Training the Literacy Challenged Learner

The percentage of those who are literacy challenged has been on a startling rise. A larger and larger percentage of our workforce is falling into the category of being “functionally illiterate.” It’s not just a problem here in Australia either, many developed nations have the same problem that we do. The generation growing up is managing to make it through school without learning to read at an adequate level.

It seems that the same thing which is causing a need for learners’ and workers’ literacy levels to be higher is also causing our youth to lose their literacy skills; that is, the computer. Where today’s workforce is having to interface with computers more and more, requiring a higher literacy level, our youth are using the computer to play games, chat in poor English and avoid doing their homework.

This is a real problem which we face each and every day as trainers. Learners come to us with inadequate literacy skills, and we are still expected to turn them into trained and certified workers. While that may seem impossible at times, it can be done.

The reality is that while computer skills are an important part of many jobs today, not all jobs even require fundamental literacy skills. Workers can be trained to perform a wide range of non-office tasks and do them well, without ever having to read.

The first step in dealing with these people is to realise that lack of literacy doesn’t equal lack of intelligence. There have been many highly intelligent people throughout history, who couldn’t read a thing (think Richard Branson). Today as well, there are many who are highly intelligent, yet can’t read at an adequate level. While that lack of reading ability is a handicap in the academic world, it doesn’t have to be one in the work world.

As trainers, the challenge for us is that somewhere or other, we picked up on reading and writing being necessary for training to occur. However, any parent knows that a baby can learn to walk without reading. Likewise, they can be potty trained without reading. They can even learn to talk without being able to read a single word. The hardest things we learn in life are learned without being able to read.

Other than tasks that require reading to accomplish, anything can be taught without using words on a page. Graphics, models, simulations, play-acting and hands-on experience can all be used to train learners, without them having to be able to read the training materials we’ve worked so hard to produce. The key is figuring out what they need to know, and finding an alternative way to present it, other than on a printed page.

Even more important than finding other ways to present things to these literacy challenged learners, is the attitude which we portray to them. Many of them can’t read because they reached a point in their lives where they believed that they couldn’t learn. If we reinforce that idea, we’re helping to hold them back. But if we can manage to convince them that they can do anything, then they will do anything.

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