Support for Adult Literacy Learners

Program Support, Community Learning Network

1 0 27 February 2018

This week, we are pleased to feature a guest blogger. The blog has been submitted by Tracy Topolnitsky, Chair, Academic Upgrading at NorQuest College.

When I began teaching grade 7 level math to adults about 13 years ago, I remember thinking, this will be easy because the math is so easy. I mean, doesn’t everyone know how to add and subtract? Of course fractions and decimals may cause some confusion but I can straighten that out quickly. They are adults after all, they must know all of this stuff; surely they just forgot! Right?

Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to realize that adult learners are drastically different than their adolescent counterparts. Furthermore, they actually were enrolled in the correct level of math. They hadn’t just forgotten how to do some math skills, on the contrary, in most cases, they had never been taught these skills in the first place. For one reason or another, they never had access to this level of education, and now as adults, they are struggling again to gain access.

Throughout the years I have encountered some of the most determined and tenacious students out there. Intent on bettering themselves and the lives of their children, they return to school and pursue their dreams. It’s not easy, it’s a humbling journey that can challenge every aspect of the student’s life besides just the academic and financial ones. Somehow though, they persevere and ultimately, they succeed. It’s remarkable to see, and it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of my job; as I’m sure it is for anyone that works with students.

My years in adult basic education and academic upgrading have taught me that there are a few things that educational organizations can do up front in order to contribute to their student’s success.

1.Identify the learner’s academic level and start there
Literacy learners require specific support and instruction in order to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Building a strong academic foundation is critical to their future and long term success. Initial and/or pre-assessments are one way to accomplish this. These results will then enable you to place the learner in a course that will be challenging enough while still ensuring that the student experiences an optimal amount of success. 

2. Provide access to the ‘right’ material
Adults want to learn with authentic materials that focus on real world issues and problems. This means that the materials must be demographically appropriate (age, geographical region, culture, religion). Furthermore, these materials need to look like something the learner would be proud to have in their possession. 

Additionally, I consider the ‘right’ materials to include materials that are available at the right time. I am a strong supporter of on-demand multi-media materials, videos, or digital supports as well as in person, face-to-face resources that can all be accessed as soon as the learner needs it. 

3. Teach them how to learn
Literacy and upgrading level learners need built in structures and lessons that increase their abilities as a student. They must be taught skills and strategies to learn. As I mentioned above, there is a reason these students weren’t successful in their past educational experiences and therefore we must support them in learning the concepts as well as in learning how to be successful. 

My Journey in the CALP System

As I mentioned, I’ve worked with literacy learners for a number of years and therefore I have been engaged in the CALP system for quite some time. From 2011-2013, I participated in the Collaborative Delivery of Foundational Learning Project (CDFL) wherein NorQuest partnered with CALPs across the province in order to offer video conferenced lessons to students at CALP sites. The project also allowed us to experiment with online learning platforms to support student learning.

Ultimately the CDFL project led to the creation of one of my current programs, Foundations for Learning (FFL). The FFL program supports learners in online career path courses such as GED Prep, Apprenticeship Prep, and Prep for Practical Nurse Math. The program allows the learners to participate fully in an online course with an instructor at NorQuest while also accessing tutorial supports at their local CALPs. Financial support for the tutorial service is then provided to the CALP site. The additional learner supports as well as the reduced tuition costs are all factors contributing to this program’s popularity.

Our current project, the Foundational Numeracy and Literacy project was designed to address the needs of learners that want to prepare for entrance into GED or Apprenticeship Preparation courses. Built for adults working at a grade 5-7 equivalency level, the courses are designed for CALPs to use with their learners and are free of charge. The program consists of 2 courses – Literacy and Numeracy and is structured around providing the three factors contributing to success that I’ve outlined above. The courses include pre and post assessments, demographically appropriate materials, video supports, and facilitator training workshops.


Learners will work on reading comprehension and written communication skills by exploring one broad question per module. Through stories, newspaper articles, charts and graphs, students will practice specific skills and strategies proven to increase their communication skills.

Module 1: Who Should Be Allowed to Vote?
Module 2: What Role Should the Government Have in Regulating Substances that Could Affect Personal Health?
Module 3: What is a Healthy Work-Life Balance?
Module 4: Who Should be Responsible for Workplace Safety?

It’s important to note that this course is intended to teach literacy skills and should not be used in place of language training programs. It is designed for learners that are fluent in English or are functioning at a minimum of a CLB 5 level.


Learners will work on numeracy and essential skills by exploring a range of common mathematical skills. Through guided practice, videos, solution guides, pre-tests, and post-tests, learners will increase their numeracy skills.

Module 1: Fractions
Module 2: Decimals
Module 3: Integers
Module 4: Ratios, Rate, and Percent

It’s important to note that this course is intended to teach mathematical skills required for further academic upgrading. It is appropriate for learners that already have basic whole number skills such as counting, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. It is designed for learners that are fluent in English or are functioning at a minimum of a CLB 5 level.

Pilot Project

We have space for up to 20 CALPs to participate in piloting the Numeracy and Literacy courses this spring. The NorQuest faculty will be travelling around the province in order to train CALP participants on how to use the learner and the facilitator guides. The training will also include strategies for determining whether or not these courses are appropriate for specific learners.

Interested participants can contact Glen McCalpin at or look for our participant call out on the Events page of the CALP portal

Pilot Training Sites (9:30am – 3:00pm):

  • Stettler – Feb 28th
  • Grande Prairie – March 8th
  • Edmonton – March 12th
  • Lethbridge – March 15th
  • Two Hills – March 20th

Pilot participants will be asked to participate in training, pilot the materials, and provide feedback. Honorariums and travel expenses are available. 

I am so excited to work on another partnership with CALP practitioners! I am confident that the Foundational Numeracy and Literacy courses will be a great asset to CALPs and will help in supporting learner success.

Tracy Topolnitsky
Chair, Academic Upgrading
NorQuest College


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