It’s working! The Nordic experience of remote learning within initial and functional literacy

In March, the coronavirus crisis meant huge consequences for adult education programmes across the Nordic countries. For many, the solution involved new forms of remote learning, which in turn presented teachers and educators with new challenges – especially those who teach initial and functional literacy for adults. In the midst of all the chaos, it has been important to remember that all teaching should be based on the students’ resources, and that all course participants have resources which can and should be used in their learning in order to make it relevant and motivating. The digital skills held by students can be both used and enhanced through digital learning, but there is a need to think along new didactic lines in order to succeed, and this requires a great deal of flexibility from the teachers, both at an individual and an organisational level. We can see this in three examples from Sweden, Norway and Denmark. It is all about engaging with students on platforms that they already know and use and having an organisation that supports a common strategy and provides guidance to teachers. We have looked in detail at three examples from the Scandinavian countries and the text below is based on the knowledge acquired (see link to the articles below).

The existing conditions for remote learning are different across the various Scandinavian countries. Lisa Carlson, who teaches Swedish for Immigrants at Hyllie Park Folk High School in Malmö, writes that her approach to distance learning would never have worked without native-language support. This native-language support is available for both students and teachers; for example, in the form of spoken instructions for workbook exercises which students can access via QR codes. The teaching colleagues interviewed in Norway: Annette Aass Vågmo, Lene Swang Unnerud and Sissel Braaten, who all teach at Delta Skole AS in Indre Østfold, and their Danish counterparts Mie Kjær and Katrine Flytkjær Holm from Sprogcenter Midt, do not have the same opportunities to offer native-language support. Nevertheless, there are several examples of new students being successfully introduced into online classes at DU1 level during the lockdown. Contact with new students is initially via an advisor and many of the new participants have also had support from a Danish speaker (e.g. a family member) who can help by explaining how the course works and how you go about reproducing the video and audio files that are sent by the teacher, for example.

Good experiences from familiar apps

From talking with teachers and reading about their experiences, we have found that many of the same digital tools are used across the board. WhatsApp is often highlighted as a digital tool that many students are already familiar with and which teachers can easily use, both for one-on-one communication and for conversations and sharing in groups. As Norwegian teacher Lene writes: "We started working via WhatsApp right away. I was able to use WhatsApp to set assignments and keep in touch with the students individually and as a group. It has been a process. I have had to give up a lot of responsibility and accept not having total control over everything all the time. But it has shown me that they can actually achieve quite a lot on their own. They can manage a lot more than we might fear. Being forced to do things this way has shown us exactly how capable the students actually are. But the concrete assignments that they get via email have also been very important as well. At a lot of schools, students were given iPads that they could use at home and that is of course very positive, but a lot can also be done using the tools that students already have." Swedish teacher Lisa also uses WhatsApp, among other things in order to stay in contact and make herself available to her students: "I say hello or good morning to all of my students individually at the beginning of each class/lesson and I ask a few basic questions such as: How are you? What day is it today? Date? What are you up to? What is the weather like? Where are you? Just so that we can practise the spoken language a little bit. Most of them respond quite quickly and ask me a few questions in return. I am primarily available on WhatsApp during regularly scheduled classes, but they can usually reach me from 8:00–16:30, Monday – Thursday.”

Phones instead of computers

The teachers interviewed also emphasise that it is often easier for students to use their smart phones instead of computers. As Norwegian teacher Anette puts it: "Although they have all spent time in the computer suite, nobody in the group is particularly adept at using a PC. The space bar, caps lock and the mouse all present difficulties, while touch screens are much more intuitive. Finding the letters on a PC takes up quite a bit of energy whereas they can just plough ahead on their tablets in a completely different way altogether. They can have letters and words read aloud which lets them hear whether anything is wrong. It would have been great if they could have taken the tablets home with them, but that wasn’t possible due to problems connecting them to external networks outside of the school. But their phones are also familiar devices to them from before, so they work great as a tool in their learning. In addition to their booklets and WhatsApp, I also ring my students two to three times per week. They read to me, we talk about their work and they answer questions about the texts – in their own words."

 Advantages of distance learning

All of the teachers interviewed pointed to reading and listening in particular as two skills which are well suited to distance learning. It is easier to tailor content to the individual and to allow everyone direct contact with the teacher, without the rest of the class having to sit and wait around at the same time. Giving direct responses is also easier. "I have done a lot of work on reading," says Annette. "Things became so clear when I was able to listen to everybody one-on-one and discuss things individually. I got a better insight into their reading skills. I was able to clearly spot what the students were strong in and where I could offer them more help to improve. In the classroom, certain students might take up more space than others, but online there is room for all. In school, I often notice that not everyone likes reading out loud and so I often spend a lot of time reading with students one-on-one, but now I can sit and listen to students and give tailored feedback to everyone individually." Work on developing writing skills has also gone well. As Mie says: "There are several genuinely illiterate students in my class [...] for them, what I can do is write something down, take a photo and send it to them. They then write out the same thing and send me a picture back." The work of Nordic teachers often involves using digital and analogue tools together and often simultaneously in a simple and intelligent way.

Anette has also found that using WhatsApp groups has helped her students to become more active language users: "They take pictures of things that have happened at home or meals they’ve been cooking, and they chat and talk away with one another. They use a wide range of language in a very immediate way, related to situations in their everyday lives. I think that many find the school day to be too long and they get very little out of those last hours of the day. Now they are using Norwegian actively all through the day and in the evening as a group, and some also have support at home to help them practise reading. There are five students in the group, and even if three of them had some schooling in their home countries, none of them were familiar with the Latin alphabet."

Lene also believes she has learned a lot about herself as a teacher. "I don’t exactly think of myself as a computer whizz, but I have now got to try my hand at a range of different programs and digital tools. Nowadays, I regularly make short films to explain tasks, approaches, words and terms in Loom. I can then send these to my students via WhatsApp. I also tried meeting with the group on Zoom, but even despite getting some of the other students to explain how it worked in their native language, things did not go well. So I tried Whereby instead and that was a lot easier. The key is to find simple solutions that work for both the teacher and the students."

Greater flexibility has been a huge advantage for many course participants. Mie explains that on WhatsApp she can see when her students are most active and when they do things such as open files or submit assignments: "Once the children have been put to bed, you can see that suddenly there is a lot going on in the app [...] and right now during Ramadan there is a lot of activity at night." But it also requires flexibility from the teacher, and both Katrine and Mie acknowledge they have changed how they teach to suit how their course participants use the material that they are sent digitally: "We have all had to be more flexible during the coronavirus lockdown," says Katrine, "and it goes both ways; sometimes I need to step back and go hang up my laundry or do something else whenever there is not much going on in the group." Sissel considers this flexibility to be a positive aspect: "Another positive is that there are no absences anymore. If a student has another commitment or needs to look after their kids, they can simply work on their studies in the afternoon or in the evening instead. They can take responsibility for their learning and progression in a much more independent way now."

Challenges with distance learning

Most of the teachers feel that their students are now learning even more than before, at the same time as they emphasise the continued importance of meeting face-to-face. The Nordic teachers respond to the question on whether they have faced challenges in distance learning: "Not really, I have one student who was a little difficult to get in touch with and who was not as active as the others, but he was the same in the classroom as well. All of my students had wireless internet at home; otherwise things can be a lot more challenging."  

Lene adds, however, that it is now more difficult to know whether or not students have understood everything. "I sometimes feel I have done everything carefully and explained things well, but then I don’t hear anything. That is perhaps more on me, though. I might not have been clear enough about what I want and expect back from them." Many teachers explain that distance learning can be more difficult for older students, whereas younger participants have much less trouble using technology. Swedish teacher Lisa adds that the school is often a haven of sorts for students with mental health difficulties or who have trouble concentrating at home.

New praxis for teachers and the Alfa Council’s Description of Teachers’ Competence

The transition to distance learning has both opened up new didactic opportunities and led many teachers to discover new tools – often those that their students already use in their everyday lives. Danish teachers Katrine and Mie have broadened their repertoires through the tools that they have now integrated into their teaching and they don’t plan to stop, even if their students can soon return to the classroom: "I’m going to continue using YouTube; I’m a little bit hooked on it now," explains Mie. It is pretty easy to make playlists and you can divide the videos into subjects – so I am well on my way to developing a whole library. I also plan to use it more in the future," adds Katrine. "I am absolutely sure that I will go down the YouTube route just like Mie." 

The Alfa Council’s Description of Teachers’ Competence for teachers states that those who teach initial and functional literacy to adults should have a knowledge of ICT and relevant digital tools and media, including an understanding as to how they are used by students and how they can be used in teaching. Teachers must also know how to use everyday digital tools such as smart phones, tablets and interactive whiteboards in their teaching. Knowledge of digital forms of oral communication is also highlighted in the Description of Teachers’ Competence written by Qarin Franker and Lilly Christensen in 2013. When teaching is based on the actual resources that students possess, it is simply not possible to turn around and say that initial and functional literacy cannot be taught using digital tools. 

Further reading:


The Alfa Council’s Description of Teachers’ Competence in initial and functional literacy for adults with non-Nordic mother tongues: 

Bonin, Rachel Hanna & Hvidtfeldt, Susanne (2020). We need everyone on board. Danish experiences with online learning in initial and functional literacy.

Carlson, Lisa (2020). How I work remotely with 1A Alfa.!/menu/standard/file/Distans%20med%201A%20alfa.pdf 

The National Centre for Swedish as a Second Language: 

Digital tools in written language learning for adults (Swedish National Agency for Education):

Vårum, Lene (2020). Distance learning for basic literacy? Not a problem!


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