Voices from the Field: Tanya Klappe - Let’s talk language: Alberta Reading Benchmarks

Tanya Klappe, South Central Adult Learning Society

1 2 16 May 2023

CALP staff across the province bring considerable knowledge and experience to the field. Like the adult learners they support, CALP practitioners come to CALP by way of varied and diverse personal and professional pathways. Collectively we benefit from a variety of voices and are excited to highlight them with the heading "Voices from the Field."

This week's guest blog post is by Tanya Klappe.

Language...I think about the word often. What does it mean, what does it offer, and how can we use it to our advantage? Coming from an anthropology background, my thoughts on the topic tend to focus on language as an aspect of culture. In that, language is a significant way in which we communicate and convey meaning, build community and relationships, and function as a society. You need look no further than the CALP system for understanding of why and how language is so important in our world. If it wasn’t such an important function of culture, our work wouldn’t need to exist. Whether through oral or written form, language is embedded in culture and is a tool that can foster communication, information, knowledge and understanding. Yes, it’s a powerful tool!

Thinking of the work we do in CALP specifically, I reflect on our use of the Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB) as a language tool to facilitate communication between us as practitioners and with the people we support. I always appreciate the phone call from a neighboring CALP saying, “Hi Tanya, Alejandro is moving to your community and will be reaching out to you. He asked us to share that he is working at a 3,3,3,2 CLB level and is looking forward to continuing his learning through your CALP…” What a wonderful and privileged experience to receive this phone call and be able to decipher the meaning implanted in just 4 numbers. Is this the whole picture on this learner? No, certainly not, but it is a great place to start!

The CLBs provide the English Language Learning (ELL) community and practitioners alike a communication boost. They offer us the ability to convey information and communicate with direct efficiency across our organizations and the country at large. The CLBs have become a language tool we have successfully utilized to our advantage.

Now, what language do we use to communicate about and with the adult literacy learners we support? In my thinking, please not the dreaded and frankly useless reference to the K-12 grade system (i.e., John is reading at a grade 2 level). First off, what information does this type of labelling really offer anyone? Grade 1, grade 2, grade 3 are primarily age placements rather than reading level descriptions. From this label we understand nothing about a person’s ability to decode, navigate text, apply background knowledge, or understand document use and purpose. Secondly, one of the foundations of the work we do is to offer safe and welcoming spaces. Does such a label offer the dignity and respect the adults in our program deserve? My thoughts: let’s leave the K-12 grading system to whom they were made for, the K-12 learners.

Here comes into play the Alberta Reading Benchmarks (ARB) which I have come to value and use in my work on a regular basis. If you’re new to the Alberta Reading Benchmarks, it is an adult literacy benchmark system that was, as you guessed, developed right here in Alberta for practitioners like you! (Side note, if you dig into the history of this resource, you’ll see some familiar CALP names. Clearly there is a lot of knowledge, skill and depth behind its development). Please find the resource website here: http://www.arbforadults.ca 

Without the space here to share everything about the ARBs I will offer that it really is all encompassing and, in my experience, comparable to the CLBs we use for ELL supports. With that, the ARB's system includes levels from 1a- 3c, all of which fall neatly within the category of adult foundational learning as defined by the CALP system. Wow! How convenient and appropriate to our work! Each level is broken down into 3 categories:
- text characteristics
- readers’ vocabulary and decoding skills
- reading tasks
This allows practitioners to support learning in smaller skill components. The resource also offers guidance on how to adapt, prepare and select materials appropriate to each level - not to mention it correlates to the readforward assessment tool as well.

The Alberta Reading Benchmark system was tailor made for the work we do and for the adult learners we support, and I encourage everyone to familiarize or re-familiarize themselves with this great resource. Together, we can adopt the ARBs as a common language with which to communicate amongst ourselves and with the individuals we support. Language is a cultural tool, let’s own this one as ours to foster communication, information, knowledge and understanding. Is it the full picture, no, but it is a great place to start!

On that note, let me close by saying that I look forward to the day when you call me and say, “Hi Tanya, Sherry is moving to your community and will be reaching out to you. She asked us to share that she is working at an ARB 2a level and is looking forward to continuing her learning through your CALP...”

Yes, I look forward to that day!



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