Program Toolkit

This page goes over a step-by-step way to start or support an adult literacy program at your public library. It is based on my experience implementing such a program at the Westland Public Library.

If you are looking for a full list of form templates look here. Otherwise they are listed throughout this page (courtesy of Washtenaw Literacy).

Topics in the Program Toolkit

1. Connecting with Adult Literacy Programs in your Area
2. Building a Literacy Collection
3. Finding Potential Tutors
4. Setting Up Tutor Training
5. Advertising for Learners
6. Conducting Assessments
7. Learner Placement
8. Tutoring Session Logistics
9. Keeping Track of Learners and Tutors
10. Conclusion

1. Connecting with Adult Literacy Programs in your Area

Start by finding out who is (relatively) near you by using either Proliteracy's Find a Program tool or the National Literacy Directory. Call them up and schedule a meeting to talk about what is possible. You may already have a very active group in your area. In that case your conversation could be about ways your library can help their program (developing a collection geared towards adult literacy, providing meeting room space, hosting ESL conversation groups, referrals, finding tutors etc.). You may be able to work out a really awesome partnership. I have spoken to literacy programs that have not always had very helpful libraries in the communities they serve.

If you do not already have an active adult literacy council, then you can begin a dialogue with them about how to get the training to get one started in your community. Typical adult literacy tutor certification takes about 15 hours. Find out when their next training is and sign up! Once you are trained it starts getting easier to think about getting volunteer tutors trained. It is also possible to get yourself trained simultaneously with the volunteers you find.

If the literacy program is unable to provide training for your potential tutors, then you may want to try reaching out further to other councils or give Proliteracy a call and see if they can refer you to any other certified trainers available in your state.

2. Building a Literacy Collection

You can find many great BL and ESL materials to order for your library at New Readers Press. How many resources you order will obviously depend completely on what your library's budget is. If you can afford to order a lot, then getting materials from all the different categories on the site would be perfect. If you can't, then I've listed what I've found most important from the feedback I've gotten from my tutors.

  • Challenger Series: This is definitely the series tutors told me they used the most to make photocopies and create lessons.
  • Some Easy Novels: There are several "series" of novels to choose from. They are written at significantly easier levels and many learners have told me how excited they felt after being able to read a whole book for the first time in their lives. That experience can be very motivating!
  • Subscription to News for You: This newspaper is written at an easier level, comes out once a week and contains current events. They are great for comprehension lessons.
  • Life Skills Workbooks: Many adult learners need help with writing in practical situations so using worksheets from books like Filling Out Forms and Control Your Money can be very beneficial.

You will have to decide how you want to house and catalog your literacy collection. We kept the collection in the staff area where only the tutors (and their learners) could access it. We actually only cataloged the fiction books and left the workbooks to the honor system. We asked our tutors to not take anything home with them, until we were able to afford to purchase second copies of some of the more popular items.

You can also catalog everything and give them their own unique shelf space for the public. I think either way is fine, and I know I may have been overly protective of our materials. I liked the idea of keeping them in the back so we could also offer the News for You newspapers, flash cards, games and forms and have them all be in one place.

If you are looking for funding to develop this type of collection consider contacting your local Rotary Club, if your community has one, and asking to present information about adult literacy. Many Rotary Clubs like to give their funding locally and literacy is one of the issues that organization is known to support. Family Dollar also gives annual literacy grants, although this last year's grants were only awarded to youth literacy programs. If you see or know of any other large organizations who like to give to literacy, please feel free to contact me and I will be happy to add that information here.

3. Finding Potential Tutors

I recommend seeing if you can find enough interested potential tutors before you schedule a training at your library. One of the best ways to do this is to host an Adult Literacy Tutor Information Night. I was a little skeptical when this idea was suggested to me by my mentor at Washtenaw Literacy, but when I tried it I had at least 35 people show up! We used all of the usual library publicity channels: website, newsletter and fliers around the library. The thing that really brought people in was a human interest article in the local paper about the need for adult literacy support in the community. I would also recommend advertising with senior community groups as well.

You might be surprised how many people out there have been waiting for exactly this type of volunteer opportunity. I had many tutors tell me that they had been wanting to do adult literacy tutoring for years but had nowhere nearby to volunteer for. I also found many of the volunteers I met who were looking for a good volunteer opportunity that matched their particular strengths and interests and when they heard about adult literacy tutoring they felt it was the perfect fit. When asked, most tutors I've met said they were motivated by the idea of really wanting to be able to share the gift of reading with someone.

For the Adult Literacy Tutor Information Night you can pull info off some of the presentation examples on the Forms & Presentations page and just basically give them the statistics and what that means for the unaddressed needs in your area. Then have them fill out a Tutor Interest Form for you to keep on file until a training is scheduled.

4. Setting up Tutor Training

Did you get enough interested tutors? You probably did. Talk to your trainer about picking days and times. I found that doing three 5 hour Saturday trainings accommodated the most people's schedules. Although I know programs that have done five 3 hour weeknight trainings as well and had that work very well.

It probably goes without saying to schedule it far enough in the future (at least one and a half months) so all your interested tutors have enough advanced warning to sets those dates aside. It also gives you more time to advertise the training to even more potential tutors.

Make sure you give everyone a date about a week and a half before the training to make the commitment to attend. You are going to have to order training materials for them. This will depend on which book your trainer is using but it should be available on the New Readers Press website.

A reasonable class size to start with would be ideally about 12-25. Keep in mind that you will probably lose at least 10% of your tutors due to attrition.

Some things to discuss with your trainer before the first day of class:

  • How they want the room set up (if you are doing it at the library)
  • What materials they need (scrap paper, markers, projector, etc.)
  • How you can integrate a tour of library resources available to tutors
    • Adult literacy collection
    • Meeting room sign up procedures
    • Areas of the collection that may be of interest (Dictionaries & Thesauruses, Grammar books, Educational materials, kids non-fiction and biographies, YA fiction, public computers, Reference desk!)
    • Public computers, Reference desk and copy machines (you may want to consider setting up a procedure that allows your tutors to use the copy machines for free)
    • Mailbox to drop off update forms
  • When you can explain the placement process with the tutors

By the last day of training you will want to require the tutors to turn in the Tutor Data Form and Tutor Contract.

Use the 15 hours of training to get to know your tutors and build a rapport. Getting to know the tutors will also help you when you are pairing them with learners.

5. Advertising for Learners

Obviously advertising for learners is not as straight forward as advertising for tutors. Most of the people you are trying to find will not be able to read any of your signs.

Some learners actually find the library themselves. When someone wants to reach out for help to improve their reading, it's not obvious at all who to even talk to, so some of them naturally think of the library as the first place to contact. We did get a few learners this way as well as with a really basic sign I put up that said in large letters "Reading Help for Adults." I kept the word literacy off of it to make it more clear and it turned out to actually work with a few learners who were in the intermediate-advanced reading range.

The best way to get the word out about your program is to get your information in the available directories. Submit your program information to Proliteracy's Find a Program tool and the National Literacy Directory. If you live in an area that has 2-1-1 (by United Way) you can also list your program in one of their databases. To see if 2-1-1 is supported in your area check out These are places that friends of learners and social workers will look when trying to get reading help for someone else.

Locally you can make fliers and give them to groups in your area like the unemployment office, the Department of Human Services, family services organizations, your local housing commission, the community college advising office, Adult Education programs and nearby churches. Personally I saw the most referrals from the unemployment office in our area.

6. Conducting Assessments

You may initially feel like you are unqualified to do an assessment of a learner to place him or her with a tutor. This sounds like something a reading specialist should do right? Well unfortunately for all your potential learners, they probably aren't going to get the opportunity in their lives to meet with a reading specialist who can "diagnose" and describe all the details of their reading and writing problems, let alone set them up with a tutor eager to help them for free every week. This is seriously easier than it sounds. You are really just helping the learner get comfortable with the program, learning about their goals, using a very simple word test and getting some basic information about their learning style. Exactly how to do that is outlined right here!

It is easier to think of the assessment as more of an intake and I learned to be careful about using the term "assessment" in front of learners because it can come off as too intimidating. When I got contacted by a learner I would tell them the first step to enter the program was to meet with me for about an hour where we would talk about their goals and what kinds of things were giving them trouble. I also let them know that entering the program involved a commitment of meeting with a tutor two hours a week for a year.

Most of the forms I used during the assessment were adopted from the paperwork Washtenaw Literacy graciously provided me. The form templates are available on the Presentations & Forms page as well as linked throughout this section.

I usually started my meetings with a learner by breaking the ice, asking them if they've been to the library before, etc. Some learners may be visibly nervous if not completely terrified. For many of them, they have never talked about their reading problems with a stranger before, and most of them have shared their struggles with very few people in their lives period. I like to think it is an honor to be able to have learners share such private stories they have guarded for years.

  1. Once we are seated, I start with the Learner Data Form. You are just taking down the learner's basic information and it will help you get to know the learner a little better.
  2. Next I move into the Goals Form. This is a great tool to better understand what is motivating the learner to seek help as well as helping them realize they may have goals they never thought were possible to achieve due to lower reading skills.
  3. Hopefully at this point the learner should feel more comfortable and ready to show you what they can read. I delicately break out the Word Test now, but call it some practice words (definitely don't use the word "test"). You can see from this form that there are 5 lists of words--start with the easiest list and move up accordingly. You will probably notice that some learners know quickly whether they know a word or not and others will work more methodically at sounding them out. This is a useful observation to note for the Learner Notes you will later compile. Otherwise you can just follow the instructions on the word test and get a relative idea where the learner is at.
    • A learner may ask you what grade level you think they are at. I just tell them we don't use elementary grade levels in adult literacy. But for your purposes we generally put people into the categories of Beginner (K-2), Intermediate (3-5) and Advanced (6-8) so we can more easily match them with a tutor.
    • I also don't tell them what designation they are unless they ask and are advanced, which generally makes them feel better about themselves. Sometime learners have the idea that their reading skills are lower than they actually really are.
  4. Next I use the Learning Styles Inventory worksheet. This gives you some information about whether the learner has a stronger Visual, Auditory or Tactile/Kinesthetic learning style--which is another piece of information you can supply on the Learner Notes. I generally skip this form though, if the learner tests at the Beginner level because they will not be able to relate to most of the statements on this sheet.
  5. Then I read the Confidentiality Statement and give it to the learner to sign. This form lets them know that their data is private and will not be shared with anyone outside program staff and their tutor.
  6. The last of the forms is the Learner Contract. This is a good way to reinforce the commitment they are making as well as familiarizing them with the procedure should a problem occur with their tutoring. We ask our learners to commit to meeting with a tutor for two hours every week for a year.
  7. Finally I try to get a writing sample. I learned quickly not to call it a "writing sample" though because that can be too intimidating! I ask them if they would like to write a note (a letter sounds too difficult and formal) to their future tutor introducing themselves. Some learners are still not comfortable writing and so they decline, which I think is fine. Many learners have gone through their lives avoiding all situations where they will be required to write so it is only natural that they would continue to do so. If they are interested in writing the note, I give them a blank sheet of paper and leave them alone for a few minutes.
  8. Check to see if they have any more questions and let them know what the timeline looks like to get placed with a tutor. Make sure they understand that someone will be calling them soon who will identify as a tutor from your program.

7. Learner Placement

The most important consideration when pairing tutors with learners will be having similar time availability. You can do this by comparing the information on the Tutor Data forms and Learner Data forms. If you have just done a tutor training, you may want to start by pairing the tutors with less time slots available during the week, so you can save the tutors with more open schedules for later. You also want to look at what tutors preferences are for the level of learner they are most comfortable working with and of course gender preference. Ideally you may also match people who have similar interests. After a tutor training ends, I like to make a spread sheet of all the new tutors so I can look at their availability and preferences all at once.

Matching people can be more of an art than a science and honestly I made a lot of decisions based on gut feelings. Sometimes the pairs you think will be most successful do not end up sticking with it for the long run and other times the pairs you were not sure would be a great match, work out great.

We package the learner information to be sent to the tutor in what is called Learner Notes. You can use this template to fill in the data yourself based on the Learner Data form and other information you got about the learner during the assessment. All three levels (Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced) are on the template, so all you need to do is delete the other two levels, so the tutor will have some initial advice on what techniques may be good to start with.

Before sending off the Learner Notes also attach a copy of the learner's Goals Form, writing sample if supplied, Initial Meeting Report, 3 copies of the Tutor-Learner Contract (one for the learner, one for the tutor and one for your program to keep on file), and 1 Monthly Update form. See an example of all this information put together with this Sample Learner Notes Packet.

8. Tutoring Session Logistics

When a tutor receives their Learner Notes Packet, I recommend requiring them to contact their learner within 72 hours of receiving the information. On the phone the tutor should identify him or herself and work to set up their first session together. Both learners and tutors are usually nervous about meeting each other. Tutors shouldn't worry about preparing a lesson for the first meeting. The first meeting is really about getting to know each other, signing the 3 copies of the Tutor-Learner Contract together and for the tutor to review the goal sheet with the learner that was filled out during the assessment. A lot of tutors are worried about preparing their first lesson, but tend to find it easier after they have gotten to know their learner more.

Tutors will usually spend a few hours a week lesson planning at first, but as the weeks go on and they have begun to get a better feel for what techniques their learners are responding best to, the amount of time needed to prepare tends to decrease. In the beginning, it's good to come into a tutoring session with what you think are too many lessons and activities, because you just don't know how long each one is going to take.

If your plate isn't already too full (and it might very well be if you just started a literacy program at your library!) you may want to take a learner yourself. It helps you learn more about tutoring and puts you in a better position to help your tutors if they come to you with questions. I would really recommend the experience. Unlike your tutors, you also have the opportunity to hand pick your own learner!

9. Keeping Track of Learners and Tutors

You can keep track of your tutor-learner pairs with some of the forms on the Forms and Presentations page. After you have assigned a learner to a tutor you should receive the Initial Meeting Report form and a copy of the Tutor-Learner Contract. If you don't receive these within a few weeks, you should call the tutor to make sure that they've established contact. After that tutors should turn in the Monthly Update form every month.

Although you can supply them with all the forms, sometimes tutors aren't very good at updating you regularly with how everything is going. I've had many successful pairs who met frequently but rarely give updates. A lot of them I would see and chat with around the library though, so I still had a good idea of who was still meeting. Since the learners and tutors are all adults who know to contact you if something isn't working out right, so you don't have to consider yourself responsible to chase them down and make sure they are meeting every week. Many literacy programs have to estimate how many tutor-learner pairs they have that are still active especially if they meet in diverse places throughout the community. Programs that meet in the library are easier to track but sometimes there are still a few question marks about who is still meeting. Tutors and learners also sometimes go on a temporary hiatus.

Some ways to keep communication open with your tutors are to send out monthly newsletter via email to keep them informed of what is going on. You can also use this as a way to remind them to send updates, even if the update is just a short email about how it's going!

It's also good to schedule get-togethers for your tutors. It's a great way for them to see each other again after getting to know each other at the training and trade experiences. Tutoring can be an isolating way to volunteer and it's good to be able to talk and connect with others who are doing the same thing as you.

10. Conclusion

I tried to cover all of the basics on this page. Be sure to also check out the FAQ's as well as the Presentations & Forms page. Also feel free to send me an email if you have any questions or comments.