September 1999


Communication Skills Forum

A two day consultative meeting between ACAL and the National Communications Skills Teachers Association was held in Melbourne on August 13 and 14.

Training Packages were the initial focus. What do the fields of adult literacy and communication have to contribute to the development of workplace communication in Training Packages? This led naturally to a second important question: what is the relationship between the communication skills and adult literacy and numeracy fields?

Adrian Hann (Co-ordinator, Communication Skills Resources Network) Victoria, told the forum the field of communication is feeling marginalised. It has not been involved in the development of Training Packages; many communication practitioners were unfamiliar with them.

Rosie Wickert (Vice Pres), ACAL) showed how ACAL had come from a similar position in the early nineties, but had adopted a pragmatic position and strategically responded to government policies. ACAL has, for example, been proactive in ensuring literacy issues are addressed in Training Packages through the Workplace Communication in Training Packages project which has worked closely with ITABs. Also, after DETYA's initial problems with the Mutual Obligation programme, ACAL offered advice which led to inservicing Centrelink staff on literacy assessment issues.

The general feeling from the Communications people was that although there was reference to communication in the Training Packages it needed to be spelt out in more detail, e.g., dealing with conflict, negotiation etc.

Common issues for the two groups were identified and eventually prioritised for action as:

Define the communication/language/literacy/numeracy continuum
Establish standards in order to guide consistency of outcomes between Registered Training Organisations
Investigate avenues for strategic funding resources
Work on public relations both horizontally and vertically
Investigate ways to influence training decisions.

The two days were productive and the two groups will pursue the possibility of pooling resources. There are still problem areas to be ironed out such as defining each field and how it relates. This will be continued as a session at the forthcoming ACAL national conference.

One piece of news was that Minister Kemp has commissioned ACER to develop pre and post study tests to assess final year secondary, TAFE and university students in generic skills. There is a strong possibility thereafter there will be a push to develop a generic skills training package.

The forum was an ACAL initiative supported by and funded by DETYA It was useful in raising the profile of ACAL and the diversity of our work.

Pat Beattie, ACAL Northern Territory Representative

Literacy Skills and Older Australians


The survey of Aspects of Literacy (SAL) was conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 1996. The survey focussed on 'functional literacy and numeracy' - 'the information processing skills necessary to use printed material found at work, at home, and in the community'. Three types of literacy were assessed - prose, document, and quantitative literacy - and results were ranked from Level 1 (lowest) to Level 5. There were two components to the survey - an interview and skill self-rating, and an objective skills assessment .

9,302 people aged 15-74 were interviewed in the survey. The cut-off at age 74 was justified by the judgement that the interview and assessment would be increasingly demanding and time consuming for those older, and that relatively small numbers would be involved. The survey represented the Australian component of the International Adult Literacy Survey being coordinated by the OECD and Statistic Canada.

Aspects of Literacy: Profiles and perceptions, Australia 1996. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1997. Cat.4226.0

Aspects of Literacy: Assessed Skill Levels, Australia 1996. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1997. Cat.4228.0

"The literacy skills of people aged 45 and over declined markedly with age" (Aspects of Literacy: Assessed skill levels p.6)

It is nearly two years since the publication of the results of Australia's first large scale, comprehensive survey of literacy and numeracy skills. The survey confirmed that age is a good predictor of skill levels; the older you are, the lower your literacy and numeracy skills are likely to be.

In this International Year of Older People, what are we to make of this stark fact? Why is it so? Does it matter? Is the situation changing?

Forty-one to forty-six per cent of those aged 65-74 had very poor literacy skills (Level 1); three quarters of them were at Levels 1 and 2. Of the 35-44 age group by comparison, around 38% were at Levels 1 and 2. Correspondingly, only 3% to 5% of 65-74 year olds had skills at Level 4 and 5, compared with around 20% of the 35-44 age group. The decline in skill levels is clearly marked in the 45-54 year old group, and probably begins in the previous age cohort. People with Level 2 skills "could be expected to experience some difficulties in using many of the printed materials encountered in daily life".

Such data provide a useful reminder that the highly successful and dynamic University of the Third Age movement, with some 130,000 members Australia-wide is a rather unrepresentative sample of older Australians - and, incidentally, only around 0.5% of the eligible age group.

There is no longitudinal dimension to the survey, so it does not tell us if the skill levels of individuals decline as people get older. While this may account for some of the skill drop, due to disability for example, most of it is more likely to have a historical explanation.

Educational attainment (highest level of formal qualification reached) is one of the strongest predictors of literacy. More than half of those aged 55-74 left school before completion, for a variety of reasons. To the extent that this accounts for the lower skill levels of older Australians, the 'problem' will ameliorate significantly in a generation or two - provided that schooling outcomes are at least maintained.

Low levels of literacy and numeracy are also associated with being poor, being unemployed or not in the labour force, and having a first language other than English. Compared with native English speakers, a larger proportion of people who first spoke a language other than English were at the lowest skill level on each of the three scales (48% at Level 1 on the Prose Scale compared to 14%), and this proportion increased significantly with age. This points to distinctive problems for aging migrants but does not explain away the overall skills decline with ageing.

On the whole, survey respondents overestimated their abilities. It seems clear, as one would expect, that people rated themselves in relation to their 'level of aspiration' - what they wanted to be able to do. Many people with objectively low skill levels had very modest expectations. This must temper any conclusions about the extent of a literacy 'problem' amongst older people. So too should the finding that the proportion of those aged 55 and above needing help with certain tasks, although higher, was in the same order of magnitude as for other age groups.

Nevertheless, for those with poor information processing skills, disadvantage, and risk, lie around every corner. Such people appear to participate less in community affairs, and struggle to deal with instructions and forms. This is a challenge that should be addressed from both ends. We must continue to make an issue of access to literacy and numeracy learning for all in our community, and not just those in schools, or in the labour force. Apart from their intrinsic need, grandparents and retirees are a significant potential resource for inter-generational nurturing of communication skills.

On the other hand, Governments and others in the business of producing information of particular interest and relevance to older people should confront ever more candidly the facts of life concerning their literacy and numeracy skill levels, and increase efforts to produce plain English in user-friendly formats.

by Alastair Crombie , Adult Learning Australia



Rural centres in Tasmania are quaint and picturesque, but economic change has been hard on people living there.

An ageing population, services diminishing, jobs declining ... It's a similar sad picture going on all over Australia's regional areas. But lately there seems to be something different in Tasmania's small towns and villages: they're on the Net.

Community online access centres are giving people the chance to use computers and the internet free of charge, and the locals are flocking to take advantage. Many of them are older people having their first experience with computers.

Whatever their computer expertise, there are many reasons why older people need to become 'literate online'. They may be early retirees, retrenched, in need of re-skilling or computer-mediated social support networks. This is why the Centre for Research and Learning in Regional Australia at the University of Tasmania in Launceston is researching the effects of over-55s' online learning and interaction on their literacy and numeracy skills. The research links in to a national project undertaken this year by ALNARC, the Adult Literacy and Numeracy Australian Research Consortium, which has members from universities around the nation.

Associate Professor Ian Falk, the Centre's Director and a Director of ALNARC, is particularly interested in social capital aspects of older people in these small communities discovering an exciting new technology and making it part of their everyday lives. Social capital is about the positive effects on communities of networks, shared values and trust. At a time when rural baby boomers are coping with unemployment and early retirement, online interaction offers the hope of new skills, lifelong learning, even second lives as their own bosses in their own small businesses. It's happening.

Older people are often out of practice with learning, and in any case most haven't had the kind of education that encourages them to be adventurous. Confronting a computer for the first time can be an anxious experience. Literacy problems surface quickly, and the computer, which takes everything literally, won't behave unless you get the spelling and punctuation right. This can be a crushing frustration for some. But most persevere.

Older people have had a lot of experience with challenge. Barriers can be overcome, with help from volunteers and peers at community access centres, or groups like SeniorLink Tasmania, which supports and advises people with their own computers. Benefits come fast. Over-55s can be closer to distant family members and friends through email, and the sense of connectivity with the wider world can re-energise life and open up opportunities.

'There's so much in the media about literacy and our young people,' says Pat Millar, a researcher on the project. 'But our older people sometimes didn't get much schooling. Some people haven't had the chances to go on with their learning. You can get literacy problems that are masked by years of working at concealing them. But when people are in a group learning how to use a computer, everyone's a beginner. It can be a great motivator.'

The study will draw on data from a statewide network of community, educational, business groups and others. A companion project is researching literacy and numeracy accessibility of Training Packages for the same demographic group. The projects will be completed by the end of the year.

Centre for Research and Learning in Regional Australia,

University of Tasmania PO Box 1214, Launceston, TAS 7250

Tel: (03) 63243291 or (03) 62541497 Fax (03) 63243040 Email:


Mental Fitness for Seniors


I have been teaching for more than twenty years and my students have have ranged in age to 90+ years. For the past ten years I have devoted the majority of my time to teaching groups of adults over the age of 50, namely, those who have earned the title of "older" in our culture. The primary focus of my teaching has been that learning and development are lifelong processes which need to be stimulated, encouraged, and nurtured, just as they are in the younger years.

The concept of lifespan learning and development has been researched and written about in the academic world, but our day-to-day culture is immersed in ageism. Older people are understood to be becoming less skilled, less able, and more dependent. These incorrect beliefs and stereotypes are reflected in the attitudes of older people as well. They present many barriers which need to be overcome, and a lot of re-educating about the ageing process needs to be taught. Hence, the curricula of Mental Fitness Plus for Seniors was created and has been offered throughout the greater Adelaide, SA area. These curricula aim to eliminate ageist attitudes towards learning and development and highlight the fact that we can all learn and develop all our lives.

Mental Fitness Plus for Seniors is offered in ten-week terms. Classes meet weekly for 1.5 hours. Venues include senior citizens clubs, community centres and hired classrooms. The curriculum includes Brain Gym exercises and

activities (from Educational Kinesiology), discussions on pre-selected topics, games and activities which encourage lateral thinking and problem solving, and homework tasks designed to incorporate new learning into everyday living.

There are no tests, nor is there other assessment. Adult learning methodology is used, so the idea of teacher is replaced with that of facilitator. The facilitator is a group member, participating in each aspect of the curriculum. Group size is limited to twenty and the group is consistent for the ten-week period.

Literacy is much more than the ability to read and write. Certainly, the skills of reading and writing are important, but comprehension of language, being able to apply the intricasies of understanding, self-confidence in using language, both verbally and non-verbally, and the ability to think laterally, are all adjuncts of what I consider literacy.

Many of our older people have had limited experience in formal educational settings. Often their experiences were negative and unfulfilling and resulted later in an avoidance of learning situations. They equate learning and education with the 3 R's which were taught in an authoritative methodology with the teacher in full control. They remember the cane, rote learning, memorising and tests as the basic requirements for education. Admittedly, some students did achieve within this methodological framework, however, many others did not achieve. Their lack of achievement and success left them with the belief that there can be little enjoyment in learning.

What does Mental Fitness Plus for Seniors do? Basically, it provides older peple with the opportunity of working and learning in a cohesive group. The skills of groupwork are a relatively new creation in the field of education, and they need to be learned and practiced. Mental Fitness Plus curricula do this, so the participants gain an understanding of and practice with communications skills. They work in pairs and in small and larger groups, sharing ideas, developing problem solving strategies, and working towards common goals. This work is accomplished in a non-competitive environment, and the element of fun is always present. The nature of the curricula encourages interaction, and many friendships have developed which extend beyond the confines of the ten-weeks. This is a real plus for many older people who have felt isolated because of relocation of housing, caring for spouse or relative, or a result of their own illness and/or disability.

As the facilitator of Mental Fitness Plus for Seniors courses I have learned a tremendous amount about learning. I have seen shy, under-confident people blossom in ten short weeks. I have seen people enjoying the challenge of new learning. I have witnessed increased self-esteem to such a degree that new commitments towards personal growth and development are sought and undertaken. Older people begin to see themselves as successful learners. They become busy, involved, vital citizens, learning and contributing to their own growth and also contributing to the overall enhancement of the life of their community as a whole.

by Sylvia Barnes

Teaching Literacy at Utopia


Utopia is a small community north east of Alice Springs, straddling the Sandover Highway.

Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education provides vocational and higher education courses for Indigenous Australians from all over Australia but primarily from regional areas of the Northern Territory.

Its 1800 (approx) students can enrol in Health Studies, Education Studies, Community Studies and a range of VET courses. Courses are generally delivered in mixed mode: intensive 1/2 week workshops at a central location interspersed with pre and post workshop tasks supported by tutors at the students' community.

The main campus is situated at Batchelor 100 kms south of Darwin. There are annexes at Nhulunbuy, Katherine and Tennant Creek and the southernmost campus is located at Alice Springs

The Institute (formerly Batchelor College) has recently celebrated its independence and the appointment of an Indigenous Director.

This story is anecdotal. I keep a daily log of the things that happen in my work here at Utopia.

I have 16 active students spread out over many square kilometres. I run Literacy workshops using the Course in Spoken and Written English (CSWE) I curriculum at two locations separated by many kilometres of dirt road. I have three students well over fifty years old and a couple of students over forty.

Jeannie Mills is an extraordinary communicator and organiser amongst the people here. She always had real trouble with reading and writing in English but she always has the energy to listen and make sense of what was going on around her. Nearly three years of part time study including campus based workshops made no measurable improvement in her English reading and writing skills. But her enthusiasm for oral English never dwindled and as an organiser she kept the Anilitji students on track during a disrupted program during 1998.

Left students at Soapy Bore and travelled onto clinic to see Lucky Morton and Jeannie Mills. Two students still enrolled but apparently secure in permanent roles in the clinic as AHW's. Lucky treated a sty in my eye......looking out for the W.E.L.L. trainer.

Helped Lucky with written report on treatment. Talked about the language of the clinic. Took photograph. Told Lucky and Jeanne how proud Batchelor Institute was of them....these women are very proud to have proper jobs.

Lucky is 49. Like all the women here, she is well known artist and sculptor. It is Lucky that most often takes the front seat of the Toyota. She has relatively good English oral language skills but still cannot read her mail.

Lucky Morton visited in the Clinic Toyota with the Nurse/educator in tow. She gave me some mail she had received from a survey mob in Sydney.

There was an informal meeting with Maggie and Nora Kamara on the veranda of the Institute house at Arlparra. Both these women favour delivery at the Arlparra site. They say that three full days a week with the whole group working together at Arlparra is a preferable model given the weather conditions at present. This could mean as good as 18 hours a week contact. It means driving two longish trips a day; morning and evening picking up students from Antarringinya 35 kms North of the Clinic to Soapy Bore and returning them after a full six hours of Learning Centre activity, three times a week.

Nora is fifty years old and Maggie is older. Maggie is a real power in the group. She has authority over most of the women. She feels very comfortable discussing the program and contributing to decision making. She has humour and seems to know that English literacy is important for the survival of her culture. This has an important impact on the younger students.

Nora was born further away on the Stirling Pastoral Lease. She is unable to write the alphabet but her handwriting has improved. She will never be an independent writer but she has a wealth of experience in communicating in English because she grew up in a cattle station environment and worked as a house maid for tea, flour and sugar.

Great oral language session on road. Lots of name sharing. Two languages. Bush tucker plants. Women sharing knowledge.

I still have to figure a way of covering the Anilitji students. Unless they can come in of their own accord. It can't happen every day because they still need to hunt for their daily bread. Jedda and Jennifer from Anilitji are keen hunters and gatherers.

Jedda and Jennifer are sisters. Jedda is 30. Jennifer a little younger. Their mother Kathleen recently dropped out of the Literacy program in order to better care for her husband Greenie who is an important artist and an old man. Kathleen has always been very supportive of the younger women's learning. Still is.

Dorothy and Pansy and about six other women and a few children came to Arlparra House . We sit and work for four solid hours on translations from Lutheran hymns to Anmatjere.

Dorothy is 46 years old. She looks like the star from Jedda, living next to the store.

Her writing is improving as she learns the alphabet by rote. She has a great commitment to exploring English in conversation. Pansy is her mate from Arlparra. She is a 35 year old Macleod and that is a big name in the Centre. As with several of the women she has just learnt to write from left to right on the page without ritually copying the layout of the text she is copying. Both these women are highly motivated by gospel music. They are now reading the words of songs as they sing.

The women were singing quite a few songs in English. This turned into an impromptu language intensive ......They were using dictionaries, pens and paper out on the veranda for at least four solid hours. We all were.

Elizabeth is a 52 year old women from the stolen generation. She is functional in many languages including English. Her great grandfather was Sandy Macdonald who ran the pub at the Arltunga Goldfields early in the century. Her mother was Anmatjerre. She is a casual ATAS tutor and one day we went to the Learning Centre at Soapy Bore. It is situated in a tin house next to the windbreak where the women artists of Soapy Bore live, work and study language. She lives in a caravan adjacent to the Institute's house.

It was good to give Elizabeth a look at the situation. I don't know what she and Katie talked about while I was getting people from Kurrajong. I hope there was something about them working together to help me get the program working well. It was nice to give them that time before convening as a larger group.

Katie cracks the whip when it is time to study. She is 56, born on the same country as Maggie and holds authority over the younger women: Hazel, Michelle, Lily and her sister Audrey. Katie is learning to read and write better all the time but it is unlikely she will ever be able to write independently apart from a few personal details.

But Katie can enjoy English and can be hooked on Yami Lester's autobiography because there are many words there that she is familiar with. My intention is to persevere with this text and to deconstruct it in order to build on work already done on the autobiographical genre at the Alice Workshop in November '98. It links into appropriate marketing of their art which is inextricably bound to their dreaming

Travel to Kurrajong and Soapy Bore and read a chapter of Yami and then travel into Arlparra to meet with the other men and women at the Art Room. Lots of discussion there. Talking with the new coordinator about art business.

The students here at Urapuntja are all practising artists. They rely on income generated by sales of their work to properly care for their families. They are positive about the idea of supporting Urapuntja Artists with clerical support, merchandising and managerial input.

A follow up meeting at the Art Room. Maggie, Pansy and Dorothy present. Maggie and Dorothy preoccupied with painting on the new Urapuntja Artists canvasses. Different students/artists this time. Group meeting with Coordinator. Drafted studio rules and Art Studio and Urapuntja Artists Inc. onto whiteboard.

Drafted and wrote up a Job Advertisement onto the whiteboard in the Art Studio. Shared text.

Amelia is 68 years old. She amazes me with her stamina. There is little hope of her ever writing or reading independently but she provides great humour and leadership for the younger women. She walks together with us all on the road to a critical literacy.

A few minutes later it was Amelia with severe goitre in her right leg. No blankets. Night coming on.....another drive to Anilitji into the low sun.

Rodney B. Mitchell Lecturer A, Utopia Annex, Batchelor Institute

"... a silly old woman like me"


This issue of Literacy Link spotlights the work of provider Jane Shepherd at the Burnie ALBE Unit in Tasmania.

I am Tasmanian-born and in my early forties. Despite three years of interstate tertiary study (not teaching) and a brief overseas expedition in my twenties, I considered myself sheltered from many aspects of other people's lives when I entered the workplace at 21; basically I was an insular WASP!


Jobs with a high degree on public contact and responsibility, fulltime parenting and involvement with a voluntary counselling service developed my people skills, particularly patience, tolerance and respecting and appreciating individual differences.

Since becoming involved with ALBE nearly three years ago, I have worked with a variety of students in a variety of situations, presently focussing on a small number of non-english speaking background (NESB) students of all ages and backgrounds.

I find that, depending upon language skill, both oral and written, and confidence, a range of tutoring situations needs to be available to NESB students. Both Nadia and Helen benefit from

one-to-one tutoring because of their peculiar levels of skill, their fairly narrow goals and their individual approaches to their learning (and my complete ignorance of their original languages). One-to-one tutoring lets these women direct their learning so we deal with their precise needs and are not confused by participating in other people's work.

I hope this article portrays some of my enjoyment in working with these people, often at a basic human level, to enhance their individual development and their understanding of and assimilation into our Tasmanian society.


Every student brings to the learning situation a unique combination of culture, personal experience and individual personality. In a migrant student, cultural background and personal experience can be quite different from an Australian-born student and with older migrants, time and maturity can blend these factors to create particularly interesting learning experiences.

Two of my older migrant students, Helen Zhao and Nadia Klima are examples of the diversity and humanness of working with this group of people.

Helen's Story

Helen Zhao is 62 years old. She lived in Dalian, on the Yellow Sea, China, "...beautiful city". She now lives in Burnie, north-west Tasmania. Her husband is Chinese and they have two daughters, one living in China and the other in Somerset, near Burnie.

Helen was at school until she was 17 years of age and, when asked if she had any exposure to English in her school days she said, with fierce eyes, "Nooo ... Russian!" She did in fact learn "a little bit Japanese".

After leaving school, Helen attended a nursing school for two years, nursed in a hospital for 19 years before having to leave with "bad leg". "I enjoy nursing". She then worked in a television assembly factory, testing televisions, for another 19 years.

Helen's daughter came to Australia as a post-secondary student, married an Australian, opened a restaurant and has been here ever since. Helen and her husband migrated in 1995. During 1997 she completed 700 hours of AMES and SIP in a classroom situation, where she learned the basic formalities and mechanics of some of the language but she feels she had limited opportunities to speak English. Helen speaks Chinese at home although both her husband and daughter speak fluent English.

Helen says, "I like Australia... scenic... very good... few people."

Nadia's Story

Nadia Klima proudly admits to being 75 years old; she lived in the Black Sea area of Russia until she was 17 years old.

Nadia never went to school because, when she was seven years old, both her parents died of hunger. The youngest of six children, Nadia had to go to work "to earn a piece of bread. And do you know what I did first? I looked after geese in the field."

At 17, with the German invasion of Russia, Nadia was taken to Germany in a crowded cattle train to work on an extensive farm which supplied prison camps. Doing a variety of "very hard" labouring jobs, Nadia met her husband, a Czechoslovakian, a soldier in the camps.

They married after the war and stayed in Germany before coming to Australia with their two year old son. The family stayed for two years in Sydney where "I couldn't speak a word of English, or cook English, so I cooked my cooking and everybody loved it." Nadia was encouraged to learn English by pointing to things and others spoke the word. The family, now with another son, came to Burnie in 1950. Nadia's husband worked in the local paper mill and she had a job in a children's clothes shop, then as a cleaner in a hospital and a nursing home.

Nadia speaks six languages and the family used Russian and German at home until the children went to school. They then spoke predominantly English.

Our Shared Learning Experiences

Helen, having been in Australia only a short time, says "I like English"; she wants to speak the language. She can, and does, write English adequately for her purposes, usually to help people understand what she is saying. Being well-educated in Chinese, she writes nonchalant notes in that fascinating script, thus fulfilling her personal writing needs. When asked to write in English for any purpose other than her own, she says, with a wrinkled nose, "I no write. You talk, I listen".

Helen is an out-going, confident woman; she interacts with English-speaking people on a regular basis - shopping, on the telephone, with her neighbours and at women's meetings. She has difficulty understanding and being understood and, after ten minutes of our listening, talking and and experimenting together, she was able to clearly state that she wants to be "confident" in these real-life situations. She recognises that "life convenient" with improved language skills.

Helen is aware that her age makes the learning experience different for her, saying, "I older woman... Older person very difficult learn English". I find it difficult with the language barrier to explain that differences are not necessarily difficulties.

Our sessions revolve around topics Helen raises from her life experiences and interests - family, day-to-day living, gardening, China, people and she she loves AFL football. When we use or want to use a word with which she is unfamiliar, and it can be a lenghty process finding the word, sometimes we resort to Helen's Chinese-English dictionary. We then focus on pronouncing the word, Helen often uses Chinese characters to help her, talk about it and use it, then new words come up.

Watching television is an opportunity that Helen uses to experience English, specifically cooking programmes where the action gives cues to the language used, international news bulletins and football telecasts. With the latter, Helen admits to enjoying and understanding the game - "They are so brave!" - but she cannot comprehend the commentary.

Both Nadia and Helen are quite definite in what they want to achieve in their literacy sessions although Nadia's motivation and expectation of her learning are as different from Helen's as her background and her personality.

Three close and recent bereavements prompted Nadia, previously able to depend on others for written communication, to seek support in learning to write. She communicates verbally very well and reads the paper and personal material, although with limited comprehension that she feels is improving noticeably. She writes a sometimes unintelligible script for her own purposes, such as shopping lists, and has enough accurate words for greeting cards. She especially wants to write a letter to one friend, without having her privacy invaded by a third-party transcriber.

Nadia is very conscious of being an older learner, perhaps even more so because of her lack of experience in formal education at any age. She leads a very busy life and is a gentle and caring woman. Nadia often seems vulnerable since being set adrift by her husband's death and has taken a big risk in her eyes by deciding to learn to write at her stage of life. She was very nervous at her first lesson and, she still sees me as the "teacher" and "having to put up with a silly old woman like me". Nadia receives encouragement from the family and friends who know of this adventure, but she is generally keeping it to herself.

Nadia does not like to make mistakes and sometimes sees the learning process as right-and-wrong. Her confidence is building although she is reluctant to write her own words unless they are very heavily supported. She is enjoying "playing" with words as she learns basic skills and reads in a more focussed way. Nadia's good verbal skills (although the accent is quite strong) allow her to write almost as she thinks - sentence structure is not the problem it often is for migrants. Over time and with developing confidence we are turning Nadia's fear into a challenge and she is seeing mistakes as a learning experience rather than a black blot.

After several months of one hour a week, Nadia says "I want to learn to write and spell good, at least write letter to friends... I feel confident to learn English... I think even myself I do good job."


In my experience working with older students involves freedom to move where the student wants to go and to escape the roles training provider/tutor/student/job seeker to a more personal level. An older migrant enhances this with the richness of a different cultural background, usually blended to some degree with an Australian experience. Both student and tutor can be ordinary and human, dealing with the basic stuff of life that makes us all ordinary and human and all within a framework of lifelong wisdom and experience.

Jane Shepherd, Burnie Adult Literacy and Basic Education Unit

PO Box 92, Burnie , Tasmania 7325, telephone 03 6434 6222

Literacy problems among the ageing: does the internet offer solutions?


The University of the Third Age (U3A) caters specifically for retired people. It does not set out to cater specifically for people with poor literacy and numeracy skills. However, statistically, it is likely that amongst the more than 38,000 students there would be an appreciable number who have had limited opportunities throughout their earlier lives to improve their literacy skills. A recent innovation by U3A, involving using the Internet to reach out to isolated older people, could offer possibilities for new learning opportunities for older Australians who are isolated because of literacy difficulties.

isolated bytes -

internet programs for the isolated ageing

In 1999 two pilot courses, Botany for Knowledge and Enjoyment, and Writing Family History were offered through the Internet to isolated older Australians. The courses were fully evaluated with a view to gauging the potential of the Isolated Bytes (IB) concept. The program involves U3A volunteers in writing intellectually stimulating courses and delivering these, via the Internet, to older people who are isolated by distance or circumstance. It includes extensive literature searches, and e-mail discussions with researchers in other parts of the world who are involved in multimedia developments. The full evaluative study can be found at

The following summary is based on data provided by 29 participants who completed one of the pilot courses, and who responded to questionnaires and telephone survey:

The majority of participants (72%) were women and most were aged over 65.

Self-perceived isolation was the main isolating feature shared by almost all the participants, in fact more than half lived in large cities yet they still considered themselves to be isolated.

For all categories of self-reported isolation:

40% related to distance or transportation problems

40% related to disability or health problems

13% related to caregiver roles

7% related to other problems such as no one in the locale with similar interests.

Self-perceived isolation exists in many forms as illustrated by the following statements from participants.

"I live in [suburb of large city] with bad bus not have a car or use taxis. Have no family support...have become more disabled and in constant pain over the past couple of years".

"I care for my wife who has Alzheimers. Have done so for the last eight years"

"Nowadays, living alone and physically limited, I was being stupefied by knitting, crochet, patchwork, computer puzzles, reading, letter writing and occasional bus trips. There is a limit!"

Nearly 21% had minimal formal schooling, having left school at primary level or after some secondary school experience.

course-related findings

The majority of participants:

showed a thirst for further knowledge both course-specific and generally:

had, by the end of the course, shown a preference for learning via the internet, either fully or in combination with other methods;

were interested in continuing with internet ;

felt that the courses met their expectations and that they were happy with course format;

The overall feeling of the participants about their course experiences is summed up in the following extract:

"Thank you for the opportunity to work through this programme.... I have really enjoyed the course and I am sorry it is over. It has inspired me to push on, further afield."


One of the unusual aspects of the IB pilot trial was the relatively high proportion of participants with minimal formal education backgrounds Statistics from north America show older people to be the fastest growing group on the internet and there is no reason to doubt that the trend in north America will be followed here. "Logging on" will become easier and cheaper in the future; the internet has much to offer isolated older people who would like to keep their minds active.

Richard Swindell, Griffith University , Brisbane Qld 4111 e-mail:


COMMENT - an ageing profession


I was taking part in a professional development session on outcomes based education recently and I felt really comfortable. Here I was, able to talk with fellow practitioners about competency based training: something I actually understand. But, why was I so ...... complacent? Then it came to me. I was in a room full of Erica clones - middle-aged women devoted to 'the cause'. Whilst many of us will freely admit to our passion for adult literacy, the middle-aged moniker is really going to draw flak.

Not only is the field of adult literacy provision dominated by females (many would say that's a good thing) but we're also all growing old gracefully together In WA the typical teacher is over forty. A colleague did say to me recently, 'They're not all old, I met two young workplace trainers the other day.' My response was, 'Why do you remember them so clearly?'

Casualisation, short term contracts, funding uncertainty and burgeoning demands on individuals are all features of the work place today. An often overlooked factor is that of attracting young graduates to adult literacy teaching. Fewer young people are completing teacher training courses; demand for mathematics and science teachers has outstripped supply. National and international advertisements calling for teachers are proliferating and, in some areas, the situation is critical.

Perhaps we could invite young people to attend some of our forums and meetings. We could spend some time mentoring teachers and trainers who are relatively new to the field. Those of who have been teaching for many years are a valuable resource. It would be nice to think that when we retire from the 'race' we could confidently pass the baton on to our replacements.

by Erica Daymond, ACAL Western Australia Representative