Teaching and learning

The provision of high quality learning opportunities for all adults who wish to improve their literacy or numeracy skills is the primary purpose of the literacy service. A successful outcome, which may involve certification for students, depends on the quality of the teaching and learning process that students experience when they return to learning, particularly if they have negative memories of education in the past.

Key points in relation to teaching and learning are:

  • the student-tutor relationship;
  • the process of curriculum development;
  • access to a range of tuition options, including accreditation;
  • learning and development; and
  • assessment, review and evaluation.


The student – tutor relationship
The nature and quality of the student-tutor relationship is critical in determining the success and enjoyment of the learning experience for both parties in adult literacy work.

The matching of students and tutors, particularly in one-to-one tuition, needs to be handled with sensitivity and imagination in order to maximise the development of a good relationship. There also needs to be a clear process for addressing any difficulties which may arise, whether personal or in connection with tuition, and all service users need to know who to approach in such a situation.

The relationship between tutors and students should be participative and democratic. This requires openness, equality, trust and flexibility. Issues of confidentiality also need to be considered. A successful learning partnership involves each person respecting the other’s life experiences and skills and will thrive in an accepting, friendly, supportive and non-threatening environment.

Initial training emphasises the student-tutor relationship and encourages participants to explore their own attitudes and how these can affect the successful facilitation of learning. This involves a flexible approach and an ability to adapt to the needs of the individual or group. It also includes training in those counselling skills (for example, active listening) which help people relate to one another in an open and accepting way. However, tutors are not counsellors; students with deep-rooted personal problems should be referred to professional counsellors or specialist agencies in the community.

In keeping with the student-centred approach, tutors need to remember that literacy work is concerned with building confidence, self-esteem and independence.

Access to a range of tuition options
Students need to be able to identify their own goals, choose from a broad range of tuition options and participate fully in planning their learning programmes and progression.

The range of provision offered has to be developed in response to the range of goals and interests presented by students. Priority should be given to providing options to those with the greatest literacy needs.

Flexibility is required to accommodate such a wide range of needs: for individual attention or shared learning in a group setting; for day, evening or weekend contact times to fit in with family or work commitments; for short intensive courses or courses of longer duration and by distance, online.

A good service will provide maximum choice for students in terms of the nature, location and time tabling of learning options, including the opportunity to enter tuition throughout the year. Students should be able to choose and move between different forms of tuition according to their needs.

Tuition options should include:

  • one-to-one tuition;
  • group tuition;
  • blended learning;
  • distance learning;
  • non-accredited and accredited programmes;
  • part-time and full-time courses;
  • courses based in the workplace; and
  • online learning.

In addition to general literacy programmes, students may wish to work on specific areas, such as:

  • spelling;
  • numeracy;
  • technology;
  • ESOL; and
  • family, financial or health literacy.


Learning and development
Learning and development go together. Effective learning requires active participation by the student and confidence in the ability to learn. It also involves change: as a result of learning, people may change in their attitudes and beliefs as well as in terms of what they know and are able to do.

In literacy tuition, students are encouraged to voice their opinions and experiences in a safe environment. As well as documenting success in meeting goals concerned with technical skills, less obvious but equally important learning outcomes need to be valued and recorded, such as increase in confidence, self-directed learning and networking.

Opportunities for students to express their views and share their skills can be provided through informal interaction between tutors and students, development of students’ committees, training events, readings, publication of writings by students and other activities. Students can also contribute valuable insights to tutors through participating in the initial tutor training courses and on committees.

Hearing the voice of literacy students
NALA, through its student members, aims to hear the views and opinions of literacy students across Ireland and to reflect what we learn from them throughout our work with educators, policy makers and government. Our student work is one of our core values. Each year the NALA Student Committee hosts two student days. The topics covered at the days are chosen by the students. The student days are free, fun and informative events. All literacy students are welcome to attend.

Selecting materials and approaches
Methodologies selected and developed for working with adult students should be designed to address the many dimensions of literacy, both technical and non-technical. Selecting materials and approaches is a joint venture between tutors and students. Initially, students may rely on tutors to suggest methods and content but as relationships based on equality and respect develop, students usually become increasingly involved in directing the learning process.

Successful learning is much more likely to take place when students play an active part in the learning process. Adult literacy students come from a wide range of backgrounds and have differing needs and aspirations. There can be no set syllabus if each individual is to be adequately supported in their own learning.

Adults of all ages learn best when they are given the opportunity to:

  • discuss the teaching methods and approaches that help them to learn most effectively;
  • take an active part in defining their learning needs, directing the content of study, and selecting materials that suit them best;
  • work co-operatively to find ways of helping each other to learn effectively; and
  • have an active role in their learning group such as taking part in an icebreaker to co-facilitate welcoming a new student.

Students should also have the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills. The Submission from the National Adult Literacy Agency, Ireland to the EU Commission High Level Expert Group on Literacy says: “Critical thinking skills are essential in today’s world. Not only do we have easier access to information these days, particularly through the internet, but you often have to assess if the information in front of you is correct or not. These skills must be taught as part of all learning programmes.”

Teaching critical thinking skills involves exploring the relationship between the people who write articles and texts and those who use them. It encourages students to explore questions such as: What is the purpose of the text? Who benefits from the text? Whose voice and views are included? Whose voice and views are excluded? Why? (NALA, 2009, p. 26)

Students sometimes need help to understand and develop their preferred learning styles. Some people can confidently rely on their visual memory, while others are more skilled in distinguishing and remembering sounds; others learn most effectively by actually carrying out tasks or activities. These are known as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles. People also vary in the extent to which they require practice and repetition to absorb new learning.

Teaching methods, therefore, need to be flexible enough to accommodate different learning styles and approaches. The use of technology in tuition can play an important part in the learning process here too.


Assessment as a support for learning
Assessment gives an idea of how well someone can do something at a given time. It attempts to identify, demonstrate and affirm evidence of learning and development. Assessment also looks for positive change and how that change can be demonstrated.

In adult basic education, it is necessary to establish appropriate methods for finding a starting point for tuition, for devising learning programmes, for identifying and analysing barriers when students encounter difficulties and for the regular review of progress. Tutors also need feedback on whether they are doing a good job and on how they can improve their practice. Service providers need to know whether they are meeting students’ goals, to be able to identify training needs and to support funding requests. Where certification is a learning goal, awarding bodies need evidence that standards are being reached and demonstrated. Finally, funding bodies need evidence that the service is working effectively.
Initial assessment
While there is no formal national procedure for initial assessment currently in use in Irish adult literacy services, there is a common approach in terms of the aims, ethos and the principles underlying initial assessment. Initial assessment is characterised as a process which is informal, adult-friendly, and carried out by initial interview with the Adult Literacy Organiser.

Initial assessment is usually carried out with students during an informal interview and in the first literacy sessions. Formal testing is not carried out as part of adult literacy work. However, it could be explained to students that formal testing is available for people who may have dyslexia. The majority of students know what they can or cannot do and are able to express their needs and goals once they feel listened to. From the first few literacy classes, a learning plan is developed based on the goals, objectives and preferred learning styles and teaching methodologies that emerge.

The NALA Distance Learning Service (DLS) has an initial assessment process built into the website www.writeon.ie

Formative assessment
As tuition continues, students need to know how they are progressing, whether they are still in the most appropriate tuition, and whether a change of tutor or group is required.

Students should be enabled to recognise their strengths and what they would like to improve, as well as to explore their own ideas of what counts as progress and success. Assessment which encourages students to plan and monitor their own learning is integral to a student-directed approach. All aspects of literacy should be reviewed. In particular less obvious learning outcomes, such as confidence, self-esteem, social participation and personal and interpersonal skills, need to be documented and valued.

Mapping the Learning Journey (MLJ)
Mapping the Learning Journey (MLJ) was introduced by NALA in 2005 as a framework to capture and support formative assessment for teaching and learning purposes, based on practice in the field and international research. MLJ can help identify, record and summarise progress that students make in literacy work. It covers the areas of reading, writing, numeracy, oral and aural skills and personal development. MLJ informed the development of Levels 1 and 2. FETAC Level 1 and 2 awards in Reading, Writing and Listening and Speaking closely match the standards and range of the MLJ Beginning and Mid-level levels respectively.

Summative assessment
Summative assessment is done at the end of a particular period of teaching and learning. It looks at whether learning objectives have been achieved. But it is also important for students and practitioners in deciding what areas, if any, may be the focus for ‘assessment of learning’, which involves making judgements about learning achieved, often including certification.

Each certificate or award has a specific set of standards that a student must demonstrate to achieve it. The standards apply across all courses and methodologies. The requirement is simply that a person must demonstrate the standards, and do so to the satisfaction of the quality assurance process of the provider.

This presents what Jay Derrick (in Campbell, 2007) refers to as “local freedom” in the assessment of standards, while maintaining the integrity of the standards themselves. This local freedom is at the discretion of the provider but can only happen within the assessment processes that are approved by an awarding body, for example, FETAC or the QQAI. Providing flexibility is important for a student to demonstrate achievement, without undermining the rigour of summative assessment processes. This is key to evidencing standards in a way that will allow for different learning journeys to the same destination.

reading icon

Sign up to be kept up to date on our latest campaigns.