Literacy and Poverty: Putting Our Practice to Work


Shortly after I started working at the intersection of poverty and literacy, I realized that my educational background and my teaching experience in K-12 system had not prepared me for the work that I had walked into.

I pursued all professional development available in the field. I also pursued professional learning individually by voraciously reading all of the books, articles, current research and evidence-based practices that I could put my hands on. Every training workshop I attended, every article and book helped learn important facts and concepts relevant to the field of adult learning and poverty. Over time, I felt I could explain these facts and concepts equally well to my colleagues in the field, to my young nephew and to my 80-year old father by creating analogies and examples that applied to their lives.

However, I still struggled to apply the information in my work with adult learners whose mind was shaped by their experiences with poverty. I knew that I needed to approach my professional learning differently and find a way to move it from a static possession of knowledge to applying this knowledge in practice through more creative forms of thinking. This is what Bloom’s taxonomy is all about. I am not implying that we need to abandon the traditional forms of professional development. Those learning opportunities are still very important – as cognitive psychologists Daniel Willingham argued, you can’t think creatively about the information unless you have information in your head to think about.

My purpose is to highlight and advocate for a new form of professional learning – community of practice.

A community of practice is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. Most of my communities of practice are informal and involve getting together for coffee with one or a few brilliant colleagues I am fortunate to know. There are no agendas and no meeting minutes; we just go for coffee and discuss a topic that emerges spontaneously. Calgary Learn’s Intersection between Literacy and Poverty Community of Purpose is more formal but equally helpful and inspiring.

I would like to share a few insights that have emerged from these conversations.

1. Adult literacy programs have an important role to play in addressing poverty, a role that complements the work of poverty reduction field.

Poor and strong.
Poor and self-respecting.
Poor and self-determined.
Poor yet receiving respectful consideration from the rest of society.

Where can people in poverty see such a portrait of themselves? Where can they go to experience positive interactions with others? Where can they go feel included and develop a sense of belonging? Where can they learn the value of their personal stories? Where can they go to learn literacy skills but also to recognize the power of learning and utilize that power to take charge of their lives?

All of us in the field of adult foundational learning know that there is more to adult literacy programs than learning the basics of reading, writing, numeracy and digital skills. However, we often have a hard time articulating what we understand so well. Good educational principles state that to achieve success, we must define our goal. To help adult learners in poverty, we need to define what we want to accomplish.

So, what is it that we really want for our learners? Jobs? High school diploma? Post-secondary education? The ability to learn? Well-being? We know that adults with limited literacy skills are more likely to be in poverty and are less likely to be employed, earn less when they do work, are less likely to vote and have difficulty reading to their young children.

But we also know that at the intersection of poverty and literacy, people also feel anxious, hopeless, frustrated and frightened inside all the time. With a clear sense of what we really want for our learners, we can facilitate our programs that help adult foundational learners to succeed in both helping them to learn skills (in my opinion, reading skills are a priority as reading is a central or basic ingredient to learning) and facilitating their well-being – nurturing confidence, overcoming learning anxiety, improving emotional and social functioning and developing life skills. The way to do this is to step up our own professional development and learning.

2. When we plan our adult literacy programs we need to make sure that they are based on content and thinking that comes from our learners and is done with them.

We all want to help our learners. However, we sometimes get caught in thinking that we have solutions. If our learners would just do when we tell them to do, then their life would be wonderful. When we think, if they would just attend the program on a regular basis… we are not recognizing that “they” may have multiple and complex obstacles including emotional barriers to learning – after many unsuccessful attempts to engage in learning, a woman may give up and start thinking “Why bother?”; a man with health or mental issues may have no capacity to follow through with his plans.

Additionally, some of our learners could have the same mindset that prevents me to go to the gym despite knowing that exercise is important for maintaining good health. The way to apply this knowledge in our practice is to get out of our offices and talk to our learners, to respectfully invite them to come and visit our program and, if they do, work hard on keeping them engaged.

3. It is important to be aware that many adult foundational learners do not know how to learn.

When we ask them to learn, we need to make sure to provide them with the skills to accomplish their learning goals. We would not throw a young child in the deep end of the swimming pool demanding the child to swim. We would never do this because we would expect that many children would drown. Similarly, in adult foundational programs, we should not throw materials at learners and insist they learn. We should not ask people to read if they cannot read. We should not ask them to fill out forms that have words they don’t understand. We should not teach content for which they have no framework for grasping what we are explaining. We should take time and make an effort to explain concepts such as meta-cognition, growth mindset, positive emotions and learning, motivation. These concepts may sound complex, but from my experience, I know that they resonate with our learners (who, despite experiencing complex challenges and barriers, always have some incredible strengths and resiliency).

4. Success is possible!

As adult foundational learning practitioners, we cannot personally address the problems such as housing, food insecurity, unemployment, domestic violence and mental health. However, as a field, we can learn what poverty does to people and use this knowledge to facilitate their learning. We find ways to work collaboratively with organizations in poverty reduction field. The two sectors can look very different and be more effective if they work together. Whatever collaborations need to happen, they need to happen right away. Ten years from now is far too long to wait to see results. So let’s embrace collaboration and help our learners build new identities and write new life stories!

“Those who do not have the power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts.” (Salman Rushdie)

Written by: NJ