Validating The IN and FOR Distinctions of a Workplace Literacy Program

William T. Fagan
Visiting Professor, Faculty of Education

Della Coish
Memorial University of Newfoundland

Canadian companies spend $4 billion annually on training and development in the workplace. Yet, as Haccoun and Saks (1998) point out, this is far less than what is spent in the US, Europe, and Japan, and must be increased. The challenge for this investment is highlighted by Latham and Sue-Chan (1998), who state: "The changes that will occur in the workplace as Canada enters the 21st century are contrasted with those that occurred when this country entered the 20th century in terms of knowledge, skills, and abilities required of employees . . . " (p. 14). One important segment of workplace education and training is that of literacy. Bloom et al (1997) note that "enhancing literacy levels in the workplace improves bottom-line performance for Canada's employers and gives employees a better chance of success for their careers" (executive summary). The importance of adequate literacy skills in the workplace is further noted by Krahn and Lowe (1998), who point out that "the ability to read, write, and use numbers is crucial for the labour market success and social well-being of individuals" (p. 7).

While advocacy for workplace training and development (including literacy programs) is clear, what is uncertain is the impact of such programs. Haccoun and Saks (1998) note that one of the reasons why the impact is not clear is that the area remains largely unresearched. The goal of this study is to analyse the impact of a workplace literacy program through validation of "IN the workplace" and "FOR the workplace" concepts in terms of implications for employee participants.

Defining Literacy and Literacy Programs

One of the difficulties in providing a definition of literacy is that the meanings for this term have been changing, particularly in the past twenty years. Nevertheless, most agree that the key components of literacy are reading and writing skills. Some researchers and educators also include numbers (numeracy) and oral language skills. Literacy is usually considered the socioeconomic behaviour associated with these skills. What one does as a reader, writer, user of numbers, etc., supposedly gives an indication of the literacy expertise of an individual.

The National Literacy Secretariat makes a further distinction between reading as prose reading and document reading. Prose reading (or literacy) is defined as the knowledge and skills required to understand and use information from texts, including news stories, poems, and fiction. Document reading (literacy) involves the knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in various formats, including job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and graphs. Since reading can only exist through writing, these subtypes (prose and document) would also define writing. Furthermore, in the case of document literacy, the proportion of reading to writing varies, and there may be more or less of one in relation to the other.

Literacy IN and FOR the Workplace

Analysis of workplace literacy programs indicates that these may be distinguished in terms of their general intent. The concepts IN and FOR become the overall distinguishing characteristics. A literacy program offered IN the workplace refers to a program offered IN the workplace setting. The general intent is to provide employees with additional skills in reading and/or writing. These programs have not been tailor-made for the workplace. They are usually programs that are offered in a variety of other community settings: colleges, schools, church basements, or community centres. The general impact of such programs is that employees upgrade their reading and/or writing standards. An indirect impact is that employees feel better about themselves, develop greater self-confidence, and thereby become more committed and productive workers. Adult Basic Education (ABE) and General Educational Development (GED) programs may be included under programs IN the workplace. Receipt of an ABE or GED certificate often provides employees with credentials necessary for job transfer or promotion.

A literacy program FOR the workplace is developed specifically to meet workplace needs. The intent is that workers will perform better on various aspects of their jobs. A literacy program FOR the workplace would make provision for workers to talk about their work reading and writing needs, and to share tasks and materials necessitating these skills

The Workplace Context for the Study

This study was conducted in a city in Atlantic Canada. The workplace literacy program was made possible through the collaborative efforts of a national agency, a local committee with representation from city management, and three labour unions. The program was offered in the evening for a two hour session, once a week, for a period of ten weeks. Sessions were designed to allow for a break after the first hour, which allowed the participants and the facilitators to interact and build rapport. Participation in the program was voluntary. There were no monetary or other advantages to those who participated. Those completing the course did receive a certificate.

Steps in the Validation Process

Conducting a Workplace Needs Survey

An advisory committee developed two questionnaires, one for management and the other for employees. Both questionnaires included forced choice items and open ended questions. The goal of each questionnaire was to determine the educational/ development needs of workers in the workplace, as perceived by management and by the workers themselves. Forty-seven supervisors, and 49 employees completed the questionnaires.

It was predicted that management would be more likely to focus on skills that would enhance a worker's performance. These responses would more likely be "job focused". The prediction for the workers' responses was that they would be more "person focused" and would identify skills and knowledge that would be more to their advantage as people and as workers.

The results of the needs survey supported these hypotheses. The top five types of programs recommended for workers and the percent of management recommending them were:

Better report writing
77 percent 
Basic computer literacy
69 percent
Better communication skills
54 percent
Understanding work related printed material 
54 percent
Better writing skills
46 percent.
When the employees were asked to rate the areas which would be to their benefit, the top five choices and the percent of employees recommending these, were:
Dealing with on-going change
47 percent
Dealing with difficult people 
47 percent
Handling stress
43 percent
Better communication skills
37 percent
Better writing skills
35 percent
An interesting finding was that 71 percent of the employees had experienced change in their work environment within the past five years. These changes were of three types: greater use of technology; downsizing and more responsibility; and change of jobs or job descriptions.

Developing a Literacy Program FOR the Workplace

The program was called Writing for the Workplace: Writing Process with Workplace Content. This was a literacy program FOR the workplace as it was developed specifically to meet the needs specified by management and workers. The strategy was to "kill several birds with the one stone" so the program was written to deal with a number of the identified needs. Three of the needs expressed by management (better report writing, better writing skills, and better communication skills) and two of goals expressed by the employees (better writing skills and better communication skills) formed the basis of the program. The other goals expressed by the employees were integrated as content.

A prototype for the program was developed. Improving writing skills constituted the underlying thread. Since the act of writing is process, the goal was to include workplace content that would help attain the other needs - from report writing to dealing with difficult people and stressful situations. A framework for developing the program was as follows:

  • Plan to involve learners in understanding writing as process.
  • Identify workplace situations and tasks involving writing.
  • Apply writing process skills to accomplish these tasks.
  • Use writing as communication.
  • Identify sources of stress within the workplace.
  • Write scenarios illustrating stressful events and difficult people.
  • Apply writing skills to understand and deal with stressful situations.
  • Implementing the Program

    Writing for the Workplace: Writing Process with Workplace Content was advertised among the city employees. The course was first offered from April to June, 1999, and was followed by a second offering from October to December, 1999. Twelve participants completed the course during the first offering, while eight did so during the second offering. The course was offered on Wednesday evenings from 7:00 to 9:00 p. m. Shift work and family commitments were barriers for a number of people who had registered but who had to discontinue. There were no enrollment requirements in terms of a certain writing level. Employees represented a broad range of departments within the municipal structure. Two facilitators assumed a variety of roles throughout the sessions, including information sharing, directing group activity, putting information on flip charts, and taking responsibility for different topics. Since a range of skill levels were represented in the group and there had not been a minimum writing level entry requirement, the availability of the two facilitators made it possible to provide individuals with one-to-one assistance when necessary. Plans for each session were specified and these were basically followed. Participants were encouraged to bring in samples of writing requirements from the workplace. They were also invited to hand in any writing they had done if they wanted individual feedback on it.

    The goals for each session were shared with the participants. The sessions then proceeded through information sharing, explanation, group activity, individual activity, sharing, and reflection.

    Gathering and Analysing Data

    The data were mainly supplied through the process of self-report. While there has been criticism of this technique for data generation, one study has documented validity for this form of obtaining feedback (Fox and Dinur, 1988). Haccoun and Saks (1998),too, believe that this technique has considerable merit. For the purpose of the present study, self-report was considered appropriate, as the goal was to determine the impact of an experience on the lives of the participants, who should best know (perceive) its effect. Certainly, objective observation to verify what the respondents said would have provided for greater credibility, but that was not possible.

    Evaluation sheets were completed at the end of every second session and focused on the goal for that and the preceding session. A more extensive evaluation was completed at the end of the program. This involved completing a rating scale on the goals for the course on a 3-point scale and responding to open-ended questions. Some open-ended questions were addressed in a focus group discussion, while others were responded to in writing on an individual basis.


    Fourteen goals for the program were rated using a 3-point rating scale.

    3 - really met this goal; feel satisfied you have learned what was intended by this goal
    2 - partly met this goal; would like additional practice
    1 - have not met this goal; are not sure what was intended
    The goals and ratings are as follows:
    to understand writing as process 
    to learn how to plan for writing
    to know how to choose an audience and write for this audience
    to get one's thoughts on paper 
    to understand how to structure a specific writing task,
    for example, report writing 
    to become a critical reader during writing 
    to make changes when necessary
    to understand the role of editing 
    to develop appropriate editing knowledge, including spelling
    to improve one's writing ability for the workplace 
    to address personal and workplace concerns through writing 
    to improve one's communication abilities 
    to become a better writer outside the workplace 
    to feel more satisfied as a person and as worker 
    Overall Average Rating: 
    These results indicated that the participants achieved the goals which were set for the course. What is perhaps interesting is that the four goals which received a mean rating of 3.00 (the maximum) dealt with the participants as workers, thereby lending validity of writing FOR the workplace.

    Two of the open-ended questions dealt with the participants' use of the knowledge and skills they had acquired: use on the job, and use in their lives outside the job. Responses to the two questions were as follows:

    What did you learn in the course that you were able to use/may use on the job?

  • How to deal with other people
  • Improved report writing
  • Better communication techniques
  • Dealing with stress
  • Being able to get ideas together and get them on paper to whomever concerned
  • Developing a spelling strategy
  • Completing report forms
  • Understanding the writing process.
  • What did you learn in the course that you were able to use/may use in your life outside the job?
  • Understand my learning style
  • Be able to write to someone effectively
  • Write to understand issues
  • Better understanding of writing
  • Spelling strategy
  • Insight into how to write a letter and the impact of audience
  • Getting along with people
  • Improved communication skills
  • Better understanding of dealing with the public
  • Better understanding of grammar
  • Understanding my child's experiences in writing

  • Discussion

    The concepts of "IN the workplace" and "FOR the workplace" are meaningful in terms of describing workplace literacy programs. A needs survey of management and workers indicated responses consistent with this distinction. As would be expected, the responses of management were more directed towards success in specific workplace tasks. The development of a writing program for the workplace showed that it was possible to construct a program to meet the needs of workers in terms of improving their communication and writing skills and dealing with stress. Finally, the results of the self-reports showed that the participants benefited both as workers and as individuals from their involvement in the course.

    Haccoun and Saks (1998) point out that data are not yet decisive on whether investment in workplace training pays off. The controversy centers around whether such training may be too specific. When training is too specific, such as showing a worker how to operate a particular machine, it is likely to benefit only a few. If this is a new skill for the workers, then those trained may find a job involving this skill, which may lead to a high turnover of workers (Gattiker, 1995). This argument could also apply to literacy programs. For example, showing a worker how to complete a particular inventory might not have much transferability beyond that task. If the program is too general, such as learning how to pronounce words by sounding them out, then it may not enable workers to complete certain tasks, such as completing a particular inventory. The challenge of a workplace literacy program FOR the workplace is to make it applicable to job demands but, at the same time, make it general enough so that there is knowledge transfer across a number of reading and/or writing tasks.

    An advantage of Writing for the Workplace: Writing Process with Workplace Content is that it was developed FOR the workplace and therefore provided the workers with those skills needed to accomplish various tasks, such as writing open-ended reports, completing report forms, communicating, or writing memos. At the same time, because it was based on writing as process, it was general enough so that the skills developed could transfer to a range of writing demands. Skills like planning, determining audience, composing or generating ideas, transcribing information, ordering or sequencing information, revising, and editing are general enough to apply to all writing tasks. This kind of knowledge helped the participants apply their skills to situations outside the workplace as well.

    Another advantage of the program was that part of the content for writing activities was based on stressful situations and difficult people. Not only were the participants learning appropriate writing and oral language strategies to analyse various interpersonal scenarios, but they were also engaging in conflict resolution.

    The concepts of literacy programs "IN the workplace" and "FOR the workplace" are very useful in understanding the kind of literacy program to which the workers are exposed. They can also act as a guide for choosing a workplace literacy program to meet workers' needs and as a framework for developing evaluation procedures. If a program was designed FOR the workplace, these concepts also make it possible to determine whether there were spin-off effects in the workers' personal lives as well.


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    Fagan, W. T. (1999). Writing for the workplace: Writing process with workplace content. Unpublished document.

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    Latham, G. P., & Sue-Chan, C. (1998). Selecting employees in the 21st century: Predicting the contribution of I-O psychology to Canada. Canadian Psychology, 39 (1-2), 14-22.