Life Resources. The AMV Guidebook lists iPad, smart phone, restaurant menus, transit maps, TV guides, food labels, calendars, song and music lyrics as examples of daily materials that offer “many opportunities to incorporate learning.” 

Encouraging learners to contribute materials to their learning plan is an important first step to engage learners in their own learning. This practise follows the Adult Learning Principles. Adults need learning that:

  • Is self-directed
  • Builds on their rich store of past experience and knowledge
  • Helps them meet their own goals
  • Is relevant
  • Is practical
  • Provides respect

(Retrieved from IAFL, Participant Guide)

Like walking through your CALP doors, attending a learning opportunity and/or identifying as a foundational adult learner - asking learners to select materials to inform their own learning plan is one of many first steps learners take in assuming responsibility of their own learning. Learners quickly understand that they are active participants in their own learning process. For example:

Hilerie had never been to a theatre production. She worked with her volunteer tutor to review the theatre listings, choose a play and purchase tickets. They left themselves enough time to read the play – borrowed from the library – before attending the performance.

Robert wanted to get his driver’s license but did not have the literacy skills to navigate the Driver’s Guide. His volunteer tutor started by introducing the shapes found in road signage. 

Zubeda faithfully brought the safety manual from work to her weekly meeting with Peter, her volunteer tutor. It took them over 18 months to read the manual cover to cover but she rarely missed a meeting. 

Jack was a regular to Sunday morning worship. He loved to sing but could not read the songbook. He and his volunteer tutor worked their way through the hymnal and Jack achieved his goal of joining the choir.

Joanna wants to be able to read bedtime stories to her three-year-old daughter. She comes prepared to her first meeting with three board books that she received as a shower gift.

It is entirely possible that learners will choose authentic literacy materials that may be too difficult or too easy based on their literacy levels. Their volunteer tutor can increase or decrease the complexity of a text using instructional strategies. Try these for starters:

Chunking: break down text into more manageable chunks – a word, phrase, sentence, paragraph or page. 

Cloze: a fancy term for fill in the blank. Pull out certain vocabulary words from the text and ask learners to replace the word. 

KWL: before reading a text ask learners what they know and what they want to know. These questions guide the learner as they read and interpret the text. Following reading, ask the learner what they learned

To begin, volunteer tutors can apply these strategies for learners but ideally they will be able to apply these strategies independently and in their every day lives. 

The Learner Progression Measures research found “for learners, progress means changes in themselves and their activities in the broader context of everyday life more than changes in their reading and writing skills per se”. 
(pg 18 https://centreforfoundationallearning.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/lpm-researchfindingsreport.pdf)

Ultimately, learners participate in Community Adult Learning Programs to improve their everyday literacy. Authentic literacy materials are a bridge between the Community Adult Learning Program and a learner’s life. It is far more likely that learners will take what they learn in a Community Adult Learning Program and use it in their everyday lives if that learning is relevant and practical. Similarly, learners are far more likely to make progress toward their learning goal if they have chosen that goal. 

Now I am curious, what authentic literacy materials have you used with learners?  

Emily Robinson Leclair
CLN South Regional Support Staff

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