Four Keys to Inspire Low-Literate Adult Learners to Pass the Equivalency Exam

An industry expert explains how to help learners earn their diplomas and improve their lives
Vinod Lobo

The task of earning a diploma is particularly difficult for adults with low literacy skills, known as low-literate adults. More than 30 million adults cannot read, write, or have math skills above a third-grade level in the United States. Being aware of where they are starting from, it’s difficult for these adult learners who often don’t see a clear path to passing a five-part test which includes a tough math section. After working with a number of programs which are moving learners all the way from basic literacy to diplomas, I have seen first-hand these four keys to success.


A Visual Pathway to a Diploma

Learners need to develop a mental map with steps to reach their goal of passing the equivalency exam. There is no advantage to hiding the length of the journey. If someone is doing math at the 4th-grade level, they need to see the courses and lessons needed to make it all the way to algebra so they can pass the test. This can be done with tables, diagrams, or pictures. The key is being able to check off things as they are completed and be able to see where they are in the overall journey.

I visited a refugee center recently where women non-literate in any language had made significant progress, and they were pointing to me on a map of courses how they were going to reach all the way to high school and earn diplomas. They already had a mental map of their future and were determined to make it happen.


Accessible Lessons to Learn Anywhere

While adult learners know that passing a high school equivalency exam is important, learning can take them away from their children and work. Many learners may not have access to transportation to get to class regularly. To overcome all the reasons not to take steps toward their future, lessons must be both enjoyable and accessible. They key here is the smartphone that almost every learner has in his or her pocket or purse. Creating a blended learning environment where learners can complete lessons at home on their own time is crucial. Learners often need over 100 hours of work to prepare for a diploma exam, and time-on-task at home with the right lessons is important.


Use Fun to Inspire Binge Learning

Low-literate adults are like any other human beings; they’re motivated by the fun factor. Incorporating songs, video and games into lessons will engage your learners and keep the subject matter light. Using a game-like lesson supplement that personalizes its topics to the students’ abilities will enrich their understanding of your lectures and activities. This way, they aren’t moving on to an advanced topic without achieving mastery in the foundations.

I’ve spoken with many low-literate adults who have done “binge learning” late at night, doing lesson after lesson in bed after the children go to sleep. Giving learners this opportunity to learn at home in a fun way with feedback from an instructor is a winning combination.


Create Goals and Celebrations

Only 2 percent of adults without a diploma pursue passing a high school equivalency exam. The world of adult ed can often be slow-paced, without deadlines and goals. But given the long path to earn a diploma, low-literate adult learners need a schedule with milestones so they can make measurable progress in a reasonable amount of time. The key is to create enough motivation to move learners forward without burning them out.

An essential element of this is the celebration. Think food and certificates. Adult learners love to earn certificates with acknowledgement from their family and peers. I visited a certificate ceremony recently and watched migrant families applaud their fellow parents who earned certificates in reading and math. There was an energy in the room, with pride and laughter to reward all the hard work.

The road to earning a diploma is a long one. Our low-literate adult learners need to see a mental map to success, have access to learning at home, do binge learning sessions for growth and celebrate their successes.


Vinod is the founder and CEO of Learning Upgrade. Learning Upgrade recently tied for the grand prize in the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE.

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