When is language the barrier to building literacy skills?

Increasingly we hear from trainers that there are more learners for whom English is a second, or third, or … language in the course they deliver.  This brings additional challenges to assist learners who may be unfamiliar with the workplace context and language. Language is the link or key to being able to grasp concepts, interpret texts, and communicate.

It’s not surprising that more trainers speak about the multiple languages spoken by learners in class. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reveals:

  • in 2016, for approximately 40% of the Australian population English is not their primary or first language.
  • in 2016, over 400 languages were spoken in Australia – more than a 100% increase since 2006.
  • the percentage of the population that speak only English is declining.

Furthermore, RTO delivery has expanded to include training within, or for countries other than Australia, so more trainers are involved with workplace training and learners situated off-shore.

This post will explore:

  1. the link between language and learning
  2. why all workers need strong language skills
  3. how you can build language skills: key considerations.

1. The link between language and learning – how does knowing the language help learners?

Language helps us interpret and express ANYTHING. Language is linked to how we understand a topic, a question, an article, a video, a numeracy calculation, a conversation.  It provides us with a rich set of expectations related to how we interpret and use:

  • the range of vocabulary – i.e. knowing word meanings and how/when they are used
  • grammar to construct phrases or sentences
  • appropriate grammar – e.g. expected norms for opening and closing a conversation
  • expected register – i.e. communication formality
  • facial expressions, physical gestures and other forms of body language.

Rosie Martin says…

“It is the internal, mental symbol-system with which we represent the world out there and in here.”

(Reference Island magazine)

Rosie is Tasmania’s 2017 Australian of the Year.  She earned this for her work building literacy skills with men in prison.


Language provides the cultural framework for the industry or community skills you are teaching. For example, industry workplaces can differ in how they expect colleagues communicate. They may use formal or less formal communication, specific vocabulary, or use nick names for certain tasks

Knowing the language is a critical mobilizer to success in learning and employment

2. Why all workers need strong language skills

The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) says:

Employers value numerous common technical and enterprise skills within a job cluster.”

(Reference:  FYA, 2016, The New Work Mindset p. 22)

Employers seek workers who have strong skills in:

  • written and oral communication
  • team work
  • problem solving.

We often relate the impact of language just to speaking reading and writing. The capacity to communicate, contribute to team discussions and develop solutions to problems will also involve numeracy aspects. Numeracy is part of most workplace roles and increasingly productivity outcomes are measured. How much… How long… How many…?

Understanding Numeracy also involves strong language skills. This is what Dave Tout said about the connection between language and numeracy in a 2015 ACER webinar presentation titled Where do the L, L and N intersect in LLN?

Learning, Reading, Writing, Listening & Speaking, and Numeracy skills involve knowing, using and interpreting the contextual language

3. How can you build Language skills?

Build the ‘field’, not just vocabulary lists

Some English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers refer to the term, ‘building the field.’ This is an intentional approach to help learners either develop new concepts or map already acquired concepts on to the new language. It involves, for example:
  • building an awareness of the range of words and expressions, and the use of these
  • the purpose for the text, task, activity, process
  • the social or cultural norms
  • the actions and activity involved
  • and the names and purpose of tools, equipment or resources involved
  • the expected or usual response format, tone, technique.

Each of these aspects contributes to learners’ ability to grasp new concepts. Think about how this relates to the workplace below.

Expose the cultural orientation of the Australian Workplace

Linda Achren discusses the role of cultural differences in workplace communication. In an article called, Cultural orientation to Australian workplaces (written for VALBEC‘s Fine Print magazine, she discusses the need for explicit teaching of workplace expectations and rules.
For example, Linda suggests that it is important to explain:
  • WHO they need to report to
  • WHAT they must report or speak about, and
  • WHY this is important.”

(Reference: Achren in VALBEC, Fine Print, 2013, Vol 36 #2, p14)

“Australia prides itself on egalitarianism. This value manifests itself in such ideals as equal pay, equal opportunity, gender equity, and so on. More subtly, it influences how we relate to our colleagues, how we relate to our boss and how the boss relates to us. It is reflected in out relatively flat structure of our workplaces, in which there is not a huge distance between workers and the boss. This can be problematic for CALD learners from more overtly hierarchical societies where the line of commend is clearly delineated.” (Ibid, p.13)

Consider using subtitled videos

Subtitled messages make the literacy and language stronger.

Anne McGrath says:

“Subtitles and captions make the message stronger and clearer”

(Presenter at ACAL/ACTA Conference, 2016)

Anne advised, “Don’t put subtitles or captions in the too hard basket.”  Are you aware that all programs aired on ABC, SBS, Seven, Nine, Ten and regional channels between 6:00am and midnight include subtitles and captioning?  Some YouTube content also includes subtitles and captions.

Increase the ‘how to do this’ explanation repertoire


Use a multi-sensory approach to expose the dominant literacy practices you are trying to teach.  To do this, role model, model and/or use diagrams, videos, films, visual text, multi-model texts, electronic and printed texts, audio recordings and examples to expose desired literacy practices.


Provide assistive technology  where possible – e.g. Read and Write

Step 3

Follow with examples, practice opportunities, targeted feedback, and opportunities to draft and edit written work.

So to sum up…

Australia continues to evolve into an increasingly multi-cultural (and multi-lingual) society. This, combined with our expanding reach into international training markets, means that educators must continuously add to their ‘toolkit’ of strategies to help learners with English as a second language build the language skills they will need to contribute to, and flourish in, modern Australian society and workplaces.  We trust that the suggestions made in this post offer some helpful additions to your ‘toolkit’.

2 thoughts on “When is language the barrier to building literacy skills?

    • llnandvetmeetingplace May 25, 2017 / 4:31 pm

      We are pleased you endorse these tips to feature in training- feature culture and context to assist interpretation and use of language.


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