Building understanding between learners and adult literacy volunteers

From left to right:

Phylicia Davis 
KGO Adult Literacy Program

Annie Luk
University of Toronto

Abstract – Although volunteers account for a considerable portion of instructors and tutors delivering adult literacy programmes, they are rarely the focus of research. In Toronto, Canada, a group of community-based adult literacy programmes collaborate to deliver their training to new volunteer tutors. This article looks at why and how they train these new volunteers by reviewing their training documents. Focusing on the critical elements in the training materials, we highlight the importance of recognising the social relations between learners and volunteer tutors in the pursuit of goodness in adult educators.

There are many volunteer educators in adult literacy programmes. In the USA for example, over 40% of the educators are volunteers (Belzer 2006). These volunteer tutors sometimes find themselves insufficiently prepared to work with adult literacy learners (Luk 2016, Perry 2013). Before they start, the volunteers are usually trained by paid staff of adult literacy programmes. The quality and content of such training varies (Belzer 2006, Ilsley 1985). In the West End of Toronto, Canada, four adult literacy organisations work as a collective to provide tutor training to new volunteers. Established in 1986 by Dr. Rita Cox and located in a mixed-income community, Parkdale Project Read is a community-based adult literacy organisation where volunteer tutors and learners meet every week to work on literacy, numeracy and computer skills. The Alexandra Park Neighbourhood Learning Centre, also established in the mid-1980s, provides weekly adult literacy programming for individuals in the area. West Neighbourhood House and LAMP Community Health Centre both offer wraparound community services for all ages, including adult literacy programmes. We will now look closer at two challenges facing new volunteers and how the training materials address these challenges to help new volunteers become good adult educators.

Reflecting on power and privilege

Although the characteristics of volunteer tutors in adult literacy programmes are not readily available or up-to-date, we do know that many of the volunteer tutors have more years of formal education than the learners with whom they work. According to a 2007 study on both paid and volunteer educators in adult literacy programmes in the USA (Ziegler, ­McCallum, Bell 2007), the majority of the educators were reported to have at least an undergraduate degree. Nearly 30% of the volunteers had Master’s degrees, and 5% said they had Doctoral degrees. On the other hand, adult literacy learners usually have incomplete formal schooling. What is more critical than the differences in educational background between volunteers and learners is perhaps how new volunteers may not fully appreciate the stories leading learners to come to adult literacy programmes, and the systemic challenges facing learners (Luk 2016). The training materials from the collective of adult literacy programmes include a module on the power and privilege that are associated with our identities. The training highlights the importance for volunteers to understand how their identities connect to the “unconscious biases or preferences, which are hidden presumptions that can be related to race, gender, disability, religion, sexuality, language, country of origin, etc.”

“Good adult educators need to recognise their social positions and the role of education in addressing broad systemic challenges.”

At the same time, it is also important not to cast adult literacy learners into well-worn tropes such as heroic victims or pawns of destiny that would hinder the development of authentic relationships between learners and volunteers (Belzer, Pickard 2015). The training materials differentiate between social justice and charity. The former “requires investment, commitment and more importantly, relationships with others” while the latter intends to help “but ignores the source of one’s challenges (poverty, racism, etc.) and only perpetuates systemic issues”. The anti-oppressive approach used in the training illustrates that good adult educators in this context need to recognise their social positions and the role of education in addressing broad systemic challenges. 

Relationships with learning 

As mentioned in the previous section, many of the volunteer tutors experience their learning from formal school settings. Their long and fruitful experience with formal education suggests that few of them have extremely negative feelings about learning. As such, it could be difficult for them to imagine that others may associate schooling or learning with trauma (Horsman 2013). What is especially challenging in this context is that what is positive for the volunteers based on their prior learning experience may not be positive for the learners with whom they work. The differences in their learning histories and experiences could become jarring for the volunteers when they realise that they cannot simply replicate what they enjoy themselves in a learning environment. It is therefore important for volunteers to appreciate how learners may have different relationships with learning. 

The training materials bring to light the impacts of trauma and violence on learning, such as creating a safe learning ­environment for learners “to write or talk about their life…[without worrying about] whether they will be shamed or have to look after the listener”. Through the learning and violence module in the training materials, new volunteers learn about the importance of “bearing witness” to challenges facing learners while not carrying the responsibility of solving all the problems for learners. This understanding is essential to fostering healthy relationships between learners and volunteers that are critical to the development and maintenance of a positive learning environment (Lynch 2013). The training includes different suggestions for volunteers such as giving learners “a clear message that they deserve the support they need” and “[helping] them find someone who they can work with”. At the same time, the training specifies to volunteers that they should not feel alone or over-extended in providing all the necessary support for learners because the staff is ­always there to help. Volunteers are encouraged to “talk to a staff person or a support worker to get help”.

Making better volunteers

Since new volunteers are likely to find it difficult to envision what tutoring adult literacy learners would be like before they start (Luk 2016), what they learn from the training programmes is very important in preparing them. The volunteers’ ability to create a positive learning environment with learners is also dependent on the expectations set by the training programmes. As shown in this article, the materials used by the adult literacy programmes attempt to address the pertinent social issues facing volunteers as they work with learners in tutoring sessions. Nonetheless, once volunteer tutors start working with learners, their understanding of adult literacy changes, and the strategies they need to develop their practice adjust (Luk 2016, Roderick 2013). To maintain the support needed by volunteers, adult literacy programmes should also include ongoing check-in and development opportunities for volunteers (Belzer 2006, Perry 2013). As volunteer tutors ourselves, we echo the training offered by these adult literacy programmes with respect to the importance of self-care. Self-care is critical for long-term sustainability and for preventing burnout. However, it is also challenging because as volunteer tutors, we often find ourselves wanting to help as much as possible while negotiating the limits of our own wellbeing. For volunteer tutors to continue being adult educators, they must include self-care as an ongoing element in their practice.


The authors sincerely thank Alexandra Park Neighbourhood Learning Centre, LAMP Community Health Centre, Parkdale Project Read and West Neighbourhood House for their support in preparing this article.


Belzer, A. (2006): Less may be more: Rethinking adult literacy volunteer tutor training. In: Journal of Literacy Research, 38 (2), 111-140.

Belzer, A. & Pickard, A. (2015): From heroic victims to competent comrades: Views of adult literacy learners in the research literature. In: Adult Education Quarterly, 65 (3), 250-266. 

Horsman, J. (2013): Too Scared to Learn: Women, Violence, and Education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ilsley, P. (1985): Adult literacy volunteers: Issues and ideas. In: Information series no. 301. Columbus, OH, USA: National Center Publications, National Center for Research in Vocational Education. 

Luk, A. (2016): Beyond reading and writing: How volunteer tutors develop their practice with learners in adult literacy programs in Ontario (unpublished Master’s thesis). Toronto: University of Toronto. 

Lynch, J. (2013): A case study of a volunteer-based literacy class with adults with developmental disabilities. In: Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 53 (2), 302-325.

Perry, K. H. (2013): Becoming qualified to teach low-literate refugees: A case study of one volunteer instructor. In: Community Literacy Journal, 7 (2), 21-38.

Roderick, R. (2013): Constructing adult literacies at a local literacy tutor-training program. In: Community Literacy Journal, 7 (2), 53-75. 

Sandlin, J. A.; St. Clair, R. (2005): Volunteers in adult literacy edu­cation. In: Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, 5, 125-154. 

Ziegler, M.; McCallum, S. R.; Bell, S. M. (2007): Adult educators in the United States: Who are they and what do they know about teaching reading? In: Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 33 (4), 50-53.

 About the authors

Phylicia Davis is the founder and co­ordinator for the all-volunteer-run KGO (Kingston-Galloway-Orton Park) Adult Literacy Program in the Toronto area. She holds a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Toronto. 


Annie Luk is a PhD candidate in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada. She has been a volunteer tutor in adult literacy programmes since 2007.



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