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Learn how to implement an Adult Literacy Program.


Just as adult literacy is more than simply reading and writing, starting an adult literacy program is more than simply announcing you're there. First, there are the logistics of finding and training staff, whether professional or volunteer; finding space, if you need it, and furnishing it appropriately; scheduling classes or tutoring sessions; etc. Then there are the perhaps larger tasks of recruiting students and gaining the recognition and support of the community. And finally, there's the small matter of actually running the program day to day, ironing out details as you go, until the operation goes reasonably smoothly.

In general, it takes about two years for an adult literacy program to really establish itself in a community. At the end of that time, if it's convinced the community that it's there for the long haul, if it's providing the kinds of services that people really need, and if learners feel comfortable with its staff, the program will probably no longer have to recruit students. Word-of-mouth, among both the target population and referral sources, will bring learners in, and the program will be seen by the community as an integral part of the local service delivery network. That's your goal, and this section will give you some ideas about how to reach it.

A note here: Although the parts of this section are in a logical order, they don't necessarily come one after another in the real work of establishing a program. Connecting with the community, for instance, usually begins with the initial idea for the program, and will continue throughout its life. A program may be recruiting students at the same time it's searching for space or recruiting and training volunteers. Except for hiring staff (unless you have a very quick turnover), all of these activities are ongoing, and require some attention just about every day.

How do you find professional and/or volunteer staff?

Any adult literacy program needs a staff, whether it's one volunteer or twenty professional administrators, teachers, and counselors. The author's prejudice is that the ideal is to have full-time paid staff; but many grass roots or community -based programs don't have that option, and there are advantages to volunteer programs as well. In this section, we deal separately with the hiring of professional staff and the recruitment of volunteers.

Hiring professional staff

The people who do the work of and represent your program will be the single most important ingredient in its success or failure. They will determine whether students get what they need and whether they remain in the program, as well as how the community views the program and its mission. Finding the right people, therefore, is perhaps the most important part of establishing an adult literacy program. There's no absolutely foolproof method of hiring, but there are some things you can do to give yourself the best chance possible to hire the people your program needs.

Determine what characteristics you want in staff members

In addition to job-specific requirements (a program director needs some understanding of finances, for example), there are a number of characteristics you might want to look for when hiring staff for any position in a professional adult literacy program.

  • Ability to relate to adult learners. Probably the most important attribute of an adult literacy program staff member is the ability to relate to adult learners in a relaxed and respectful way, as one adult to another. This trait alone won't guarantee learner success, but its absence is almost certain to guarantee learner failure... or departure.
  • Philosophy of education. It's important that staff members understand and agree with the view of education implicit or explicit in the program's vision and mission statement. It's also important that that view - and that of staff members - be one that's appropriate for adult learners.

Malcolm Knowles popularized the term andragogy as "the art and science of helping adults learn." Although its principles can be equally applied to the learning of children, Knowles and other adult educators believed that it was crucial to the learning of adults. While there are various statements of its fundamentals, andragogy is ultimately a learner-centered philosophy, based on a set of fairly simple assumptions:

  • Adults are self-directing, and need to be involved in choosing what and how they are to learn
  • Adults bring a set of knowledge and experiences to learning which affect how and what they learn
  • Readiness to learn is social rather than (or as well as) intellectual
  • Adults are most interested in learning that has relevance in their lives
  • Adults' strongest motivation comes from within

Most adult educators would agree with some or all of these principles, and thus would also agree that adult education (or, for some, any education) requires a different orientation from that most often found in schools.

  • Teaching experience with adults, and especially experience with your program's preferred methods or teaching styles. Having some understanding of the process of education is important even for those staff members who aren't necessarily going to be teaching. If your program is committed to a specific way of doing things, it will be much easier if your staff comes with an understanding of and experience in the methods you want to use.

Adult education experience is an ideal, but it's also true that many people who've never taught are nonetheless natural teachers, or can learn to be good teachers with a relatively small amount of training. By the same token, many people who have taught will never really become good teachers, even with all the training in the world. You have to use your instincts to a certain extent to find the people who'll do the best job.

  • Experience working with adults. Even if it's not in an adult literacy context, successful experience in providing services or support to adults can be an indicator of whether a candidate will be a good staff member for your program.
  • Personal style. Adult literacy staff members, regardless of their actual positions, all have to deal with learners, other staff, people from other agencies, and community members. They and the program will be much better served if their approach is consistently respectful, open, and straightforward, and if they're friendly and approachable and have a sense of humor.
  • Patience.

The "Eureka!" experience of discovery that is the hallmark of real learning rarely comes from being told something: it comes instead from a process of wrestling with a new idea until its meaning becomes clear in the learner's own terms. When that happens, he doesn't just understand it for the moment, but forever. It becomes part of what he knows. Patience isn't required here because adult literacy learners are slow to catch on: some are, but most aren't at all. Rather, it's an issue of allowing learners whatever time they need to interact and struggle with the material so that it becomes theirs. Teachers must have the patience to be facilitators - to be there for support, but not to interfere in that struggle, which is one the learner must engage in himself. The struggle is learning.

  • Cultural sensitivity, or particular cultural background. Literacy program staff should understand, and understand how to approach and interact with, immigrant or low-income populations, or communities that embrace particular values or ways of doing things. In some cases, it may be helpful if the staff member is herself from the same background as most learners in the program, or if she speaks the native language of many ESOL learners or of the target community.
  • Willingness to spend time in the community. Staff members, as they work to develop community connections and credibility, must be willing to speak to community groups, spend time with the target population, and become well known and identified with the program. If they don't ever leave the classroom or the office, the program won't gain the community support it needs to be successful.

"Spending time in the community" covers a broad area. Some of it is formal: speaking to community or agency groups, for instance, or serving on committees. But much of it is informal, and stems from such activities as eating lunch in the local diner or ethnic restaurant. Simply walking around the neighborhood for a few minutes can have benefits: meeting learners on their home ground, often accompanied by friends who may themselves be potential students, for instance.

In the small town where I worked, the men's locker room of the YMCA was a hotbed of networking. (My wife has told me that the women's locker room offered similar opportunities.) There, before and after my noontime swim, I would meet town officials, business people, and other agency representatives, fresh from their basketball games and workout routines. I was able to educate many of them about adult literacy and about what my program did and how it was funded, and to gain their moral and, in some cases, financial support. I regularly made and accepted referrals there, and the director of another program and I once worked out the details of a collaborative arrangement in the shower.

Create a hiring process that will attract and identify applicants with those characteristics

  • Specify, to the extent you can, the appropriate characteristics in ads and postings for the position. "Teaching experience with adults" is something you can reasonably list; "a pleasant personality" is not, since just about everyone thinks she has a pleasant personality.
  • Read applications carefully to identify attitudes toward education and adult learners. If the applicant's experience includes other adult literacy programs, for instance, knowing what those programs are like may tell you something about the applicant's philosophy of education. Someone who has worked to develop leadership capacity in homeless youth might be more likely to agree with an empowerment philosophy than someone whose experience has been largely as a prison guard. Reading between the lines of resumes and other application material can provide a great deal of information about people's attitudes.
  • Set up an interview that will highlight the characteristics you're looking for - or their absence. Creating a comfortable situation, including learners or members of the target population as interviewers, and asking open-ended questions (questions that can't be answered with "yes" or "no" or some other one-or-two-word expression) can all help to identify people with the characteristics you're looking for. In addition, it models the character of the program community you're trying to build - relaxed, inclusive, supportive, etc.

Interviews can often be extremely revealing. In one set of interviews for an adult literacy teaching position, one candidate, when asked about educational philosophy, couldn't talk about anything but discipline. Another seemed to want to teach college courses. Still another continually referred to learners as "those people." All three were later stunned to find they hadn't gotten the position; each thought her interview had gone extremely well.

Recruiting volunteers

If you're planning an all-volunteer program, then this is obviously your first step in starting up. If volunteers are meant to supplement the work of professional staff, then you may not want to start looking for them until the professional staff members are on board and can decide how many and what kinds of volunteers they need.

Recruiting volunteers is very different from hiring staff. While applicants for a staff job are asking you for something, you're the one doing the asking when it comes to volunteers. First, you have to find them; next, you have to screen them carefully to try to weed out those who are inappropriate for the program; and finally, since volunteers come and go, you'll probably have to plan on continuing to recruit, at least periodically, throughout the life of the program.

Finding volunteers for adult literacy programs

There are a number of avenues by which potential volunteers reach adult literacy programs, not all of them created by the programs themselves. Some of the most common are:


There are several methods of advertising, including:

  • Paid radio, TV, newspaper or other print ads
  • Press releases, op-ed pieces, or news items about your program, either prepared or engineered by you
  • Public Service Announcements (PSAs). Radio and some TV stations are required to air a certain amount of public service material each week to keep their licenses. In addition, community-access cable TV stations generally air community announcements as a matter of course. Each station has its own guidelines for these spots, but they're usually short (30 seconds or less) and aired whenever the station chooses. Some stations will help you to make or write them, or will actually make them for you.
  • Fliers or posters, available or posted at various places in the community

Regardless of what combination of these methods you use, remember these general guidelines:

  • Advertise where your target group will get the message. If most people in town listen to a particular radio station, that's the station to get your PSA on. If you're putting up fliers or posters, make sure they're in the places frequented by most people in the community: supermarkets, laundromats, drug stores, popular restaurants, etc. If you're targeting a particular group - business people, perhaps - then aim your advertising where it will hit them specifically - the Chamber of Commerce newsletter, a mailing directed to area businesses.
  • Ads that emphasize the problem and the plight of those it affects attract volunteers; ads that emphasize learner successes attract learners.
  • Make it as easy as possible for people to respond. Tear-off phone numbers on fliers, an e-mail address as well as a street address and phone number, a 24-hour message phone -- any or all of these might encourage more responses.
  • Try to give at least a little information about what you're asking from people -- whether your program is English-language or ESOL; what kinds of jobs you need them for; minimum hours per week; etc.

For example, here's some wording for either a newspaper classified ad or a flier or poster:

Do you have two hours a week to help teach an immigrant to speak English?

The Main Street Adult Learning Center, 239 Main St., Valley Falls, needs you!

We'll train you. Call 567-8910 anytime, or e-mail us at

Community announcements, postings, and newsletters

Clergy persons are often willing to announce volunteer opportunities at services and meetings, to post them at the house of worship, and/or to put them in a regular bulletin or newsletter. Service clubs and other community organizations (the Chamber of Commerce, for instance) might also be persuaded to make announcements at meetings and include them in newsletters.

Community presentations

Speaking to community or faith groups, university groups or classes, clubs, etc. can often generate interest in volunteering. To do this well, however, you need to have a good presentation prepared to begin with. You then need to research each group you speak to so that you can adapt that presentation to the group's interests or concerns.


Referrals generally come from other health and human service agencies and coalitions, businesses, or national, state, or local literacy hotlines. In all these cases, you have to be sure that the referral sources know about your program, and that it's looking for volunteers. They can't refer anyone to you if they don't know you're there.


If you have your own site, you'll certainly want to advertise there, or there may be local sites that many people in the community log on to regularly, or other sites where you can let people know about volunteer opportunities. You can also use your social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. to get the word out to as many people as possible.

Word of mouth

As your program gains visibility in the community, this is likely to become one of your largest sources of volunteers. At the beginning, however, word of mouth will depend upon how many people in the community you can talk to and inform. It probably won't be really significant in your initial recruitment unless you've done an amazing job of public relations.

Screening volunteers

Screening volunteers is uncomfortable. It's extremely hard to tell someone that, even though they're offering their time for free, you can't use their services. Yet there will be volunteers you can't use. Some will be unable to shake the image of teacher as lecturer; others will be afraid or contemptuous of students from backgrounds different from their own; still others will see their volunteer time as a flexible commitment, one that they can ignore if they have something else they'd rather do that day. For the sake of the program, you'll have to refuse their offer of volunteer time. It will be much easier, for both you and them, if you have a well-thought-out screening mechanism, and if everyone knows beforehand that they might be turned down.

Decide on the characteristics you do want

You'd probably look for many of the same characteristics listed above for professional staff members, and maybe a few additional ones:

  • Ease with adult learners
  • Understanding of and agreement with the program's philosophy and mission
  • A relaxed and open personal style
  • Patience
  • Cultural sensitivity
  • Available time
  • A sense of commitment

Commitment to the issue entails an understanding of how literacy levels affect individuals' functioning, and how important literacy is not only to those individuals, but to the society. Commitment to the volunteer arrangement means that people accept the responsibility they're taking on, and do everything they can to fulfill it, week after week, for as long as they've promised (usually a year). The former commitment can be developed over time in a program; the latter is one that people have to bring with them. Without the sense of responsibility - to the program, to the learner, to their own formal commitment - volunteers are not likely to have a successful experience.

Many programs ask volunteers to sign a contract, committing themselves to a number of hours a week for a specified time period - usually a year - and to informing both the program and the learner(s) if they're going to miss a session. This both gives the volunteer a clear sense of what expectations are, and gives the program some grounds for asking volunteers who aren't fulfilling their commitment to leave.

Screening process

Interviewing potential volunteers will help you to weed out people who are obviously inappropriate. A two-interview process - one before and one after training - often makes sense, in order to catch those who, through training, either decide for themselves that this is not the right volunteer opportunity for them, or reveal characteristics that would make it difficult for them to be successful.

It may help to have a "standard" interview format - certain questions you ask everyone and an explanation of the program for an initial interview, for instance - but it's also important to trust your instincts here. If someone makes you distinctly uncomfortable, for instance, she's likely to do the same for learners.

Those who continue to see adult learners as "the other," those who simply don't understand the concept of treating adult learners as equals, those whose view of education simply doesn't fit with that of the program ("I tell them once. If they don't get it, it's their problem."), those whose attitudes are likely to get in the way are all people to either gently steer elsewhere or keep a careful eye on through the training. If the worrisome traits you saw in particular volunteers in the initial interview don't change with training (and they often do), the second interview should serve as a vehicle for screening them out.

Although it's difficult to tell people they can't volunteer, the consequences of not telling them can be worse. In my own program, one man who was very enthusiastic simply couldn't keep himself from doing the work for learners. Even though he was advised repeatedly in training and in the classroom by his supervising teacher and by learners themselves (often in no uncertain terms) that what he was doing was unacceptable, he couldn't seem to understand. Ultimately, with students in revolt and refusing to work with him at all, he was persuaded to "retire" as a volunteer. The whole episode was painful and disruptive for everyone involved, including the volunteer, who, despite his problems with learners, was an extremely nice and well -meaning man. It all could have been avoided if he'd been counseled out of volunteering at the beginning.

Many programs, in addition to interviews, ask volunteers for references, which can be very helpful. Some programs also require CORI checks, background checks for criminal records. It helps to develop clear policies about particular issues - active substance use, a history of sexual offenses, etc.- so that rejecting potential volunteers in these circumstances is not subject to any individual's judgment.

After you find people to staff the program, whether they're professionals or volunteers, they have to be trained. While professionals may or may not be well versed in teaching techniques or in understanding adult learners, they will certainly have much to learn about the community and the organization, at the very least. Volunteers may be starting from scratch in everything having to do with adult literacy education.

Training for both professionals and volunteers should cover such areas as the nature of literacy and adult learning, what adult learners might be like, the program's philosophy and educational assumptions, some techniques and approaches for starting off, etc. In addition, both professional staff and volunteers need some arrangement for ongoing training for as long as they work in the program.

How do you find space?

Finding space can be absurdly easy or tremendously difficult, depending on the nature of the community, the amount of support you've been able to generate for the program, the resources of the group that's started the literacy initiative, and blind luck. One of the reasons finding space can be difficult is that not just any space will do.

Some general guidelines for thinking about space:

The physical character of the space

What the space looks like, its size, its location, and other physical factors may all influence how easy it will be to attract learners.

  • Size. How much room do you need? How many students do you anticipate? Do you want room to expand? Is it important to the way you do things that you have two or more separate rooms? Perhaps most important, what kinds of activities are you planning? If your program involves various kinds of student projects, for instance, then you'll need more than just room for a table and a few chairs.

Business space is generally thought of in square feet rather than number of rooms, but one of those may be more important to you than the other. The ideal is, obviously, more room rather than less, but a huge space with high ceilings can sometimes be as hard to deal with as a tiny room. The best compromise is a space that gives everyone enough room to move around and not feel constricted, has enough separate rooms to ensure some quiet and privacy to those who need it, and is comfortable enough to encourage some group cohesion and intimacy. That usually translates to between 1,000 and 1,500 square feet in a usable form - two classrooms, a small office, and some common space is one possible configuration - for a program that might have 20 to 25 learners (in two groups) occupying the space at a given time.

  • Transportation issues. Some locations may be difficult to reach - far from bus routes, or hard to find, or impossible to reach without a car for most learners. Others may be psychologically hard to reach - in parts of town that most learners don't frequent, and in which they feel uncomfortable because of class or ethnic/racial issues.
  • Facilities. You'll want bathrooms, of course, but do you also need a kitchen, or at least a hotplate or microwave and coffee maker? It might make a big difference to the atmosphere of the program to have food available. Do you need space for specific machinery - copiers, a bank of computers for a computer literacy class, etc. - or special electric hookups? Will you need room for an office, or other administrative or clerical space? Parking may be an issue, as may handicapped access, which includes accessible bathrooms.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires either that your space be fully accessible, or that you provide accommodation for those with disabilities. If you're renting, will the landlord agree to make the space accessible if it's not already? If you have to bear the cost, what will it be? Sometimes it can be cheaper in the long run to pay a bit more in order to find a space that's already fully handicapped accessible.

Learner comfort

Whether learners feel at home and comfortable in the space is a big factor not only in retention (keeping people in the program long enough for them to meet their learning goals), but in their ability to benefit from the program.

  • Learner "ownership" of space. Learners are generally more comfortable in space that they can treat as their own - hang their work or their children's drawings on the walls, bring in their own furniture, have coffee available, etc. Many adult literacy programs have a room or an area set aside simply for relaxing and socializing, activities that are extremely important to many learners. In some programs, my own included, learners take responsibility for the space, setting up cleaning schedules, restocking coffee and snacks, and planning events. Much of this may not be possible in donated or part-time, shared space.
  • Conduciveness to learning. Learners are often unwilling to attend programs in schools and other academic settings. Many of them have had negative experiences with school, and the school environment - especially when the classroom may literally be the same one they had those negative experiences in - is not conducive to learning for them. Even programs run by school districts would do well to consider this factor when choosing space.

There are other space issues that can affect learning as well, including physical comfort, noise level, lighting, cleanliness, and the space's welcoming character (or lack of it). To the extent possible, for instance, The Literacy Project, the program I worked in, tried to use round tables for classes: that way, as in King Arthur's thinking, there was no head of the table, and no place of authority. A discussion held at a round table gives equal weight to all the opinions expressed, and equal respect to all those expressing them.

Furnishing your space may have a lot to do with both the extent to which learners feel they own it and their ability to learn in it. If it's filled with furniture that looks like your mother would yell at you if you sat on it, it may be hard for learners to feel comfortable in it. If learners take some part in furnishing the space - bringing in old furniture of their own, for instance, or scouring tag sales for $2.00 chairs - they're much more likely to see it as their own. Setting up study spaces to look more like living rooms than classrooms can have a tremendously positive effect on some learners' attitudes toward the program, as well as on their ability to focus on learning (This can be tricky, because the opposite may be true for other students). Separating study and "lounge" areas can keep the noise at a manageable level for those who are working and still allow others to socialize.

  • Learner safety. Programs may find themselves in neighborhoods that are dangerous, or that are comfortable for some learners, but not others. Current or former gang members, for instance, or people of particular ethnic or racial backgrounds may be unsafe - or think themselves unsafe, which amounts to the same thing - in certain neighborhoods. Other learners may not be afraid, but simply uncomfortable, going to classes in a building or neighborhood identified with another ethnic or racial group. A neutral site is often best, if it's available.

Another aspect of safety may be keeping learners out of harm's way. One Literacy Project site turned down a great space because it was next door to a bar. At the time, a large number of learners were recovering alcoholics, and the placement of the site would have put them in daily temptation.

Should space be rented, donated, or shared?

There are a number of factors to be considered in making this decision.

  • Program resources. How much can you afford for rent? In some areas, particularly downtown areas of large cities, rents can be astronomical, more than most programs can afford. Many programs have no money for rent at all, and therefore have to depend upon donated space. A Board member or a sympathetic realtor may have good space that she'll let you rent at a reduced rate. Another possibility is to find space that has been empty for a long time, which the owner might rent cheaply just to get it occupied.

Something to consider when renting is the actual per-month costs of the space. Rent that, in a cold climate, includes heat and electricity, might prove cheaper in the long run than a lower rent that doesn't include those utilities. If you're paying heating costs, you'll spend less in a newer, tighter building than in an older, more drafty one. You'll pay less for electricity on the sunny (usually south) side of the building than on the shady side, but that may be offset by air conditioning costs in the summer (unless, like the one I worked in, the building has no air conditioning). Depending upon the climate and the amount of space, these utility costs can be considerable. There also may be costs associated with the upkeep of the space, cleaning, etc., as well as the installation of phone or modem lines. It's important to know exactly what you're getting into before you sign a lease or make a commitment.

  • Where can you find donated space? Donated space might come from other programs or agencies, town or city government, school systems (one of my program's sites was in an empty school building that we were able to fix up), libraries, businesses, even real estate firms or landlords. (These last three can get tax write-offs for the amount they could otherwise earn on the space. One of the sites of my program was in a bank building that the bank let us use for the cost of utilities.) Finding the right donated space where and when you need it may be largely a matter of luck, unless it comes from a source that was involved in the planning of the program.
  • If space is donated, what kinds of relationships does it create, and what obligations does it entail? Does the owner expect you to clean the space, or to pay utility costs, or to do something else entirely unrelated to the use of the space (take part in a political campaign, for example)? Will you have to share it? Can you only use part of it, or only use it at certain times of day? Can you store your materials, records, and equipment there, and do you have access to them when you need them? Perhaps most important, is the owner an individual or organization that you want to be connected with, one that is ethical and easy to work with?
  • Sharing space. Are you willing to share the space with other agencies or users, whether for free or for reduced rent? Sometimes, you can use a space that another organization uses for part of the day or part of the week. Will that work for you, or is it more important to have space which is specifically your own? What about literally sharing space... another agency having and using some of your space while you're there?

Sharing space can be a delight or a nightmare, depending upon the organizations and individuals involved. One of the sites in my program shared its space with a domestic violence program (they paid a small monthly rent). A counselor from that program had an office in the literacy program, and held regular counseling sessions there. In addition, she held workshops on domestic violence and violence prevention for literacy learners (male and female), and became a regular participant in many of the projects and events of the literacy program. This arrangement worked so well that, when the program decided to move to better quarters, everyone agreed that a requirement for the new space was room for the domestic violence counselor.

That's the positive side of sharing space. Another of my program's sites shared space with an education program for emotionally disturbed teens. That program's staff members were extremely protective of their space. They refused to let the literacy instructor in until they were all gone in the afternoon - even to get at her files, which were in a room they didn't use. They also refused to let her use any of the rooms they occupied regularly, including the kitchen and one of the bathrooms - even when they weren't there - and complained about imagined slights and lack of cleanliness. The literacy site moved elsewhere as soon as possible.

This is all to say that sharing space can be tricky. You have to be very sure that the other group is one you can work with, that the individuals who are actually in the space have been consulted (which wasn't the case in the second example above - the sharing arrangement was an administrative decision on the part of the other program), and that the space is really appropriate for the needs of both groups.

How do you recruit students?

Many of the methods of learner recruitment - advertising, community postings and announcements, referrals, word of mouth - are similar to those you'd use for volunteers. The differences are in what your recruitment materials might be and where you might look for potential learners.

Recruit in ways potential students are likely to notice

If you're aiming to find people with low reading levels, print advertising and posters need to be kept as simple as possible. It would also make sense to use as many recruiting tools as possible that don't involve print.

Print advertising

If you're putting an ad in the paper, try to make it large, with as few words as possible, so that it's easy to read. Be straight and to the point with anything in print, so the message is obvious, even to someone who can barely read.

An example would be something like this, for both newspaper or other print ads, and for the wording of posters and fliers:

Need help with:


Free classes

Call 345-0987

Main St. Adult Literacy Center
239 Main St, Valley Falls

Use radio, TV, announcements in the community, and other non-print sources as much as possible

Keep the language straightforward, and repeat phone numbers and other contact information so that people will be sure to get them.

Make sure your information is in a language that learners can understand

For an ESOL program, this means recruiting in learners' native languages. Have your materials translated into learners' native languages, so that posters might include English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, for instance, or posters could be made in English and each of the other languages for different neighborhoods. If there are radio or TV stations that broadcast in other languages than English, try to place PSAs on them. Put ads in newspapers that publish in learners' native languages.

For English language programs, keep it simple. Don't use long words or say more than you need to. If people don't understand or can't read your message, they won't respond.

Make it as easy as possible for learners to contact you

As for volunteers, tear-off phone numbers on posters, a 24-hour answering machine, and e-mail access may make a huge difference. Many learners have to screw up their courage to make a contact. If they can't do it right at that moment, they may never do it at all. Be accessible.

Recruit where potential students are likely to be

Finding potential learners for a literacy program means reaching them in the media they are most likely to be exposed to, in their neighborhoods, and in the places they frequent. And remember, as discussed above: if you want to attract students, talk about student success.

Media advertising

If you advertise on radio, think about which stations learners listen to. If your program is aimed at minority youth, a station that plays hip-hop music may be your best bet. If your program is seeking ESOL learners, you might want to place PSAs on a station that broadcasts in the language most of them speak. Newspaper ads might not be tremendously effective for attracting English speakers who don't read well, but ads in a newspaper in ESOL learners' native language might be very effective.

Community advertising and recruiting

Posters and other printed material need to be in the neighborhoods or places where learners are most likely to see them. This could mean areas largely populated by particular ethnic or racial groups or language minorities, especially for ESOL; particular income groups (all too often, low literacy levels translate into lower incomes); or, in smaller towns, it might mean blanketing the whole community. By the same token, health and human service providers, churches, civic and sports clubs, and other community organizations that specifically reach potential learners could be targeted.

For example, in a community where it was determined that the largest group needing ESOL services was likely to be Portuguese, the priest of the Portuguese church made announcements from the pulpit and placed information in the Portuguese-language church bulletin. These sources of information produced a large number of students.

Posting or handing out information in places where learners might gather - e.g. markets, Laundromats (which turn out to be extremely fertile sources of students), record stores (for youth) - is an important recruitment tool.

When my colleague and I were first recruiting for the program I worked in, we put up posters in every bar in town and talked to all the bartenders about what we were doing. In a town where bars were the major social centers for much of the population, those contacts paid off in students.


These are most likely to come from agencies that work with people who lack basic skills. Studies in some states show that much of the welfare population has not graduated from high school, for instance. Employment training agencies often have to address basic skills before they can train people in such areas as word processing or the operation of computer-controlled machinery. High schools may refer drop-outs to an adult literacy program. Rehabilitation agencies work with people with learning disabilities, who could benefit from an adult literacy program. Studies have shown that, in some states, as much as 80% of the prison population may lack high school diplomas, and nearly as many may lack basic skills. Many literacy programs coordinate with correctional systems to provide services for these learners when they are released.

Word of mouth

Reaching key people in a targeted community - a particular immigrant community for ESOL programs, for instance - is a way to spread the word about a new program to the people who might use it. Cooperating with local clergy and sports or civic clubs has already been mentioned. Respected members of the target community are another group to contact: business people, sports figures, even gang leaders can be sources of information to the community about your program.

How do you connect with the community?

Becoming an integral part of the community is a necessary step to establishing a literacy program that will last and continue to be effective in attracting students. One of the founders of The Literacy Project often said that his goal was to have the community think of adult literacy in the same way it thought of the Fire Department: as an indispensable community service that the public funded as a matter of course. That means educating the community about adult literacy and about what your program does, and keeping a high profile so that people in the community think of your program automatically when the subject of literacy comes up.

Make contacts in the community

The first step toward becoming an institution is to get to know as many community members as possible, particularly those with whom you're likely to have contact in your work. In a small program, especially one that employs all or mostly volunteers, the director or coordinator might be the person who makes nearly all of these contacts. In a larger program, with a number of professional staff, teachers and/or counselors might often be among the contact people for the program. Whatever your situation, you'll want to introduce yourself to and develop relationships with particular individuals and groups, and to place yourself in a position to meet as many others as possible.

Health and human service agencies

You'll need to turn to state, local, and community based agencies and organizations for referrals to and from your program, possible collaboration, and to help spread the word. Among those it would make sense to contact:

  • Welfare
  • The unemployment/employment training system
  • The state rehabilitation agency
  • Social Security
  • Health care providers, including the local hospital and clinics
  • Substance use prevention and treatment programs
  • Other adult education providers
  • The public schools
  • Head Start
  • Children's services (Office for Children, SPCC, etc.)
  • Youth and family services
  • Housing authority and other housing entities
  • Homeless shelters
  • Emergency services/survival center
  • Food bank
  • Libraries
  • Law enforcement: Police, judges, Probation Dept., Clerk of Courts, mediators, child and victim/witness advocates, public defenders
  • Legal services
  • Mental health centers
  • Community colleges
  • United Way, Community Chest, or similar local organizations

Some of these agencies, particularly those that have to follow both federal and state regulations, are bureaucratic nightmares for both their clients and their employees. One way to negotiate the bureaucracy is to develop personal relationships within the agency, so you can call not Welfare, but Bob or Linda when you or a learner is having difficulty with the system. Problems can often get solved through the efforts of individuals working together and skirting the red tape.

Area employers

Employers often stand to benefit greatly from a literacy program, and many of them know it. Those who don't are usually glad to find out, if they can make a connection between the basic skills of their workers and their own bottom line. They can become the greatest supporters, both politically and financially, of adult literacy programs. They also can be a source of valuable in-kind donations (materials and supplies, furniture, equipment, etc.).

There are a number of ways to contact employers. The Chamber of Commerce is an employer organization that your program might be able to join. If you can't afford a regular membership, the Chamber might be willing to give you an honorary or complimentary one, or to invite you to speak at Chamber events or contribute to a newsletter. In my experience, Chamber of Commerce directors are almost always knowledgeable and willing to be helpful.

You can go directly to large employers by contacting their Personnel or Human Resources office. Your program may be the answer to a problem they're already aware of, or may point up to them an issue that they weren't aware of. Sometimes, you may have to be persistent in order to get an appointment, and some businesses may not talk to you at all. But a few contacts in the business community will lead to others.

Especially in smaller communities, you may be able to make personal contacts with employers. My noontime networking at the YMCA led to many such meetings and personal relationships.

You could also invite employers to your program to talk about their businesses and about what they require from workers. Their information will be of benefit to learners, and it will give the employers a chance to meet literacy students and to better understand their circumstances and those of the program.

Local government

Depending upon the location of your program, this could mean anything from a precinct representative in a small town who is elected by a few hundred voters to the Mayor's office in a large city. The two counties where I worked each had a Human Service Director, who was tremendously helpful to my program and others. City Councilmen, precinct captains, selectmen, town managers (or their secretaries), town planners -- all can be valuable allies and advocates for adult literacy in your community.

State Representatives and Senators are extremely important contacts. Knowing them personally - which is not difficult to do if you make the effort - can contribute an important element of support to your program. Invite them to your program's Grand Opening or Open House (if they can't come personally, they may send an aide), or to a graduation, or - better yet - to explain the legislative process to learners. It's an opportunity for them to understand what the lives and circumstances of learners are really like, and why a literacy program is so important to society as well as to individual learners. The same is true for your Congressman.

Other community leaders and members

Others who may be helpful once they understand the issue and know what you're doing are:

  • The faith community. Religious congregations and organizations are sources of referral, of volunteers, and of support in many ways.
  • Service clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Elks, etc.). These clubs usually include many of the most influential members of the community, and are often eager to support community programs.
  • Merchants. Many small merchants - particularly pharmacists, barbers, hairdressers, insurance agents, and others with whom customers have real conversations - can be really helpful in recruiting learners, and often understand the extent of the need for local literacy services.

Inform the community through presentations and literature

Everyone loves literacy programs, because they address a problem no one else wants to deal with, and they have the potential of helping individuals, businesses, and the society as a whole. But most people are neither aware that adult illiteracy is a problem at all, nor conscious that it exists in their own community. They are unaware that many people they know can't read, or can't read well: most non-readers are very good at covering up. They are unaware that a large number of adults in their area lack high school diplomas. It's part of your job to keep them informed.

We've already mentioned community presentations as a way to recruit volunteers, but any presentation should also be geared to educate listeners and to garner support for the program. Take - and make - any opportunity you can for addressing community groups of all kinds. The more you can inform the community, the more community support you'll have.

Another important element to informing the community is to develop a brochure or other handout that community members can pick up at many locations, and that you can give them at presentations, community events, United Way campaigns, and anywhere else you come in contact with people. Most people won't be aware that you're there until they hear about you several times. Having something in print (and an identifiable logo) is very helpful in this respect.

A logo can be extremely useful in cementing your program in people's minds. If you or someone connected with the program - or just someone you know - is artistic, you can design one yourself. My own program, after using a self-designed logo for years, found an advertising firm that designed one for us as a public service. They got a tax write-off and a chance to feel they'd done something for the community, and we got a memorable, professionally-designed symbol for our program.

Be a joiner and a volunteer

Join coalitions, community groups, committees, etc. at every opportunity. Obviously, you have to make some choices here. Don't overextend yourself or your staff members, but the more community groups in which your program is represented, the better. And don't be afraid to volunteer for committees, leadership posts, and other visible work positions (again, being careful about overextending yourself). If you get a reputation for being someone who'll roll up your sleeves and get things done, that will reflect on your program as well.

It's important to get to know funders and other adult education providers as well. Go to conferences, state and local meetings, volunteer for task forces. Developing collegial relationships with individuals from funding sources and other adult literacy programs will not only make your life more pleasant - you'll be among friends when you go to meetings or join committees - but it will also establish you as someone to be respected. That respect will carry over to your program as well.

Develop a community Board of Directors or Advisory Board

A Board can help your program in a number of ways, and is an excellent way to involve key community members in your program. It can be a lot of work, but it's worth it in the long run.

In Summary

Now you're ready to run a program. Hiring good staff members or recruiting good volunteers, finding comfortable and usable space, attracting students, and developing a strong community presence are the first steps toward building a program that will be effective and last as long as it's needed. While these are, to some extent, ongoing tasks, paying particularly careful attention to them at the beginning of a program can mean the difference between success and failure. They can help you lay a firm foundation for your efforts, but what you actually accomplish with students will be the real measure of your success.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) is the world's largest digital library of education literature.

The Encylopedia of informal education includes pages on a number of important thinkers in the history of adult education, including John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Malcolm Knowles, Eduard Lindeman, and others.

National Adult Literacy Database of Canada provides resources, articles, links, etc. on literacy.

The National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy is a federally -funded national adult literacy research and policy center at Harvard. Site includes research reports, copies of the NCSALL journal, and links to other adult education sites.

Literacy Information and Communication System, the federal literacy agency, which includes a long list of important free publications many available on-line (including the full text of Sondra Stein's "Equipped for the Future."

Print Resources

Dewey, J. (1966). Democracy and Education. New York, NY: Free Press.

Dewey, J. (1963). Experience and Education. New York, NY: Collier.

Freire, P. (1984) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Hirsch, E.D. (1987). Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Knowles, M. (ed.) (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 

Knowles, M.  (ed.) (1970). The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Pedagogy vs. Andragogy. New York, NY: Association Press.

Kozol, J. (1988). Illiterate America. New York: New American Library.

Lindeman, C.E. (1926).  The Meaning of Adult Education. New York, NY: New Republic.

Merriam, S. & Caffarella.R. (1991).  Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey -Bass.

National Adult Literacy Survey. Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Results of the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS). Sept., 1993.

Walsh, C. (ed.) (1991). Literacy as Praxis: Culture, Language, and Pedagogy. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.