Research and Practice in Adult Literacy – a friendly group

Peter Miller

Peter Miller, Argyll and Bute Council

Peter MillerI’m a forty-five year old male, from a manual working background, leaving school with no formal qualifications. As an adult, I was diagnosed as having dyslexia.

I came to adult education to improve my maths and my English. I was inspired by the adult literacies worker to improve my maths and English with the help of tutors. My limitations were my maths; which were stopping me becoming a firefighter. The blocks were the basic maths, but the hard maths were easy! I just wasn’t getting it.

I signed up for ‘WoodWord’, a course which used the principles of a traditional forest school, but geared towards an adult literacy and numeracy audience. The tutors and fellow participants on the course, working as a team, helped us to solve the ‘problems’.

My thought at the time was, can I do this or can I not do it? I changed my thoughts to, I can do. During the course I learned a lot, like various writing styles, and how things in the natural world change over time. My self-esteem and confidence built up over time by going to WoodWord.

I am no longer depressed and I can help my son with simple maths. Even though I am no longer a firefighter, I am able to lead a positive working life. I still have pangs of not feeling worth, but when I look back at what I have achieved, I feel that I can do what I want to do.

People starting out in adult education: it’s going to be hard, but bite the bullet and go for it, because you will come out.

Tutor Perspective: Brian Marden

Adult Literacies Development Worker with the WoodWord Project, Argyll and Bute Council, and interviewed by Pam Staley

Taking learning to the outdoor environment has benefited a group of adults in Oban, when they joined a project which aims to develop confidence and self-esteem, along with basic skills, through hands-on experiences in a woodland setting.

Brian Marden, WoodWord ProjectThe Project

The project has its roots some time ago. Janie Steel, a young woman who had been in and around the literacy service for a number of years, initially referred by Dyslexia Scotland and now trained as a Forest Schools Trainer, was looking to expand work with adults. One such project had taken place in Greater Glasgow and Clyde to promote well-being with clients, who used mental health services. Not comfortable working with this client group, Janie approached Brian Marden, Adult Literacies Development Worker in Oban, with the idea of using the Forest Schools project with an adult literacies group.

Janie and fellow Forest Schools trainer, Ross Preston of Rowan Ecology and Education Support, did not know how to integrate adult literacies skills into their programme. As quid pro quo, they both joined Brian’s volunteer tutor training and Brian took on Forest Schools training. Initial discussions looked at a funding package and they applied, through Forest Schools Initiative, and were successful. WoodWord was born!

Brian Marden, WoodWord ProjectIntended Outcomes

Initial meetings took place and outcomes evolved as it went on. Standard literacy resources and forest school resources were thrown into the pot and as the project ideas took shape, the planned eight sessions soon increased to twelve; and hours per week increased from two to three, plus one mindfulness session. The group also set up the opportunity for learners to gain the John Muir Award, which added a further two hours per week. This was, however, a prerequisite of the funding package.

Another prerequisite for the funding, was to have ten students. This, for Brian, was one of the biggest challenges. He spoke to every learner who had had some engagement with the literacy service over the past eighteen months, some new, some inactive and some who had been around for a while. Learners getting employment, moving away and other outside influences all contributed to this difficult challenge of engaging ten students for a twelve week course. However, ten students, all with some degree of learning difficulties and other conditions, including dyslexia, started the course. Volunteer Adult Literacy Tutor, John Nicol, also joined the group as additional support to the students.

Attributes to the project’s success included having sufficient tutor to learner ratio. Everything was put over in a positive manner and there was time for everyone. If you didn’t want to do something, you didn’t have to, and the ethos was to encourage rather than enforce. There was also a two hour debrief to ask what worked and what didn’t work, what impacted on learners, what could be introduced to improve things. Learners themselves took control. One learner thrived in the woodland setting and encouraged other learners. One learner had been involved with Forest Schools during his time at school and had carried the impression it was for dunces. After struggling at first, he was won over and learned a lot!

Brian Marden, WoodWord ProjectForest Schools staff chose a site and dealt with practicalities like landowner agreement. Dunollie Woods, on the north side of Oban, was the site chosen as its woodland provided the setting required, being exposed to the elements. The ethos of Forest Schools and literacies dovetail together well – that the learning experiences are learner-centred and look at learners from a wealth model. It was also important that any ‘teachable moments’ were built upon and scaffolding used as a learning process.

The woodland was, in itself, the main resource around which all activities were built. An example of using the outdoor setting, was an evaluation exercise using a climbing rope. This was tied between trees, where the first tree was 0 and the tree at the other end of the scale, at 10. Questions were asked, e.g. “Did you enjoy yourself?  Will you come back next week?” and the learner marked their answer at the relevant point on the rope.

The amount of activities the group got through was incredible and yet still leaves a lot more scope for the project to continue in the future. Some of the exercises evolved into further activities, from the imagination and dexterity used in the traditional Forest Schools exercises.

Every day started with a risk assessment, asking, ‘What risks might we encounter and how can we get round them?’ This became an empowering exercise for the group, e.g. If a fire was going to be lit – take the tallest person and create a no-go zone of six feet around the fire. This also included guidance on using all tools, how to carry them safely, clean and maintain them and put them away safely.

Brian Marden, WoodWord ProjectHighlights

Highlights of the project included the anecdotal discussions that took place and reactions of learners. They commented that you can leave your troubles behind, enthusiasm evidenced in running to get there or turning up in a suit after an interview. Getting the John Muir Award was the first qualification for some. There was a general sense of empowerment and everyone felt it was a ’wonderful experience’ which they would like to repeat. The wide elastic bands of the Forest School Orchestra was a favourite.

Brian Marden, WoodWord ProjectAs well as all the highlights of the project, there were many other factors which characterise its success, with some evidence of long-term impact. Everyone has been on a journey and experienced the empowerment that encouragement, scaffolding, and learner centred activities, with small achievable tasks, can create.

Self-esteem, confidence and future prospects went up significantly and core skills improved overall. The project continued to flourish with each week through the relationships that built over the project. The very positive impact showed in different ways, with people getting different things from their experiences. It has proved, beyond doubt, that literacy learning lends itself well to Forest Schools and hopefully, this pilot will be the start of the on-going Woodword project for the future.

Brian Marden, WoodWord ProjectKey Lessons

The key lessons to be taken forward are ‘Be prepared’ and don’t try too much. The pace and environment have to be adapted to suit all those there and there is much more to be gained by letting things take their time. The project does not need to be manic or full-on, time has to be given for learning to take place.

The biggest challenge was finding the number of learners required. A couple of people did not fit in with the other learners and although they tried to separate behaviour from the person, this initially created tensions. However, things did settle down with a core group which were comfortable among themselves, which led to facilitating a positive programme.

Brian Marden, WoodWord ProjectBelow I list example activities which integrated adult literacies.

Number Trail

This aims to see who can get the highest score, individually. Learners had to follow instructions printed on cards, starting by choosing a number between 1 – 10 and then carrying out addition, subtraction and multiplication. Although a prize had been offered for the highest correct answer, learners discovered the answer was always one, some making several attempts to make sure. The exercise was followed up later with a more random approach to hanging the instruction cards. Learners were told the answer was one and had then to find the cards (treasure hunt) and put them in the correct order.

Rats and Rants

Forest School activities included making research areas called quadrats. These had to be measured and marked out correctly before learners undertook identifying vegetation and estimating land cover, e.g. percentage of grass cover. The exercise was carried out three or four times and evidence sent to Scottish Natural Heritage. Brian built a literacy activity around this differentiating between ‘quadrant’ and quadrat’.

The quadrat

Using percentages using biodiversity of 100 square inset. Encouraging discussion.

How Good is our Woodland

This was a traditional Forest Schools activity. Learners, using observational and analysing skills, looked at different types of vegetation, trees, grasses, mosses, insects and mammals and had to identify how woodland supported the surrounding environment. All activities brought in literacy skills like reading and writing (recording it).

The Abbey

This was a nouns and adjectives activity. Learners began by looking at a picture of a painting and had to identify six nouns and six adjectives. This was then extended to learners taking a photo in the woodland and creating a story from it.

Tree Identification

Learners had to read tree identity tags, put in alphabetical order and tie to the appropriate tree.

Meet a tree

Learners were blindfolded and spun three times then directed to a tree. The aim was for them to try to get as much sensory information on the trees and surroundings (e.g. how did you get to the tree?)


Activity introducing homophone. A forest-related homophone found was lichen / lychen (werewolf).

Brian Marden, WoodWord ProjectNumeric activities

Numeric activities evolved during the project and included finding/ using a watch instead of a compass, telling time from the sun and measuring a tree by its shadow. The volunteer Literacy Tutor developed the measuring a tree by its shadow activity and although the first attempt of using a one metre length before the tree, did not work, even the mistakes were celebrated as this showed learners everyone was human.

Clearing ‘Rhodies’

This led to a discussion around introduced species.

Deer foot print

Using coin to compare the size.

Tree Shaking

Learners shook trees to see what came out and to look at what the tree supported.

Repeat reading

This activity introduced using the song, This Land is Your Land, to rewrite the words. Learners were given ‘Oban’, ‘Argyll’ and ‘Scotland’ to rework. The chorus was also used for syllable work. This linked to the Forest Schools activity of making homemade instruments out of wood and string, then played along to the song.

Brian Marden, WoodWord ProjectResilienceCoverPage

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