ERIC Identifier: ED334874
Publication Date: 1991-10-00
Author: Isserlis, Janet
Source: National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education Washington
Workplace Literacy Programs for Nonnative English Speakers.
Workplace-based educational programs are not new. Recent perceptions
of a national literacy crisis and the need for a competitive workforce,
however, have resulted in the development of new programs across the country,
many of which provide literacy and language training for nonnative English
REASONS FOR INITIATING WORKPLACE PROGRAMS
The increasing need in the service industry for competent workers with
literacy skills in English, combined with uncertain economic times, has
resulted in more limited work opportunities for many nonnative speakers
of English and more complex demands on those who are employed. Because
of the growing numbers of nonnative English speakers in the U.S. workforce
and their educational needs, some companies are beginning to provide training
in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills on the job (Johnston
& Packer, 1987).
Workplace-based programs differ from traditional classroom-based literacy
programs with a workplace component. They take place at the work site or
at a location designated by the site, in response to needs identified by
staff at the site--top level management, personnel officers, union representatives,
or line workers. Employers' stated need for their employees' education
is often related to specific skills, and expectations and stakes are often
high. Those initiating the program often expect significant changes in
the workplace; participating workers see education as an advancement opportunity
on and off the job.
Those designing workplace-based programs face an additional challenge
because they must take into account not only the dynamics of the workplace
itself but also the literacy needs expressed by the learners, their employers,
and union representatives. Often the interests of these groups conflict.
At the same time, workplace-based programs have powerful potential for
promoting learning. Workers who would not attend a night class in another
location have their education brought to them. Education can be tailored
to the needs and interests of the workers and discussion of job-specific
literacy needs can provide a starting place for addressing literacy needs
beyond the workplace as well.
TYPES AND ESSENTIAL FEATURES OF PROGRAMS
Wrigley (personal communication, August 1990) suggests three models
for workplace literacy: workplace-specific (which focuses on language and
literacy skills needed for specific jobs at a specific site), workplace-general
(which focuses on general employment skills such as seeking clarification,
complaining about unfair treatment, or organizing a committee, or on issues
such as cross-cultural communication), and workplace clusters (where a
number of jobs or vocations are clustered together according to the functions
or skills they have in common). Programs for nonnative English speaking
workers tend to be both workplace-specific and workplace-general; depending
on the needs of a company and its learners, workplace-specific instruction
often consists of one or more units within a workplace-general curriculum.
Pelavin Associates (1991) has identified four major components of successful
workplace programs: 1) systematic analysis of on-the-job literacy requirements;
2) active ongoing involvement by workers in determining the types of tasks
they must perform and the literacy levels necessary; 3) active involvement
by project partners (employers, unions, and teachers) in planning, designing,
and operating classes; and 4) development of instructional materials related
to literacy skills actually required on the job.
The design and implementation of an effective program include the components
Before appropriate curricula, materials, and teaching approaches for
a particular workplace program can be determined, a needs assessment must
be conducted in cooperation with key company and worker representatives.
Because the needs assessment involves learning about the total ecology
of the work site from multiple perspectives, an ethnographic approach is
most effective (see Castaldi, 1991).
Extended visits to the workplace--to production lines, to break and
eating areas, and to office spaces--allow direct observation of activities
to augment and clarify information provided by workers and employers in
meetings and interviews. By speaking not only to management and personnel
representatives but also to union representatives, potential learners,
and key workers with whom the learners interact, the person conducting
the needs assessment learns about the workings of the company and the needs
of workers from a variety of perspectives, gleaning answers to questions
such as the following:
- What jobs are performed? What skills are required for those jobs?
- What skills do workers have? What skills do they still need and want?
- What problems do workers experience in performing their jobs and moving
to new jobs?
- Who holds the positions of power in the company, and who are their
subordinates? Who makes decisions about hiring, job allocation, training,
and other company policies?
- Why is the site considering an education program for its employees?
Where did the idea originate, and what was the route it followed through
the organizational hierarchy?
- Who determined that there was a language or literacy problem, and
with whom is the problem presumed to lie?
- How will learners be recruited? Will attendance be mandatory or optional?
Will a stipend be given upon completion of the program? What are the consequences
of non-completion of the program?
- What are the workers' educational aspirations, and how do they participate
in planning the program?
- What are the language, literacy, and cultural issues to be addressed?
- Who will measure progress in the program? How? What is at stake if
a certain literacy level is not attained by the program's end?
PROGRAM DESIGN, CURRICULA, AND MATERIALS
The needs assessment feeds directly into the design of the program.
Mrowicki and Lynch (1991), for example, use grids and graphs to chart uses
of language and literacy and potential literacy and communication problems
in the workplace, and then construct appropriate curricula. Anorve (1989)
bases his program design on impressionistic and descriptive observations
and formal and informal interactions with employers and employees.
Workplace literacy programs are moving away from conceiving of education
as remediation of learner weaknesses and toward emphasizing and building
on the skills and strengths that workers already have. Eastern Michigan
University's Academy, one example of an effective research-based, learner-centered
adult literacy project, cites three principles basic to its approach: "Learners'
strengths are recognized and built on, teachers and learners collaborate
as equal partners, and the environment has a significant impact upon teaching"
(Soifer, Young & Irwin, 1989, p. 66). Academy staff pay attention to
the diverse prior educational experiences of learners and attempt to undo
the "years of working in a very directed, repetitive situation [that have]
only reinforced their low self-esteem and sense of powerlessness" (p. 66).
Some workplace literacy programs are also moving away from the idea
that they should prepare learners for specific jobs, believing instead
that workers should "develop...the critical understanding necessary to
apply knowledge to an evolving and continuously changing environment" and
have the tools necessary to cope with that environment. These tools include
"the ability to think, reason, question, and to search out facts" (Pandey,
1989, p. 6).
The best workplace literacy programs, in this growing view, are not
those designed and carried out by outside researchers or top-level management.
Instead, learners themselves are involved in formulating and implementing
the program. In some instances, course content is not even fully determined
until the course is actually underway and the instructor has come to know
the learners. Learners continue to participate in developing the curriculum
and content throughout the course.
A critical aspect of program design is defining, clarifying, and at
times overcoming the different expectations that managers, supervisors,
union representatives, and workers have for workplace education. For example,
employers may want workers to gain specific skills as a result of attending
workplace classes, while workers may want to develop more general literacy
and language skills for use beyond the workplace. Bean (1990) argues that
employers need to be helped to broaden their understanding of the kinds
of training that are needed. Sarmiento & Kay (1990) likewise argue
for the need to reconcile workers' employment and personal literacy needs
with those of the employer.
Employers and learners need to realize the time it takes to acquire
and build on literacy skills. Workplace literacy is a long-term and ongoing
process. Successful programs run for several modules or semesters and promote
teacher/learner collaboration in deciding how long the learner will continue
(see Pharness, 1991).
Some programs use curricula, training manuals, or guidelines developed
by a company, and adapt these materials to the needs of their learners.
Others develop instructional plans with learners, integrating employers'
stated needs (for example, "workers need to fill in work order forms more
carefully") with learners' stated needs. Soifer et al. (1989) stress the
need for authentic, challenging, non-threatening materials that include
printed materials used on the job such as work orders, pay stubs, and handbooks.
Effective learner assessment is an important part of a workplace literacy
program, because the results can have serious consequences in terms of
employment options. While assessment has traditionally involved standardized
pre- and post-testing (using tests such as the BEST [Center for Applied
Linguistics, 1984] or other in-house or site-specific tests), many programs
are moving to other, more qualitative means of assessment such as portfolios,
periodic observations with focused checklists, or interviews with learners
and supervisors (Lytle & Wolfe, 1989). Programs preparing learners
for licensing or other credentials must follow state or nationally developed
testing procedures in addition to their own assessments.
Given the enormous potential for workplace learning, employers, unions,
teachers, researchers, and policy makers need to work together to develop,
implement, and study effective programs. Programs need to focus on long-term
processes rather than quick-fix solutions; involve teachers and students
in all aspects of design, implementation, and assessment; identify and
build on the strengths that learners bring to instruction; and expand the
focus of instruction so it does not simply develop specific skills but
also increases individuals' options as workers and as citizens.
Anorve, R. L. (1989). Community based literacy educators: Experts and
catalysts for change. In A. Fingeret & P. Jurmo (Eds.), "Participatory
literacy education." San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Bean, R. (1990). Future directions for workplace education. "Prospect:
A Journal of Australian TESOL," 5 (2), 64-69.
Castaldi, T. (1991). "Ethnography and adult workplace literacy program
design." Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education.
Center for Applied Linguistics. (1984). "Basic English skills test."
Washington, DC: Author.
Johnston, W. B., & Packer, A. H. (1987). "Workforce 2000: Work and
workers for the 21st century." Indianapolis, IN: Hudson Institute. (EDRS
No. ED 290 887)
Lytle, S. L., & Wolfe, M. (1989). "Adult literacy education: Program
evaluation and learner assessment." Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. (EDRS No. ED 315 665)
Mrowicki, L., & Lynch, M. (1991). "Steps for conducting a workplace
literacy audit." Unpublished manuscript. Des Plaines, IL: Northwest Educational
Pandey, G. (1989). Workers' education: Learning for change. "Convergence,"
22 (2/3), 5-6.
Pelavin Associates, Inc. (1991). "A review of the national workplace
literacy program." Washington, DC: Author.
Pharness, G. (1991). "A learner-centered worker education program."
Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education.
Sarmiento, A., & Kay, A. (1990). "Worker-centered learning: A union
guide to workplace literacy." Washington, DC: AFL-CIO Human Resources Development
Soifer, R., Young, D., & Irwin, M. (1989). The academy: A learner-centered
workplace program. In A. Fingeret and P. Jurmo (Eds.), "Participatory literacy
education." San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
FOR FURTHER READING
Auerbach, E., & Wallerstein, N. (1987). ESL for action: Problem
posing in the workplace. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Balliro, L. (1988). Workbook for workplays: You and your rights on the
job. North Dartmouth, MA: Southeastern Massachusetts University. (ED 318
Balliro, L. (1987). Workplace ESL curriculum. North Dartmouth, MA: Labor
Education Center, Southeastern Massachusetts University. (ED 318 295)
Bellfiore, M. E., & Burnaby, B. (1984). Teaching English in the
workplace. Toronto, Ontario: OISE Press.
Faigin, S.B. (1985). Basic ESL literacy from a Freirean perspective:
A curriculum unit for farmworker education. Paper presented at the annual
meeting of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Anaheim,
CA. March, 1985. (ED 274 196)
Imel, S. (1989). Workplace literacy: Trends and issues alerts. Columbus,
OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career and Vocational Education. (ED 304
Isserlis, J., Bayer, D., & Crookes, J. (1987). International Institute
of Rhode Islands worksite ESL and literacy programs. Providence, RI: Unpublished
Mrowicki, L. (1984). Lets work safely. Palantine, IL: Linmore Publishing,
Mrowicki, L., and others. (1990). Project workplace literacy partners
in Chicago. Final Report. October 1988 - March 1990. Des Plaines, IL: Northwest
Educational Cooperative. (ED 322 296)
Wrigley, (1987). May I help you?: Learning to interact with the public.
Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.