The ability to read and write is the basis for preventing marginalization – in FINEEC’s evaluation, adult immigrants who are learning to read and write were given a voice

Liberal adult education Virpi Pietiläinen

Without the ability to read and write, an adult cannot lead an independent life in Finnish society. Teachers and instructors see reading and writing literacy as an equity issue; everyone should have the right to learn the skills that are a precondition for leading an independent life. At the moment, the achievement of these skills is prevented by factors such as tying the funding for the training to the integration plan, challenges in the flow of information and the varying competence assessment methods.

The Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC) has carried out an evaluation of literacy training for  immigrants. The material of the evaluation consisted of consultations with education and training providers, teachers and instructors through surveys, interviews and group discussions. However, the interviews conducted with the students in their mother tongue were the heart of the evaluation. During the evaluation, visits were made to four educational institutions and twenty students were interviewed.

The evaluation showed the enormous richness and diversity in the field of the provision of literacy training. Within the scope of literacy training, well-functioning guidance and interaction methods have already been created in many places regardless of the different types of educational institutions, different administrative branches, a wide range of legislation and regional differences. The central question is how to ensure that students have equal opportunities to receive enough of the training they need when the forms of implementation vary.

Rather than by the student’s needs, access to training is determined by the length of the student’s stay in Finland and their residence and labour market status

Literacy training is mainly organised for immigrants with an integration plan, for whom the education providers receive full statutory government transfers. This excludes from the training both those whose three-year integration period has already ended and those who have applied for a residence permit and are therefore waiting for an integration status. Furthermore, the only way that immigrants whose integration period is over can currently complete literacy training in liberal adult education with the support of the unemployment benefit is part time or in a programme lasting less than six months.

Legislation therefore needs to be amended by abandoning the requirement that an integration plan is a prerequisite for literacy training. This makes it possible for persons who cannot read or write to access the training based on their needs.

The methods of competence assessment vary, causing inequality and guidance to wrong kind of training

The evaluation revealed that students’ competence is assessed with language tests and practices that vary by educational institution when they apply for the training and at the end of the training. The methods and resources for identifying challenges with learning in the educational institutions are inadequate. According to teachers and instructors, the pass/fail entry in the certificate awarded at the end of the literacy training does not give an adequate picture of students’ skills.

Assessment should be based on a clear set of criteria used by all education providers, the starting point of which is versatile identification of students’ competence. Students’ further plans should include recommendations for developing their competence, and it should be ensured that these plans are forwarded to the relevant parties.

The practices of directing students to the training as well as the ways in which information is stored and transferred are varied and partly inadequate

The importance of effective cooperation and information flows between the authorities is of utmost importance in the case of illiterate clients. In guidance associated with literacy training, the use of information systems is currently inconsistent, and all actors do not have access to essential information on the student’s educational path. National preconditions should be created for the exchange of information by enhancing the compatibility of information systems and intensifying cooperation. The forthcoming changes in legislation, the service structure and data protection legislation should be taken into account in the reform work.

Learning to read and write requires the adult to build new thinking models

Learning to read and write in adult age is an achievement that requires major changes such as understanding and adopting new ways of thinking and operating.  Many of the students in literacy training are not familiar with the Western conception of learning, at the centre of which is an independent learner who sets themselves goals and reflects on their performance. Many therefore need longer than one year to absorb everything.

“We should also reflect on how sensible it is to require that the students adopt the Western conception of learning. Could the knowledge of development psychology and cultural anthropology be used to develop the teaching methods in a direction that would enable us to teach students with a different cultural background more effectively from their own starting points,” reflects Hanna Väätäinen, Project Manager of the evaluation.

Not enough support or suitable places for further study available to students with learning difficulties

What participants in literacy training have in common is their inability to read and write, whereas their situations, backgrounds and learning abilities can otherwise be very different. The students achieve the objectives set for literacy training to variable degrees, which is why ensuring flexible possibilities for moving on is important. Factors that affect immigrants’ ability to learn include their age, refugee background, health, family situation, personal goals and holistic well-being. According to teachers, instructors and providers, not enough support and further paths are currently available to students who have challenges with learning. Getting special support relies on the projects and individual providers that offer special needs education.

When the fluency of educational paths is improved, it should be ensured that students who progress slowly or have learning difficulties get the time and support they need. To achieve this goal, funding is needed that enables the permanent allocation of resources for student support measures and the differentiation of instruction. Support provided in the student’s own language in teaching and guidance should be increased. Some students could benefit from combining practical work activities and studies.

The impact of literacy training is undermined by lack of interaction outside the school

For many students, attending school is in itself something that maintains their health and brings content and meaningfulness to their everyday life. For many, it is also the only social routine taking place in Finnish outside the home. To ensure that language learning is more effective in life outside the school, students’ opportunities for establishing social relationships with communities where Finnish is spoken should be strengthened. To achieve this, advantage could be taken of cooperation with local organisations and volunteers or employers in the region, for instance.

When examining the effectiveness of literacy education, not only the development of language skills, but also the wider factors that strengthen the students’ well-being and participation in society should be taken into account. From the students’ point of view, participation in the training provides their life with many meaningful contents that would be challenging to measure quantitatively.

I really have made a lot of progress. I can say that school has enabled me to forget the worries in my life. I have not laughed for years because I have lost my entire family. There have been some really difficult situations in my life. When your life is sad, you cannot laugh, but school changed my life completely. In the beginning, I could not even book an appointment with a doctor, but now they have taught me to do it. I have also been taught to write my name and address and other things. There was a fire in my home once, and I put it out with water. Here they taught us how to put out a fire. (Student)

When developing training programmes for immigrants, it is essential to examine the services promoting integration as one whole

In the implementation of the evaluation, the expert from FINEEC was supported by an extensive evaluation panel with representatives from the ministries, the Finnish National Agency for Education, the different types of liberal adult education institutions, basic education for adults, the ELY Centre and parties providing guidance.

“The fact that experts from the different sectors brought together their views in our meetings was crucial for understanding the outcome of the evaluation and matters related to literacy training as a whole. Literacy training cannot be developed separately from the other services related to it because they all form an entity that from the student’s point of view defines the student’s life,” Väätäinen says.

Further information:

Hanna Väätäinen, Senior Evaluation Advisor, tel. +358 29 533 5568 (hanna.vaatainen@karvi.fi).

The results of the evaluation of literacy training for immigrants will be announced in a webinar (in Finnish) on Monday 19 December 2022 from 9 am to 11 am. After publication, the report can be downloaded from Karvi’s website (in Finnish with an English summary): https://karvi.fi/en/evaluation-of-literacy-training-for-immigrants/.

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