JITE v33n1 - Inside Three Workplace Literacy Initiatives: Possibilities and Limits of Vocational Institutions

Volume 33, Number 1
Fall 1995

Inside Three Workplace Literacy Initiatives: Possibilities and Limits of Vocational Institutions

Theodore Lewis
University of Minnesota

Education and training systems have emerged as key variables in the quest by countries for competitive edge. Setting forth an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) perspective, Benton and Noyelle ( 1992 ) point out that "literacy levels in the years ahead will intrinsically be tied to the capacity of firms and nations to respond to economic challenges" ( p. 9 ). In Head to Head , Thurow ( 1992 ) resonates with these views, claiming that in the next century, "the education and skills of the work force will end up being the dominant competitive weapon" ( p. 40 ). He points out that the United States lags behind Germany and Japan, its major competitors, in providing mid-level, non-college skills.

Although American industry probably still lags behind its German and Japanese counterparts, there is evidence of a growing commitment to human resource development in American companies ( Benton, Bailey, Noyelle, & Stanback, 1991 ; Carnevale, Villet, & Holland, 1990 ; Eurich, 1985 ; Fowler, 1992 ; Gordon, Ponticell, & Morgan, 1991 ). As companies intensify their focus on training, many are claiming that workers have basic deficiencies that appear to be traceable to faulty schooling (e.g., Gordon et al., 1991 ; Lee, 1988 ).

Whether or not schools are to blame for adult illiteracy, the stakes are now viewed as being too high for the U.S. government to neglect. Federal intervention has been seen as an imperative, especially since the Adult Basic Education (ABE) infrastructure, which was constructed in the 1960s to address the problem, is perceived to have failed ( Barton & Kirsch, 1990 ; Chisman, 1989 ; Chisman & Campbell, 1990 ). Barton and Kirsch ( 1990 ) concluded that there was a large gap between the skills needed in the workplace and those possessed by a large proportion of young adults, especially those who come from minority populations. The government has responded to these concerns with the passage of the National Literacy Act of 1991 and funding of the National Workplace Literacy Program (NWLP).

Workplace Literacy

Workplace literacy is literacy that is tied to workplace knowledge. Carnevale, Gainer, and Meltzer ( 1988 ) speak euphemistically of "workplace basics," which include the three Rs but extend beyond to skills such as communicating, learning how to learn, and team-play. Drawing upon Berlin and Sum ( 1988 ), these authors point out that the groups most prone to be deficient in workplace basics include high-school dropouts, unwed mothers, and those with a history of arrests. These categories correlate substantially with race, class, and ethnicity and match classes of job-seekers with the lowest levels of document, prose, and quantitative literacy ( Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993 ). Workplace literacy, then, is not independent of literacy in its more common meaning.

One argument for situating literacy programming directly in the workplace is that a majority of those lacking literacy skills have jobs. The workplace context also has the validity of being an instance of situated cognition ( Resnick, 1990 ). It could be argued that workers would be more motivated to learn, and more likely to assimilate content, when they see its connection to their work. Perhaps the most irresistible rationale for the workplace approach, from the standpoint of policy makers, has been evidence from the U.S. military that non-literates can be made to be productive when their training is held in tight connection with the jobs they will perform ( Sticht, Armstrong, Hickey, & Caylor, 1987 ). Evidence of this kind gives credence to the view that there are indeed discontinuities between school cognition and learning beyond the classroom ( Lave & Wenger, 1991 ; Resnick, 1990 ). An illiterate worker could learn to read an electronics manual, if not a novel.

Sticht ( 1978 ) posited that there was a clear relationship between reading ability and the reported use of reading skills. He identified two basic kinds of reading tasks: reading to do and reading to learn. Diehl and Mikulecky ( 1980 ) found that for job-related text, workers read at higher than their tested grade levels. Sticht and Mikulecky ( 1984 ) found that the reading of job materials was more likely to lead to reading level gains than general reading.

These findings can be explained in terms of the difference between general and specific literacy ( Sticht, 1988 ). Specific literacy is supported by functional context theory , which, in practice, means connecting reading and other literacy content to actual workplace situations ( Cornell, 1988 ; Park, 1992 ; Phillipi, 1988 ; Sticht & Hickey, 1991 ). But this functional approach provides an arena of contention. Some commentators believe that workplace literacy cannot stand as a substitute for a more transcending kind of literacy that leads to self actualization, thereby allowing the possibility for full participation in the democracy ( Gowen, 1992 ; Greene, 1991 ; Kazemek, 1991 ; Sarmiento & Kay, 1990 ).

Consistent with functional context theory, workplace literacy programs are evaluated on an estimation of their linkage to literacy skills required on the job ( Kutner, Sherman, Webb, & Fisher, 1991 ; U.S. Department of Education, 1992 ). Mikulecky, Henard, and Lloyd ( 1992 ) advise that the more successful programs use literacy audits that feature systematic study of the worksite, inclusive of the collection of work samples, inspection of job descriptions, task analyses, and the building of political support (such as collaboration with unions).

Vocational Education and Workplace Literacy

Though workplace literacy programs, being education for work, clearly reside within the realm of vocational education, they are not necessarily perceived as such within the field, although that is beginning to change. The SCANS report made it clear that the economic climate requires a new conception of vocational knowledge, premised on academic rudiments, facility with technology, ability to communicate, and so on ( Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1991 ). Lewis ( 1991 ) suggested to the vocational community that the global economy now provides a new arena for discourse and practice in the field. Literature reflecting the infusion of workplace literacy issues into vocational discourse would seem to bear this out ( Barrick & Buck, 1987 ; Breeden & Bowen, 1990 ; Busse, 1992 ; Ciancio, 1988 ; Custer & Claiborne, 1992 ; Kakela, 1993 ; Knell, 1990 ).

The Problem

Within the vocational education community, workplace literacy remains a fledgling area of inquiry. While some authors have inquired into the workings of workplace literacy programs ( Hull, 1992 ; 1993 ; Kalman & Frazer, 1992 ; Schultz, 1992 ) and have alerted us to ideological and other contentions such as the functional/critical literacy debate and the correlation between socio-economic status, ethnicity, and literacy, little has been reported that can help inform the basic question of whether vocational institutions can claim a comparative advantage as workplace literacy providers. The purpose of the study was to gain first-hand understanding of what workplace literacy entails in practice, when a vocational institution is the primary provider. Knowledge gained through this study will provide a basis for evaluating the efficacy of vocational institutions as workplace literacy providers when compared to other providers. Such knowledge would move the field closer to the point of delineating the limits and possibilities of venturing into this kind of programming.


Three workplace literacy initiatives, each involving a vocational institution, were studied. The inquiry tradition employed was the multiple case design ( Yin, 1994 ). Yin explains that in such a design, cases should be chosen on the basis of a replication logic, not a sampling logic. Cases should serve as multiple experiments, each chosen to predict either similar results ( literal replication ) or contrasting results ( theoretical replication) ( Yin, 1994, p. 46 ).

Cases in the study were selected on an estimation of the extent to which they reflected important workplace literacy program dimensions (such as literacy audits, testing of workers, and functional context curriculum development). Though each case had a vocational institution in common, each also had a distinctive character.

In a larger study, from which data for the current article are excerpted ( Lewis & Griggs, 1995 ), five workplace literacy initiatives were chosen. Only the three cases that included a vocational institution are discussed here. These cases were (a) a hospital services workers project that was federally funded under the National Workplace Literacy Program, (b) a high tech manufacturing firm's basic skills project, and (c) the approach of the Twin Cities Opportunities Industrialization Center (TCOIC), a community-based vocational institution geared to populations most prone to illiteracy.


Consistent with Yin ( 1994 ), a protocol for the study was developed as part of planning activities. This protocol included criteria for site selection (e. g., high tech firm, federally funded, diverse workforce), criteria for deciding on key informants to be interviewed (i. e., supervisor, literacy curriculum specialist, union representative, worker), a general description of the kinds of artifacts that would be collected on site (e. g., curriculum samples, questionnaires, lesson plans, diagnostic tests), and categorization of the kinds of information that would be sought during interviews (i. e., curricular, instructional, demographic, philosophic).

The study was conducted during the period of January 1993 to June 1994. The principle of multiple sources of evidence (triangulation) was employed across all three cases ( Yin, 1994 ). In each case, informal and open-ended (taped) interviews were conducted; artifacts such as curriculum samples, tests, and trainee workbooks were collected; and as far as was possible, the author and colleagues became immersed in the operations as participant observers. Triangulation was also attained through interviews with informants who were likely to hold varying opinions on a given workplace issue. For example, a union steward might have insights that differ from those of a supervisor.

The approach to data analysis was within-case analysis, followed by cross-case analysis (see Miles & Huberman, 1994 ; Yin 1994 ). In this way commonality across cases could be isolated, along with distinctiveness within each case. When necessary, transcripts of interviews were shared with participants to afford them the opportunity to clarify their thoughts and to make their meaning clearer. Drafts of the finished report were shared with key stakeholders across the sites.

Except for the Twin Cities Opportunities Industrialization Center, which is the actual name of the organization, the names of institutions used here are pseudonyms. All persons' names are pseudonyms. Where dialogues are reported they substantially represent verbatim accounts, with only superficial editing for clarity, with care taken not to distort meaning.

Case 1-Hospital Project

Case 1 was a federally funded project that was a collaboration among four hospitals, the Union Educational Bureau, and Redwood Technical College, set on the outskirts of a city in a mid-western state. The research team observed the project for a period of nine months, from the fall of 1993 to spring 1994, during which time the team conducted about 50 hours of taped interviews and spent more than 200 person-hours making observations at the sites.

In studying this case, the team focused upon perceptions regarding why Redwood was a suitable provider, the basic philosophy of workplace literacy adopted by the college, the approach to curriculum development that this philosophy engendered, and the approach to literacy instruction.

What Qualified Redwood as a Workplace Literacy Provider?

The college's project staff, Union Educational Bureau officials, and hospital representatives attached to the project were interviewed to answer this question. The perception of curricular expertise was the Union's motivation for inviting the college to be a partner. Jane, President of the Union Educational Bureau, stated that "the college's project staff are curriculum specialists," who are able to customize work-based programs for the classes of workers represented by her union. Ralph, another high ranking official of the Union Services Bureau, concurred that the college brought "a great deal of sophistication" to workplace curriculum development.

A conversation with Bret, who had been the college president when the project began, revealed his perspective when he explained that "… we are dealing with workplace literacy here, and not the overall concept of literacy. And that's the reason we became involved in it." Workplace literacy, he explained, "obviously fits in with the mission of the college and education for employment." The college had been sensitized about the literacy focus through meetings with the Union Educational Bureau as well as with employers, and the leadership felt that they could claim a niche, being "the experts in the instructional part" of literacy programming. This perception of expertise in instruction appeared to correlate with the Union view of their curricular expertise. Absent from the views of the president with respect to the suitability of his college was any claim to expertise in the teaching of core literacy capabilities, such as reading.

Curricular Philosophy

Pete, a curriculum specialist hired by the college specifically for the project, explained that central to his philosophy was that the curriculum must emanate from actual problems encountered by workers on the job. John, head of customized training and workplace literacy project leader, offered the following

I think there's a common perception. It revolves around the word "literacy." The perception is that when you hear the word literacy, or lack of literacy … many people automatically assume … that we are talking basic skills, reading, writing and math. But what we're looking at is the differential between basic … what we would call basic education skills, reading, writing, and math, and the reading, writing and math necessary to perform jobs. [emphasis added]

There was a sense of unity of curricular philosophy among key college staff related to the project. Bret, Pete and John seemed to be of like mind.

Curricular Approach

The college adopted a functional context approach to the curriculum, based upon literacy audits. John explained, "what we do is truly customized to that work environment … we use the materials that they use in their daily jobs."

Pete provided specifics of the audit process:

We spend some time telling them [workers] what we're going to do with them first… And then once that's clear, we ask what are the problems, and that's a questioning process. What is it about your job, for example, that you find most difficult to do? We don't say: "Can you read well, can you write well?" None of that … You get them talking and the listening starts to accumulate.

Project documents were examined to gain better insight into the process of the literacy audit. One such document revealed eight specific questions that were asked as part of the needs analysis process. Among them were

  • What specific job tasks do some employees have trouble performing which may be the result of their lack of basic math skills?
  • What specific tasks do some employees have trouble performing which may be the result of their lack of basic reading skills?
  • What specific tasks do some employees have trouble performing which may be the result of the lack of understanding of spoken English ?

The focus was clearly on skills that could be considered workplace basics. Some of the problem areas that this audit process unearthed, as reflected in project minutes, included

  • Reading chemical labeling to get right chemical into right bottle,
  • Measuring skills for proper dilution of chemicals,
  • Broad understanding of how each part of the job fits into the rest,
  • Good customer relations,
  • Good verbal communication, and
  • Understanding instructions given by supervisors.

These problem areas appeared to be workplace basic skills as set forth by Carnevale et al. ( 1988 ). To address them, a curriculum of six courses ( Working With Others, Reading On The Job, Measuring For Success, Writing That Works, Getting Computer Comfortable , and Understanding Where You Work ) was developed. Because reading is so central to the discourse on literacy in general, and on workplace literacy, the course Reading On The Job became a focus of inquiry.

To teach workplace reading, learning modules that set forth a four-step problem-solving strategy (define, read, plan, check) were developed ( Park, Olson, & Oldham, 1991 ). The exercises included how to read menus and notices. Contextual cues and surface features (such as what meaning to give to bold headlines) were taught as decoding strategies. Beyond cues and format, workers were taught how to recognize words from their work environment through word structure analysis. Here the emphasis was on prefixes, suffixes, roots, and compound words.

Attempting to teach reading for the workplace seemed to bring the college to the limits of its expertise in delivering a workplace literacy program. Reading cannot be taught by formula. In one application, workers were being taught the word transport through word analysis (these workers had to transport materials as part of their job). This word was broken down into the prefix trans and suffix port , then root meanings were examined. This approach appeared to be excessively pedantic and decidedly inferior to the tacit understanding of that word that workers would have developed through use. Showing workers conceptual similarity between transport and a whole class of words with like prefixes, (transfer, translate, transfuse) might have been more potent. The focus would not be just the workplace, but their daily lives as a whole.

But is this work appropriate for a vocational institution? Time and the terms of the grant did not permit Redwood to consider a broader conception of literacy. Even if there had been time, or a mandate to do so, Redwood, or any typical vocational institution, would have to make special staffing and programmatic changes to deliver this instruction competently and would find themselves still at the limit of their expertise.

Case 2-Workplace Literacy in a High-Tech Firm

This second case involved a basic skills program (known as Skills 2000) conducted by North Oaks Technical College, a two-year post-secondary vocational institution in the same mid-western state system as Redwood. North Oaks was on contract with Pinewood Technology, a neighboring high-tech manufacturing firm, both located in Elmgrove, a small town in the state. Pinewood technology produces suspension assemblies for computers, and, on evidence from its 1993 annual report to stockholders, is a world leader in this industry. The college and company had a long history of collaboration.

As explained in an issue of the company newsletter, the college was expected "to assist [us] with appropriate processes and validity of the assessments, individual development plans, and coursework needed to upgrade skills." At the urging of the college staff the company engaged the consulting services of a workplace literacy specialist: Mary, a professor from the campus of a large research university in the state. Mary requested that the author conduct a summative evaluation of the program.

The approach for this case included telephone and open-ended interviews of key informants at the company and college. Specifically, this approach included extensive informal conversations with the literacy consultant over a period of nine months as she executed the project, two visits to the college and one to the company, and inspection of documents (e. g., memos, test results, questionnaires, company newsletters, and the 1993 annual report).

Why North Oaks was Selected--Company Explanation

When asked why North Oaks and not another provider (such as a school district) was engaged for the project, since the focus was reading and math, Randy, Maintenance Manager at Pinewood and one of the architects of Skills 2000, explained that a good relationship already existed between the two institutions. Pinewood had engaged the services of the college on the development of a customized technical skills training program, and the program had been a success. This explanation was not unlike that provided by union officials regarding their choice of Redwood (Case 1).

From the perspective of the staff of the college, their suitability stemmed first from the history of working with the company--but beyond that, the college (like Redwood in Case 1) had dedicated a customized training unit to deal with specific industry needs. Further, the college offered Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs as an integral part of its operations, through a specially staffed department called the Developmental Studies Unit. Its capability to offer ABE programs set North Oaks apart from Redwood Technical College.

North Oak's Role

The college was engaged to implement the basic skills aspect of the Skills 2000 concept. Features of its work were to conduct an employee interest survey, conduct testing, assess the grade level of workplace reading and math materials, and assess the reading and math level of workers in selected units.

Employee interest survey. The college, in conjunction with Mary (literacy consultant), developed an employee survey designed to indicate how important basic skills were to their job, and what would be their level of interest in signing up for basic skills courses (reading, writing, and math). The company targeted 224 workers for the program, and of these 108 were interviewed. In general, the results indicated that basic skills were perceived to be important, and that interest in signing up for courses was high.

Audit of workplace materials. Following the employee perceptions interviews, the college sought to establish the level of the reading materials used by workers at the plant. A report submitted by Mary indicated that an audit had been performed on "all the materials used on the job" to ascertain the math, reading, and writing requirements, reading difficulty, importance to the job, and frequency of use.

Based upon the audit, it was found that the most important and most frequently used reading materials were the job breakdown procedures. Also important were engineering forms and control charts. The math skills found to be used on the job included basic computation, converting fractions to decimals, interpretation of charts, ability to plot graphs, and knowing how to read devices such as calipers, scales and gauges, and blueprints. Knowledge of the metric system was becoming a priority.

Once the level of the materials in the workplace was determined, the college staff tested workers in reading and math to ascertain their grade levels and to discern any gaps between these assessed levels and the measured levels of workplace materials. Workers were administered the Level 2 ABLE (Adult Basic Learning Examination). The majority of them tested at the post high-school level. However, a few workers were at or below the eighth grade level. In math, the grade levels ranged for the most part between the eighth and twelfth grades.

Based on these results, the college staff, in conjunction with the literacy consultant, made a set of recommendations to the company that required that (a) individual reading be provided for the single employee reading at the fourth grade level, (b) "efficient reading" classes be established for those reading at or below the ninth grade level, (c) "brush-up" classes be offered to approximately forty-two workers who tested below the ninth grade level in math, and (d) reading materials for hazardous chemical materials be rewritten.

Curriculum and Instruction.

After completing the needs assessment or literacy audit aspect of its work, the college staff met individually with workers to discuss their test scores and their instructional needs. A text was used for math, but workers were encouraged to bring work-related problems to class. The reading program was less in demand and confined to the workers who were reading below the eighth grade level. The focus of this program was on sample job-tasks, such as getting information from charts. As in Case 1, the North Oaks Development Studies staff also employed the define, plan, read, check problem solving approach to reading. Instruction featured use of context cues and word structure to decode words.

College staff did not feel that the reading problem was chronic. And indeed, there appeared to be some progress. Beth (Development Studies Instructor) provided an illustration:

And then we got to the end … I dug some worksheets out of the employee manual, which was written at the twelve or thirteen level. They were able to find that. Well, now, that's really what reading is all about. If you can read to find information that you need, you've got things fairly well under control.

This thought was in keeping with functional context theory. Workers who participated in the program could go further by enrolling in the college's Adult Basic Education program, where they could develop skills beyond the functional. If a worker so chose, tuition costs would be reimbursed by the company.

Underlying Philosophy

The basic approach to curriculum and instruction taken by the project was that there had to be a connection between the program and one's job. The purpose of reading in these circumstances was to extract information for use. There was clear sympathy here for functional context theory. There was also evidence of a second value at work, based on a more generic conception of literacy. This value existed because Beth and her staff were fundamentally literacy specialists. They had a transcending conception of literacy that extended beyond the workplace. This ethic was evident when Beth expressed the view that "workplace literacy leads to family literacy." Different from Redwood, North Oaks was in a position to follow through with an approach to literacy along these lines in its regular developmental studies offerings.

Although the curriculum in Case 2 was tied to jobs, the content was taught in a decontextualized way. The surrounding methods and procedures were that of a vocational institution, but the content and method were that of regular (academic) schooling. These are the conditions that have attracted many non-vocational claimants to workplace literacy. It is instructive that in the wake of Skills 2000, the company has invested in a new interactive computer system and has embarked upon a pilot program aimed at getting workers to use such a lab to attend to their basic skill needs. In these new circumstances, the role of the college will be to provide tutoring help as needed.

Case 3-Twin Cities Opportunities Industrial Center

The third case describes the approach of an alternative vocational institution, Twin Cities Opportunities Industrialization Center (TCOIC), incorporated in 1966 for the specific purpose of providing job training for the disadvantaged. TCOIC has, over the years, accumulated much experience in workplace basics programming for a clientele that includes groups prone to illiteracy or lacking necessary basic skills (i. e., welfare recipients, those involved with the law, the unemployed, immigrants).

TCOIC Concept and Mission

The original concept of Opportunities Industrialization Centers was grounded in black self-help ( Sullivan, 1969 ). There were to be "feeder" schools in black communities across the country that would focus on basic literacy skills (reading, writing, arithmetic), from which clients would progress into a skill center to prepare themselves for work. Opportunities Industrialization Centers can be found in several states. The TCOIC approach reported here incorporates both the feeder school and skills training at a single site. The facility is located on the fringes of Minneapolis, adjoining public housing projects where many of its student clients live.

TCOIC is funded through multiple sources, including JTPA funds, obtained through a placement arrangement with the city, federal grants-in-aid (Pell grants), and lease income through rental of on-site space to non-profit agencies such as the city public school system, which conducts ABE and GED classes on the compound and provides reading and math teachers. TCOIC has an open enrollment, multiple entry policy, which allows a student/client to start, stop, and start again at any time. This flexibility allows a student to accept a job during the middle of training, knowing that he/she can return and resume at any time.

The President of TCOIC explained that his clients are attracted to the school because it is more welcoming and flexible than traditional vocational institutions. One difference, as he put it, is that "We give them time to learn, to understand …" To keep in touch with the many communities represented among its clientele, the TCOIC has ties with grass-roots organizations. It also houses a translation center that caters especially to the many South East Asian and Hispanic students it attracts.


Enrollment/Initial literacy testing. When a student client enrolls at TCOIC, he/she must take the ABLE level-three test. If he/she tests below the seventh grade, remediation is prescribed. This remediation takes place in on-site literacy labs that allow individualized instruction. Students remediate via canned, computerized lessons, with the assistance of a literacy instructor. A Principles of Alphabet Literacy System (PALS ) lab caters to students who test below the fifth grade level in their reading. A Relevant Education for Adult Learners (REAL) lab provides remediation for those who test between the fifth and seventh grade levels in math and reading. These labs do not necessarily focus on the workplace context. They stress generic literacy skills--how to read, write, and speak. The PALS lab adopts the whole language approach to literacy, allowing clients to write their own stories.

Core curriculum. Reading is at the heart of the regular curriculum at TCOIC. Much of the instruction is in the form of workbooks, in keeping with the flexible approach to scheduling. Beyond reading, the core includes a self esteem/self efficacy class called "COPE," keyboarding, and Job-Seeking/Job Keeping skills.

Technical offerings. The President of TCOIC explained that over time technology has forced changes in their offerings. The current emphasis is on jobs that will be around for the next ten years. These are jobs in micro-computing, accounting, secretarial work, hospitality, and building maintenance. All of the technical courses include basic skills. For example, the two-semester Building Maintenance course (36 credits) includes the following basic skills courses:

  • COPE (Personal efficacy, self esteem)
  • Mathematics for Maintenance
  • English (Grammar extension)
  • English (Spelling and Vocabulary Building)
  • English (Oral/Interpersonal Communication)
  • English (Business English)
  • Keyboarding Made Easy
  • Introduction to Microcomputers and DOS

There is clear emphasis on new workplace basic skills. Sensitivity to new workplace needs was also evident in the technical courses in the Building Maintenance program, where the emphasis seemed to be on flexibility. Competence was to be provided across several disciplines. Courses included basic carpentry, basic electricity, electrical trouble-shooting, understanding plumbing systems, low pressure boilers, introduction to air conditioning and refrigeration, and blueprint reading.

Instruction. As indicated in the words of its president, giving students time is probably the central pedagogic value at the TCOIC. This philosophy can be seen to be consistent with the ideas of John Carrol ( 1963 ). The philosophy of giving time is exemplified in the following story told by the communications instructor as she explained the special challenge of teaching oral and communication skills to Asian immigrants.

I helped a girl yesterday … this was after four o'clock. I had other things I needed to do, but she wanted some help and she was writing a letter to a friend back in Laos. She said, well, I would like for you to help me … to see if I have it worded right and spelled right … and so I did. She did quite well. So she's practicing her English in sending a letter home to her country in English.

Functional Context

The instructional approach taken by the TCOIC includes a mixture of functional context and general literacy. In a math class we monitored, the examples came from the business world: calculating sales and stock and sales reports. There were also math exercises that presented general problems, not necessarily workplace related. In a communications class, the instructor used workplace-relevant examples, but did not feel confined to them. She explained:

We can't only deal with terms that will be found in the workplace … we might also deal with terms that sometimes people take for granted … even abbreviations. We see a lot of them … we might take a list of abbreviations that people don't know much about. For instance … they see common stations on the television. This is CBS. Well, what does CBS stand for? Some people don't know that zip … you put your zip code … "Zone Improvement Plan." You might not read that in a book, but there's things out there you know. I'm trying to make them aware … words are around us all the time … I try to make it relevant to everyday life, to the business world, to home life, school life. Language is rich.

This instructor was prepared to use newspapers, magazines, billboards, and any other available material to get the point of reading across--to foster generic literacy.

What seemed critical was not a curriculum directly issuing from the workplace, but the vocational hook. The fact that a reading lab was down the hall from a computer applications lab or a building maintenance lab, and that this reading lab was accessible, seemed to be important. A student might be pursuing fifth grade math in the lab today, but the reward would be enrollment in a building maintenance course once remediation was complete. This vocational hook acts as a sort of proxy for functional context. The student clientele can see the clear connection between reading and a job as a building maintenance repair person.

Placement--Skills Employers Want

Placement is a means through which TCOIC generates revenue, and because its reputation hinges on good placements, the school has a well defined placement function and philosophy. High placement rates require knowing what skills employers wanted and responding to them. TCOIC places 80% of its students. An excerpt from a conversation with the placement officer is instructive:

Researcher: What do employers say to you … what do they want and how do you try to meet that?

Placement officer: Basically what they look for is a person who is trainable, someone who is computer literate. Someone who has business writing skills. Those are your basics … [along with] oral communication skills…

What the placement officer was saying was borne out when we inspected a sample of job postings linked to employer requests. One posting for a clerical/receptionist, a job that offered $6.00 - $7.00 per hour, was listed:

Qualified candidates will have good communication skills, previous clerical experience, accurate typing skills, and be attentive to detail. Prefer some knowledge of dBase.

A request from a second employer for a "Class B secretary" had the following minimum requirements:

Ability/desire to use micro computer. Excellent written and oral communication skills. Well organized and efficient. Accurate, with close attention to detail. Ability to work with minimum direction. Ability to work on more than one project at a time.

These two examples illustrate points the placement officer was trying to convey to us. Workers had to be computer literate, self starters, and able to communicate verbally and orally. Clearly, the literacy demands here were substantial.

Voices of Students

Conversations with students provided more information about the TCOIC experience. These conversations were conducted to get a sense of their reasons for enrolling at the school, their expectations, and reflections on their experiences to date:

Mike. Mike is an African American male. He enrolled at TCOIC because "all the jobs I've had have been dead-end jobs and I was not going nowhere… I wasn't getting nowhere. I was not climbing nowhere, you know, so I decided to come here." Mike enrolled at TCOIC through a Pell Grant. He tested out at the ninth grade level on the ABLE and was accepted in the one-year micro computing program. At the time of the interview, his course load included data entry, WordPerfect , office procedures, math, English, and typing.

In the math class he was studying decimals and percentages at the time of the interview. He said he was hopeful about employment prospects and getting out of the cycle of dead-end jobs. Mike appeared to be some distance away from meeting the oral communication skill requirements of many employers, but he had ample opportunity at TCOIC for remedying that deficiency.

Lin. Lin is a Taiwanese national. She enrolled at TCOIC because she had difficulty finding a job due, she surmised, to her poor facility with English. She tested well and was pursuing a course in accounting. She had already found a part-time job as a bookkeeper. At the time of the interview she was taking two extra computer courses. She indicated that the TCOIC provided her with valuable computer skills, English skills, and skills in breaking out of culturally imposed walls that inhibited communication with others.

Gloria. Gloria is from the Caribbean. She had chosen the general clerical option. Upon graduating she planned to seek a data entry job at a bank. When asked what skills she would have to have to find such a job, she listed courses she had taken at TCOIC. They included WordPerfect, record keeping, data entry, graphics, English I, Math I, keyboarding, and DOS.

Summary and Discussion

The three programs reviewed here add to the case literature on workplace literacy programs, in the tradition of Gowen ( 1992 ), Hull, ( 1992 ), and Kalman and Frazer ( 1992 ). These programs show that vocational institutions are legitimate claimants as providers of such programs. These cases do not resolve the question whether vocational institutions can claim comparative advantage over other providers, but they do move the field closer to an understanding of the possibilities and limits for this new area of workplace training.


These cases show that vocational institutions can offer workplace literacy staples--collaboration with corporate clients to determine needs, collaboration with organized labor, literacy audits including evaluation of the reading level of workplace materials, diagnostic testing of workers, curriculum based on actual workplace situations, and working with racially and ethnically diverse clients.

All three institutions offered a customized service. Customization of curriculum calls for collaboration, which requires delicacy, learned only with time and experience. The three institutions studied had clearly mastered the art. In the case of Redwood, expertise had extended to working with unions. Redwood's ability to work in simultaneous partnership with the union and management, with the trust of both sides, was clear demonstration of a major possibility for vocational institutions.

The three institutions clearly had long traditions of providing both initial and upgrade training. They could meet the needs of adult clients--whether dislocated workers, entry level workers, or workers in need of retraining. North Oaks and TCOIC illustrated competence in dealing with workers who were deficient in the most basic skills. They both had Adult Basic Education capabilities and could therefore offer fifth grade math or reading on an individualized basis to adults of any age. TCOIC's multiple entry system, and its design allowing clients to stop and restart with program continuity preserved, illustrated sensitivity to the adult consumer.

Since teaching in a functional context is commonplace in vocational education (e. g., technical English, business math, and welding science), this trait might constitute the most compelling evidence when assessing the strength of vocational institutions against that of other providers. Although one does not necessarily have to be a teacher of welding to be a teacher of welding English or welding mathematics, it would certainly help to have a welding laboratory within the facility where these related basic courses are taught and to have the teachers in question collaborate. It is here that the vocational institution would seem able to make strong claims.

Another possibility for vocational institutions is that the field has a tradition of accommodating student customers of diverse origins, particularly members of ethnic and racial minorities and immigrants--communities among which the basic skills problem is endemic. The work of TCOIC (Case 3) is instructive here. However, we should not accept uncritically that vocational education is a preserve of the underclass. There is need to interrogate the societal conditions that result in this peculiar sociology.


While there are possibilities for vocational institutions in the workplace literacy enterprise, there are also limits. By design, vocational institutions are meant to prepare people for work by adding value to the literacy they already possess. The three institutions all demonstrated possibilities for including basic skills in their repertoire. Their capabilities notwithstanding, a vocational institution will always be better at teaching a worker how to weld than how to read. It will also be better at teaching that worker how to read about welding than how to read the daily newspaper. This is the outer limit for these institutions, and it stands at the interface of functional and general (and ultimately critical) literacy.

Vocational institutions must not be made to detract from their essential work to take care of ills that go to the core of the social fabric of the society. Issues of poverty, ethnicity, race, class, and inequality must be resolved elsewhere.


Lewis is Associate Professor in the Deparment of Vocational and Technical Education, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota. This study was conducted under the auspices of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, University of California at Berkeley.


The author wishes to thank Professors Mildred Barnes-Griggs, Rosemarie Park (project consultant), Jerome Moss, and graduate students Stephan Flister and Amadou Konare, for their invaluable contributions to the project.


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