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Case study: Autonomous Literacy Learners: Sustainable Results

The Autonomous Literacy Learners: Sustainable Results project aimed to boost confidence and independence in literacy learners. We interviewed five project partners and asked them to share with EPALE their experiences.

The Autonomous Literacy Learners: Sustainable Results project aimed to boost confidence and independence in literacy learners. We interviewed five project partners and asked them to share with EPALE their experiences.



Can you tell us about your project and the issues you wanted to address with it?

Our project explored the potential of non-directive coaching as a way to help literacy learners develop effective personal learning strategies, and the confidence to apply them in real life (i.e. outside of the classroom). To those who are not familiar with non-directive coaching, this is an approach that allows the learner to formulate their own solutions and actions with the help of a coach.

Confidence and personal learning strategies play a key role in effective literacy and language learning. Many literacy learners, however, lack both strategies and confidence. This greatly reduces the impact of formal instruction. Even more importantly, it severely limits the ability of learners to engage in the longer-term self-directed learning needed to sustain literacy and language skills across the lifespan.

Together, we developed a conceptual framework and tools to support the approach. We then worked with learning providers and learners to trial the approach in a range of contexts, including adult and community learning, further education, workplace learning and prison education.

Why is it important to promote literacy within adult education?

There are a lot of facts and figures showing how groups with low levels of literacy find it hard to enter/remain in the job market. The important thing is that low literacy levels in earlier generations affect intergenerational relationships and learning.


What made your project unique?

We designed an approach to literacy development based on problem solving and learning strategies. In this approach, the learner identifies their goals and learning needs. The coach uses reflective questioning to help the learner plan a learning project to meet those needs then monitor and evaluate their own learning progress. All strategies come from the learner alone. The purpose of the sessions is to support the learner to manage their learning project.

What were some of the barriers you faced while working on this project?

A few of our learners were used to a very directive way of learning where the responsibility rested primarily with the teacher. For them it was not always easy to adopt a way of learning where they themselves were in charge.

Also, the thought that you as a coach know what the learner wants or needs or what would be good for him or her, seems hard to let go. In one case, the whole process was me (Kaatje) coaching the would-be coach, who had to discover that she had goals for her learner and she was aiming to get the learner as far as sharing the goals she had set for him. It was hard for her to realise that she was filling this in, and very emotional for some reason to let this go.

How did you identify key issues and decide on a course of action?

As a team, we reviewed research on learner autonomy and ways we could develop it. We related this research to our various contexts and then agreed our approach and how we would test it (via pilots). We took advice from the project’s scientific advisory committee, including a number of researchers and practitioners with significant experience in this field.

Key issues included:

  • What does ‘learner autonomy’ mean in relation to literacy learning?
  • What does ‘coaching’ mean in relation to literacy learning?
  • How should we organise our pilots to investigate our ideas effectively?

To address these issues, we formulated competences to define learner autonomy and coaching. We developed a practical methodology and tools for our pilot coaches. We also developed a half-day training module to prepare the pilot coaches.

We also had issues with formulating the research questions in accordance with the goals but also the practicalities of the project; and, related to this, methods of data collection and analysis.

After a discussion with our scientific advisory committee we developed a set of research questions and a plan to gather relevant data via pilot recordings, observations and interviews.

Did you use any special tools to complete the project?

We used a tool called Basecamp to manage communication between our partners and regularly used Skype for virtual team meetings. We also developed a set of resources to support coaches.

What were the measurable results of the project?

Learners and coaches involved in the workplace pilot uniformly reported significant gains in learner confidence. One coachee took up volunteering as a teacher at a community school, and a learner who had no previous education at all and could not read nor write, will start his job training as a taxi driver this year.

There was also clear evidence that learners developed a range of personal learning strategies.

Coaches – most of whom were sceptical at the start of the pilot – reported gains in their range of strategies to support literacy learners.

How did you personally benefit from this project?

It was very useful to work in a multinational and multilingual team. We had invaluable access to literature in other languages and first-hand tips of teaching a second language to adults.

Were there any memorable moments from this project?

I (Stefan) have a very good memory of our coach training sessions for teachers, when the teachers grasped the idea of coaching and reflected on their own methodology.

What have you learnt that you wouldn’t have by taking part in this project?

The project gave me insight into different contexts for, and attitudes to, literacy learning in partner countries. It reinforced the sense that transnational collaboration enriches adult learning and affirms both literacy practitioners and literacy learners.

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