Workplace Literacy: Essential Skills for Organizational Improvement

Read Across America Day occurs annually, on March 2nd and it’s a day when literacy steps to the forefront! Its origin came in conjunction with Dr. Seuss’ birthday and its purpose is in promoting and encouraging children to read and thus perform better in school. Every day, behind the scenes, literacy in the workplace takes on an important role, and for adults, it’s not about Green Eggs and Ham. Literacy for most shop floor workers is not often poetic, narrative, descriptive or persuasive, but rather gritty, functional, specific and technical. Whereas many children are taught to infer, deduce, reason and employ higher-level thinking skills(critical to problem-solving and strategic planning), most entry-level workers operate with more concrete and explicit information.

When looking around most manufacturing workforces, the diverse languages spoken and wide range of educational backgrounds become immediately apparent. Most employers have a workforce for which English is a second (or third or fourth) language, and as such feel challenged by communication barriers. It is well noted that the better the reader or writer is in a first language, the easier these skills will transfer to a second; fluent readers and writers in one language become fluent readers and writers in a second. Often times, the foreign-born workforce in America is limited in its English proficiency, not because there has not been ample exposure to learn English, but because of the limited educational background in the native language, and a subsequent inability to transfer skills from one language to another. Rather than focusing on English literacy, many employers focus on Workplace Literacy instead.

What does workplace literacy look like with a limited English proficient workforce? In the same way that Green Eggs and Ham uses only 250 words to tell an entire story, so too, does workplace literacy. Starting small, literacy builds and reinforces a consistent lexicon. It looks like forms. It looks life safety signs. It looks like Material Data Sheets. It’s troubleshooting guides, workorders, RCAs, flowcharts, timesheets, vacation-request forms, hold tags, codes, symbols and barcodes. It’s scanners and machine panels, with skill building and proper usage of workplace documents, all of which reiterate and reinforce workplace terminology to help build fluency. Workplace Literacy is also laughter and interaction, a bridging of cultural differences and appreciation for methods and approaches beyond one’s own. It’s a window to the world.

To diminish communication barriers, increase quality, foster loyalty and reduce turn-over, progressive companies train their employees well and offer an on-site workplace literacy program as described above, which incorporates specific and customized curricula.

Companies that invest in people, retain good people. When companies are perceived to be supportive, employee morale stays high, and employees are eager to perform. On a recent visit to a long-time customer, a former entry-level English student was now running the entire production operation on his shift, managing his shift of people and engaging with management in fluent English. From a shy and timid workplace literacy student to a production supervisor in just a few short years, would he? Could he? Here and there? He practiced English with is boss, on his shift without a loss. He practiced English here and there. He practiced English everywhere!

Contact us to find out how Illinois BIS can help your organization with workplace literacy skills at (630) 505-0500 or

Louise Kirkman
Senior Essential Skills Instructor, Illinois BIS