Red Flags for Adult Literacy and Language Barriers in Service Delivery

Posted: 2 May 2017

Author: Shaba Qureshi, Community Learning Network

Found in: ,

Comments: 1

Recommendations: 1

This week's blog comes to you from one of our featured guest bloggers! Dyan Semple is the Coordinator for CALLS Fort Saskatchewan and Strathcona County.

Dyan shares information about an innovative program she is delivering to build awareness in the communities CALLS serves, and increase learner referrals from partner organizations. It's called "Red Flags for Adult Literacy and Language Barriers in Service Delivery".

What challenges are likely to occur when you are working with someone who has low literacy or a language barrier?

You have answers to that question. But the general public does not. Social and support services probably do not. Schools may not recognize literacy and language barriers faced by adults. 

How do we get referrals into our programs? Service providers recognize that a client needs help, and recommend that the person contact our organization. But when I talked to service providers, it became clear that unless someone fell very obviously in a pre-benchmark place, low literacy and language barriers were not necessarily recognized. Most people think of ‘illiteracy’ as not being able to write your name. We, working in a foundational learning world, think of literacy and language barriers roughly as understanding what you are writing your name on and what it means. Big difference. As CALPS, we are mostly trying to attract the people that fall through that gap in understanding.

I developed a presentation that identified some Red Flags for Low Literacy and Language Barriers. It is a short educational presentation for service providers and the public about what low literacy and language barriers look like, and what might increase their own success in supporting people with those barriers. 

Although one of the goals of the presentation is to increase referrals, the main goal is to create a better informed web of support. Helping people feel confident supporting individuals with language and literacy barriers, and making sure that the issue is top of their mind when supporting clients will help to decrease the frustration and shame that people feel when they cannot access services, or are unable to meet the requirements of programs. Even if individuals with literacy and language barriers never seek out your organization, they may be better able to access their community. 

I have found that the presentation needs to be adapted for different environments. For example, libraries need to know how to support clients who return consistently, but are not assigned to a support worker. Schools need to think about literacy barriers when working with the parents of children with learning disabilities, and language barriers when parents rely on their children to translate their report cards. Community groups need to feel empowered to talk about the issue with family and friends. Social services need to understand whether a client is dropping out because they won’t follow the rules of the program, or because they can’t read the rules of the program. The main point of the “Red Flags” presentation is to be lunch-hour short, effective, and help the participants achieve their own goals, not the CALP’s. Our Board and partners have been helpful in finding the audience for the presentation. 

Some people hesitate to encourage agencies to identify literacy and language barriers, because it may increase the shame an adult feels. Although the presentation provides referral scripts, the tips for supporting clients will not embarrass or harm someone who faces no barriers in language and literacy. It is about making those supports part of everyday practice, and therefore saving time and frustration for everyone. In some agencies, it is entirely probable that the majority of their clients are facing literacy and language barriers.

Additionally, we as a society are encouraging open and frank discussion of challenging issues including addiction, homelessness, mental health, and family violence. Low literacy is not more shameful or private than these issues, and we do a disservice to learners’ courage and dedication when we assume that they continue to feel ashamed rather than empowered by learning. 

I shared my presentation at the West-Central Regional Meeting in Edmonton this spring, and am also sharing it more broadly as a resource on the CALP Portal. You can see a sample of a PowerPoint presentation I have used here. You can see some additional talking points on Red Flags here. (CALP Portal login required).

I am always learning – if you see flags I have missed, or have good tips, please let me know! Otherwise, feel free to develop similar presentations, but please cite CALLS Fort Saskatchewan and Strathcona County. If you’d like more information, please call or email, and I will be happy to talk.

Dyan Semple
CALLS Fort Saskatchewan and Strathcona County

Phone: (780) 464-8441
Fax: (780) 449-1220

Do you have a great idea for a blog? If you're interested in being featured as a guest blogger, just email Shaba at


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