Kat Goodacre, Literacy100 Committee Member and Communications Associate, provides a summary of her recent paper 'Overcoming the hurdles: Understanding motivation and supporting adult learners with poor literacy and dyslexia in the homelessness sector' (co-authored with Emma Sumner), which was published in the journal Dyslexia in August 2020.
Literacy100 was established with a collective awareness that poor literacy and dyslexia are over-represented within the homeless population. Literacy provision for homeless individuals is often provided by charities, frequently by volunteers, with varying degrees of teaching experience. In her recent blog post, Dr. Katy Jones refers to literacy provision in the third sector that frequently appears to compensate for poor literacy rather than addressing the development of basic literacy skills. Targeted teaching of homeless literacy learners not only develops their confidence and independence, but also provides essential life skills necessary for functioning within society.
As a qualified literacy tutor and dyslexia specialist, I have worked for the past 4 years in one of the largest homeless charities in the UK. My MA in SpLD (Dyslexia) gave me the opportunity to develop research in the field of literacy, dyslexia and homelessness, culminating in my ‘Overcoming the hurdles’ paper (Goodacre & Sumner, 2020) which was recently published in the Dyslexia journal.
Understanding motivation and support strategies for homeless literacy learners
Based on semi-structured interviews with 10 literacy learners, my research explored what motivated homeless individuals with poor literacy to engage in literacy provision, and the support strategies they deemed most effective. Thematic analysis of the data revealed five key themes: challenging early experiences, barriers to improving literacy, the perceived impact of poor literacy, current motivation to improve literacy and approaches that supported literacy in adulthood.
My research found early learning experiences were overwhelmingly negative for these learners and impacted how they perceived themselves:
‘You don’t wanna go back to a place where people are going to humiliate you, discourage you and say: ‘If you’ve got spelling like that, you’ll never go anywhere in life…’
Many reported bullying from teachers and peers, inadequate teaching support and poor understanding of their difficulties at school and home. Reports suggested parents/carers were often ill equipped to cope with their literacy difficulties, and punishment from teachers contributed to long term learning trauma.
Although interview questions did not ask specifically about dyslexia, 70% of participants declared a diagnosis of dyslexia. There were mixed perceptions from learners about their dyslexia. Though some felt their dyslexia incorporated both strengths and weaknesses, those who had not received a positive explanation upon diagnosis were more likely to view their dyslexia as a personal defect or disadvantage, especially when comparing themselves to non-dyslexic learners:
‘It would be easier to understand if I didn’t go to school so wouldn’t be expected to read… (but) my peers learn, my family members that I went to school with learn… ’
On a positive note, specialist literacy support helped learners feel understood, and positive relationships with teachers boosted self-esteem and self-efficacy related to their literacy learning. Learners sought and found compassionate teachers who truly understood their learning support needs to offset their previous negative learning experiences. These findings highlight the value of specialist teachers from the learner perspective, who are trained in understanding both literacy difficulties and homelessness.
Learners were more motivated to improve their literacy as adults when they realised the significance of these skills in their daily lives. Some sought to improve their career prospects or recognised that self-improvement could have a positive impact on their mental health. Many reported a desire to help others, for example by mentoring ex-offenders, or through a career in the caring profession. Key support strategies valued by learners included the use of multi-sensory teaching, specialist 1-1 learning support or group teaching, and positive relationships with teachers.
A PIE approach to literacy provision
Engagement in literacy provision by homeless individuals can be sporadic due to their personal circumstances and previous negative learning experiences. Given the vulnerable nature of homeless literacy learners, use of Psychologically Informed Environments (PIEs) are advocated across the sector when supporting and engaging these individuals. The term ‘PIE’, was first coined by Robin Johnson and refers to an approach which places the psychological and emotional wellbeing of an individual at the forefront of any support they receive. Creating a space where individuals feel safe to express their feelings or concerns without judgement, prior to any formal learning taking place, can be vital in building positive relationships which facilitate their learning.
A limitation of this study is that recruitment took place at only one service. Further research, involving a wider pool of participants from a range of services, would be beneficial. I have recently been awarded a PhD studentship from the Grand Union, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, in which I will develop my exploration of how PIEs contribute to effective teaching with homeless literacy learners. If you are interested in tracking my journey or becoming involved, please get in contact firstname.lastname@example.org.