Volunteers relied on to help adults who fall through literacy cracks


Literacy help for many adults is not government funded and depends on volunteers.

For two out of five Australian adults, browsing through the Sunday paper over a cup of coffee is beyond their capacity. These adults fly under the radar, have fallen through the cracks in the education system and remain unheard and unseen within the population.

They can be creative in the ways in which they hide the problem. They ask their partners to read menus for them on date night; they claim they have not brought their glasses with them; they avoid situations in which reading, numeracy or writing are required. But today the problem is becoming more difficult to hide. The requirement for digital literacy in the 21st century is exposing the problem as adults without these skills are being left behind, not only in employment, but in everyday skills for living.

A woman sitting at a table
Marian Brooks is a the volunteer adult literacy coordinator at Encircle Neighbourhood Centre in Lawnton, Queensland.

Literacy programs tend to focus on employment and training and are provided through government agencies for the purpose of creating employment opportunities. Programs for migrants and refugees who need to learn English are also provided through government funding. Many migrants have qualifications from their own countries but require further study in Australia to upgrade their English skills and to join the workforce here.

But in an article from the Australian Adult Learning Centre, Vanessa Iles Manager of the Reading and Writing hotline, points out, “68 per cent of those who call the centre are of English background. Government-funded adult literacy services are available for jobseekers in the form of Skills for Employment and Education (SEE), but 82 per cent of callers to the hotline are stay-at-home parents, already working, retired, or have caring roles, so are not eligible for free adult literacy help.”

In an article from October 2019, Leonie White from the Queensland Council for Adult Literacy (QCAL) said that while early learning is encouraged through programs like First 5 Forever, there are no equivalent programs for adults. She points out that even children whose first language is not English have more support in the community, and she writes, “Low literate adults must struggle with the burden of intense embarrassment and social stigma.”

Even so, adult literacy continues to be underfunded, underreported, and its issues unaddressed. Advocates argue that Government programs which focus on work training, need to expand to include skills for everyday life. The provision of extra help to adults who require literacy and numeracy support, has therefore been taken up by the volunteer and community sector.

Volunteers offer lifeline

At the northside Encircle Neighbourhood Centre in Lawnton, Marian Brooks is the Adult Literacy Program Coordinator. In her voluntary role, she trains tutors and connects them with adult learners in the community.

“We are a totally volunteer program. I manage our Bunnings BBQs. These allow us to pay for the hire of halls, purchase updated resources and pay for guest speakers for tutor training,” she says.

There are currently 21 volunteer tutors with five more ready to do the tutor training program which begins in mid-October.  There are 20 students accessing classes either in groups or one on one.

“Our students come to us for different reasons,” Marian says. “They might have been employed all their life but lack the necessary skills to be able to continue in their field. Or they might be a young person whose has missed school and now need to get a school certificate for work and study.

“It is not just the education system which lets students down. It’s a whole range of things. Students have social and emotional issues.  They are lost in the cracks if they have learning difficulties which are not classified as ‘special’. These children withdraw even to the point of leaving school all together and often do not seek alternative forms of education. The mental and emotional well-being of students today is an issue,” she says.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) now covers clients’ goals for literacy. Many clients have the goals of increased independence and money management and need literacy for work opportunities that are now open to those with disabilities.

In March this year, following a year of review, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, released its report, Don’t Take it as Read: Inquiry into adult literacy and its importance.   Among its recommendations the committee seeks to implement a national strategy by 2023 to renew the LLND (language, literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy) workforce, and to provide clear pathways for aspiring LLND educators.

Digital literacy a must

In the 21st century, the definition of literacy has been expanded to include digital literacy.  As Marian says, “Those with reduced skills in this are vulnerable to scammers and they find their way to inappropriate sites.  We teach our clients to use voice to text on the phone and find ways on the computer which aren’t email or text.

“We have conversation classes. Many are well educated in their own country but are unable to continue their careers in Australia due to limited English.”

The Encircle program also offers adult learners different opportunities indirectly related to literacy and numeracy, such as bus trips, visits to local libraries or museums, which students might not feel confident to undertake themselves.

“It’s about knowing your student and developing relationships with them. They can bring other skills from their backgrounds which don’t include reading and writing. People with few literacy skills will always be in our population. It is their desire to engage that will drive them to connect with programs like ours.”

If you are interested in becoming an adult literacy tutor or know someone who would benefit from such a program, contact Marian at Encircle Neighbourhood Centre on 3889 0063.