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Helping Businesses Identify Low Literacy

Hi all - My name's Chad Patton with the Literacy Center of West Michigan. I direct a program called Customized Workplace English that provides business ESL and Literacy instruction within a business during times that work well for their employees. We've very well providing contextualized instruction to English Language Learners because they self-identify as having a need for ESL. We have, however, had a harder time recruiting native speakers of English for literacy instruction. Moreover, businesses seem to recognize a need for Literacy instruction within their businesses, but they are asking me how they can effectively identify who needs the instruction. 

Identifying learners who need literacy instruction becomes difficult for us. Yes, we can provide an assessment, but the assessment creates a large cost for both my organization and the business. We could ask learners to self-identify, but anxiety will be a big barrier for identification. One business I am working with seems engaged and interested in providing support on-site, but they are looking for best practices for identifying employees who might need the class. The other obstacle with that, too, is figuring out how to get those learners to come to class despite their potential anxiety.

So, overall, I'm wondering if anyone else has successfully implemented a workplace literacy class for native speakers of English and, if so, what were some ways you effectively identified the learners who would be a part of the program?


David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Hi Chad,

You have asked some great questions, and I hope some of our workplace basic skills experts here in the Program Management group will offer their help.  I'll give you reflections of my own based on my experience as a workplace basic skills (including ESL/ESOL) program administrator, evaluator and advisor working with small and large companies over the years.

  • Some people refer to workplace reading, writing, and numeracy programs for native speakers of English and others as "Workplace Literacy". Companies don't, and employees who are native speakers of English generally are not attracted to programs with names that include "literacy" or "basic skills". Some companies, for example, instead call their programs "Tech readiness" or "career advancement"  particularly those that include the use of computers and digital literacy skills along with reading, writing and numeracy.
  • In some states there may be laws or regulations about testing employees for basic skills, because of the potential for discrimination based on the tests. in others, perhaps not. It's something to look into for Michigan.
  • As many companies now require employee competency and comfort using computers and/or portable digital devices, and employees know this, you might pitch your program as a digital technology skills program, and both the employer and employees might find this attractive
  • If you are offering a "digital technology skills" or "tech readiness program" you might be able to test for basic skills once employees enroll in classes. Incidentally, employers tend not to be interested in levels of basic skills proficiency on standardized tests, particularly raw scores or scaled scores.  They might not care to know about your use of a short reading or numeracy diagnostic test, for example. They want to know if an employee can read the company personnel policy, instruction manual, or safety signs, find a number in a table, read a graph,  or other work-related basic skills task.
  • Successful workplace basic skills programs contextualize instruction, not just to the industry. but to the needs of the particular company.
  • Planning a workplace basic skills program takes time, often several months if there are several levels of the company involved (top management, supervisors, shop stewards (if unionized) and of course workers or employees. In some states, and in Canada, an organization like yours might create a Planning and Evaluation Team There is a literature on how to do this if you are interested, and one of our Program Management group members, Paul Jurmo, is an expert on them, in fact helped to create the first ones in Massachusetts. (Like me, Paul was raised in Michigan.) Planning and Evaluation Teams include representatives from the company, the education provider and, where relevant, from the labor union.
  • It takes time to develop a good contextualized curriculum, especially if the company is dynamic and its needs, processes, and training change frequently. It is helpful to have a teacher on board who has experience contextualizing curriculum.
  • There are a few workplace contextualized reading (and ESL/ESOL) apps now, in part through the XPRIZE Foundation's multi-million dollar competition. If this is of interest, in April here and in the Integrating Technology group we will have a panel discussion with representatives from four of the eight semi-finalist app development teams. These, and other online instruction, might be part of a blended learning (face-to-face and online) program you might propose.

LINCS has some workplace education resources that may be useful,

I hope some of these tips might be helpful. Feel free to pose more questions here about this, or about other issues of program design, management or evaluation.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Program Management group

Chad Patton's picture

Thanks, David!

This is all very helpful. We've done pretty well with ESL classes. My program started working with businesses back in 2001. We slowly began losing businesses once the recession hit in 2007/08. Only within the last two years have we been able to get a handful of partnerships off the ground but mostly with ESL. 

We have also found that employees do not like the words "literacy," so we have called some of our programs Workplace Communication. I think I might try the Computer Literacy angle as well and see what some of the businesses think about it.

It's also great to know that people like you and Paul are a part of this list (go Michigan!). I read quite a bit of Paul's writing on Workplace Literacy when I first got the job. The LINCS Community has been great. I can't believe it took me until a few months ago to finally start joining in,

Thanks again, David. I'll let you know how things turn out.


David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Hi Chad,

You wrote "My program started working with businesses back in 2001. We slowly began losing businesses once the recession hit in 2007/08. Only within the last two years have we been able to get a handful of partnerships off the ground but mostly with ESL." It's a common pattern across the country, especially with English language programs. When there is low unemployment, employers in the hotel and hospitality industry, for example, offer English classes to (often "back of the house") employees to help them improve their oral English skills to interact better with hotel guests, but employers also know English classes are an incentive for low-wage immigrant workers to stay in their jobs even when they might get higher paying jobs elsewhere in a booming economy. Workplace English classes often pay for themselves in an upturn economy because they keep attrition costs low. In a downturn economy people tend not to ant to leave their jobs, and companies look hard for ways to cut expenses, so English classes often are on the chopping block. But since you have been doing workplace ESL since 2001 you probably have noticed that trend.

Very glad you have joined this community, Chad. I look forward to your continued participation.


David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Program Management group


Paul Jurmo's picture

Hello, Chad, David, and others interested in providing high quality, effective worker education services,

As David said, Chad is hitting some key questions on the head.  These are the kinds of questions that educators need to be equipped to deal with.  David's suggestions are likewise on target.  Here are a few more comments: (1) Yes, avoid using the term "literacy." ("Workplace Basics," "Workplace Communication," "Tech Readiness," etc. more accurately reflect and steer the discussion to the breadth of skills [i.e., not just "reading") that many workers have to deal with and avoid the heavily negative connotations of "illiteracy"). (2)  We need to understand, respect, and respond to concerns that workers bring to the workplace.  (Most workers would avoid admitting that they can't do "simple tasks like reading" for fear of embarrassment or possible demotion, firing, or exclusion from training or other career advancement opportunities. Educators can use strategies like using terminology -- see #1 above -- that avoids turning workers off to taking the risk of engaging in education, offering classes off site, offering confidential individualized tutoring or small groups and/or technology-assisted learning opportunities, and using educational content that is adult and empowering in nature and customized to the particular needs and strengths of the worker. (3) And, speaking of content, instruction can focus on a range of worker interests, including specific workplace communication tasks she/he needs to master, as well as basic skills the worker needs to manage various life tasks that might be making it hard for the worker to succeed in the world of work.   This approach requires well-prepared and well-supported education providers.  State agencies, forward-thinking business groups, and labor organizations all have roles to play in building the capacities of educators, business, and labor to do this kind of work.  The good news is that a lot of groundwork (e.g., curriculum models, collaborative planning models, career pathway models, funding mechanisms, evaluations) has already been developed (often using federal funding) that can be built on.  It shouldn't be necessary for stakeholders to continually have to work in isolation and reinvent the wheel.  Congratulations to you and your colleagues, Chad, for your thoughtful efforts.                Paul Jurmo  (