Research and Practice in Adult Literacy – a friendly group

Joint Conference 2014

Motivated or Mandated:

engaging adults in learning and supporting them to succeed

Joint annual conference with NIACE, NRDC, RaPAL and UCU to support adults with maths and English

20th October 2014, UCU Headquarters, London



is now closed. Conference materials are available under each participant’s name via NIACE here.

Conference Themes

Motivation is critical for engagement and persistence in learning. Teachers and tutors need to be aware of their learners’ goals and reasons for joining courses, and the literacy and numeracy activities they value, in order to best support them to build a positive learning identity. Managers and learning organisers need to ensure provision is sufficiently flexible and attractive to adult learners, anticipating barriers and putting enablers in place. Peer supporters such as Union Learning Representatives (ULRs), friends and family also play a key role in helping to engage, motivate and sustain learning with both practical and emotional support.

There are a number of challenges currently facing the sector, including the focus on GCSE, various elements of mandated learning, for example with Job Centre Plus (JCP) and some prisons as well as the ongoing difficulty in reaching adults with low levels of skills. This conference will encourage dialogue between practitioners and researchers in order to explore the ways to motivate adults to engage and succeed in literacy, language and numeracy learning.

The conference themes will be addressed by two keynote speakers.

Keynote Speakers

We are delighted to present:
– Norma Honey, Associate Director, NCETM
– David Mallows, NRDC, Institute of Education


This conference aims to reflect on recent policy, research and practice about what works (and what doesn’t) for adult learners in English and maths.


By the end of this event you will have:

  • increased your knowledge of the role of motivation in the context of policy, research and practice for adult English and maths learning
  • reflected on your own practice and identified ideas and resources to use with learners


Managers and practitioners delivering Functional Skills English and maths; Tutors, researchers and academics interested in literacy and numeracy; Employers, employer organisations, unions and ULRs involved in workplace English and maths programmes.


10:00 Arrival, registration and networking (tea/coffee available)

10:30 Welcome and introduction to the day
Cheryl Turner, NIACE Senior Associate Research Fellow

10:40 The Maths Revolution
Norma Honey, Associate Director, NCETM

11:10 The role of the Behavioural Insights Research Centre for English and Maths
Elspeth Kirkman

11:30 Morning Workshops (Tea and coffee available)

1. Using motivational dialogue in the teaching and learning of literacies
Workshop participants will be introduced briefly (very briefly!) to some of the academic research around motivational theory. In particular, we will discuss the work of Carol Dweck who wrote about growth mindsets. http://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/index.html

We will then look at how the research relates to the use of motivational dialogue (MD). We will be exploring some of the MD videos available online via the Excellence Gateway.

And then we will move into the main part of the workshop …

Be warned will be highly participative! Here’s a taster of what will be involved:-

  • Role play
  • Pair work using Powerful Questions
  • Pair work using physical objects such as the Wheel of Change
  • Using a losses and gains board.

Having fun in the process is compulsory! (I’m a great believer in laughter and jokes as motivators, so long as there is always respect for the feelings of others).

As we experience for ourselves the power of motivational dialogue, we will discuss how the tools and techniques can help both learners and teachers to make effective changes. Of course, all of this will be set firmly in the context of our own work in adult literacies.

I do hope that you will come to my workshop, and that you will find it thoroughly enjoyable and of lasting benefit.

2. Intensive English and Maths for Unemployed Adults: Lessons Learned
Learners mandated by Jobcentre Plus to attend English and maths courses are often referred to provision which offers a delivery model that is more intensive than traditional year-long courses, which typically offer 2 – 4 hours per week of classroom time. NIACE research into English and maths provision for unemployed adults established that providers are developing more intensive models to accommodate JCP expectations that learners complete training within timeframes determined by the benefits system and make more rapid progress in developing skills which enhance employability.

Whilst earlier research has found benefits of intensive approaches in certain contexts, such as in the Armed Forces, it has also highlighted settings in which intensive delivery may be less effective. This workshop aims to share the findings of a recent NIACE project, commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to examine intensive English and Maths provision in the context of unemployed adult learners referred by JCP.

Based on fieldwork with providers, the project examined the nature, benefits, challenges and impact of intensive provision. Whilst some learners were found to benefit from such an approach, others did not, and many challenges remain. In particular, approaches to delivery were not always developed to take into account the demands placed on the learner by intensive courses. This workshop will invite participants to share their own experiences of intensive delivery, reflect upon the issues raised and identify the implications for practice in their own contexts.

A ‘warmer’ activity will engage participants to think about some of the key issues in intensive provision at the start of the session. The presentation of the project findings will be limited to a maximum of 50% of the allocated time, to allow ample room for small group discussion and feedback following the input.

3. National Numeracy Challenge Online – Become a Challenge Champion
Launched on 12th March 2014, the National Numeracy Challenge is a UK wide drive to reduce the low level of adult numeracy in the UK by over 1 million in the next 5 years.

National Numeracy is collaborating with the Behavioural Insights Team to understand the barriers and investigate how to make improving numeracy skills attractive to learners. Central to this is transforming the negative attitudes held by many towards maths and numeracy, instead, developing a positive, ‘can – do’ attitude which is critical for engagement and persistence in learning.

Peer support from colleagues, friends and other networks can play a key role in engaging, motivating and supporting adults looking to improve their numeracy. Building on the ULR Maths Champion model we have developed the Challenge Champions programme. The idea behind this is to provide a support network to adults looking to improve their numeracy.

The workshop will offer a brief overview of the National Numeracy Challenge and an introduction to the Challenge Champions programme and self-study work book. We will explore ways to change attitudes to maths and provide the opportunity to work through some of the activities.

The self-study module is an interactive workbook that includes a wealth of information presented in a multimedia format that addresses issues such as how best to change people’s attitudes towards numeracy and maths by altering perceptions of value, belief and effort. The work book also includes a number of interactive activities. For example, aspiring Challenge Champions are asked to draw on their personal experience of how they overcame a negative attitude toward something, turning it into a positive one. Or to think of recent examples of how they have used maths in everyday scenarios

4. Unintended consequences of incentives, penalties and compulsion
Adult literacy learners who attend classes more regularly on average make more progress. So if learners could be encouraged, or made, to attend more regularly, they would make more progress – in theory. Various approaches to increasing attendance have been tried, and the Behavioural Insights Team (the ‘Nudge Unit’, recently privatised from the Cabinet Office) is looking at this.

In 2005, we conducted a randomised controlled trial of offering adult literacy learners a financial incentive to attend classes. We measured both attendance and improvement in reading scores. There was no effect on reading levels; neither group made statistically significant progress. But there was an effect on attendance: learners in the groups receiving the incentive attended significantly less, on average, than those not receiving it. Two government studies some years ago looked at penalties (withdrawal of benefit) for job seekers mandated to attend literacy and numeracy classes, and seem to have found this ineffective.

Anne O’Grady found that job seekers attending classes under compulsion were adept at minimising their attendance and engagement; it seems unlikely that their skills improved. However, a recent NIACE/NRDC study for the army found that compulsory literacy and numeracy classes did enable recruits to achieve qualifications – but promotion depends on that.

This workshop will invite participants to explore the nature of incentives, penalties and compulsion, drawing on their own research and experiences, and relate all this to public policy. For example, fines sometimes increase the sanctioned behaviour, e.g. when parents at a kibbutz were fined for bringing their children late to the crèche – will this happen with taking children out of school in term time? Or with allowing individuals or companies to avoid prosecution and criminal records by paying large enough fines? And what kind or level of incentive, etc., might work for civilian adult literacy learners?

5. Write On’
In 2013 and 2014 NALA has been conducting research focusing on different aspect of literacy and numeracy tuition in Ireland. Two of the groups included in the research were ESOL learners and young offenders. Some of the ESOL learners were ‘referred’ to the service by Dept of Social Welfare. Retaining their full entitlement was dependent on taking part in an education and/or training programme. The young offenders were referred to a probation project that offers further education and training and is based on flexible provision.

The ESOL learners and the young people took part in a programme that offered a blended learning approach using the NALA learning website http://www.writeon.ie.

The findings from our research suggest that this approach has been successful on a number of levels including improving the English language skills of ESOL learners and managing behaviour in the classroom.

12:30 Lunch

13:15 Learning from Europe
David Mallows, Director of research, NRDC, Institute of Education

13:35 Panel Debate and questions

14.15 Afternoon Workshops
6. Film, Story and Image – creative critical thinking and motivation strategies
Chao (2009) states that:

“adult learners’ reason and purpose for learning creates the motivation to engage in adult learning therefore one has to understand why and what is the reason and purpose for engaging in adult learning.”

According to research by CreMoLe (2011):

“evidence suggests that conditions supporting students’ experience of autonomy, competence and relatedness foster the highest motivation and engagement, including self-regulation for learning, enhanced academic performance, persistence in learning, creativity and wellbeing.”

My proposal is for an interactive workshop fostering the three elements of autonomy, competence and relatedness and demonstrating creative and critical thinking strategies to use with adult learners in a variety of contexts.

The workshop will demonstrate, using interactive exercises, three interlinked strategies which use film, story and images. The exercises are flexible, allowing adaptation to different learners and contexts. In addition, workshop participants will also gain insight into stepping into a learner’s shoes and the challenges involved for our learners.

The strategies:

  • Allow learners to look at things from a different perspective
  • Foster engaging discussions and consideration of themes, topics and issues in depth
  • Model a different approach to watching a film or reading a book
  • Develop imagination, creative thinking and reflection
  • Help improve communication skills
  • Stimulate concentration, thinking and attention to detail
  • Aid critical thinking
  • Help comprehension
  • Foster active engagement in the learning process
  • Increase motivation
  • Provide pleasurable learning experiences
  • Encourage expression of opinions

These strategies have been used with learners at Glasgow Women’s Library. The women we support are amongst some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised women in the community and have a variety of skills – from very basic through to preparing for college or work – and all of them have differing needs, and different ways of learning. Our ALN sessions are learner led and we work very hard to ensure that our learning opportunities are open to all women. The strategies have enhanced motivation for lifelong learning and made learning more accessible.


Chao, R.Y. (2009) Understanding the Adult Learners’ Motivation and Barriers to Learning, European Society For Research on Education of Adults (downloaded from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED508475.pdf– 26th June 2014)

CreMoLe (2011) Innovative Ways For Motivating Adults For Learning; Consorþiul Internaþional Lectura þi Scrierea pentru Dezvoltarea Gândirii Critice (downloaded from www.rwctic.org – 26th June 2014)

7. Reading Aloud in Lewisham: adult reading aloud practices and adult literacy provision
This workshop will explore initial findings of a qualitative pilot study of the reading aloud practices of seventeen adults in the London Borough of Lewisham. While the dominant contemporary image of reading is that of a silent activity, and within literacy provision it is frequently assumed that reading aloud is not a ‘natural’ ‘real life’ practice, anecdote suggests that adults do indeed read aloud across various life domains, but these practices are overwhelmingly undocumented. This pilot study is the first stage in developing an understanding of what, why and how adults read aloud today and, crucially, what this could mean for how we can understand and motivate adult literacy learners.

Semi-structured interviews were used to ask adults whether they read aloud, when and why. This presentation will share extracts from interview transcripts and examine findings of initial analysis suggesting that adults read aloud alone, in pairs and in groups; for work, family, spiritual life and leisure; to aid understanding, remember, and experience sound/rhythm; as communion, recitation, proclamation and education. Initial findings further reinforce the importance of examining reading ‘skill’ and cognitive processing within the context of the social and personal meanings of practices.

This workshop will be interactive in several ways. It will start by asking participants to think about their own reading aloud practices. It will also ask participants to work in small groups to look at a chart of the different reading aloud practices participants identified and categorise them, arguing for the meaning of their chosen categories. Finally, after sharing extracts from interviews, I will open up the session for the workshop potential next steps for this project, including ways to take the implications of this study into the teaching and learning of adult literacy.

8. Numeracy for adults with ESOL needs
Numeracy for adults with language and/or literacy needs

The aim of this practical workshop is to raise awareness of language/literacy issues relating to numeracy teaching and learning and to identify some strategies for addressing them. Participants will engage in a number of interactive activities to identify the issues and explore strategies and techniques to help address these difficulties, for example, analysing the level of language/literacy required to successfully answer numerical questions and the vocabulary knowledge required. There will be an opportunity to try out some numeracy activities which aim to develop language/literacy as well as maths skills.

9. Transformational Literacies, resource design and Student motivation
New Literacy Studies and critical approaches to education, offer a potential space for transformation whereby basic skills learners can explore their narratives and society around them. This shifts from a traditional, competency based approach to curriculum design to a culturally relevant, learner driven, and socially empowering model (Freire, 1993; Barton et al 2004; Duckworth, 2013, 14) which takes into consideration the cultural, psychological and educational factors related to the Learners and their lives. Drawing on research from the educational and community-based setting this workshop draws on the aforementioned to discuss the power of dialogic communication between teachers and literacy learners whereby learners and communities can ask questions, analyse and subsequently work through effective and meaningful strategies to take agency over their lives, enhancing their situation and empowering them and the local and wider communities. Further to this we will explores the impact of labelling on marginalization and exclusion, and explore and create approaches to designing motivational resources to offer solutions to barriers learners may face that inspire them on their learning journey.

Barton, D., Ivanic, R., Appleby, Y., Hodge, R. and Tusting, K. (2004), Adult Learners’ Lives Project: Setting the Scene, Progress Report. Lancaster University: NRDC.

15:25 Networking -tea and coffee available

15.45 Close of conference

Further details available on the bookings page.

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