Concepts: What is learner agency?

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What is it?

Agency is when learning involves the activity and the initiative of the learner, more than whatever is passed on from the teacher, curriculum or resources

Can we dig a little deeper?

Learner agency is when learners have the power to act and make choices. The opposite of a learner with agency is a passive learner.

How does this help describe a learner-centred teaching environment?

In a learner-centred teaching environment, learners have agency over their own learning. And the teaching environment and systems serve the needs and interests of the learner.

It might not be possible to achieve this completely in your situation. But it’s still a goal to pursue despite the constraints your particular work environment.

Developing learner agency means that your learners need to:

  • Believe that their behaviour and their approach to learning will make a difference for them.
  • Not be working in isolation doing their own thing and what suits them. They should feel connected.
  • Have an awareness of the responsibility of their own actions on the environment and on others.

Behaviours such as a passive approach to learning can be hard to change. You need to have a foundation of mutual respect, trust and relationship in place if you want to make a difference here.

But when it happens, you’ll find that your learners will take ownership of their learning. As they set personal goals, the learning becomes theirs. That’s why we have to find ways to link it to their passions and interests.

  1. Are your learners active in the learning process, or are they just passive receivers?
  2. Are your learners capable of independent thought and able to act on their own?
  3. Do you have individual learning plans in place to personalise direction, content, and assessment where you can?

Under the hood: Taking notes on the five frameworks


As with the definitions, it’s a good idea to pause here and think about what we’ve covered so far. You need to know about each of these frameworks and how they apply to you as a teacher or trainer:

  • Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy
  • Learning Progressions for Adult Numeracy
  • Te Whare Tapa Whā
  • Fonofale Pasifika
  • ESOL Starting Points

Let’s make some notes. You might want to skip back and check on any details. But we also want you to think about your own situation and how you would answer these questions in your own words

For each framework you should be able to say what you think for each of these questions:

  • What’s the framework for?
  • What actually is it? What’s it about?
  • How’s it relevant to your own teaching or training situation?
  • What are the implications for you? Is there something you need to do?

Time to do some work

Let’s pause for a few moments. Here’s your task:

  • Download the worksheet, or use the chart below to make notes on the five frameworks we’ve talked about.
  • Make sure you’ve got some notes on what each one is for, what it’s about, as well as the relevance to your learners, and any implications for your teaching.

This task is not assessed, but it will help you with your assessment.


Under the hood: Fonofale Pasifika

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The Fonofale is a holistic, Pasifika model of health and wellbeing. As with Durie’s Te Whare Tapa Whā it comes from the healthcare sector.

Where does it come from?

The Fonofale Pasifika model was created by Fuimaono Karl Pulotu-Endemann (2009). Pulotu-Endemann is a Samoan-born, New Zealand-based academic and nursing professional.

What’s it for?

As with Te Whare Tapa Whā it’s designed to help you think about health, education or other aspects of life in a more holistic way.

What is it?

It’s a visual representation of Pasifika values and beliefs. We use the Samoan fale or house to describe the important factors of healthy development.

Here are the parts:

  • The foundation. This is the extended family – the foundation for all Pacific Island cultures.
  • The roof. The stands for the cultural values and beliefs that are the family’s shelter for life. This can include traditional as well as western ways of doing things.
  • The Pou (posts). These connect the family to the culture. They also depend on each other. They are
    • Spiritual. This relates to the sense of wellbeing that comes from Christianity or traditional spirituality or a combination of both.
    • Physical. This relates to the wellbeing and physical health of the body.
    • Mental. This relates to the mind including thinking and emotional wellbeing as well as behaviours.
    • Other. This includes other things like gender, sexual orientation, age, social class, employment, and educational status.

The fale is surrounded by a protective layer. This includes:

  • Environment. This relates to the relationships that Pasifika people have to their physical environment. This can be rural or urban.
  • Context. This dimension relates to the “big picture’ for Pasifika including socio-economic or political situations.
  • Time. This relates to the actual or specific time in history that impacts on Pasifika people.

How is it relevant?

It’s relevant because you can use your knowledge of the Fonofale to enhance your teaching. As with Te Whare Tapa Whā, this knowledge is not limited to just working with the people groups it represents.

This approach is also relevant because it will help create a learning environment that is culturally safe for Pasifika learners.

What does it mean for me?

If you identify as Pasifika, the Fonofale is a framework that allows you to talk about how you probably already work with your learners. If you are not Pasifika, the framework allows you to see your learners, particularly your Pacific Island learners in a different way, perhaps closer to how they see themselves.

Here are some questions from the learner’s point of view to help you focus on each part of the Fonofale model:

  • Do I have support from my family to do this course? (Family).
  • Does this course connect with my Pacific cultural values and beliefs? (Culture).
  • Do I have the resources to do this course? (Physical).
  • Do I believe that I can do this course? (Spiritual).
  • Can I cope with the workload? (Mental).
  • Is there anything that’s going to get in the way of my goals here? (Others).
  • Are my surroundings, including home and work, going to help me achieve? (Environment).
  • Can I afford to do this at the moment? (Context and time).

It may not always be possible to always attend to all dimensions of the Fonofale for all of your Pasifika learners. But one big implication is that if you have learners who are struggling, or who are not engaged, then the Fonofale may help you work out where the problem is and how to deal with it.

But one big implication is that if you have learners who are struggling, or who are not engaged, then the Fonofale may help you work out where the problem is and how to deal with it.

Under the hood: The Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy

Lit ProgsThe Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy are one of the main frameworks we use for understanding how to embed literacy. We often refer to it as just the Literacy Progressions.

It’s part of a pair of progressions we use in adult teaching. The other one is the Learning Progressions for Adult Numeracy. More on that in the next section, though.

Where does it come from?

The Learning Progressions were created by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC). The TEC directs and funds much of tertiary education in New Zealand.

What’s it for?

The Literacy Progressions are

  • A guide to identifying the next literacy steps for adult learners.

The progressions provide a framework that shows what adult learners know and can do at successive points as they develop their expertise in literacy learning.

The progressions also describe what is learned in the order that it is usually learned. This means it’s a tool for helping us teach better. This includes:

  • Identifying the English-language demands of a specific workplace, community, or personal tasks and texts.
  • Working out a basic picture of an adult learner’s current skills, strategies and knowledge in oral and written English.
  • Deciding on a sequence for teaching and learning specific literacy skills.

What is it?

The easiest way to understand what the Literacy Progressions are is to see them. There are four grids. One for each of listening, reading, listening and speaking. These four grids are called strands. Together they are the framework we use for literacy.

Here is the reading strand.

screenshot-2017-02-15-21-29-49In the reading strand above you can see five columns. These columns are the progressions. If you look across the top, you can see what they are called. For example, in the reading strand above, the second column is the Vocabulary Progression.

Each progression has several boxes. These boxes are numbered. At the top, the first box is called koru 1 or step 1. As we go down, the koru or steps increase. At the bottom of the progression is step 6.

Sometimes several koru or steps are combined. For example, in the vocabulary progression you can see koru 1, 2 and 3, but then a combined koru 4/5 which is a larger box. These double steps mean that the learning at this step takes some time to develop and really sink in.

Here’s the writing strand.screenshot-2017-02-15-21-33-29

Again, you can see some single steps and some double. The full version of each strand has a lot of information at each step. We’ve taken out all the details for now. We just want you to get the idea without getting bogged down. We’ll come back to this detail in module 3. Feel free to skip ahead if you think you need it, though.

We’ll come back to this detail in module 3. Feel free to skip ahead if you think you need it, though.

To sum up, The Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy are organised into four strands:

  • Listen with Understanding
  • Speak to Communicate
  • Read with Understanding
  • Write to Communicate.

Each strand contains a group of progressions. Each progression highlights a particular area of learning within a strand, for example,  vocabulary. And each step or koru in a progression represents a development step as learners build their expertise.

How is it relevant?

The literacy progressions are relevant because they can help you teach better. In this course, you’ll learn how to use the literacy progressions framework to help you do the following.

  • Work out the literacy demands of your teaching (Module 3 – Demands).
  • Design strategies for embedding literacy into your programme (Module 4).
  • Understand your learners’ literacy needs better (Module 5 – Before).
  • Plan how to embed literacy into teaching and activities (Module 6 – Teaching).
  • Assess learner literacy progress (Module 7 – After).

What does it mean for me?

What it means for you is that you can better understand the demands of your training, the needs of your learners, and what you need to do to bridge any gaps between where the course is at and where your learners are at.

Another implication for you relates to assessment. Many tutors already assess their learners using the Literacy and Numeracy for Adults Assessment Tool (LNAAT).

This assessment tool generates a detailed literacy report for each learner that looks like this.


Some tutors assess their learners using the tool but never get to see the results like this. If that you, then ask for the reports. Otherwise, it’s a wasted opportunity for better teaching and learning.

As a teacher or a trainer, you can’t make sense of this information if you don’t understand the literacy progressions. If you do understand how the progressions work, then you can use the information to help you make better decisions in your teaching.

Better decisions mean better teaching.

We’ll take a good look at this assessment tool and how it works in Module 5. This is when we’ll look at how you assess your learners’ literacy needs. And this includes using the LNAAT, but also using your own tools for your own context.