The following is a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of some of the more common methods of gathering information regarding learner needs.
Much information on learner needs and trends may already be available in the form of learner evaluations, class evaluations, test results, post-program placement information, literature reviews, learner samples, and task analyses. Not only are these cost-effective sources of information, but a side benefit is that gathering this information allows you to establish contacts within the organization.
The disadvantages of depending on existing documentation, however, are that it is limited to past information, it may be difficult to access, and it may be difficult to analyze.
Essential Skills Profiles8 and Occupational Language Analyses
Literacy and Essential Skills are defined by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (2009b) as “the skills needed for work, learning, and life”.9 They include the nine essential skills that are used by competent workers in almost every occupation: reading, writing, document use, numeracy, oral communication, working with others, thinking, computer use, and continuous learning.10
Essential Skills Profiles (ESP) identify essential skills and workplace tasks that are required by workers in any of more than 250 specific occupations.11 In other words, they are needs analyses of particular occupations that have already been produced and are publically available. An Occupational Language Analysis (OLA) defines the language requirements of an occupation by relating an ESP to the Canadian Language Benchmarks. In doing so, it provides more detail regarding the language required to complete the tasks described in the ESP. Essential Skills Profiles and OLAs are especially useful for gathering information for groups of learners who are heading towards a particular occupation (or related set of occupations). They can be used to identify the skills and tasks that learners in particular occupations will need to accomplish once they enter the workplace. (See the section below titled “Gathering Workplace Information” for more information on the Essential Skills).
The downside of the ESP or OLAs is that they are sometimes difficult to integrate into general ESL classes with learners who are heading towards a wide variety of occupations.
Canadian Language Benchmarks
The Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLBs) are “a set of descriptive statements about successive levels of achievement on the continuum of ESL performance” (Pawlikowska-Smith, 2005, p. VIII ). Each language skill (reading, writing, speaking and listening) is divided into 12 levels of increasing proficiency starting from Benchmark 1 (learners new to the language) to Benchmark 12 (approximating native speaker proficiency).12 At the core of each Benchmark are descriptions of tasks the learners can do, a list of the conditions that need to be in place for them to complete those tasks, specific examples of the tasks/texts in real-world situations, performance indicators for each task, as well as a global description of the learner. The tasks for each language skill at any given benchmark are sorted into four categories:
• Social interaction (interacting in an interpersonal social situation)
• Following and giving instructions
• Suasion (persuading others, or reacting to suasion to do something)
• Information (exchanging, presenting and discussing information, ideas, opinions, feelings; telling stories; describing; reporting; arguing, etc.)
It is important to note that the CLBs are not a curriculum guide. However, if you know the approximate benchmark levels of your learners, the CLBs can serve as a guide to what learners at that level are capable of doing. They can be used to identify the types of tasks that are appropriate for learners at a particular benchmark level. Also, if you are designing a course to help learners reach a particular benchmark (e.g., for entry into a bridging or apprenticeship program), the CLB can assist you in identifying the tasks and skills that learners will need to be capable of doing. (See the section below titled “Benchmarking programs and occupations to the CLB” for more information on using the CLB to gather information on learner needs.)
The CLBs are a less useful needs assessment tool for those programs whose classes are not benchmarked to the CLBs. Also, while the CLBs list what learners at a certain level can do, they do not identify the particular needs of learners in a particular context – in other words, although they should be consulted, they should be used in combination with other methods of gathering input on learner needs.
Interviews (telephone & face-to-face)13
Interviews, whether by telephone or face-to-face, can be useful, especially at the beginning of a needs analysis project, to identify gaps and general areas of need. They can also be used to gather information prior to designing a questionnaire. In interviews, respondents do not have to be limited by a list of options (as often happens in questionnaires) – in fact, open-ended questions work best in interviews. Also, interviews allow for follow-up questions and probing into issues. The advantage of face-to-face interviews is that communication can be facilitated by non- verbal communication, interpreters, and even visuals and realia (especially with language and literacy learners). The advantage of telephone interviews is that they can be a convenient and cost effective method of gathering input from native speakers or very fluent language learners.
However, there are drawbacks to interviews. Because interviews are time consuming, the number of interviews conducted is often limited. Also, the value of the information gathered during an interview is dependent on the interviewer’s skill, and because interviews are less anonymous, respondents may be reluctant to volunteer negative information. Face-to-face interviews can be difficult to schedule and may include additional costs associated with travel. However, although telephone interviews are more cost-effective and easier to schedule, they can be especially intimidating and difficult for second language speakers, who often depend on non-verbal cues to make sense of communication.
Focus groups allow a group of 6-12 people (ideally) to explore an issue at the same time. As with interviews, open-ended questions work best, and focus groups may be used to gather input for designing a questionnaire. A facilitator can make good use of probing and follow-up questions, and the dynamics of a group working together can encourage brainstorming and may lead to more thorough discussion and analysis of a topic than individual interviews.
However, focus groups can be difficult to schedule and they require a skilled facilitator as well as a note-taker. Recording and transcribing of discussions can be difficult if more than one person is speaking at the same time. Also, some participants may be reluctant to speak out in a public setting. Because focus groups are not anonymous, people may not feel comfortable presenting unpopular ideas, and sometimes only the ideas of the most outspoken participants are shared. Also, focus groups can be costly in terms of facility rental, transportation, refreshments, and so on.
Questionnaires (paper or electronic)15
Questionnaires are a cost-effective means of getting information from many people at one time. Programs such as SurveyMonkey16 make the preparation of electronic surveys especially easy, and information is automatically tabulated. Another advantage of questionnaires is that they are generally anonymous – people can freely express their opinions without worrying about the repercussions of what they say.
However, the downside is that there may be a low response rate, and you may have to follow-up with people to encourage them to complete the questionnaire. Open-ended questions are often skipped, and yet closed questions can limit options, making it difficult to identify gaps.17 Another complication in the adult ESL context is that questionnaires can be difficult for people with language and literacy issues, and electronic surveys may not be accessible to people who are not familiar with computers or who do not have computer/ internet access.