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Learning Needs of Low-Literate Elders

  • Learning Needs of Low-Literate Elders

In last week's blog postLisa Vogl shared about the Elder Literacy Initiative and the CommonBond Communities  Literacy Curriculum for low-literate elders. This week Lisa shares about the specific learning needs of low-literate elders.

What specific learning needs do low-literate elders have?

It’s very important to provide lots of encouragement to elder learners, as they often feel very discouraged and may not believe they have a strong ability to learn. Sometimes even the families of elder learners do not believe their parents or grandparents have the ability to learn, which, I think, is a common misconception held by most societies today. It’s important that learning centers make special outreach efforts to elder learners and that instructors encourage positive habits of mind in the classroom.

I also learned some great tips for working with elder learners from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Berkeley. Researchers there found that learners who are 80+ may prefer shorter programming times (20-30 minutes). For adult ELL programs, this may mean having more flexible attendance policies for older learners to attend as they are able and for a period of time they consider optimal for their learning style.

Vision loss is also more common among elder learners. High contrast materials are important for learners with vision concerns, so choose black markers over colored markers if you’re writing on a white board. If you're creating handouts with text, use a font size of at least 14 points.

Hearing loss is also highly prevalent as we age, and often goes undiagnosed. If you have elders in your classroom, consider encouraging them to sit closer to the instructor. Also keep background noise to a minimum in your programming space as much as possible, as this can make it harder for learners to hear.

In your experience, what barriers do low-literate elders face in attending school?

Transportation and limited mobility are the primary barriers. Health concerns and frequent doctor appointments are also major barriers. Sometimes elders are not able to attend consistently because of health issues, and they may drop out of school for months at a time due to poor health.

I would also say again that discouragement is a huge barrier. Sometimes low-literate elders may begin school and then drop out because they feel they can't do well. It's important for coordinators and instructors to go the extra mile and make sure that when elders come to school, they are placed at the correct level right away and given lots of encouragement. If you don't have a low-level class for them to join, set them up with a volunteer and the CommonBond Communities Literacy Curriculum!

How does the elder literacy curriculum address the challenges faced by these learners?

Each activity outlines an easy-to-follow "I do, We do, You do" model. Taking our cue from the Minnesota Literacy Council, the CommonBond Communities Literacy Curriculum makes sure to break down activities into a pattern that presents new material, leads students through guided practice, and then gives students the opportunity to try it on their own. The curriculum also uses many of the same activities across several units. Once you've presented an activity a few times, it becomes routine.

Low-literate elders may not have transportation to school. However, many elder immigrants and refugees are already accessing services at other organizations in the community, like Adult Day Centers and community-based organizations. For this reason, I wanted to make sure that the curriculum was first and foremost accessible to volunteers and professionals in other social service sectors, not just adult education, as they are already reaching out to this underserved demographic and are in a perfect position to offer ELL programming with effective literacy instruction.

What is special/unique about working with this particular group of learners?

For an educator, an elder is the ideal student. They have a wealth of life experience, and think about it-- they're old. Society tells them they aren't expected to go to school. If you are working with an elder learner, they are there because they want to be. They have positive personalities, an immense amount of vitality and grit, and they truly enjoy being with others.

In adult basic education, there is a huge emphasis on quickly increasing the employability of our students-- and I will say that employment is a goal among some elder learners-- but it is important for adult educators to remember our values and foster learning communities that welcome students of all ages, no matter what challenges they face or what their goals are. That is why we teach.

Do you have any learner success stories that you could share with us?

More than any one story, I think of all the incredible relationships that have been built as we've developed programs for low-literate elders. Education is such a powerful way to bring neighbors together, learn from one another, and break down the isolation caused by difference. This isolation can be especially prevalent for elders, and it is our responsibility to make sure that all adults have the chance to gain the skills they need for self-sufficiency, no matter what their age is. Volunteer tutors in our programs say they value the friendships they've made with elders they otherwise never would've been able to meet. Elders say they look forward to programming as a way to be with friends and learn things important to their lives.  We have learned a lot in the process about outreach, program design, and instructional methods for elder learners-- this new curriculum encapsulates a lot of what we've learned. I look forward to following its continued success!