Where to start: designing learning resources for beginners

Where to start: designing learning resources for beginners

Workbook on Trucking

With decreased provision for lower level literacy and numeracy learners, the Hotline has developed some beginner resources to help fill the gap. We send these resources to callers who have no other provision available, but who can access support from a friend or family member. One of the Hotline resource developers is Pat Hazell, an experienced literacy specialist. We caught up with Pat to talk about how she goes about the design of learning resources.

  1. You’ve produced many of the Hotline’s excellent learner literacy and numeracy workbooks. How do you decide on a particular theme (e.g. Books, Babies and Dads)?

The decisions about a workbook theme are made in response to Hotline callers’ needs. I meet with the Hotline team and we discuss what will be of use and of interest, and can offer a platform for teaching.  For example, calls from several long distance truck drivers led to the On the road – Trucks workbook. Lots of callers need some digital literacy, often for their MyGov accounts, so we developed the Going Online workbooks for that. Sometimes we choose something of general interest, such as Garage Sales, Fishing and Haircuts. So the callers drive the topic decisions. But we always choose topics that are adult and practical in nature. And we try to pick topics of interest to men as well as women, and to people in country areas as well as the cities.

Books and Babies was very successful, but we realised we needed to address Indigenous learners, so with some Aboriginal support, we adapted Books and Bubs for them. We also wanted to specifically include fathers, so that led to Books, Babies and Dads.

  1. What process do you use to decide which aspects of writing and spelling you are going to focus on? Do you decide what aspect of language you want to work on first, or the theme?

I always start with the theme. Then the theme suggests the literacy skills I’ll incorporate. For example, the three Books and Babies workbooks provide an opportunity for basic alphabet work, pre-reading skills and reading some family words. Garage Sales gives an opportunity for writing addresses, reading days of the week and writing prices. Renting a home gives an opportunity to write a condition report or ask for a repair.

Then I can follow up with some specific skills, such as a spelling strategy, using capital letters, or useful word groups or patterns, such as ‘ight’ words, or spelling numbers, or a simple maths skill. Every workbook starts with a vocab list for the theme and then those words are used several times through the workbook.

  1. Is it possible for real beginner literacy learners to learn using workbooks? What help do they need?

The workbooks are designed for low level learners rather than complete beginners.

I would hope that anyone using the books could work with a mentor or tutor, it’s very hard to learn literacy on your own. But they are designed as stand-alone materials, though of course much better with even just a little bit of help. Every activity has the answers provided immediately afterwards for easy checking and learning. And there are video tutorials on the Hotline website to support some of the books.

We do have some titles suitable for real beginners – the Let’s get started workbooks are the ones to go with.

  1. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of online resources and of hard copy workbooks for literacy/numeracy learners?

I think online resources are very hard, mostly too hard, for low level literacy learners, the target group for the workbooks. When a learner has a few more skills, then that’s fine. But online navigating requires a lot of literacy just to move around a webpage, before even getting to the learning. So it’s very frustrating and often confusing for a low level learner. A piece of paper provides an anchor to work with.

  1. What advice would you give to anyone intending to write workbooks for adult literacy and numeracy learners? To what extent is a strong background in language, literacy or numeracy teaching necessary before designing resources, and why? 

Where to start!

I think it’s going to be much easier for someone to write good quality learning materials if they have a good understanding of the English language, as well as understanding adult literacy teaching. Understanding how adults learn, how adult materials differ from children’s materials is important. It’s really worthwhile for people who write learning materials to have an underpinning of this knowledge.

How to write the materials depends on how they will be used. Will there be a teacher to interpret what is required, or will the learner be working with little or no help? They need to be very carefully written if there won’t be much support for the learner, all the support has to be offered within the materials.

The materials need to be clear and unambiguous. So often what seems clear to the writer is confusing to the learner, so always ask a colleague or friend to try out the materials before you use them. Make sure it’s clear what the learner needs to do with each activity. Provide immediate, clear feedback.

Be clear yourself about what it is you are trying to teach your learner. Don’t use more words than you need, keep sentence structures simple.

Design materials to look interesting and inviting. Use lots of space, add some interesting, quirky pictures. You’re working with adults, so make it appealing to them. Never let your materials appear patronising.

I always keep a learning cycle in mind – introduce the theme, then teach the skills, check, revisit the teaching, check, give the learner a chance to use the learning again. Reinforce the learning by providing opportunities to repeat and practice several times.

I also make all the workbooks consistent in approach, so that the learner can become familiar with the way to use each book. Each one starts with setting a context through a picture and chat, then I introduce relevant vocab. The activities that follow vary according to the teaching – but the same styles are used, such as cloze, and answers always follow immediately. Each workbook ends with activities to pull the learning together, suggestions to use the learning in broader contexts and a summary of the learning covered.

  1. Are there any differences in the design of resources for specific groups of learners?

Yes, recognising cultural difference and different ways of learning is very important. I would always want an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person to make sure what I write is culturally relevant and appropriate, we can’t just assume we’ll get it right. Same with young people, I know how out of touch I am there!

  1. The Reading Writing Hotline’s website gives learners and their supporters free access to a range of quality literacy and numeracy learning resources. What are some of your favourite resources on the Hotline website?

I’ll just mention Pam Osmond’s volunteer tutor training course and her updated version of Literacy Face to Face that are available there. These resources offer tutors and teachers a sound foundation in adult literacy teaching, which will help them write sound and effective resources.