Adults are self-directed learners and are capable of independent learning
Learners will want to develop reading and writing skills for their own purposes. For example, a person may need these skills to access the banking system or a prison inmate may need to understand the justice system as it relates to them. As educators, we need to be aware of the needs of our learners and, as far as possible, select and/or design learning activities and materials around topics that relate to their needs.
Adult learners can develop strategies for independent learning. We can support learners by helping them develop study habits, such as recording their learning, taking responsibility for practice and review in their own time, evaluating and assessing their own learning and goal setting. The learner is a partner in the learning process and needs to be a participant in all aspects, from programme design through to learning activities and materials assessment and evaluation procedures.
Adult learners draw on their previous experiences of life and learning and bring these to bear on new learning
Adult learners almost always bring previous experiences of learning with them. For many learners who have limited literacy, previous educational experience is likely to have been difficult and unsuccessful. If they have become disengaged from education, this disengagement probably started early and, as a result, they may be disaffected with and afraid of learning in formal educational contexts. Some learners who have come from other countries may have had limited opportunities for formal schooling and their experiences may be non-existent rather than negative. They may also be unaware of the concept of ‘learning to learn’ (and reading to learn) that is part of the New Zealand educational experience.
It may be useful to ask the learner about their previous learning experiences and to clarify that you are concerned with meeting their needs as an adult learner on their terms.
We also need to find out what learners already know about reading and writing. Their knowledge will vary depending on their background. For example, a learner who is bilingual in English and another language (such as te reo Māori or Samoan), or a learner who has English as a first language, will have a large resource of spoken English to draw on as they develop reading and writing skills. Conversely, for an ESOL learner who is learning the English language, opportunities for developing reading and writing skills may be limited until they have acquired a certain level of spoken language.
Learning needs to be directly related to the developmental tasks of an adult’s social roles and directly applicable to real-life problems
To make learning as relevant as possible to the learners’ lives, we need to take account of their chosen and required roles as adults, the problems they face and the contexts in which these arise. For example, some of the social roles that a learner may fulfil include: parent; caregiver; employee; beneficiary; inmate; business leader; employer; student; member of community organisation; member of a whānau, hapū and iwi; member of a religious organisation.
Some of the contexts in which a learner needs to operate as a literate adult may include: housing, health, employment, welfare and education services; marae, church, mosque and other community organisations; and the banking and justice systems.
It is important to find out this information as part of a needs analysis, because these roles and contexts will determine the planning and design of learning programmes, materials and learning activities. The suggested learning materials and activities in Starting Points: Supporting the Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy can be adapted to relate to an individual learner’s needs and should be used in this way.
Motivation factors for adult learners are deep-seated and internally derived
When a tutor finds out the learner’s reasons for wanting to read and write and addresses these reasons in a jointly negotiated learning programme, they maximise the learner’s motivation. Motivation is important in adult learning and can be affected by many factors outside the tutor’s control. Nevertheless, the tutors play a vital role in maintaining high expectations, providing successful learning experiences and building self-esteem.
It is important to acknowledge that some adult learners (such as refugees) may have had experiences prior to arriving in New Zealand that affect their motivation and concentration to the point where it will be difficult for them to value literacy, formulate goals or understand the use of learner feedback. It may take time for these learners to be able to think about and engage in developing personal learning goals.