Improving your Workplace Literacy

Types of Vocational Literacy

Workplace foundation literacy programs can be broadly organized into two major categories: decontextualized and contextualized.

The Decontextualized Approach

Some of the earliest literacy programs were implemented by the Australian military, which recognized that personnel lacked the technical reading and other basic skills needed to understand manuals, participate in training, and qualify for promotions.

  • This approach was characterized by a focus on mastery of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and/or math skills  with little or no direct connection to how participants used those skills in their work or possibly other real-life contexts.

The advantage of this approach is that it requires limited planning, because learning activities can be transplanted from existing, prepackaged curricula. Only limited teacher training is necessary, since teachers can be handed lessons and jump right in and begin teaching.

The disadvantage is that workers fail to master specific literacy and language tasks they face on their jobs. They end up learning literacy in a vacuum and cannot apply them in actual situations

An Expert-Driven, "Functional Context" Approach

The decontextualized approach failed because researchers found that where improved job performance was the goal, employee basic skills programs needed to focus more directly on job-related content, and teach the strategies they need to apply basic skills to the tasks they are employed to perform.

  • This approach relies on experts to develop the workplace education program.
  • Experts are required to conduct needs assessments, create customized curricula, and otherwise organize an effective worker education program.
  • Internal experts — production managers, human resources specialists, technical trainers, supervisors — know the workplace and the workers, and can ensure the program is relevant.

The advantages of this approach were

  • by mastering literacy and language skills that produce clear and more immediate results in job performance, learners see the relevance of literacy skills and the value of practicing those skills on a regular basis.

But the benefit is also the disadvantage.

  • the reliance on a team of experts to define the literacy required came at a significant cost to the business.
  • moreover, a team of experts tends to produce a narrow, job-skills program without a problem solving component, which is one of the main outcomes desired.

Vocational Literacy - a combination of both

Research shows that, when a person cannot read, the primary failure is an inability to decode. 30 years of research into reading shows that rote learning sight words, whether they are contextual, or random, provides limited success.

The research shows, quite emphatically, that decoding gives an adult the ability to progress in whatever context they find themselves. Concurrently, a reader should learn the Core 225 words that research has proven forms the basis of 50%-70%  of text.

This twin approach forms the basis of remedial reading, and vocational literacy is defined as remedial. Additionally we add the 1000 most common words, and another 200 industry related specialist words. If this sounds difficult, children achieve this curriculum in 16 weeks of 2 x 10 minutes teacher instruction per day. With Fantastic Phonics multimedia and print, the role of the teacher is depreciated, supporting the adult to pursue their own self-directed, employer managed literacy.

All workplaces have Language, Literacy and Numeracy (LLN) requirements.

Whether its filling in workplace documents, talking with workmates about the job to be done, listening to instructions from a supervisor or reading information from material data sheets and calculating amounts - these are all examples of the types of writing, speaking and listening, reading and numeracy that are part of a job.

Higher Level Skills - Problems Solving

Problem solving is goal-directed thinking and action in situations for which no routine solution procedure is available. The problem solver has a more or less well-defined goal, but does not immediately know how to reach it.

It is crucial for employers that individuals display good problem solving skills when presented with a typical workplace challenge, and to display ability to prioritize tasks with little direction and review information to make decisions.

Problem solving is one of the most important skills for success in the workplace. The ability to identify a problem, evaluate all of the relevant factors and develop a good solution is essential.

Whether you are experiencing conflict with a co-worker, dealing with multiple tasks that need to be prioritized, or trying to track a shipment that hasn't arrived,  problem solving is a part of everyday working life.

Higher Level Skills - Executive Literacy

In the last decade, studies of "executive literacy" show that leadership requires deep cognitive processes across a range of often conflicting goals. Filtering of this conflicting information needs high-level literacy skills to interpret, comprehend and reflect upon these messages, and finally develop responses.

  • Inhibition - The ability to stop one's own behavior at the appropriate time, including stopping actions and thoughts. The flip side of inhibition is impulsivity; if you have weak ability to stop yourself from acting on your impulses, then you are "impulsive."
  • Shift - The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation.
  • Emotional Control - The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings.
  • Initiation - The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies.
  • Working memory - The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task.
  • Planning/Organization - The ability to manage current and future- oriented task demands.
  • Organization of Materials - The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces.
  • Self-Monitoring - The ability to monitor one's own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected.

It is no longer "the three R's". Problem solving requires the "Three C's" - comprehension, context and concept.

Mid Level Skills - Customer and Business Communication

Every business engages in training of some type, to improve the productivity of its workforce, and create succession of junior staff into senior roles. It is often at this point, when more skills are demanded from the workforce, that literacy becomes a glaring problem.

  • listening and understanding
  • clearly and directly
  • writing to the needs of the audience
  • negotiating responsively
  • reading independently
  • empathising
  • using numeracy effectively
  • understanding the needs of internal and external customers
  • persuading effectively establishing and using networks
  • being assertive
  • sharing information
  • speaking and writing in languages other than English

Intermediate Skills - Workplace Literacy

Workplace communication happens whenever people work together to get things done.  Often, unspoken rules are developed about what to do in particular situations. Here are some examples:

Workplace literacy Example of application
Reading and using different types of information Reading and understanding work instructions, standard operating procedures, letters and notices, electronic data and emails
Writing and recording information Completing proformas, report sheets, tender documentation, work plans and specifications, incident report forms and notes
Listening to different types of information Receiving verbal work instructions from supervisors, information provided in training sessions, answering the telephone
Giving different types of verbal information Discussing problems with others, offering solutions and feedback, reporting issues or incidents to the supervisor, using the telephone
Performing a range of numeracy tasks Estimating a quantity of supplies to be ordered, calculating quantities for mixing of chemicals and materials, measuring distances or materials lengths

Compensating by adjusting workplace processes and systems

When workers struggle with the literacy demands of the workplace, companies often compensate by making team leaders and supervisors responsible for all important literacy tasks or they translate key information into other languages. Supervisor-level positions are often made more complex because it is the team leader’s responsibility to complete all safety and hazard incident reports and quality records; and explain or translate instructions to team members.

There are inherent risks with this approach - more stress is placed on the employees you value most, and in their absence (or holidays), outcomes can quickly deteriorate.

In some workplaces the demand for literacy skills at lower levels has been removed by technology or changes in processes. When this happens, all team members are not able to gradually build up their literacy skills in preparation for the higher demands of a leadership role.

Trainees attempting frontline management training often need considerable support during training, and can take quite a long time to build their confidence in the literacy–related components of the job and the training. They may also struggle with badly written or complex workplace documents or correspondence.

And so, while this option may have avoided literacy skill development for one section of the workforce, the result is that team-leaders or supervisors require higher levels of skill, and often more training.