Adult Learning and Literacy Research Group ALCR: Adult Literacy and Communication Research Group


Modern Apprentices’ Literacy Learning

This study comprised a formative evaluation of a pilot project designed to assist Modern Apprentices (MAs) who undertook a literacy and numeracy programme with Literacy Aotearoa-affiliated providers designed to assist them to gain literacy skills to complete their apprenticeship.

Our aim was to explore the impacts that literacy and numeracy assistance have in assisting MAs to achieve their goals. In a series of 14 case studies comprising interviews with MAs, their employer, their MA Coordinator (MAC) and their literacy tutor, we identified the views of people involved with the MA programme on the literacy challenges faced by apprentices, the MA literacy support programme’s outcomes in addressing those challenges, and the strengths and weaknesses of the current approach. From this, we recommended strategies with the aim of enhancing outcomes for MAs.

In addition to functional literacy challenges (that is, practical difficulties with reading, writing and numeracy), other notable challenges included: (1) a divide between the ‘literate’ world and the ‘trade’ world; (2) MAs employing coping strategies that mask their problems with functional literacy; and (3) time and fatigue demands upon many apprentices in workplaces which do not provide on-job time and support for learning.

Strategies used in the MA Literacy Programme included: (1) three-way collaboration among tutors, coordinators, and employers to monitor and support apprentices during training; (2) one-on-one tutoring with a consistent tutor to establish a relationship of trust; (3) a ‘non-classroom-style’ learning environment; and (4) techniques to ensure that literacy training occurs in a way that is consistently relevant to the apprentices’ trade-specific learning goals.

We found: apprentices built their confidence permitting them both to be enthusiastic about themselves and their learning, and to do a significantly enhanced range of on-job tasks; faster progress with bookwork; functional literacy improvements; and development of independent learning and organisational skills.

Suggestions for strategies to further enhance and broaden these outcomes include: (1) better systems for communication, resource-sharing and information-sharing among all involved, including the establishment of a complaints system; (2) encouraging or incentivising employers to become more willingly involved with their apprentices’ progress; (3) capping coordinators’ maximum number of apprentices to ensure adequate mentoring; (4) keeping apprentices in training even when employment ceases; and (5) sufficient funding to provide apprentices with tutoring hours matched to their needs.

Areas needing further investigation in order to identify optimum strategies and best practice approaches include: (1) better insight into the kind of workplace culture that fosters apprentices’ success, and that avoids the problem of literacy disconnect from trade practice; (2) exploration of gender norms in the workplace that impede successful learning; (3) earlier detection of MAs’ health-related learning barriers; (4) ways to enhance schooling and school-to-apprenticeship transition; (5) means of embedding study skills as well as literacy learning into trade/ technical learning; (6) strategies for recruiting apprentices into literacy tutoring; (7) obtaining assurance of apprentices’ learning; (8) ensuring learning materials use language suitable for apprentices’ learning; and (9) the feasibility of using online and mobile media such as online forums, virtual workshops, and text-messaging. This last is with the aim of facilitating three-way communication exchange and progress updates, sharing resources and teaching ideas, and better design, delivery and updating of learning materials.

In summary, the Modern Apprentices’ Literacy Programme is working very well within the constraints imposed by the circumstances of its application. The literacy support programme should be continued, since it is clear that the benefits to both MAs and their places of employment are many and marked, and the overwhelming majority of comments on LA’s services are positive. Not one person offered purely negative feedback, and all the respondents’ recommendations are for enhancements and expansion of the service. In our assessment, the tutoring support offered by Literacy Aotearoa is professional, well-organised, and closely matches the needs of the individual MA.

However, Literacy Aotearoa cannot do the job alone and even the best of tutoring by itself is not sufficient to create sufficiently literate MAs. Critical additional elements are first, a supportive employer who understands the necessity for literacy at work and its potential to boost productivity, and who wants to allow time for the MA to undertake some theory and bookwork on the job. Second, each MA needs a MAC who is a genuine mentor with a strong service ethic, and who keeps a close and almost parental eye on the apprentice’s learning. Third, excellent collaboration is needed in the form of a partnership among employer, MAC and literacy tutor, with all sharing information and best practice, and all working collectively to support the apprentice. Last, if a workplace is to benefit from its members’ improved literacy and learning ability, it needs to have a culture that is positive about literacy and learning, and open to innovative ideas and new ways of seeing the industry and the work to be done.