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Learner Leadership PDF Print

Adult Learners as Leaders

 “Leadership” as a new basic skill

Adult literacy and English-as-a-second-language programs have traditionally focused on helping undereducated adults improve their reading, writing, math, or oral English skills.   Many adult educators have put a special emphasis on helping learners get the skills and knowledge they need to participate actively in their communities – as voters and as members of neighborhood and civic organizations.  Adult education in this case is more than “the 3Rs”; rather, it is a way to help learners have the self-confidence and skills needed to be an active player in democracy and civil society. 

The Equipped for the Future skills standards (www.nifl.gov) support this purpose for adult education, because they recognize that programs can help adult learners be effective citizens, as well as workers and family members.  Recent “English language civics” adult education funding is now promoting “civics” education for immigrants, to help them understand and participate more fully in U.S. society.  So researchers and funders are now catching up to what many adult educators have been doing for years – helping adult learners be active players in their communities.

One way that adult educators have done this is by promoting the notion of active learner leadership within their programs.  They do this in the classroom by focusing their curricula on problem-solving, teamwork, and other “leadership” skills.  And programs also create roles for learners – as peer-tutors, public spokespersons, recruiters, and office helpers – in which they can apply their leadership skills in meaningful ways.  By getting opportunities and encouragement to develop and then practice leadership skills within the program, learners are then prepared to apply those skills in the real world outside the program.

 Web Sites and Publications

The following Web sites and publications contain information and ideas useful for adult educators who want to help learners develop leadership skills:

 VALUE (www.literacynet.org/value):  This is the site of VALUE (Voice for Adult Literacy United for Education), the national organization for former and current students in U.S. adult basic skills programs.  The Web sites below are taken from the “Resources for Adult Learners and Adult Educators” of the VALUE site.

 The Maine Fertilizer.  Maine’s Center for Adult Learning and Literacy publishes “The Maine Fertilizer.”  This is a newspaper for adult educators and adult learners across the state.  One section has articles written by, about, and for adult learners.  For more information, contact Patte Bowman at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 Web Site in Canada.  In Canada, the National Adult Literacy Data Base has a Web site full of resources for adult educators and adult learners.   The “Story of the Week” section contains great stories written by adult learners from around Canada.  Go to this Web page: www.nald.ca/STORY/Story.htm .

 Boston’s Adult Literacy Resource Institute.  In Boston, the Adult Literacy Resource Institute has a great Web site, full of information for adult educators and adult learners.  One section contains samples of poems, plays, and other writings by adult learners.  Go to www.alri.org .  Click on “Special Projects.”  Then scroll down to “Student Publishing.”

 Rhode Island Web Site.  The Web site of Literacy Resources/Rhode Island has lots of useful information for adult educators and adult learners.  For materials for adult learners, go to the Web site (www.brown.edu/Departments/Swearer_Center/Literacy_Resources/  ) and then click on “Learners.”  Another section (called “Adult Learners’ Bill of Rights”) describes a law which supports adult education services.  This section includes testimony from adult learners.

 Peppercorn Books publishes and distributes books, tapes, and other materials for adult learners and adult education professionals. Peppercorn takes a learner-centered approach to education. The company collects good materials from literacy programs in the U.S. and other countries and makes them available to those who are looking for learner-centered, participatory ideas. Their books include stories, poems, and other writings by adult learners. Titles include "We Have Stories to Tell" (stories about gang life, single motherhood, addiction, and race written by North Carolina students) and "Not By Myself . . ." (a magazine by learners in the southeast), and "Need I Say More" (stories, poems by students in Boston). For more information, visit the Peppercorn web site at www.peppercornbooks.com or call (toll-free in the U.S.) 1-877-574-1634.

Project: LEARN Student Handbook. This handbook was prepared by adult learners in Project: LEARN of Medina County, Ohio. It was written for new learners coming into the program. It contains:

  • Words of encouragement;
  • Contact information (address of program, telephone, fax, staff)
  • Learners to contact for help;
  • Information about the program’s student support group;
  • What the learner can expect to gain in the program;
  • A questionnaire and goal sheet for the learner to show what he/she is interested in learning;
  • A "commitment sheet" for the learner to state that he/she is committed to doing the work necessary to succeed;
  • A calendar of events at the program.

For more information about this handbook and learner activities in Ohio, contact Dale Sherman at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .


BLAST Echoes: A Magazine for Adult Basic Education Students, by Adult Basic Education Students is published by BLAST (Building Leadership through Adult Student Training), a program in New Mexico. BLAST’s mission is "to help people become leaders in their own lives." The magazine states: "The heart of BLAST is opening up the way people see leadership. People who use education to transform their lives are leaders." For more information, contact BLAST at 317 Washington, SE, Albuquerque, NM 87108, Tel. 505-232-7565 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Students Working for Literacy: Student Edition. This manual by Phil Rose and Beth Broadway shows adult learners:

  1. How to work with program staff to identify jobs that learners can do in the program.
  2. How to do those jobs well.
  3. How to work with the literacy staff as part of a team.
  4. How to work with other students.

It discusses:

    • Things that can make it hard to be a learner leader (e.g., confidentiality; race and class issues);
    • How to recruit other learners into the program;
    • Public speaking;
    • Leading a student group;
    • Serving on a board;
    • Working on program staff;
    • Planning a conference;
    • Supports that learner leaders need.

It also contains a list of other handbooks and videos useful to learner leaders.

In addition to this edition for students, there is a similar book written for adult education practitioners. Profits from the sale of these books go to LVA-NY State’s Student Leadership and Involvement Project.

For more information, contact Literacy Volunteers of America — New York State,

The Adult Literacy Media Alliance produces videotapes, reading materials, and a Web site for adult learners. Learners can use these materials on their own or with their teacher. Each video shows strategies for dealing with reading, writing, and math tasks that adults face in their day-to-day lives. The videos are meant to be both educational and fun. Adult learners appear in a number of the tapes to describe the challenges they’ve faced and strategies they’ve use.  For information, contact ALMA at 1-800-304-1922 or visit the ALMA web site at www.tv411.org.

Success Stories 2001. This publication from the Pennsylvania Department of Education profiles 17 adult learners who graduated from adult education programs. We learn about the learners’ childhoods, their struggles in school, and the positive impacts that adult education had on their lives. All have gone on to lead productive lives as community leaders, successful workers, and responsible family members. Governor Tom Ridge wrote the introduction. (Pennsylvania supports learner leadership through annual conferences, a network of student leaders, annual student awards, and other activities.) For more information, contact the Pennsylvania Bureau of Adult Basic and Literacy Education, 333 Market Street, 11th Floor, Harrisburg, PA 17126-0333, call 1-717-783-9192 or visit www.pde.psu.edu/able/success.html .

West Virginia Victories. This publication of the West Virginia Governor’s Council on Literacy profiles 21 outstanding adult learners and nine adult education programs. The book states: "The outstanding men and women whose stories are shared in this publication represent the thousands of West Virginia adults who enroll in adult education and literacy programs to enhance their lives. They have acknowledged the power of education and have overcome great personal difficulties to improve and enhance the quality of their lives and those within their families and communities." For more information, call 1-800-642-2670.

Growing Together: Improving Your Literacy Program Through Student Participation. This 1994 guidebook from Literacy Volunteers of America is written for practitioners. It explains why it’s important for learners to get involved as leaders in their education programs. It goes on to describe how learners can serve in advisory groups and on boards, as advocates, as fundraisers, as helpers in student orientation, and in other roles. For information about this book and about how LVA promotes student involvement, contact LVA at 635 James Street, Syracuse, NY 13203, 315/472-0001, www.literacyvolunteers.org.

New Writers’ Voices is a collection of writings by adult learners in New York City. Each book focuses on a special theme, such as "Taking Charge of My Life," "Speaking out on Health," or "Speaking out on Work." Available from Literacy Volunteers of America, www.literacyvolunteers.org.

Revised 5/31/02 



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