Alison Howard from ABC Life Literacy Canada

Alison Howard is the Executive Director at ABC Life Literacy Canada. She is a collaborative and strategic not-for-profit leader with deep expertise in the areas of literacy, skills development, and employability at a national level. With over two decades of experience in the non-profit sector, Alison brings exceptional communication, research, and presentation skills, along with strong public policy, sponsorship, and national partnership building experience. A passionate and inclusive team-player, she empowers others and works collaboratively to create a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.

Justin: Welcome to PALS Talks Literacy, a podcast created by Project Adult Literacy Society. Project Adult Literacy Society is a charitable organization that’s based in Edmondson, which offers free programming for adult learners who want to improve their reading, writing English language, basic math and digital skills.

In this podcast we talk about literacy in all of its forms and the impact that it has on people’s lives. We do just want to acknowledge that this podcast was recorded on Treaty six territory. We respect the First Nations Metis and Inuit, and all the first Peoples of Canada, whose presence continues to enrich our community.

Thank you so much everyone for joining us. Again, my name is Justin. Joining me is Allison Howard. She is the Executive Director of ABC Life Literacy Canada. Today we’re just going to be talking a lot about what their organization does, as well as just adult literacy in Canada in general. So, Allison, pleasure to meet you again. Thanks for coming on our podcast.

Alison: I should say it’s my pleasure.

Justin: All right. So I guess the first thing I’ll just ask, just want to get to know you a bit. So, would you mind telling me and the audience just a bit about your background, also including too, how long have you been involved with adult literacy and that maybe what got you interested in the field in the first place?

Alison: Sure. So I’ve been in the non-profit sector for a couple of decades now in Canada, and my work is primarily focused on employability and essential skills and literacy skills, doing research, convening, networking, program development, lots of different touchpoints, and it really brings home how many different ways literacy impacts our lives, our work, our communities.

 It’s just such an important area. It’s a foundation of so much in our lives that this opportunity to come work with ABC Life Literacy Canada, came to me earlier this year. And so it’s a real pleasure to work with an organization that has a national scope and is able to make a difference right across the country with, adult learners.

Justin: I mean, again, that’s awesome. So you know, as a segue into your organization then, can you just tell us a bit about, what ABC Life Literacy does, very generally, and we can talk more about specifics later with your programming, but yeah. Just very generally, what does your organization actually do?

Alison: Yes, ABC Life Literacy Canada is a national non-profit. It’s been around for over three decades, and we create introductory learning materials for adults. So, Really based on, early learning level, grade six to eight, approximately reading level. So we have lots of materials available on different topics and, we are focused on adults.

We do also have a family literacy program, but that’s where we focus on and is helping adults to progress in their skill levels. Different topics. Reading, numeracy, digital skills, use of money, lots of different great topics, and we have lots of resources. They’re all available for free. They’re there for the taking. So I can tell you, more about those programs as we go along.

Justin: Oh, for sure. No, absolutely. So, that’s a very good segue, just into the topic of an adult literacy in general. So, again, if someone’s listening and They’ve heard like maybe like the terminology, like adult literacy for the first time.

 I guess the question I’m trying to ask you is why should we care about adult literacy? Why is it such an important topic to be invested in

Alison: literacy is really a foundational piece to so much of our lives these days. Call it the knowledge economy or whatever angle you want to put on it, but the importance of literacy to jobs, to most jobs is just been increasing in importance over the years.

The ability to use numbers and charts and forms, the ability to use technology is also increasingly important in roles. It’s important for self-confidence to know that you can read instructions on, say, a prescription bottle if you’re looking to manage your health a little better. Literacy comes into play, health and safety in the workplace.

All these things involve lots of reading diagrams, doing things safely, lots of regulations and guides. Require a substantial amount of literacy in some cases to make sure that you understand them, make sure that you and your colleagues and clients are safe. And the products and services that we’re making, it’s also so important just for communicating with children, helping them with homework, engaging with your community, lots of different areas of your life that it’s so important all through your life.

That’s why we’re ABC Life Literacy Canada, because literacy, it’s as a skill set. Skills are like muscles. If you don’t use them, you tend to lose them. And so these are things that you need to keep practicing throughout your life.

Justin: Mm-hmm. and you touched on something that, I guess like bringing in my own experience again, I’ve been, I’ve been volunteering with Project Adult Literacy Society for the past three years as well. And one of the, I think misconceptions that I had going in and it’s, I think it’s a very common thing when I talked among my colleagues and my friends as well, is that, typically when you think of literacy, people just think of like, English, right, like reading. But you mentioned a lot of different fields, you know, like broadly speaking about life in general, right? Like technology, right. Diagrammatic literacy, you know, being able to interpret things like, do you feel like in your role so far, and I know like you’ve only been in it for a few months, maybe a lot of what you’ve had to do is possibly like myth busting as well, just with people. Just get them to know what literacy actually encompasses

Alison: oh, definitely that, that’s a big part of it. And to help people understand that not only are these challenges going to arise throughout your life, but you’re not alone in that. The stigma of recognizing that. I don’t necessarily understand these things that I think I should, or that maybe society or others expect me to.

And I, I need to hide that because I don’t want people to know. It’s actually much more common than people think and in different areas. So, maybe you’re a little newer to using technology or maybe you have, a parent or grandparent who’s trying to do their banking online and maybe not as familiar with it.

Maybe there are, you’ve got kids coming up who want to use technology now you have to teach them about safe use of the internet. Those are pretty fundamental pieces, but that’s technically part of literacy as well. So to make sure that everyone has the skills they need to do these things throughout their lives is, is very important. And it is much more than just reading and writing for sure.

Justin: No, a hundred percent. I mean, PALS would definitely agree with that. So, this kind of leads to my next question. It’s very, it’s broaching the topic of like, You might have the statistics to back this up, so it’ll kind of just pick your background knowledge.

Like do you think that people require a higher level of literacy than they ever have compared to the past? It’s kind of mixed in with the whole topic of how has literacy evolved throughout the years as well. Right. Especially as we’ve like headed into, of course, like the 21st century.

Alison: So we do have, we are very fortunate here in Canada. We do have an excellent public education system, but there are many reasons why adults get to adulthood without necessarily having the education, the skills in place that we might expect. And there are also challenges for adults to return to education and try to get, fit that into their lives.

You know, they have to balance employment and family responsibilities. You have to look suddenly at coordinating, perhaps transportation access, and also that anxiety around returning to the classroom that people often have. So there’s lots of challenges. For adults in returning to education, to think of it that way, to think of themselves as learners, especially if they’ve had perhaps negative experiences in the past.

 There are lots of national and international studies on literacy to look at levels, reading levels, different types of literacies, and we do know that there are. Last studies show that 48% of adult Canadians have literacy skills that fall below a high school level. And so of course, that negatively affects their ability to function at work and in their professional lives.

 We score internationally. We look at literacy levels and we score them on a scale. So we know that 17% of adults in Canada are functioning at the lowest level of that scale, Where, for instance, they may have trouble reading the dosage instructions on a medicine bottle.

Half, just over half of adult Canadians score in the lowest two levels. And that has gone, it’s creeping upwards, we would say from the data over time.

Justin: Okay, I see. So you can see like clear trends then that way where it’s headed. Yeah,

Alison: it’s certainly not a problem that’s been going away. And as our population grows, lots of different issues are coming into play as well.

We do know also that those with lower literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed. So there’s lots of different issues that we can see in the data.

Justin: Okay. Gotcha. Okay. So in talking about that again, you quoted like certain percentages, and again, of course, like proportions of our population, is let’s just say literacy attainment in general.

Like, is that, what groups do you see a struggle with literacy attainment, right? And what challenges do people face, in possibly accessing like education, that would lead them to not read at like a, like a functioning level. Right. Not be able to interpret with these things.

Yeah. The super broad, kind of like packed questions. you can answer that however you wish. Right. Just, yeah, just curious about that.

Alison: There’s lots of different reasons why people may not be able to take full advantage of our, the public education system that’s available. Sometimes there’s issues in the home.

You are not able to, go to school. Some people leave school early to go and work, make an income to help out family. Sometimes people have language issues. Lots of newcomers to Canada may have some language issues. There may be challenges around, just the home environment itself. People may have to leave home at a young age unexpectedly or just not have that supportive environment that it makes them ready to learn every day when they go to school.

We have some challenges with food security even in this country, even though we’re, you know, Advanced country with lots of resources. Still some children are going to school hungry every day. So there’s many, many, many reasons why people are maybe not at their best or not able to take advantage of the education system that we have available.

Justin: For sure. And you brought up like a lot of really good points. And I think like, moving on, obviously one of the things that’s universally impacted us all has been the pandemic. So in dealing with Covid 19, in your role as an ED so far, have you been able to observe what challenges the pandemic imposed on, maybe specifically your own services but on adult literacy as a whole?

 How were like people, impacted by that?

Alison: Well, we do have, we do offer resources in different formats. Now, one of the ways that we offer curriculum, learning materials is online for free download. Another way that we do it is through in-person workshops and a lot of people find it a little easier when there’s someone there in person, an instructor who can answer your questions in real time and can provide that guidance or support or encouragement.

 A lot of learners benefit from that. So with the pandemic, we weren’t able to deliver in person workshops for a while. So we had to be a little bit creative there and keep things going. So we are. We put more of our materials online, so that’s what we call the ABC Skills Hub, which you can find at

But there’s all of our materials there that are available for free download or there, But we also turn to doing virtual workshops. Just being very creative with the technology and seeing how we could still accommodate and connect and engage with learners and with practitioners and different communities across Canada.

So lots of different ways that we’ve been doing that through libraries, YMCAs, Community Centers, just so many different types of local community organizations that we partner with to help deliver these kinds of programs and get them to the people who need them.

Justin: And, you know, like, again, a really good point about like how possibly the pandemic forced your hand into going online and developing, delivering more like hybrid services. Do you think that may have been like a positive thing as well? Has some of these things stuck around, like you mentioned the ABC skills hub, right? But I imagine that a lot of the creativity you expended over the pandemic, that’s kind of lasted after as well, right?

Because people in general are just more used to, Oh, I can zoom in to see this presentation, or I can do this online instead of having to go all the way. So yeah, like how. With a more post covid like perspective now, how has that creativity impacted your current operations now and how do you see your user base or your, like the people that you serve, of course, interacting with your services.

Alison: Well, it’s interesting because we were looking to do more online activities anyway, so it was good timing with the pandemic. May have speeded us up a little bit, but was certainly was something we were looking to anyway. There are certainly some advantages to being online. Going back to that idea of the stigma and around people needing privacy and wanting to keep their learning needs confidential, being able to go online in your privacy of your own home or wherever you are and doing it at your own pace. Accessing things when you need them in the particular topics that you need. That’s certainly a big plus for online learning. There are some other challenges with online learning, such as you don’t have that in person, instructor there to answer questions or to provide guidance or motivation.

And also you do need a certain level of the digital literacy skill set to be able to access online pieces. So some people might be starting a step back from that and need support before they’re ready for that as well.

Justin: And that’s a really good point that you brought up, this takes me back to my own personal experiences, so I’ll bring it in. Like, I, I’ve been like primarily a volunteer with our digital literacy programs. So when we shifted online, and I would say like April, May of 2020 you know, like it’s always like, we can say it kind of jokingly now because it’s funny to think about, but like we are trying to help people that are struggling with technology through technology, right?

Alison: That’s right.

Justin: So it was always that conundrum of like, it’s exactly what you said of like, before you even get to the actual learning and the content and the resources and whatnot, like how do you even get people on a computer, on a stable internet connection? How do you get them on Zoom? How do you teach them the functionality of muting, unmuting, turning on your camera? Even communicating to get to that. Because a lot of people, you know, we would have to get them into the office, obviously social distance and mask, help set up their computers and whatnot. Like there was a lot of work around in that way.

Right. So, yeah, that kind of leads. What I wanted to ask next, which is just in general, like, how do you manage people, especially with technological and digital literacy, that aren’t particularly good yet with technology or have those skills, , to get them to the point where they can at least start to access your services and access these online classes? Cause that was a challenge for us as well, and like something that we’re still kind of navigating to be honest with you.

Alison: There are definitely some hurdles there for sure. And the part of our digital literacy programming is also to teach people about safe use of internet and, all the pieces that go with that, because it’s a much larger world, online than it used to be.

So we do have some, we will always have the in person. Workshops and in person classroom type settings where we can bring learners in and work with them one on one. That’s always going to be very important, and sometimes that’s easier for those who are just starting out. We do try to make our interface as simple as possible, very clear, very easy to look at lots of use of pictures and try to keep it, manageable as far as text on the page. So really looking at that accessibility as a big issue. It’s an ongoing conversation for us on how to manage that. But we certainly do see the importance of offering learning material services in different formats to accommodate people at different points in their learning journey.

Justin: Oh, for sure. Right. And again, I think I like to speak on digital a lot. Obviously because that’s where I’ve been like doing most of my work. But like you spoke to, with something like digital, this is something that we’ve talked about too, within like the organization. Like do you find that it’s harder compared to maybe other types of literacy? because you can’t say that, Oh, a person is at like a grade three level reading or a grade five level of like mathematics, right? Because there are like established like a curriculum for that. Whereas for digital it’s like, Someone might know how to turn on a computer and like use a mouse, but they might not know anything else.

You know, someone might know how to browse, but they don’t know how word processing works. Like, there isn’t like a list of check boxes to click off I think for digital. Right. So yeah, that’s just like an observation that I’ve had. Of course.

Alison: Yeah. No it’s very true because there’s, there’s quite a bit to just getting started. There’s some pre-learning, learning that you need to do to get up and running. There’s a certain amount of knowledge and information that you need to have to get to that point to access it.

Justin: Oh, for sure.

Alison: Yeah. It’s definitely an ongoing hurdle to, to look at.

Justin: Oh, and from the accessibility standpoint of the fact that technology does cost money, right? And like obviously computers aren’t cheap, right? They’re like several hundred dollars even on the low end. So yeah, that’s also a financial barrier is also like a big thing, I guess just for access to entry. Okay. So, transitioning then, we’ve talked a bit more about ABC Life Literacy now.

So since we’ve talked about some of the challenges that people face entertaining at the literacy, you know, how the pandemic has affected people, of course. I know you did mention certain resources like ABC Skills Hub. Just want to ask more in detail, what programming do you specifically offer adults and obviously the formats associated with them as well.

Alison: Yeah, so a couple of the major ones that we offer are the Upskills for Work Program, right? And our Money Matters Program. So the Upskills for Work really focuses on helping learners develop employability and life skills. And again, we’ve got free workshops, downloadable work. Books, online courses for that.

So that focuses on key skills like motivation, attitude, accountability, time management, and of course reading and numeracy and confidence. Confidence is actually quite a big one. And so these skills are helping workers to be adaptable and motivated through their whole employment as they move through different roles and careers.

And so they’re helping to lay that foundation for a strong and flexible workforce. So that has its own website as well with more details. That one is Our Money Matters program is an introductory financial literacy program for adult learners. So it helps people to build their confidence and reduce anxiety in managing their money.

I’ll give you a couple of stats to illustrate why this is important. Research shows that less than half Canadians actually have a budget, and four out of 10 say that money is a daily concern for them.

Justin: Right.

Alison: A third of low income Canadians report, they worry about money almost constantly, and nearly 60% of Canadian adults don’t know how much money they need to save to retire.

So there’s lots of different issues here and. Obviously it’s common. It’s very common to be concerned about managing your money. So we have this, a program, Money Matters, which we’ve been delivering since 2011. We get support from our founding sponsor, TD Bank Group, and it’s. Designed with the adult learner in mind.

So again, at that six grade, six to eight reading level. So it’s very approachable, very accessible. Lots of discussion-based activities. We’ve got lots of different topics there, such as making a spending plan, banking basics, looking at borrowing money, ways to save smart shopping, lots of different introductory topics similar to what we were saying about digital literacy.

There’s a lot of financial literacy too that touches on so much of your life. So these are opportunities for people to, either take an online course or to get involved in a workshop. They are offered through different community organizations. We often get support from the TD Bank Group, they offer volunteers.

And so it’s a lot of success that we’ve seen in that, especially through community partnerships and it’s really teaching them those basic skills to make a more fully engaged life and to be able to manage their money successfully.

Justin: I think what you’ve illustrated is on that tangent of digital and financial, like unrelated, but obviously both important in their own ways is just again, how far reaching literacy can be right? And I think like we often take these things for granted, right? Being able to draft a budget, knowing like how a budget works, like tracking expenses. Like it’s just like, it’s. Like sometimes, like in the past, like three years worse, have, like, in doing this, I’m like, how, like how did we learn how to do this right?

Like, It’s nice to have these resources available of course, because like, even from my standpoint, like I would find these things useful. I feel like personally it’s like I’ve never taken like a financial course myself. Like I feel like I come out it like a lot more knowledgeable than otherwise. it’s just like a personal comment of mine.

 I just find this stuff so interesting.

Alison: Yeah. There’s. There’s so much to it that, you know, often as you say, we take it for granted or we learn it from parents or guardians. But what if you don’t have those opportunities? Or what if your parents or guardians aren’t too sure? There’s, it’s such a big area of your life to get started in and so many different aspects of it that it’s, it’s quite common.

And again, it it’s something that. It’s difficult to acknowledge that you need help with this because we just have this expectation that as an adult you should be able to manage your own money. I mean,

Justin: Oh yeah, yeah, for sure.

Alison: That should be something you automatically get when you turn into an adult from an adolescent. Automatically you should have all these skills. We just expect it of adults. But, truth is that there’s a lot to learn there.

Justin: Yeah. And it goes along with what you were saying earlier too, Allison, about like stigma, right? And about labels. You know, I’ll just bring up like a case example. Like if someone is having trouble with their finances, right? And, you know, they’re having a hard time maintaining their budget. Like, oftentimes I think people have this automatic assumption of, oh, that person just doesn’t know how to manage money. You know, like they’re just really bad with money and they don’t care and they’re being very reckless, right?

But it’s as you illustrated, like oftentimes, It boils down to like opportunity, the support systems, the people you know, Right. That have been able to like teach you these skills. So it’s not even just a matter of this person is necessarily irresponsible versus responsible, it’s just that they just don’t, like, they don’t have the knowledge necessary to be able to manage their finances well.

Right. That’s like not a knock on, it’s not like a character deficit. Right. It’s just that, they just don’t know. So, I think it’s important that people know that distinction. Right. And obviously before, you know, you make another, you make that assumption again. You think twice about it, right?

Alison: That’s right. And also for those individuals, who do know that they have a deficit, that there is something else that they should be learning, it’s not always obvious to you where to go for help.

Justin: Oh yeah, for sure.

Alison: So knowing where to find resources like this is very important to that next step.

Justin: Yeah, I imagine going to a bank to ask them, how do I make a budget wouldn’t be a problem. They probably wouldn’t be super open to that. So, I mean, again, having these programs serving as bridges, so that you can go to your financial institutions and whatnot and like open up savings accounts and know what that actually means for you. Like it’s that it’s kind of that missing bridge that a lot of people don’t have, right. That link.

Alison: Exactly.

Justin: So I think it’s incredibly useful. So, yeah, thank you for talking about, you know, some of your specific programming. So, I’m going to go kind of zoom out a bit a bit here with my perspective. I know that, one of like ABC Life’s mandates, is really surrounding like, community partnerships, right? And building capacity, you know, like within local non-profits, community, organizations. Can you just speak to, the importance of that? Why is it important, from an organizational standpoint and a community standpoint too, to like work together towards supporting adult literacy and what’s the potential of that if like, we can do that super well?

Alison: Right. It’s absolutely important. It’s critical to the work that we do and a big part of our efforts is, beyond just creating the curriculum and the learning materials, is creating partnerships with communities and community organizations across Canada because it’s so important to have that, local knowledge, the local availability of the in-person learning opportunities and to make sure that we are in those spaces and in the communities where the learners are, so that we can make things easily accessible for learners to the, we go to where the needs are. So instead of making learners find us and come to us, we go to them. So it’s marrying up our resources with those of the community organizations that are serving locally. So it’s a great opportunity for us to marry our resources together and make sure that, you know, it’s more like one stop shopping, It’s for the convenience and accessibility piece that’s so important. We do actually have quite a few partnerships in Alberta. If you’d like me to speak to those?

Justin: Yeah, absolutely. You can absolutely speak to that. I’d be so interested in learning about that.

Alison: Yeah, so we have quite a few on the go. We are always looking for more, but we do Upskills for Work workshops and Money matters workshops and many more. We have many different partners. Do multiple workshops to do them throughout the year, I’ve done lots over time. So for example, the Ability Resource Association, Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, the Edson and District Community Learning Society, the Good Workers Program of Tsutina Nation, Read On Adult Literacy and learning the St. Albert Further Education piece. Tabor Youth Employment Program. The CALP at NorQuest, Tradewinds for Success in Edmonton and Calgary. And then for our ABC Skills Hub, which is, the overall learning portal that we have, we partner with the Bissell Center, the Centennial Center Patient School, and Drayton Valley and District Community Learning Association. Oh, that’s just a sampling, but you can see lots of different communities, diverse type groups. But certainly we see a lot of, take up in what we’re offering.

Justin: Well, I mean, and that to me makes so much sense even on like the volunteer level, right? Like literacy is not a challenge that I think like any singular organization or individual can take on by themselves, right? I do think it needs like a holistic, collaborative approach, kind of as you’ve mentioned.

And I’m guessing like each of these organizations too, like they’re specialized through different things, right? And they offer like different services and cater towards different populations as well. Is that correct?

Alison: Yes, that’s right. Lots of different Learning associations, but also, things like women’s shelters and women’s associations and libraries and YMCAs and different types of community resources and services that are.

Very good fit with providing our materials and our workshops to help the literacy component. So it works out quite well that we are able to offer these kinds of things in conjunction with other services that people may already be accessing.

Justin: Right. Yeah. That, that, that makes so much sense., so I guess this leads to what, like million dollar question, right? How can people support these organizations? Of course, obviously like volunteering, that’s something that like people can do if they’re able, but what are ways that people can tangibly contribute? Maybe if they possibly don’t have the time to volunteer, how can they help?

Alison: Well, a lot of these are charities, so, funding is always helpful.

And also just spreading the word and making sure people know that these kinds of things are available. We do have, the websites ourselves. For instance, the site is one that focuses on financial literacy. We have the others that I mentioned, so just making sure that people are aware, so helping to spread the word in those communities.

Just making sure that people know that there is help out there. If they’re looking for ways to improve their literacy skills in whatever aspect that may be, that they’re not alone. And also that there are lots of resources out there available and that they, , ours anyway are for free. So lots of them are, So there’s lots of different ways, lots of different resources out there for.

Justin: For sure. Yeah, word of mouth for me personally was how I got involved in this in the first place. So I can speak to the value of that definitely. And really, it was just like, you know, ended up bringing some friends along here too. So, really was super effective. So I will ask one last question just to conclude, in all of this, What is something you would say to a person that’s possibly looking to improve their literacy?

Somebody comes to you, they’re looking for help, they’re struggling, whether it’s for digital, financial, whatever it may be. What are, like, what’s tangible like course of action then? Cause we have talked about referring people to resources and whatnot, but what are the steps you would specifically take for an individual that is looking for help?

Alison: Well, the first is to reassure them that they’ve done the right thing. That this is something they’re not alone. There’s lots of others in the same boat that are looking for, help and that it’s the longer you wait, the more time you’re going to spend in wishing you had, because there are lots of resources there.

We do have, lots of different types of materials available. So if people are able to access our sites and can take a look themselves, they may wish to self-select, but if they need help in learning, where can they find local resources? Perhaps they need some in person. We can certainly refer them if we know where they’re located and what they’re looking for.

Justin: Awesome. Well just want to thank you again, Allison. Honestly, like had a great conversation with you. I learned so much. I hope that people listen to this. We’ll learn a lot as well. yeah, just really appreciate your time and everything.

Alison: Well, thank you very much. It’s been wonderful. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Justin: And obviously always open to having more of these conversations in the future as well. So, I guess that concludes our podcast. So thank again for everyone, for listening. Stay tuned. We’ll be coming up with more episodes soon. And yeah, just, continue supporting adult literacy and of course, ABC Life Literacy, and also PALS as well. Thank you so much for your time.

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