1. Introduction

Objectives: In this unit you will
  • Understand how the characteristics of the adult learner match you and your student
  • Analyze the characteristics and responsibilities of a good tutor
  • Consider the different meanings of adult literacy
  • Learn about learner-centered learning and learning styles
Estimated time for completing this section: 3 hours


In the last unit, you familiarized yourself with the blogger format and the content in this online course. For those who are technologically savvy, navigating this course will be easy. Others might need more help from our online mentor or technical facilitator. For some, concepts offered throughout this course will be new. For those who have taught before, this course will seem like a review.

This online tutor training, therefore, is designed to teach volunteers with a variety of skills and knowledge. As you go through this unit, keep in mind that your adult students will also possess a variety of skills and knowledge that you will need to keep in mind as you design their lessons.

Note: This section is designed for tutors who have never taught before and whose knowledge of adult education and learning theory is brand new.

Teachers and those who are currently tutoring may take the self-review first, and then skim and skip to the sections that are unfamiliar.

2. Before You Begin

Why do you think we asked you in the introduction to consider the obstacles you might encounter in completing this online training? Did others in your group have similar responses? Now, think about the problems your adult learner might have in attending tutoring sessions. How would their reasons compare to yours? Now go to comments and read what others have to say.
Required Task: Click on 'comments' below and post one or two thoughts.
Optional: Before you continue to the next module, here is a checklist for marking your progress.
Click here to download the PDF checklist that will help you keep track of where you stopped. You may save the document in your files. It will not save in this blog.
3. Teaching Children Versus Adults

Teaching adults is different from teaching children. Adult literacy programs ask even experienced K-12 teachers to go through tutor training because of these differences. The chart, Children vs. Adults, briefly describes some differences between adults and children as students.

Click on image for a larger view and easier reading.

4. What is a literacy tutor?

A tutor in an adult literacy program is a volunteer instructor who helps adult students achieve their literacy goals in a private, confidential setting. Most adult literacy students can only recall bad experiences in school, and they are often reluctant to discuss or reveal their learning problems to their boss or even their families. As an empathetic and caring tutor, you can break down these barriers by offering customized and remedial instruction at a pace that allows your students to gain confidence as they experience increasing success in learning.

Optional Links (Click on the following links to learn more about tutoring.)

  1. Definition of a tutor
  2. Benefits of tutoring
  3. Characteristics of a good tutor
  4. The tutoring environment

Optional: If you are curious about what tutoring is like, please watch this 4-minute video on YouTube of tutors talking about tutoring:

Points to ponder (Required for new tutors)

Consider the pros and cons of tutoring a student at a neutral site away from your office and your student's home. How would your student feel if you came overdressed for the tutoring session? Why?

5. Required Assignment
To learn more about tutors and the tutoring environment, please read one of the following passages from your tutor handbooks, if your program has assigned you one of the following:
  1. LitStart, Chapter 1, pages 4-11
  2. Tutor, pages 139-146
  3. Teaching Adults: A Literacy Resource Book, pages 7-17

Or you may read this online passage instead:

While this passage is geared towards tutoring children, the principles of good tutoring hold for tutoring adults as well: empathy, preparation, outlook, passion, open-mindedness, and reliability. Click on the link below the image.

Click on image to see a larger version

Optional activity

Flip quickly through your tutoring handbook and make note of the topics that will be covered. Will your questions be answered in these books? If not, develop a list of questions.

6. What is adult literacy?

Before we continue, let's study a definition of adult literacy.

As you can see, the definition of adult literacy is fluid and changes over time. These days, the definition of literacy and numeracy includes the skills learned in technology-rich classroom environments.
  • Literacy can mean many things to many people. A literate, well-educated person from 1946 would find it difficult to decipher some of today's contracts, medical information, or office manuals, especially those pertaining to technology.
  • Attitude also plays an important role in adult literacy. An adult who manages to make a decent wage will often not view himself as illiterate until he faces a crisis, such as an impending job layoff, or has made a life-threatening error, such as giving his child an incorrect dosage of medication. 
  • Some individuals feel such a deep sense of shame about their inability to read or write that they go to great lengths to hide their illiteracy from friends and family. In this instance, confidentiality is extremely important.

Adult Motivation

Regardless of their level of education, adults lead busy lives. No matter how highly motivated their are to learn, adult learners will put family- or job-related obligations ahead of their tutoring sessions and reading assignments.The idea is to keep your student long enough to help them reach their literacy goals.

Adults vote with their feet and drop out if their needs are not being met. It is essential to establish a meaningful connection with your student so that he is motivated to return, even when hitting a rough patch. A tutor can accomplish this by:
1. Creating an atmosphere of respect.
2. Making learning interesting, enjoyable, or relevant.
3. Creating challenging learning experiences.
4. Setting your student up for success through explicit instruction, clear direction, and knowing his comfort level.
A similar pattern exists for tutors, who, like their adult students, need support and encouragement from literacy program staff after training. They also need to feel a sense of accomplishment in helping students reach their literacy goals, and a sense of community, where they can learn and exchange ideas with other tutors. 

Optional: Read the following article, Powerful Motivation: This long-Time Tutor Is Motivated by Helping Learners by Will Summers at: www.ncsall.net/?id=731.

What made this seasoned tutor eager to keep going? Keeping this article in mind, please complete the following assignment.
Optional: Adults in modern society are on a lifelong educational journey. This site by Raymond J. Wlodkowski offers many tips on how to motivate adults, help them develop positive attitudes, and cultivate their interest and curiosity.

Dan Pink: The Puzzle of Motivation

Optional: Watch the TED video (18 min), The Puzzle of Motivation by Dan Pink (click on link), in which he examines the puzzle of motivation, starting with a fact that social scientists know but most managers don't: Traditional rewards aren't always as effective as we think. He provides illuminating stories — and maybe, a way for us to motivate our adult students through autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Required Assignment
Post your observations to one of the following statements as a "comment." Then read what others have to say.
  • How does your adult learner's motivation to attend tutoring sessions parallel your desire to tutor?

  • What factors do you think would cause you to drop out of tutoring?

  • How would these factors compare to an adult student's reason for staying in a program or quitting it?

    7. Learner-Centered Learning

    Why does adult literacy instruction focus on learner-centered learning rather than on the traditional lectures we tend to associate with classroom instruction? Learner-centered learning means that students are at the center of their own learning. This type of instruction is especially important for adults who generally tend to be self-directed and can identify what they know and don't know.

    Optional Activity: Click here to learn more about learner-centered learning.

    Learning Styles

    When learning a new skill, such as refinishing an antique piece of furniture, what is your preferred method of learning? Watching a video? Reading instructions and studying diagrams? Listening to a tape? Or doing a combination of the above?

    Some of us gather information most effectively by reading or watching (visual learners); others by listening or verbalizing (auditory learners); and others by hands-on "doing" (kinesthetic or tactile learners). These characteristics describe the ways we learn or how we deal with situations.

    Knowing about our learning styles helps us to learn - and teach - more effectively.

    Consider the following statements:

    • How you learn will help you to realize your limitations to learn in certain classroom situations such as a traditional classroom lecture.

    • How you learn will help you to realize that your learning style influences how you plan your tutoring sessions. You will need to be aware of this tendency and to remember to meet your student's learning preferences as well.

    • Knowing your student's learning style will give you the opportunity to strengthen her skills in weaker areas. For example, if she is a visual learner, you might want to strengthen her auditory skills.

            We have different ways of organizing and thinking about new information. Multiple intelligences theory also suggests that we draw from eight distinct types of intelligence, as opposed to simply verbal and mathematical intelligence, as we apply different skills and abilities to solve problems and learn anything that is new.

            In addition, adult learning is affected by external stimuli, such as the physical layout of a room, emotional factors (an ill child), physical condition (poor eyesight), and psychological state (low self-esteem due to years of performing poorly in school).

            8. Required Assignment for New Tutors

            If you have never done this before, take an online inventory to see which types of intelligence most strongly characterize your personal learning style here or paste the following url into your address bar www.acceleratedlearning.com/method/test_your_style.html

            Kolb's Learning Styles. This image shows another way of characterizing learning styles.
            Click on image to view a larger version.

            Then read a passage in one of the following:

            • LitStart, Chapter 1, pages 14-25
            • Tutor, pages 19-24
            • Teaching Adults: A Literacy Resource Book, pages 18-28

            9. Summary

            Adult literacy learners are not so very different from adult literacy tutors. Both lead busy, responsible lives. Their motivation to attend tutoring sessions can be influenced by life's pressures and their insecurities about learning or teaching. Adult learners lean toward certain learning preferences and tutors lean toward certain teaching preferences. Their ability to learn or teach is affected by their physical and emotional well being.

            This discussion on the adult learner has set the stage for the next unit in this workshop, "Teaching Reading to Adults." We will now guide you through the various stages of teaching reading to adults whose literacy skills are uneven and whose confidence in their ability to learn is uncertain at best.
            Self Check

            Required Activity:

            Please complete this self-check for Unit One: Adults as Learners and Tutors.

            __T __F 1. Once an adult decides to sign up for literacy instruction, nothing will stop her from reaching her goals.

            __T __F 2. One reason adults sign up for literacy instruction is to be less dependent on others.

            __T __F 3. Adult literacy students are often reluctant to discuss their learning problems, even with their families.

            __T __F 4. In one-on-one instruction tutors offer customized lessons at a pace that allows the students to gain confidence in learning.

            __T __F 5. Learner centered learning encourages a student to become a partner in learning.

            __T __F 6. Everyone has similar learning styles.

            __T __F 7. It is all right to teach a student at home.

            __T __F 8. The definition of adult literacy is fluid and changes over time.

            __T __F 9. Adults need a lot of direction and straight teaching and lecture.

            __T __F 10. Multiple intelligence theory suggests that we draw from eight distinct types of intelligence.

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