App-to-Speed Learning Circles for ABE Learners

App-to-Speed Learning Circles for ABE Learners

David Rosen, Ed.D, Board member, ProLiteracy 

President, Newsome & Associates


Michele Diecuch, Director of Programs, ProLiteracy


A learning circle is a group led by a teacher, tutor, staff member, or volunteer facilitator whose members all share an interest in the same subject or learning objective. It is a non-formal, organized study circle that includes an online course or other online learning resources. Learning circle topics have included English language learning, high school equivalency preparation, public speaking, storytelling, fiction writing, basic computer skills, work-related learning, and many others. Learning circles typically meet once a week, face-to-face, for 90 minutes to two hours for a set number of weeks, typically ranging from four to 12. To date, most learning circles in the U.S. have been hosted in public libraries—a central, friendly environment for encouraging learning and collaboration. However, an increasing number of adult ABE and English-as-a-Second-Other-Language (ESOL) programs are also offering them.


Learning circles have shown to help adults on literacy program waiting lists or to supplement or intensify their learning progress. By offering learning circles, adult ABE programs can help low-literate native English speakers to quickly learn and effectively use free- or low-cost apps to improve their reading and writing skills. In addition to low-literate adults needing to acquire reading, writing, and numeracy skills, use of computers, tablets, or smart phones as part of regular instruction is becoming increasingly important. A recent Brookings Institute study showed that the share of employment in highly digital jobs has tripled since 2002 while workers in low-digital jobs has dropped by more than 25 percent. Becoming fully “literate,” even for native English speakers, has taken on a new meaning.


Blended learning—instruction in which students learn via electronic and online media as well as traditional face-to-face teaching—is starting to be used by more and more adult education programs nationwide. App-to-Speed learning circles can be a key component for helping learners acquire basic literacy skills while also learning with groups to feel comfortable with technology.


ProLiteracy recently worked with Mid-East Career and Technology Center in Zanesville, Ohio. This ABE program held a learning circle of eight adult students on basic digital literacy. This course was helpful for adult literacy students who had only very basic digital knowledge. The program director saw most success with learners who attended most or all of the learning circle sessions. She reported that a few learners who learned digital skills more rapidly were very quick to help peers in the learning circle who had trouble. This type of learning circle is the perfect entrée for moving learners to App-to-Speed learning circles using apps to supplement and intensify learning.


In the U.S. we now have a large number of free or inexpensive online learning applications (apps) for smartphones. Some have been explicitly designed for adult basic skills and workforce development students including: adult basic literacy; high school equivalency exam preparation; U.S. citizenship test preparation; and ESOL.


The Adult Literacy XPRIZE, an international competition, responded to the needs of the adult literacy field by incentivizing developers to build effective learning apps for low-literacy English-speaking adults and adult immigrant English language learners.


There are now five finalist apps, and an upcoming national “communities competition” designed to get the word out about the winning app(s) and help adults to begin use them for learning. Most adults who regularly use smartphones do not yet know about these apps or how to incorporate them into their learning. Adult ABE programs that offer an App-to-Speed learning circle can meet those needs. The goal is to help adults to feel comfortable and competent in using an app to improve their reading and writing skills. They may also need traditional literacy instruction, but the app can help supplement and accelerate learning in an environment of learners who are all learning the same skills.


Preparing to offer an App-to-Speed learning circle in your ABE Program

There are two key roles in setting up and offering App-to-Speed learning circles: an administrative role, usually carried out by a program director or a volunteer coordinator, and the learning circle facilitator role. Here are descriptions of each:


The role of the program director or volunteer coordinator:

  • Learn about learning circles. P2PU, a not-for-profit organization, and the major sponsor of learning circles in the U.S. and in other countries, can help. Its website, has many materials describing what learning circles are and how they are being used, including links to short YouTube videos. Many learning circles are held in public libraries, but some are also held in ABE and English language programs located in community-based organizations, public schools, or even community colleges.

  • Market the App-to-Speed learning circle and recruit adults who want to improve basic literacy skills. Offer adults on waiting lists an opportunity to learn how to use their smartphones while they wait to enroll in a traditional class or, once enrolled, to supplement their classroom learning. One of the XPRIZE app developers recently found that when learners had access to the app on their smartphone, their usage time was 400% greater than when they only had access by computer. There may be many reasons for this, 1) learners may have smartphones but not computers, 2) smartphones are always with them and can be used for short time bursts of skills learning or practice, and 3) possibly because the apps are engaging and even fun (a criterion for an XPRIZE app reaching the semi-final stage of the competition). The vast majority of adult learners enrolled in adult literacy classes have smartphones but don’t know they can use them – or know how to use them – for learning. A four to 12-week learning circle can help them download apps, learn how to use them well and, equally important, help them build an online or face-to-face support group with others who are also using the same app(s).

  • Choose an app. At the end of this article is an annotated list of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE finalist apps. For facilitators looking to incorporate one or more of the apps into their programs, we suggest researching each to determine the best fit for learners’ unique needs. Also, in considering an app it is important to take into account which operating system(s) your learning circle participants will use. All XPRIZE adult literacy apps will operate on Android phones, but only a few will operate on iPhones.

  • Become familiar with how to use the learning management system of the app so, if you wish, you can look at participant progress. This is also useful for the learning circle facilitator (this role is described below) to know how each person is doing, to offer help or encouragement, or acknowledge learning by awarding certificates.

  • Recruit and train a (volunteer) learning circle facilitator. This person is not necessarily a seasoned teacher, but must be comfortable and competent in using smartphones, particularly Android phones. Although a facilitator could be a program staff member, especially for the first learning circles offered, s/he could be a volunteer from a community computing center, a nearby college or university, or elsewhere. Training involves helping the facilitator understand what a learning circle is, goals for this particular learning circle, downloading and going through lessons from the chosen app, and learning how to help learners—who will all be using the same app—to support each other in the weekly face-to-face meeting, and possibly online using a free communication tool such as WhatsApp.

  • Schedule the day and time, the number of weeks, and length of the learning circle meetings. Although learning circles are usually four to 12 weeks in length, there is no prescribed number of weeks. Perhaps your first App-to-Speed learning circle is six weeks and subsequent ones could be shorter or longer as needed. Typically, a weekly meeting is 90 minutes to two hours including: group activities, use of the learning app, feedback on how participants’ app use is progressing, and peers and the facilitator sharing tips for using the app. Goals of the learning circle might be to: help learners feel comfortable and competent in using the app on their mobile phone; feel comfortable with each other as peers who want to improve their literacy skills, and feel comfortable in using a social media app so they can stay in touch between meetings. Once they are comfortable and confident in using the app, and the learning circle has formally ended, learning circle members may wish to continue to meet on their own at the program, in a public library, or elsewhere.


The role of learning circle facilitator:

  • Participate in training to learn how to facilitate a learning circle and, in this case, also learn how to download the app, how the app lessons are organized and delivered and, if there is one, how the app’s learning management system works.

  • Interview potential learning circle participants. The purpose of the interviews are to: 1) make sure potential participants understand what a learning circle is and how it differs from a class; 2) make sure participants have daily access to a smartphone and understand that they are expected to come to a weekly, face-to-face meeting with others who will be using the same app; 3) be sure participants understand when and where the meetings occur; and 4) collect information about the make and model of each person’s smartphone, or at least determine that it is an Android phone since many of the apps only work on that operating system. Knowing participants’ smartphone make and model will enable facilitators to encourage learners who use the same model to help each other with technical issues.

  • Introduce learning circle participants to the app. There are many ways to do this, but all will need to include downloading the app and signing in for the first time, ideally in the face-to-face meeting in a location with broadband internet access. It might be helpful to have participants complete a few lessons as a group, perhaps using a smartphone connected to a multimedia projector.

  • Offer the learning circle each week and log opportunities, challenges, and questions. In the first onboarding meeting, the facilitator may try to determine if all or most participants use a social media app such as WhatsApp or Facebook. If so, the facilitator could help them to set up a private online group where they can easily get in touch and share challenges and opportunities. The facilitator might also ask if participants use text messaging and ask them to share their mobile phone numbers. Using an app (such as Remind), the facilitator could send participants a weekly text reminder of the learning circle meeting.

  • Provide individual or group support in the face-to-face meeting for adult learners who may need a significant amount of help before they are comfortable and confident in using their learning app.

  • Offer learning circle completers a certificate or micro-credential. Adult learners often want recognition for their efforts. A learning circle attendance certificate that could be framed and displayed is often appreciated. Some apps also offer micro-credentials and/or certificates.

This article is a broad-stroke picture of what might be involved in creating an App-to-Speed learning circle in your ABE program. For more information about learning circles, visit


Adult Literacy XPRIZE Finalist Apps

  • AmritaCREATE “personalized learning app along with engaging, culturally appropriate e-content linked to life skills.” Available from Google Play

  • AutoCognita “applies the constructivist learning approach to engage learners through action. Low-literacy adults effectively acquire basic literacy, numeracy and life skills through a comprehensive curriculum and sound pedagogy.” Available from Google Play

  • Cell-Ed A text messaging app that runs on feature phones as well as smartphones. Originally designed for adult English language learners, it is now also for basic literacy learners. Watch a YouTube Video – Available from Google Play

  • Learning Upgrade “With the Learning Upgrade app, adults can make reading breakthroughs on their own phones. The engaging lessons filled with songs, video, and games move adults step-by-step from the fundamentals to advanced comprehension. Learning happens everywhere: on the bus, during breaks at work, or while waiting for a child at school. Adults earn five certificates as they progress through 300 sequenced lessons. The program prepares adults for success at work, earning a diploma, or taking more advanced classes.”  Available from Google Play and in the Apple app Store.

  • PeopleFOR WORDS Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis “a mobile adventure game for Android devices, helps low-literate adults improve their English reading skills. Based on an archeological adventure storyline, the initial gameplay revolves around crafting phonemes, onset-rime patterns, and sight words to “decode” a mysterious language from a lost civilization.” Available from Google Play



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