Adult Literacy in the Library


I received a phone call today asking how a rural library could start their own literacy program, so I thought I would put together some of the steps I went through.

The first thing to do is assess the need in your community. This can be done a couple of ways. I suggest the following means of gathering information before designing a program:

  • Keep a record of patron inquiries at all service desks for literacy related questions. Most libraries count the number of reference questions they receive. You could simply add a new column to the tally list for literacy related questions.
  • Contact your K-12 school districts. Some school districts have programs for adult ESL or GED in the evening. In this area, the school districts partner with our community college to offer classes at elementary and middle schools at night.
  • Contact your local community college. They are a wealth of information and are generally considered the primary entity to offer adult literacy services. In some locations, there is an adult literacy office functioning within the community college. For example, Project CARE in Cicero, IL is housed within Morton College.
  • Search for adult literacy service providers in your area using the ProLiteracy search engine. You might be surprised to find that there are already organizations providing literacy services in your community, like churches or social service agencies. Look for ways to partner with them.
  • Contact your local family literacy service providers. Family literacy programs provide three educational components: early childhood literacy, adult literacy and Parent and Child Together time (PACT). You may be able to assist them with the adult literacy aspect of their program.  A good example of a family literacy agency is The Children's Center of Berwyn and Cicero, IL. 
The second thing to do is to hold a meeting of all parties mentioned above and develop a plan together to meet the adult literacy needs in your community. Will you create a system of referrals? How will adults progress through a comprehensive program? What role should the library play? Should you offer direct services? Provide literacy materials? Recruit volunteer tutors?If your library will play a support role to adult literacy organizations, the K-12 school district, and the community college, you might consider offering these literacy services:
  1. Build a resource collection for ABE, ESL, and GED. The collection should be tutor and student friendly, and it should contain materials used by volunteer literacy organizations and community college classes. Start out with a print collection and expand with computer resources.
  2. Invite a literacy agency to recruit and train tutors at your library. If you don't have an organization near you, it makes sense to recruit your own volunteers.  Be certain that you have the manpower to coordinate a literacy program; keep in mind that this will take between 20 and 40 hours a week to coordinate if you have multiple volunteers and classes/learning groups.
  3. Start a conversation group for ESL students, and make two levels if you have enough students. Make it fun by talking about everyday topics, playing educational games, sharing your American culture, and allowing students to share their cultures with the group. If you can only support one conversation class, try having two or more tutors run the group; they can divide students into different levels based on who attends each day.  Students can bring snacks and beverages, or you might consider providing them if your budget allows for it.
  4. Start a low-level book discussion group in which you can place students who read at a 4th grade level. The Fastback series by Pearson is at 4th grade level and works wonderfully for book discussion groups. Each story is about 25-30 pages long. Genres include mystery, crime and detection, romance, science fiction, etc. See the link under "Resources" on the left hand side of this blog. If the link doesn't work, perform a Google search for "Pearson Fastback" or request a K-12 catalog from Pearson. If you want to include non-fiction reading, the best adult literacy weekly newspaper is News for You, published by New Readers Press.  It has stories at a variety of levels and a crossword puzzle in each edition. You can also make an advanced group for students who read at a 7th grade level or above. A great publisher for books at this level is Hampton Brown (also see link on the left). For both levels, purchase 5-8 copies of each title or interlibrary loan them. I tend to call the 4th grade level an "intermediate group" and it meets every week. Students read the book during the discussion. The "advanced group" takes place twice a month. Students read the advanced books independently or with their tutor.
  5. Offer citizenship information sessions or create a citizenship test study group.   Applying for naturalization should always include free legal council from USCIS approved lawyers, so after providing information about how to apply for naturalization, make sure you direct them to a free service that will help them fill out the N-400 application.  You can find more information about legal services at the USCIS website.  If you like the idea of creating a study group, make sure the group focuses on the test content instead of offering advice.  But do make sure that you have information for local assistance on hand.  Sometimes this group can turn out to be considerably multi-leveled.  Direct students to ESL classes if their literacy skills need improvement.
  6. Start computer classes. A group of 4-8 students works best. If you use a combination of face-to-face instruction and self-guided tutorials, you could hold a weekly computer basics class or learning group.  One of the best free sites for technology tutorials is GCF Learn Free.   Students can sign up for the class and the instructor can get them started on tutorials chosen by each student.  Or you can rotate topics.  For example, January could start with Computer Basics, followed by Mouse Basics, Keyboarding, Internet, E-mail, Micrsoft Word, Excel, and so on.
  7. Connect students with the community college if they need to prepare for the GED. Most community colleges already have a GED program, so you will want to avoid duplicating their services.  However, using a grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, we created a drop-in GED Study Group that is a lot more flexible than traditional classes.
This is the backbone of any library-based adult literacy program. Tailor your services based on the needs assessment you performed and through communicating with existing adult literacy programs.

If you determine that no other entity in your area is providing adult literacy services, i.e. one-to-one or small group tutoring, you may choose to provide services directly to the public. This requires 20+ hours of staff time dedicated to the program, recruiting and training volunteer tutors, pre-testing and post-testing students annually, having tutors fill out tutor logs monthly, purchasing learning materials, and giving tutors the opportunity to attend professional development workshops.

For an in-depth guide published by the Illinois Secretary of State (IL State Library), click here. For a copy of the Literacy for All: Adult Literacy @ your library brochure, published by the American Library Association, click here.  For links to replicable library literacy programs, click here.

To learn more about libraries and literacy, read the following books by Marguerite Crowley Weibel: