A New Approach

Literacy groups come together to change the way people look at learning…

There’s a quiet revolution going on in the concepts of education in the Comox Valley. At its centre is Danielle Hoogland, a vivacious woman who is tirelessly steadfast in her desire to change how both the established education hierarchy and government look at learning.

Hoogland is the coordinator for the Comox Valley Literacy Outreach. She, along with many other educational visionaries, would like to change the present model of teaching and learning.

“Since the industrial revolution in the late 1880s, our schools have roughly followed the format of a factory,” Hoogland says. “The rules and work hours are set by an established ‘boss’—in the case of schools, that means initially the government—and enforced by ‘supervisors’ or ‘foremen’, the school principals. That form of education certainly doesn’t suit all learners, and doesn’t tend to nurture people as ‘whole’ people.

“In the view I now hold, the learner is the centre of the education process and their innate knowledge a valid part of their learning. Essentially, what I do is bring individuals and organizations together to meet the literacy needs of the community.”

Karen Barr, a composed woman who deftly manages the Comox Valley Adult Learning Centre on McPhee Avenue without making a big show of her enormous efforts, is side by side with Hoogland in her ambitions. Together, they encompass the driving force behind a small and vital grass roots movement that offers support to anyone wishing to enlarge their knowledge base, pursue an educational goal, feel more confident in their ability to absorb and understand information, get to grips with a computer—the list is endless. Barr is the Executive Director of The Adult Learning Centre.

Hoogland was part of a team that wrote a community literacy plan in 2008, which identified the needs of the local community. “In the process some of the gaps and challenges in literacy service provision were identified and who, in our community, were not accessing those services,” Hoogland says. “That included vulnerable and isolated families, young adults—anywhere between the ages of 15 and 25—those unemployed or underemployed, those suffering from work-place literacy; I could go on and on.”

The term ‘literacy’ has a broader meaning than it once did. Hoogland explains that now the word doesn’t mean someone who can read and write, as opposed to illiterate, meaning a person who can’t.

“We now use the term ‘literate’ to encompass various levels of literacy,” she says. “Not many people living here can’t read at all, but there are many who would be struggling to read more than a simple child’s book; perhaps they couldn’t follow an instruction manual, as they don’t understand many of the words or terms used.

“We typically refer to the International Adult Literacy Survey, which identifies five levels of literacy,” Hoogland continues. “We now look at it as a range; we also look at literacy as being a fundamental skill, like numeracy. We understand that literacy also includes culture, so we look at our own culture to gain a better perspective of the term. For instance, almost all societies at one time used storytelling to pass on their culture from generation to generation; that’s a type of literacy. We also have early learning literacy, which typically is symbol recognition in the zero to six years range, plus sound recognition, the manipulation of objects—putting the square into the square hole.”

Barr continues to expand on the latest understanding of literacy. “It’s true that we used to perceive literacy as just reading and writing, but now it’s how the lack of some of those skills are hindering people in their daily lives. For instance, can you read a prescription? Can you balance your cheque book? It used to be that if you could read you were fine, if you could write, you were fine, but some people can read basic words, but they can’t comprehend a work manual; they can’t put the words in context.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘How can there be no money in my account, there’s still cheques in my cheque book?’ So they’re not making connections between those two things. So, we’re looking at financial literacy as well—all those things that we need to function in our daily lives. How to get a job and be able to advance in that job—more and more employers now are asking for hand-written cover letters. Spell-check has been able to cover a multitude of weaknesses. Employers need to know that a person can make a report from a field site, or write something in the moment. People often don’t know how to approach that, so even that is a basic literacy skill that just isn’t that common anymore.

At one time those skills were described simply as ‘life skills’, says Barr, “But we’re now getting referrals from the basic education at North Island College. We have many people coming here from WorkSafe BC who have been injured and want to get a higher level of driving licence, but they can’t read the manual because the words take up a whole sentence, and they don’t know what they mean.

“We support people in all types of endeavors,” she adds. “There’s also a group of people who are taking English as a second language—they’re new to the community and they want to connect more to it, become more integrated. The Immigrant Settlement Office is next door, and they’re part of the Adult Learning Centre too. We want to encourage people to stay in the community once they arrive here. Perhaps they need help going shopping, or assistance to interact with their children’s school, how to find a doctor.”

This staggeringly wide field of enterprises and services requires a great deal of work, and a huge number of people to do that work.

Barr and Hoogland would be the first to agree. “It takes a huge number of volunteers to keep the Adult Learning Centre going,” Barr says. “We’ve been in operation for 17-and-a-half years and seven of them have been in our present location. This is an ideal spot; we’re opposite Courtenay Elementary and many of our ESL (English as a Second Language) clients live around here, and we have close ties with Anna Jordan, who works with immigrant children and their families as liaison between the School District; the Immigrant Settlement Office is next door; the Women’s Resource Centre is in the same block.”

Hoogland adds that they call it “the learning block” because of all the facilities that offer learning of various shades to a large population. “The Aboriginal Learning Centre is just behind Courtenay Elementary , there’s an office for Family Services, The Wachiay Friendship Centre is on the same street. It’s a really great learning block. Not far from here is Lush Valley, who offer a variety of services, often in connection with food—how to make a new recipe, can garden produce and so on.”

There are about 35 ESL tutors and learners at the Adult Learning Centre, although some tutors have more than one learner, and they all use the centre on a regular basis, says Barr. There’s a program for parents and young children at Courtenay Elementary, the Mother Goose Program. “This is a time for parents to meet each other and likewise their children, and before the adults leave, to have group learning sessions. They spend time with the children who sing songs and are told or read a story. There is a beginner and intermediate group session with our tutors, who work in the school,” Barr says. “There are also tutors available who work with computers—how to do a basic Word document, how to be safe on the internet, how to do an email. There’s another 25 tutor/learner pairs who could be working on high school graduation with people who realize they can’t progress without it, or preparing for assessments.”

The Adult Learning has three employees, including Barr. Gabriel Dey, the Adult Learning Coordinator, is doing a lot of work with seniors and literacy; Leslie Corra, works with English learners and is the ESL coordinator. As all three women are part-time employees, they are a closely knit team and rely heavily on their volunteers. “We’re open from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm and we stagger our hours to stay open when people can access our services,” Barr explains. “All our tutors are volunteers, as are our receptionists.”

Like most non-profit service providers, the Adult Learning Centre is chronically underfunded—hence their great reliance on volunteers.

“Most of our funding comes from the Ministry of Advanced Education,” Barr says, “and each year we have to make an application for funding. This presents a challenge as we never know how much money we’ll have and can’t plan programs ahead. As we find out at the end of August if we’ll get funding, we tend to run our program like school program, from September to June. We also do fund-raising and at this point in time have some money from Gaming, plus we have some federal money from New Horizons for Seniors, so that money goes to specific programs for seniors.”

Naturally Barr would prefer to have money secured for a few years ahead of time, which would enable the Centre to set and reach long-term goals. In light of the amount of evidence showing that an educated society is a better society for all, this would appear to be shortsighted in the extreme. Barr and Hoogland, along with a whole group who support literacy, are lobbying government to change this curious situation.

“I understand that government needs to be accountable for the money they spend, but given the indications that there’s going to be a shortage of workers in the next five to 10 years, I would like to see more money put into educating immigrants—who are so vital for the workforce now—as well as to support young people, so they can get more literacy skills to allow them to stay in the Valley,” says Hoogland.

“I think a big part of the reason organizations like this are so under-funded is that we still recognize that formal institutions—Kindergarten to Grade 12—is where formal learning happens,” Hoogland adds. “What we’re saying is that we really value both formal and non-formal learning. This is a place where people can come and learn at their own pace; it’s one-to-one, and really, this is what keeps the fabric of our communities together. These non-formal associations are critical and we’re working to get this message across. We have great support from our school district and North Island College at helping us advocate that perspective; that we value non-formal learning as well as formal.”

“It’s lifelong learning too,” Barr adds. “It’s valuable no matter what age—16 to 80. It’s all to enhance one’s life and thereby it enhances our society.”

The Comox Valley Literacy Committee celebrates Family Literacy Day, January 27. This day draws attention to local literacy strengths and challenges. For more information visit or

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